As a sober vegan with a history of an eating disorder, the likelihood of me having a career as a restaurant critic is on par with Britney Spears attaining a degree in neuropsychiatry or wearing actual pants.
One good thing about being the caretaker for someone suffering from cancer, if you’re an avid reader, is the amount of time you have on your hands. The sheer volume of hours spent sitting is staggering, you find your rump melding with a plastic horizon in waiting rooms, exam rooms, chemotherapy treatment rooms, and nearly any other room you can think of where white lab coats are de rigueur. And although many of these fine facilities offer reading material, most of it is more of the “Living With Cancer!” or “What Wig Is Right For You?” variety. Though I totally was a swooning fan of Scott Hamilton’s skating style and Olympic back-flips in the 80s, I really don’t want to slog through an article dedicated to his testicles and survival. So I’ve finally started reading all of those books that I’d sworn I would once I had the time, one of which is former New York Times’ food critic Ruth Reichl‘s Garlic and Sapphires.
My mother totes her James Patterson tomes to and fro, and, in no way do I mean this as anything but an insult to the author, she finds staring into space with an IV in her arm to be much more entertaining. As for Ms. Reichl’s writing, well, the chemo center could go on fire, I’d probably still have my nose in it.
I’ve loved her work with Gourmet, a publication that’s often way too pretentious for my taste (I can’t afford a loaf of Italian bread, I can’t exactly identify with a writer traipsing through Venice tongue first.) I’m also a huge fan of fellow female New Yorkers who tell it like it is, without compromising their integrity. Somewhere around the point when I got to her essay on trying to find a dim sum dining hall, it dawned on me that I could never, ever, in a million years become a restaurant critic. Even if I were not a shut-in with an MSG allergy. Who doesn’t eat any animal products. Or much of anything, really.
But perhaps you’re a gorgonzola gormandizing guru or a pizza polishing professional, one with an acid pen, an astute tongue, and a ton of antacids. Could becoming a food writer be in your gullet’s future?
May I remind you that print is dead?
Most freelance restaurant critics average around $1.00 per word, if they’re good. (Granted, I’m getting this research from the ever-reliable Internet, where, in a single click, you can read that oysters will kill you and oysters will make you be fruitful and multiply.) If you’re hired by a publication, you can expect to rake in somewhere around 40K a year. Again, I remind you, print is dead. More dead than whatever was in that gyro that you ate for lunch.
Being a critic isn’t as easy as consuming and concluding, there are actual parameters that separate the Yelp comments from the masterfully masticated missives.
For one, you should always bring people with you, so that you can taste several different dishes in order to get a full feel for the meals served at the establishment. Take notes on everything from the carpeting to the server’s hidden tattoos. It’s best to do this after you leave, although some brazen brunch buzz mongers write during the meal. If you’re writing for a publication that’s well-respected, or just for one whose reviews are consulted by people who can actually afford to go out to eat regularly, you may want to keep a low-profile. No celebrity events. Few charity fundraisers. Possibly, like Reichl, you may want to don a disguise. Try not to have sex with Alex Rodriguez, Angelina Jolie, or anybody named John or Kate. For me, a girl whose name sounds like a bodily function, who has more tattoos than she has clean articles of clothing, with few friends and far too many food restrictions, well, my reviews would sound like…crickets. Maybe with some distant sobbing.
It’s also beneficial for food critics to know how to cook. That way they can tell what went wrong when they taste something that’s off. Also, it can make you seem like much less of an asshole, or perhaps simply a more astute asshole, if you’re able to comprehend the amount of work that goes into planning a menu and making a meal. Language skills, especially the so-called romance languages, can be useful for understanding certain items or techniques listed on a menu. It also makes asking questions a hell of a lot easier if you’re eating in a joint that’s run by people who are making cuisine native to their country. Or, if you’re having a pastrami on rye, just ask, “Hey! How ya doin’?”
As I might have mentioned, print is dying. So what’s a fledgling critic to do? Write blogs, start podcasts, judge reality shows, become a Food Network star, read, absorb, write, eat. Epicurious and Chowhound are good resources, as is the aforementioned Yelp, if you’d like to dish your dirt on local places, and read up on what the masses are saying about their culinary (mis)adventures. Mouthfuls, UrbanSpoon, and eGullet are worthy of a peek, at least to figure out where you should take your team of tractable tasters next. If you’re serious about breaking your jaw on food criticism, have a portfolio of at least forty pieces that you can shop around. Write as often as you eat. Pitch articles. Make contacts. Email critics you respect. JJ Goode‘s article in last month’s Gourmet, for me, was one of the best personal narrative pieces I have ever encountered. The man is outstanding, and received a gushy fan-mail from yours truly.
Tracy MacLeod from The Independent describes the perks of being a food critic expertly: “The whole cloak-and-dagger side is immensely alluring, like being an MI5 agent with an expense account. It panders to some of our basest instincts – gluttony, cruelty, and the desire to eat and drink free things.” Problem it isn’t always free. Starting out, critics often have to pay for their own meals, especially if they’re freelance. Of course these receipts can be looked at as a 100% tax deductible expense, but it’s a lot less glamorous than having a black card in the company’s name, which is a fairytale situation that happens a lot less frequently than you’d think.
Stacee Sledge of the Bellingham Herald pays for her own meals, and it isn’t ’cause the Herald is cheap, it’s because they need to keep editorial pieces at arm’s length, in order to protect themselves against advertising revenue loss. Sledge highlights one of the difficulties that comes with taking note of where you nosh. “Critiquing restaurants for a living means you find yourself critiquing them even when you’re off the clock. And you sometimes need a thick skin to tell the truth, when you know your words might hurt a struggling business that the owner has sunk his or her life savings into.”
If that isn’t warning enough as to why food criticism is a lot more dangerous than an errant chicken bone, I don’t know what is. But don’t look at me. Chances are I didn’t eat the food.
Here’s some more (…wait for it…) food for thought —
For further illumination on self-imposed, seemingly deranged food restrictions, check out what happened when British restaurant critic Jay Rayner went vegan for a week. The results are fucking hilarious.
Other than becoming a restaurant critic, here are 10 Jobs That Have You Sample Food.
Jason Kottke’s discovery of what is perhaps the first restaurant review to run in The New York Times.
A pretty incredible history of restaurant criticism, by John Curtas.
I smear mustard on all email. Drop me a line: AinsleyDrew at the gmail one. And than you for everyone who donates, it keeps my belly full.
Hire us. Our words rise like dough, and make you serious bread.