The Director’s Cut: Eating on the Sly

One of the more painful aspects of a writer’s life is that we must succumb to our editors, who are irritating people in general, but also totally obsessed with micromanaging notions regarding story length. Apparently (or so I’ve been told), there are a finite number of pages in each issue, so when we proudly hand in our 10,000-word, opus-like articles, these editor types are less than pleased. Rather than fall onto grateful knees, the reaction we fully expect, they have the nerve to send our work back—often accompanied by a miffy note requiring us to cut our perfection down to 1500 words, max. Then begins the painful process of elimination, which often feels like a dirty-knifed, un-anaesthetized, auto-arm-amputation.

So we thought that we might use this space to offer our own version of a piece that is appearing in the current issue of Westchester Magazine. Below you’ll find all the important, valid, deeply worthy sections of my essay, “Eating on the Sly,” that had to be sacrificed for some silly ad, or the table of contents, or– most likely– the totally self-indulgent Editor’s Note. Here goes.

Is it fun to pan a restaurant?
Actually, it’s the most stressful part of my work. When I pan a restaurant, I’m sticking my neck out—my statements will surely be challenged, often by a deeply offended restaurant owner. I, and the magazine, will have to defend my review somewhere down the line, so any negative statements will usually be questioned by my editor and sometimes, after her, the publisher. In the past, Westchester Magazine has lost ads because of negative reviews, plus, it’s endured irate letter campaigns, lost subscribers, etc. No one likes to print negative reviews.

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Okay—so why do it? We do it as a service to our readers, but we’re in a dwindling group of magazines and newspapers. Many area publications have opted out of restaurant reviews altogether. They’re expensive (after all, someone has to pay for all of those meals), controversial, and– if the review is negative– risk lost revenue in pulled ads. Instead, what you find nowadays are wholly positive “food news” pieces that appear to be reviews. These stories don’t abide by the established standards of a review, where the writer is anonymous, makes several visits, and the cost for the meals is born by the publication. (For more on this, check out the restaurant reviewer’s professional code of ethics as outlined by the Association of Food Journalists.) These practices (anonymity, multiple visits, etc.) help to make the review as objective as possible. Our job is to be treated just like the average diner–this sometimes yields negative reviews.

Then there’s the more personal matter of integrity. Most restaurant reviewers are freelance writers, whose only marketable commodity is their authority on food. If a writer succumbs to pressure and falsely praises a restaurant, then he risks devaluing his own authority. While this might be the path of least resistance in the short run, it’ll certainly affect the marketability of that writer’s name in the long run. Personally, even though writing a negative review means a whole lot more agony on my end—in defending my statements, in responding to enraged restaurateurs, and in arguing with my editor—I’m much more terrified of curtailing my career and being labeled a hack. So, as painful as writing a negative review is, the alternative—false praise—is worse.

Finally, there’s the value of offering our readers honest reviews. We feel that this is a service that distinguishes Westchester from other area publications.

But I ate at (fill in name of restaurant) and had, in contrast to your review, a (circle one: fabulous/hideous) experience. What gives?
This is the most common thing that we hear as reviewers—readers have different experiences than those represented in our review. There are hundreds of reasons for this, but first is the common misconception that a reviewer deems a restaurant either good or bad in his review. That is not the purpose of a review, which can only analyze the three meals that the reviewer ate in the restaurant. We can’t promise that the restaurant won’t change, or that our readers will have identical experiences on the nights of their visit. Some restaurants might improve with practice (and staff changes), while others decline after starting with a bang. Also, we are anonymous visitors. If you’re a regular at the restaurant that you’re championing, then — chances are– you get special treatment.

Critics visit restaurants as part of our jobs. We’re looking at the details, we’re scrutinizing, and our enjoyment is not aided (or harmed) by the powerful social aspect of dining out—we’re not going out to meet with friends and have fun. And finally, there’s the matter of personal taste, for which there is no accounting.

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How do you become a restaurant reviewer?
The short answer is to eat out a whole lot, but it’s also a matter of vocation—I think restaurant reviewers are born and not bred. Here’s my version of a Jeff Foxworthy riff.

You are a nascent restaurant reviewer if…

• you’re the type of person who, when you travel, spends more on restaurants than air, hotel and shopping combined.

• you think it’s reasonable to drive for three hours for a great slice of pizza.

• you currently own (and regularly add to) a food reference library.

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• your command of foreign languages is strictly limited to food nouns.

• your idea of current events is staying on top of Manhattan’s changing restaurant scene.

• you can give a spontaneous, one hour long lecture, illustrated by copious examples, defending the merits of single page menus versus bi-or tri-fold menus.

• you think a fun day out is to drive to Flushing, spend an hour trying to park, then doing a self-guided Chinese food tour including foods that others find weird, squishy, icky or strange.

• you can spot an AvroKo design from a block away.

• you feel that your first duty as an American is to take a week long road trip visiting the barbecue pits of the south.

• you can smell the difference (blindfolded) between a buddha’s hand, yuzu and a Meyer lemon.

• you think it’s reasonable to drive a falling-apart ten-year-old car while occasionally spending $400 for dinner.

• you plan your world travel destinations around restaurant locations.

I could go on and on. But finally, there’s also the tricky aspect of writing the reviews. While lots of people love food and are enthusiastic about restaurants, a reviewer needs to be able to compose a readable, thoughtful, concise essay evaluating their experiences, usually in 1000 words or fewer. This is where enthusiasts become craftsmen.

Sadly, even bloggers are at the mercy of micromanaging editors. We have room for just one more question.

Has eating out so often affected your weight?
Yes! But I also hate to exercise, so I blame myself and not the three meals I eat out per week.

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