Restaurant Critic Q&A
Often, when I tell people that I am a restaurant critic, I see a wistful look pass over their faces. I know what these folks are thinking because, often, they articulate it. Many people believe that, but for some twist of fortune, they might have been restaurant critics, too. I want to tell each person that, while everyone is a critic, only a few people can get paid for it—and, Honey, you’re not one of ‘em. It’s the wistfulness that I find ironic. It says, “Here I am with gainful employment, benefits, a retirement plan, and a paid-off car. BUT, if only I’d played my cards right, I could have enjoyed poorly compensated night work. Sigh.”
Here are the most frequent questions that I am asked. My answers give you a look inside the life of a critic—it’s probably not what you think:
How did you get into being a restaurant critic? Food writers in general often have bizarrely divergent skills and I’m no different. An obsessive, lifelong cook, I majored in English/Creative Writing in college but I dodged graduate school in order play 15 years of hooky in professional kitchens. This was a hoot. I strongly advise everyone to spend their youths working in restaurants. Just as Saint Anthony Bourdain says, it’s kind of like being a pirate, but with a more varied sex life. But when the cooking lifestyle got old for me—when I noticed that all my playmates were either a) alcoholics, b) divorced, c) bankrupt, or d) broken in spirit, mind, and body—I went back to writing. I still feel that, in some ways, the switch makes me a traitor.
Were you always obsessed with food? Yes, in my heart, I feel like chefs and restaurant critics are born and not made. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember the faces of some of my childhood friends, but I can tell you exactly what their mothers gave me for lunch. Tastes and smells make powerful impressions on me.
How often do you dine out? That’s hard to say. It all depends on which deadline looms on my horizon (and for which publication I am writing). I always eat out once a week, but that can swell to three times per week—and, too often, it does.
Are you allowed to take anyone you like with you on review visits? (This is usually asked with a slightly over-eager expression.) I do, but let me tell you, dining with a critic is not always so much fun. Unlike dining with your friends, you will not be allowed to choose the restaurant. Nor will you choose the time of the meal, or, sometimes, even what you’ll be eating. (My poor, all-suffering dining partners!) If you’re picky—as in, you don’t eat fish, meat, mayonnaise, organ meat, snails, fugu, sea slugs, chilies, or insects—I will probably challenge your boundaries. Plus, my fork goes in your plate. But, if you’re up for all that (and you are entertaining, to boot), you’re very welcome.
What about the nights when you’re just not in the mood to go out? Tough darts: a deadline is a deadline. I’ve done review visits while I was pregnant, sick with bronchitis, exhausted (with a colicky baby at home), jet-lagged, and hung over—though not all at the same time. That’s why they call it work.
How do you protect your anonymity? First of all, I try—I make honest efforts. I don’t allow pictures of myself to be published (no mean feat these days), and I don’t put them on Facebook. I book tables under fictitious names and I call from blocked lines. I pay in cash. I do what I can, but I can’t say that I’m always successful. Actually, I feel like a dinosaur in bothering to protect my anonymity. Many “critics” and bloggers simply announce themselves to the restaurant in hopes of the comp.
What’s the hardest part of the job? It’s tough on your body—all those giant meals followed by days spent on your butt, writing. In order to clear my head, body, and palate (not to mention, work up an appetite—a necessity for a fair review), I’ve been drinking “Mean Green” juice instead of eating breakfast and lunch. I’m not alone. Many in the eating profession resort to juices or periodic fasts. Another hard part of the job? Your friends often apologize when they offer you food that they’ve made.
What are the rewards? It’s unbelievably satisfying to be able to do some critical writing in a subject defined by the sort of all-positive, “light, bright, and tight” treatment that comprises 90 percent of food writing. It’s also an honor to still have the job when so many publications (including the Journal News) have eliminated restaurant reviews entirely.
So, readers, that’s a glimpse of my life. If you’re curious, please send in more questions—I’m happy to oblige. And, as always, please send me your tips, comments, complaints, screeds, and obscene whispers to the EaterLine. Believe me, I love the diversion.
Open Right Now!
After a dry spell that lasted for several months, EDP is happy to alert its readers that three notable spots have opened this week. I’ll be swinging by them all, but why don’t you beat me to it and report back?
Modern Restaurant and Pizzeria
You remember the cozy, old Russell Avenue spot in New Rochelle? The former commercial bakery that still had its ancient old coal oven, sadly refitted to burn oil? Well they’ve scooted down the block to glam new digs on Huguenot—I’ll be reporting back soon, but here’s the site.
This September-slated, Yorktown opening was delayed by, oh, several months, but reports are that this newest effort by Jon Pratt and Craig Purdy is open at last. Look for Moroccan-inflected French bistro food from the team behind Umami Café and Peter Pratt’s Inn.
Don’t look now, but PB is poised for world domination. They’ve re-opened their brew pub in a four-story riverside building that promises river views, a rooftop biergarten, and one of the Country’s few kuhlschips—a pool for gathering wild, ambient yeast. Add this to last year’s announcement that superstar Ithaca brewer Jeff O’Neil joined the PB team, and you have one hell of a mover/shaker in Westchester beer.
The Black Dahlia at Gleason’s
Okay, this is not a plate; it’s a cocktail, but, let me tell you, it’s that good. Drop whatever you’re doing right now and get up to Gleason’s even if you happen to be bizarrely dressed at the moment. No worries! Peekskill is Westchester’s chillest town! You’ll feel right at home. The Black Dahlia is my favorite new cocktail, lovingly crafted with deliciously sweet/peppery Redempion Rye, small batch-distilled in Michigan, which is highlighted with pretty Meletti and a dash of Angostura bitters. While you’re there (and if you’re lucky), try to snag the toasty, cask-aged Negroni or any number of other thoughtful cocktails. Turns out, modest Gleason’s is one of Westchester’s best cocktail bars. PS: We hear it also serves a mean pizza.