Think it would be fun to be a food critic?
More than a few current critics would argue with you. Start by reading
this article in the Oregonian newspaper. [the link no longer works]
Talking about the space that was most recently Olea:
Next came Vivid, a temple to architectural cooking that was so unpleasant it should have been called Livid. Chef Tom Hurley (who would go on to greater fame and pomposity at his eponymous — and now-shuttered — restaurant) created one dish that typified the excess — a phallic tower of puff pastry layered with foie gras, beef tenderloin and ahi tuna. Honestly, it looked more like the grand finale of a blue movie than dinner.
Finally, the space became Olea, a Mediterranean restaurant that Esquire magazine named as one of the 19 best new American restaurants, but was so mediocre that I suspect the magazine only went to 19 new restaurants that year. Somehow this place held on for four years before closing this spring.
Then you should read this article by outgoing food critic, Frank Bruni, of the New York Times. He discusses what it is like, from the critic’s perspective, to take other people out as dining companions. A couple of paragraphs made me laugh out loud, as I have had the same experience:
I learned that the world is divided into the hoarders and the sharers, and into the perpetually slighted and the eternally grateful; that the diners who eat the least are the ones who pretend to eat the most; and that no manner of advance instruction can prevent guests from saying your real name and even referencing your last three reviews loudly, repeatedly and in direct earshot of the restaurant manager. There’s a reason most people don’t go into the spying business. They have no aptitude for it…
…I learned, too, that there is little sense to the eating rules many people adopt and to the peeves and peccadilloes they nurse.
My friend K. swore off veal, citing her sorrow for calves that would never grow to be (slaughtered) steers, but she ate young chicken and the littlest of lambs. She also ate foie gras, though animal rights advocates have protested the treatment of the ducks used to make it more vociferously than they have the lot of those calves.
My frequent companion T. ordered foie gras whenever he had the chance and thrilled to the presence of calf’s liver on a menu, but he spurned sweetbreads, on account of their being organ meat.
I had more than a few companions who rejected food based solely on its texture (eggplant dip), shape (tendrils of octopus) or color (uni).
I’m not comparing myself to Frank Bruni, but I’ve had many of the same issues and a lot more over the years. Also, with the implosion of newspapers and the growth of websites like Yelp, I think the days of the anonymous critic are numbered.
Thank you – that Frank Bruni piece was hilarious. Heck, now I am even comparing myself to him and I am not even a food critic. However, I am sure I have eaten out with all of his dining companions.
I guess that the way he has to eat/share his meals out are a lot like my natural way of eating and so I am more aware of some of the quirks of people when it comes to food. Even thought I am usually good at picking out what is good from the menu, I sometimes even end up trading with another diner who is not happy with their selection. Not if it is actually bad, but the wrong color, texture, shape or if it is sliced steak.
I have one frequent dining companion that horrified at the idea of eating family style because someone could take *his* food. There is a group of 4 to 8 of us who will go out for Thai food and all decide to order family style, but he doesn’t want to and always orders the safest thing he can find on the menu. Then when we offer him tastes of the rest of the food, he loves it and is clearly disturbed to be stuck eating the *yucky* dish he ordered. However, to save face, he declines our offer to include him and his dish in our family style meal. So, he just pouts for the rest of the meal and then the next time we go out he does the exact same thing all over again. I now delight in ordering a dish I know he will really like just to torture him :)
I find that most of the traits Frank Bruni discusses to be just plain tiring in real life. But, I appreciate the chance to laugh at them through his article and hopefully will now be able to laugh at these traits in real life, realizing that this is just the way some people are.
Food Dude says
Welcome to the site, Kim. So many new people today.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family where dishes always rotated around the table. People probably see us now, and wonder if one is a food critic. Every so often I run into someone that is appalled by the behavior, and have to adjust accordingly, which is always difficult.
Nancy Rommelmann says
I’ve only done about 1/1000th of the reviewing that Bruni has, and the guests I took nearly always behaved themselves. However, I find it’s when I’m dining out and NOT reviewing a place, that certain friends I am dining with cannot resist telling someone at the restaurant, “She writes for Bon Appetit!” This is always an excruciating moment. I know my friends say this because they are just so excited by it, but the effect it has on the poor servers. I was at a restaurant in Boston in July when the gal we were dining with did this. I just kind of smiled and said, “Well, not that often,” but nevertheless, we were suddenly part of a cyclone of attention, little extra tastes of things, and a few gratis desserts, one of which the server, a young girl who was clearly out of her mind with nervousness, managed to topple onto the table, which sent my wine spilling onto the tablecloth and me. I just laughed and patted her wrist and told her, I’d had enough to drink anyway and no, really, really, I didn’t want another glass. But I felt so bad; she was about 20 and I thought, and now is she going to get in trouble? Yikes. Just better all around to say nothing.
Dave J. says
So, Nancy, um, what you’re saying is that if I’m out with friends and one of them “accidentally” lets it slip that I’m in town scouting hot up-and-coming restaurants for Saveur’s “Best New American Restaurants” issue I’ll get all kinds of free stuff and extra glasses of wine and things like that? Hmmmm…
Seriously, why doesn’t everyone try this? Surely someone has, no?
Nancy Rommelmann says
When I reviewed for the LA Weekly — and let me preface this by saying, I always reviewed anonymously — my editor received a phone call from the owners of a new restaurant in Malibu, wondering when the Nancy Rommelmann review was coming out. My editor (who knew this place was not on my review list) said, as far as she knew, it was not yet on our radar, but the restaurateur told her, I had called the day before and come in the evening, where I ate a free dinner. My editor was horrified, and told them we would never 1) announce ourselves, and 2) could never accept anything free.
So yes, Dave J., I guess people have thought of it.
Another time, when I was writing for the LA Times, I profiled the building and opening of a new restaurant; not reviewing it, but just there for the whole process, including standing with the owner as the first guests arrived for a friends-only/soft opening meal. A gentleman arrived, sort of threadbare, but you could see he was trying to look spiffy, and informed the owner he was there from the LA Times, and would like a free meal in order to review it. She was incredibly gracious; told him, it was invited friends only this evening, but if he wanted, he could have a seat at the bar and a glass of champagne. He did.
By the way nice review in BA on the food carts. I had many calls asking if this was for real. I, of course said yes this is Portland we are serious about the food we eat.
Food Dude says
There have been a couple of restaurants that have written to ask if I really try to be anonymous. One time, I got an email asking if that was so. I happened to be at the computer and responded right away. “I hate to tell you this,” said the restaurateur, “but you just announced yourself, and are waiting for a booth.” Another restaurant, I think it was Ten 01, wrote to tell me that someone had claimed to be me, and asked that their meal be comped.
I did a post back in 2005 to remind restaurants that I will never announce myself.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
When doing reviews (rarely these days), I’m extremely choosy about who I take with me. Discretion is paramount on the part of my dining companions. No mentions I’m a writer, no mentions who I am writing for, no mentions that I am doing a review. Those are the ground rules.
I lump my chosen companions into 2 camps:
1. the food people who will eat just about anything, are not fussy, understand food service (having generally worked in the biz themselves at some point), are very educated about ingredients, techniques, cuisines, etc. and are thoughtful eaters. This means they taste, they think, they talk about what they are experiencing. I trust their opinions.
2. Then there are my companions I call “the regular diners” – they eat out, and like to cook, but aren’t as food serious. These are my pals that read about a restaurant in a magazine or newspaper and go, “Let’s go to so and so, I’ve heard it’s great.” I like to take them because it gives me a review perspective from a “regular diner” who might not know what Sous Vide is, nor have they traveled to San Sebastian to eat the temples of Basque Pinxtos gastronomy – they just know if it tastes good to them and they’ve enjoyed themselves.
Then, sigh, I do have one dining companion I don’t like to take with me on reviews because this person is a dining nightmare, but honestly I learn so much from said person about how restaurants handle difficult customers. This companion has food issues – won’t eat this and that, sends stuff back, is demanding, is not always the most gracious with servers. I actually really detest dining with this person. That said, I can tell you which restaurants in Portland know how to handle difficult situations with poise, grace and professionalism. As a reviewer that’s invaluable.
Cuisine Bonne Femme – your post is very interesting and it sounds like you have chosen your dining companions well. I particularly found your comments about your dining nightmare companion interesting. Certainly, how a business establishment handles difficult situations is very important. It seems that it would be especially critical in a restaurant because of the amount of business/customer interaction during a transaction (meal). However, I hadn’t previously given this much thought – except when finding myself with one of those nightmare companions.
Typically, I try to dine with companions that fit into either of your first two groups. Since I am not a reviewer, I can because it is just about the enjoyment of the meal for me. But, on a few occasions I have been forced to dine with companions who were less than enjoyable (business dinners or grandfather-in-law) and being able to chose an establishment that handles those types well would be invaluable.
I love food and dining out and I have many friends and family that I love. However, there are some I just do not mix – i.e. some of the beloved friends and family I just do not eat out with.
Raven's Feast says
Very amusing stories! I have a friend who politely won’t share, blurts out her order before the rest of the table has contemplated theirs, then stacks her plates at the end of the table upon finishing! Yikes indeed. I enjoy said friend on a level beyond food, obviously, but it can be somewhat embarrassing when so many places we frequent are that of friends and/or colleagues.
I worked for a purveyor in NYC that was friends (if you could call it that) with Bruni. He would join him often on his reviews, if the dining establish in question wasn’t a customer. When an upcoming review DID involve a customer and he DIDN’T join, more than once he called to give them a heads-up. Talk about breaking someone’s trust!
Being creditable reviewing food is being anonymous, just ask Ruth!
Haha …….. what a fun reread on a cloudy day out of state. Thanks for the chuckle FD.