For more than twenty years, Heidi Yorkshire has written about food, as the author of several books; a travel writer for Bon Appetit and other publications; a longtime wine columnist for the Oregonian, and, most recently, as Willamette Week’s lead food critic. Tart and opinionated, with an unmistakable voice, Yorkshire is known to straight shoot in her reviews, something that can upset the locals, which upsets Yorkshire not at all.
“I try to not worry about whether people like me all that much,” says Yorkshire, who moved from her hometown of Los Angeles to Portland in 1991. “I’m not reviewing restaurants to be popular. I’m doing it because I have many years of experience in this business and I enjoy thinking through these issues and saying what I think.”
Over tea and excellent home-baked brownies (“Cocoa, you’ve got to use cocoa,” instructs Yorkshire, who coauthored Nancy Silverton’s seminal Desserts) at the mid-century modern home she shares with her husband and a large, long-haired cat, Yorkshire talked about what she won’t eat; what she’s proud of, and why there are no conspiracy theories when it comes to reviewing.
Author’s note: What began as an interview turned into a dialogue, which Yorkshire said she preferred, which means they’ll be even more yammering from me than usual.
How did you start reviewing and when did you know you’d do it professionally?
I think I’m a born critic, and I think you have to be to do this. Even when I was a child, we’d go to a restaurant and I’d have something to say about the food.
Were you exposed to interesting food as a kid?
It was a combination of my mother being a very good home cook, brisket and blintzes and all the good Jewish dishes, and my first mother-in-law, who was an exotic cook and a librarian. She introduced me to M.F.K. Fisher and A.J. Liebling and Julia Child. All this when I was just 20. This was the early 70s, and Connie was the kind of person who’d drive around Los Angeles for hours trying to buy some ingredient like grape leaves; these were the days when you couldn’t find that kind of thing just anywhere.
How did you start writing about food?
When my first marriage broke up in 1979, I lived in Paris for three years. That’s the kind of thing that’s just bound to broaden your horizons. I had always done a lot of writing, was a staff writer at the Daily Bruin at UCLA, so when I moved back to LA after Paris, I decided I either wanted to be an editor or an agent. So, I got myself an internship at a literary agency, and it ended up, this agency represented Wolfgang Puck; this was exactly when Spago opened; my timing could not have been better. It was late 1982. Nancy Silverton was the original dessert chef at Spago, and the folks at the literary agency wanted Nancy to do a book. They knew I was interested in food and cooking and that I was a good writer and Nancy needed a collaborator for the book. So I won’t say I got promoted; I kind of got kicked sideways, and went from being an intern at the agency to being a client.
I spent two years in the kitchen at Spago, watching Nancy make desserts. And Nancy’s husband, Mark Peel, was the head chef. It put me right in the middle of what was going on in the Los Angeles food world at the time. It was a fabulous place to be. I got to see Wolfgang in action; I got to see [Puck’s then-wife] Barbara Lazaroff in action. Wolfgang was a marvelous man; he couldn’t have been nicer to me. People kept trying to get him to hire them to do his PR, but he got so much press the last thing he needed was a PR person. I remember him talking on the phone to some PR person, saying, “If I am very good to you, I will let you be my public relations agent and I will pay you nothing! And everyone will think you’re a genius!”
Critics are often accused of not understanding how hard it is to run a kitchen. Clearly, you do know.
I’ve been in a lot of kitchens; not just the Spago kitchen. When my first marriage broke up, I made desserts for a restaurant—and I would never want to run a restaurant. I think it’s back-breakingly difficult work. Believe me, I appreciate how hard it is.
I know your policy is the same as mine; that you can’t be friends with a chef if you’re reviewing his place, and you can’t walk in and say, “I’m Heidi Yorkshire.”
This isn’t a big town, and I don’t go to press events or things like very often any more. I used to when I did primarily magazine writing. But for a long time, I wrote nationally from Portland and there was no reason not to meet people in the restaurant business, because the issues of anonymity just don’t apply with magazine writing. I also ran the Chef in the Market demonstration series at Portland Farmers Market for ten years. So, I met loads of chefs here. But there’s a difference between a friend and an acquaintance. I won’t write about anybody that’s been to my house for dinner, or whose house I’ve been to. I won’t write about anyone who has a business relationship with either my husband or me.
But as for preferential treatment, I don’t believe a bad kitchen can make a good meal, no matter who you are. Just because you walk in the door, doesn’t mean that all of the sudden the kitchen’s going to suddenly learn how to cook. It can’t happen! The only thing that can happen is, you might get a better-looking plate; you might get a better table. But if you’re doing your job, you’re looking around, and you’re seeing whether people are happy or whether they’re waving their hands over their heads trying to get a waiter. You look at the food that’s going by. If you’re doing your job, you’re doing all those things. I also don’t believe a restaurant can train a waiter between the time you walk in the door and the time you sit down. If they’re badly trained, they’re going to be bad. They can send all the stuff they want to the table, it doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m not spending my own money, so trying to impress me with more food isn’t a useful strategy. And frankly, it’s kind of insulting for someone to imagine that they could buy me for the price of a meal. So, yes, ideally, you would be totally anonymous. In Portland, I think that’s practically impossible.
How do you pull it off?
Like I said, I try not to review places where I really know people. But 23 Hoyt? I’ve been a customer of Bruce Carey’s for 15 years; we’re not friends by any stretch, but he knows who I am. But he can’t improve his restaurant in a hot second any more than anyone else can. The other thing to remember is, restaurant reviewing is opinion, but when it’s good it also involves framing the opinion with accurate descriptions of the place and the service and the style of food. What I try very hard to do when I write – within the boundaries of wordcount and the style of the publication — is simply to describe things accurately and give the reader enough information to draw his or her own opinion.
I agree, and I do the same thing with features. Then again, I’m the one deciding what’s being said, and how, and in what order.
There’s no such thing as being objective. There is such a thing as being fair.
How do deal with people saying, you’re not being fair; that it’s your opinion.
Of course it’s my opinion; it’s a subjective medium. But I try to give enough information so that people can decide whether my opinion is valid. If I say, “a salsa verde is supposed to have the flavors of capers and anchovies and pickles in it, and I didn’t taste those,” a reader can say, “She’s up a tree! My salsa verde tastes like parsley.” Or, “I tasted capers!” And that’s fine; they can make that decision.
I do try to describe enough of a restaurant so that people can make their own decision. There are some film reviewers whose work I’m very familiar with. If they hate a movie, I’m know I’m going to love it. I hope I put enough information in my restaurant reviews that people can say, “Heidi hated it, so I’ll probably enjoy it.” And I don’t have a problem that. I’m not the food police.
You’re still performing a service.
That’s right. At least I hope so.
You’ve been accused, especially lately, of being overly harsh.
Every time I walk into a restaurant, I hope I have a wonderful meal; nothing would make me happier than to write a positive review of a place, and to help the restaurant out and make people happy. I do not go to a restaurant hoping to write a negative review. But nobody seems to remember that restaurant reviewing is consumer journalism. My responsibility is to the reader, and I’m advising the reader on how to spend their money, and I am doing it to the best of my ability. My responsibility is not to the restaurant community and it’s not to the chefs.
You try to look at what a restaurant is trying to do. If I’m writing about a little mom-and- pop place, where the owners have borrowed from their parents or put the whole renovation on their credit cards and they’re trying so hard, I might decide not to review it, if it’s really not good. Or I might decide to put it off for a few months. But when I go into a big-money, corporate operation, and everything is fouled up beyond belief, hey, it’s my job to say so, because I don’t want people spending their money badly. The other thing you have to remember, and I know you’ve been there, too, Nancy, is even though you’re spending an expense account, you have to always treat it like it’s your own money. You have to be just as outraged that you’re wasting money on a bad meal.
You recently reviewed Ten 01, and made it fairly clear what you thought of it; you said positive things about what you could say positive things about, and practically none of those things had to do with food.
And you were accused of enacting a vendetta…
Having an agenda.
Not knowing a tomato if one hit you in the eye. I’m seeing this a lot lately, not just in Portland, but New York, in Dallas. A restaurant owner in Ireland sued a paper over a bad review—and won.
First, I put my name on my reviews, and I stand behind what I write. If I make an error in fact, I correct it. My feeling is that criticisms by people who post anonymously on the Internet are worth nothing; they’re worth less than nothing, period. If somebody wants to use his real name, and make a valid criticism, that’s fine. But when Joe Anonymous says, “The review is full of inaccuracies” and he doesn’t specify what those inaccuracies were, that’s just innuendo and character assassination and it doesn’t deserve notice. Or take the guy who posted on the Portland Mercury website saying he hated my work so much he wanted to vomit down my blouse – that’s a quote . . . Isn’t that charming? This is just childish verbal violence, of course, not physical violence. I love it when people say, “Well, who are you and how are you entitled to write about restaurants?” If they are such Internet geniuses they could Google me and they’d know a lot about me in ten seconds.
I’ve had that whole “Who are you?” as well. Food Dude, too, gets some pretty caustic comments, along the lines of, “THIS IS MY FAVORITE RESTAURANT AND EVERYONE LOVES IT BUT YOU, FOOL!!!” You tend to get these in drifts, with the same tone and typos. I’d like to state for the record, it does not help your argument to pretend you’re an impartial diner when you’re shooting off emails from the restaurant’s IP address.
People can entertain themselves with anonymous postings all day long. But some of that stuff’s remarkably transparent. Three days after my review of Bay 13 went up on Willamette Week’s website, and it was a very mixed review, there was not one comment posted, and this is a restaurant that arguably gets more customers in one night than Ten 01 gets in a week.
Like I said, I put my name on my work, and I stand behind my work, and it may be pointed, but it’s still within the boundaries of civil discourse. I try very hard to stick to the issues of food and service and ambience, and not to make personal attacks. Some chefs will take any criticism personally; if they were smart, they’d try to get past that and look at the substance of what I’m saying.
And then, some people react really well. Dave Machado came to Portland about the same time I did. His first restaurant, Pazzo, was fine, but it didn’t thrill me in any way. I must have said that to somebody; I may have said that to several people. One day I finally met Dave at a press event at Rex Hill Winery, and he came up to me and introduced himself; he said, “Hi, I hear you don’t like my restaurant.” It was a little disarming, but I’m willing to stand behind my opinions. And Dave and I have become good friends over the years, working together for Portland Farmers Market, and I’m crazy about his current restaurants, especially Vindalho. But you won’t find me reviewing them because we have a personal relationship.
That goes back to something you just said, which is, what makes you to qualified to write restaurant reviews? My answer to that has always been: There’s no school for restaurant reviewers. However, I’ve been doing it for 12 years; I’ve gotten my work in on time, done a good job, gotten another assignment. Ergo, I’m the reviewer. What do you say?
I say, 25 years of eating in thousands of restaurants and writing about hundreds of them. It’s not just the eating in the restaurant; it’s bringing a critical mindset to bear on the experiences you have. And traveling, and paying attention; I was a James Beard Foundation Restaurant Awards judge for more than ten years; I’ve spent a lot of time thinking deeply about how restaurants work, and about what makes food successful, and being a good cook and educating myself about food and wine and cooking and traditional foodways. I’ve had many, many experiences where I’ve been behind the scenes, meeting cookbook authors; meeting chefs; working in restaurants; standing around and looking at what goes on.
The other thing is, I’m a skillful writer; I turn in my work on time, and it’s the right length, and I know how to get along with editors. If some of these anonymous posters on the Internet want to work their way up from ten cents a word like I started out, to national magazines and books, be my guest.
I’m not from here; you’re not from here. We’ve both written for the nationals and big city publications. How does eating in and writing for the Portland market differ?
I think we should bring the same standards to bear on restaurants here that we do anywhere else. It’s insulting to Portland diners and Portland chefs to do otherwise.
What’s your opinion on the grading system they have in place at the Oregonian?
I agree. I’ve read reviews in A & E that I’m thinking, wow, this sounds frigging dreadful, and it gets a B-. Dreadful is B-? What’s a D?
The single-grade system simply doesn’t work. If you’re going to have a grading system at all – and I’m not really a fan of those – you need three categories: food, service or ambience, and value for money. That way, you can review a place like Whiskey Soda, and you can say Food, A; Ambience, B- or C, and value for money, A. And then you give people a credible review. But to pick out one grade makes no sense. It also devalues the review, because people look straight at the grade, and they don’t pay attention to the subtle distinctions the reviewer is trying to make. Readers are expending energy trying to figure out what the review and the grade have to do with each other. It’s like the scores for wines in the Wine Spectator; who actually reads the words?
There’s also the problem that, if you go to Apizza Sholls, which I’ve actually never been to, but for the sake of comparison, let’s say it’s spectacular; you love the food, and you give it an A. Then you go to Park Kitchen and you absolutely love the food, and you give it an A. And then people say, “Hey, wait a minute! You can’t do that!” But I say: both places have succeeded at what they tried to do, and that’s what I’m interested in. Some readers seem to have a hard time getting their minds around this, as though only high-end restaurants deserve high marks. To solve this, maybe you pattern after the New York Times: the main review, which uses the star system, and the $25 and Under, which doesn’t.
That’s another way to do it, but Portland probably isn’t quite big enough to do that. Although, you could try it—why not? But to some extent, I don’t see why you need to have a grade at all.
I think it’s a crib sheet. People don’t want to read the review; they just want to see the star and, goodbye.
Newspapers want to make things simple for people. I didn’t ever put grades or ratings on wines when I wrote the wine column for the Oregonian for five years, and people seemed to enjoy the reviews and find them useful..
What do you think of the restaurant scene in Portland?
It seems to go in spurts; for a couple of years after 9/11 it was pretty stagnant, then all of a sudden there are a million new restaurants.
When you got here, 15 years ago, what was on the map?
Zefiro was the shining star, and although people say, Genoa was so wonderful, or Café des Amis, they were okay but not compared to what was going on in other cities. And of course, 1992 was when Portland Farmers Market opened. I went down to the market that summer; there were a few vendors and a few customers, and I looked around and thought, this thing will never last. [Laughs.] Honest to god. So I went up to the guys in charge and said, “You ought to get some chefs down here to do some cooking demonstrations because they can promote their restaurants, and it might bring some more people to the market.” The market founders had never heard of a chef; they came from an agricultural background, and so they looked at me and said, “That sounds like a great idea. Why don’t you do it?” I started the chefs demonstration series in 1993 with six chefs. Greg Higgins was the first. What I really thought was, we’ll do some cross-marketing, between the restaurants and the farmers market. What I didn’t realize was, how the chefs and farmers were going to meet each other and start to connect. I think it was an important connection and it’s something I’m proud of being involved in. We have some of the best produce in the country. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve brought people from New York who shop at the Greenmarket in Union Square, who just can’t believe the quality of our market in downtown Portland.
The growth of the farmers markets had a huge effect on the restaurant community, and vice versa. You get a chef like Cory Schreiber [of Wildwood] or Greg Higgins [of Higgins] who sits down with the farmers in the off-season and says, will you grow this for me? This was right when Philippe Boulot got here, and right when Dave Machado got here, and very soon after was when Vitaly Paley and Cory showed up. And of course Greg was here. Those guys were the start of the whole thing; they really were.
Now it seems we’re seeing another generation of chefs.
It’s Leather [Storrs, of Noble Rot and the soon-to-open Rocket], and Gabe [Rucker, of Le Pigeon]; and all the children of Clarklewis or whatever you want to call them. Being a chef is a young person’s job; it is physically grueling, and it’s totally appropriate that we have a bunch of 20-somethings and early-30-somethings taking the lead now. The Simpatica boys are fabulous. And talk about people doing great cooking, Dave Anderson at Vindahlo.
I was speaking to someone yesterday, who says that everyone she meets not from Portland raves about the food scene. But being here, you eat two, three bad meals out in a row, as I recently did, you start to feel a little depressed. In NY, in LA, there are hundreds of others places to try. Here, you start to feel a little boxed in.
It’s a small town; it’s not Seattle; it’s not Chicago. We do have absolutely great raw materials here; awesome, and the people who are doing well with it, are doing extremely well. But what you have to understand is, people who read the national press are not getting an accurate picture. National magazines try very hard for geographic balance, and eventually they say, gee, we can’t write about Seattle all the time; isn’t there another city out in the Pacific Northwest? And then, some of the outstanding places here, like Park Kitchen, will get covered. The scene is good but it’s not incredibly deep; sounds good in a magazine article or two, and works for a vacation in Portland, but it’s different when you live here.
Or, they come and write about Jake’s.
Oh, my lord. This is just how the media works. Or, they want a picture of a place with a tree outside because it’s Oregon.
What about the idea, which I read put forth by Extra MSG, that if restaurateurs knew whom the reviewers were, this would somehow make for a more fair review.
I don’t understand how that could be. People don’t have any clue how journalism works. In Willamette Week recently, Ten 01 has had some really interesting advertising. In my review of Ten 01, I mentioned that something was made with “simply brilliant” fish. The owners of Ten 01 took that phrase, “simply brilliant,” and they turned it into an ad for the restaurant. They just quoted the words “simply brilliant,” and credited Willamette Week. It’s like the movie reviewer who says, “Amazing waste of celluloid” and the ad says, “Amazing!” Technically there’s nothing inaccurate about that, though we could talk all day about the ethics of it. But anyway, it was on MSG’s site where someone wrote something along the lines of, ”Why hasn’t Willamette Week controlled the way they use their quotes? Is it because they’re getting money for the ads?” This shows a complete misunderstanding of how newspapers work.
So the poster is under the impression that the paper controls the ad copy.
Apparently. Or, that the paper would or should control the ad copy. Anybody who understands newspapers know that there is—or should be—a wall between editorial and advertising. Second, the words were in the review. I didn’t love it that Ten 01 did that, but it said more about them than it did about me. And I got a little taste of how Shawn Levy [the Oregonian’s film reviewer] must feel.
It’s pretty ballsy, you must admit.
Yeah. If that’s their idea of sticking it to Willamette Week, buying more ads and quoting the review, I’m not going to tell them no.
Are there any cuisines or scenes where you think, I’m just not the best person to review that.
I ’m not much of a fan of New Orleans food. Too much deep-fried stuff. Everyone says New Orleans is a great food town; after about two days there, I just want a salad. When a discussion of a new chef at Roux came up, I just said, “Include me out.”
Which places do you tell your editor, “Ooh, I want that one”?
You want to do the high-profile places, the places you feel might have some important effect on the city. Not necessarily places that cost a lot of money; a place where somebody or something’s interesting.
Such as, Le Pigeon.
We love Le Pigeon. It has so much style. It’s not perfect but it doesn’t matter. We were there with Tom Sietsema from the Washington Post when he was in Portland recently. Tom was the Seattle PI’s restaurant reviewer before he went to DC. We’ve eaten a lot of meals together, most of them bad.
The other thing people don’t realize about restaurant reviewing is, how many lousy meals you have. Most restaurants aren’t very good. One of the unhappiest people I ever met was Gene Bourg, who used to be the Times-Picayune’s restaurant reviewer in New Orleans. Some people would say, that is the dream job of all time. Gene had perpetual indigestion. He’d say, for every good meal he had, he had twenty lousy ones, usually deep-fried. Look, it beats working in a factory; it’s a creative job, it’s an interesting job. But Colman Andrews once said that reviewing restaurants is like being put out to stud, because you’re doing something for money that you’d normally do for pleasure.
So, Le Pigeon…
So there we were, and we were saying, if we stumbled on Le Pigeon in Paris, it would be the find of all time. This comes back to, what kind of standards do you bring to bear in Portland. What if I were to see this restaurant in another city? How would I feel about it? A place with that much style, that much verve, that much juice; that much individuality—you really get a sense of a person behind that restaurant, which is extremely exciting; even if everything isn’t perfect, there’s a person there with a message to give out. So many restaurants are cookie-cutter formulas and that place most definitely is not.
This hits on something that drives me insane in Portland, which is when people say, “You have to understand; this is Portland, so you have to grade on a curve.” I say, no I don’t. How are we ever going to get better if we judge on a curve? Also, why would we? What an insult; we have access to the best ingredients. There’s nothing to hold people back.
I think we’re selling our readers short to say, well, it’s okay, for Portland. Portlanders travel, they read, they know what’s going on in the world beyond the Urban Growth Boundary. Life is not lived on a curve. For general everyday contentment, maybe it’s good to judge things on a curve. You’ll be a happier person. Sometimes, a sandwich is just a sandwich. But, for some people, and like I said, I’m a born critic, and you are, too; the thrill is being able to compare something to the best possible version of that thing.
I have a great example. We were in Naples, in October, and that’s the capital of pizza, right? My husband and I went to every pizza place recommended by Slow Food, by Johnny Apple of the New York Times, by the locals, and you know what? I think we’ve got better pizza in Portland. That’s not a case of judging on a curve; I was in Naples; I think we make a better pizza here. Bravo to people like Ken, or to Hot Lips or Nostrana.
I don’t ever want to have to say, this is a good croissant, for Portland.
Exactly. It’s insulting. Do we not have access to ingredients? Do we not have butter? Look at somebody like Elizabeth at Sahagun. Those are first-class chocolates. Look at Simpatica’s brunch. Where else, anywhere in this country, can you get that classic diner menu at brunch, fried chicken and waffles; biscuits and gravy; at a restaurant that cures its own meats; makes its own sausage; buys beautiful local produce, not crap from big distributors. That place is a miracle; what they do is fantastic.
They’re hitting the target that they’re setting.
They’re hitting it perfectly. That’s what I’m always asking myself when I’m writing a review. Are they hitting the target they’re setting?
I’ve had two people email me in the past two days, asking, can I give them some advice about how to get into food writing. What’s your advice?
Diane Morgan teaches a great food writing class once a year, and I would tell people to go to dianemorgancooks.com and look at the information about the class. She is a real professional. I think there are some great conferences; Toni Allegra’s conference at the Greenbrier is a fantastic, high-end conference and you will meet great editors, agents and colleagues there. You can go to antoniaallegra.com to read about all the workshops she does; she is a great coach and mentor. You can also go to greenbrier.com.
But if you really want to write, and you have something to say, write it down. I don’t think it’s something you want to try to do for a living anymore. Over the 20-plus years that I’ve done it, especially with the advent of the Internet, I’ve seen the monetary value of writers’ work, plummet; it’s very difficult to make a living at it. On the other hand, with the advent of the Internet, there are a lot of places you can post and just learn how to write. The main thing about writing is to do it. Writers write, they don’t talk about writing.
My advice is, if you have a food blog, post everyday, it’s its own form of currency; you will meet other people. Contact your local alt-weekly and say, I have this incredible idea for a column; give them five examples; maybe they assign you one, Write it, turn it in on time, pitch two more. Also, write about what you’re enthusiastic about, because if you’re enthusiastic about it, you’ll transmit that in the work.
Amen. Turn stuff in on time; make sure the copy’s clean and accurate; and don’t cause a lot of trouble for your editors. Also, you have to read the publications that you’re going to try to query because you have to understand what a good angle is.
The other thing to remember is, journalism is not an art; it’s a craft. Sometimes, when it’s really well done, it approaches art. But don’t get too excited about yourself as an artist, because you will never succeed as a journalist. It’s words on paper; it’s the editors who decide what goes in the paper; you’re supposed to make their lives easier.
By the way, I want to plug my favorite food blog, gastropoda.com, written by Regina Schrambling in New York. Regina is a trained chef with a marvelous, sharp-edged, perceptive writing style, and her blog is a great goulash of media criticism and food and poking holes in these overstuffed hot-air balloon chefs. It takes a little figuring out, but it’s a really entertaining read. Also, if people are traveling, they should check out the “Trails” section because she’s got great restaurant recommendations for many cities in there.
Where would you like to see food writing in Portland go?
The reason I’m pleased with the opportunity to write monthly for Willamette Week is, I think opinion writing is all about voice. You want to get to know a reviewer. I do have a lot of respect for the people who work at the Oregonian, but I think they have so many reviewers that the section itself lacks voice. I’m a huge fan of Karen Brooks and I’d love to see her work more often, because she’s got voice galore. And I wish somebody would find a regular place to have you writing, Nancy.
You know what I’d like to see? Some 25-year-old hotshot comes to town and just burns things up.
That would be great. But who’s going to hire her? I’d love to have another voice in this conversation.
I know. But it’s symbiotic: as our restaurants get better, and Portland gets bigger, we’ll be able to afford to pay people for they do, and not just use hobby writers. And the work will get better.
As my mother would say, “From your mouth to God’s ears.”