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Food Criticism


Steve Plotnicki
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This thread has been started for everyone who feels excluded by the Symposium which has started a similar topic. Everyone is welcome to post here which is where this topic really belongs. Also, I believe if anyone digs through the archives, I started a thread on restaurant criticism last spring.

My biggest complaint about restaurant criticism is that it is consumer oriented. The amount of space it gives to the aesthetics of cooking and dining is extremely limited. One would think that this dynamic would be much more prevalent at newspapers but restaurant criticism in magazines is not much better although they devote more space to their reviews. Unfortunately that space is usually taken up by descrptions of what type of flowers the restaurant has or where the chef takes his yoga classes every morning.

I wonder why no one writes about restaurants from the same perspective as other arts and other crafts? Why isn't the fall menu at Jean-Georges written about from the same perspective as the Richard Avedon show at the Met is written about? Isn't what a chef creates a personal statement in the same way? How come nobody writes about food and restaurants from that perspective? Is there not enough art in the craft of cooking for people to view it that way? I think the fact that publication insist on reveiwing restaurants as if they are reviewing the way a new Lexus drives, helps to perpetuate the growing malaise in restaurants everywhere. Would places like Daniel be as homogenous as they are if a serious restaurant reviewer was handing them their head on a silver platter for their ever increasing mediocrity whixh is the result of their cooking to a price point and not an aesthetic? I don't think so.

I wish this would change about restaurant reviews. And I have to say that when I post a review on the site, I try to be cognizant of this point. Hopefully I am successful sometimes. And it isn't that I think the consumer perspective should be abandoned. Yes, a couple taking the train in from the suburbs for their anniversary needs to know if Daniel is worth the $500 it is going to cost them for dinner. But I think that issue can be dispensed with by some rating system that incorporates the quality to price ratio. Currently reviews are dominated by explaining that issue in detail. But I think that if magazines and newspapers were to treat restaurant dining more like they treat going to the opera or a concert, food criticism would improve tremendously. Until then, there will be no such thing as reviews being art. Currently, the only food writing I can think of which could be considered art are works by great writers like Liebling and Trillin. But the reason they are great is that they didn't write about food from a consumer's perspective. They wrote about food from the perspective of culture. That the food they wrote about was exceptionaly delicious was just something that whet our appetities so we could learn about the various cultures they were describing and the various situations they were in when they had the experience. I wish that publications would take note of this and adjust their thinking.

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An excellent point, Steve.

Just as the question of whether cuisine is art or craft generally falls towards craft, restaurant criticism is a journeyman's craft. The criticism is written for pay about how much one would pay to eat a particular place. There is little room for art because the consumers of the criticism only pay for it to find out how much they have to pay to "eat out".

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Steve -

You raise several excellent points, but I'd like to focus on just one. The expectations placed on restaurant reviewers by many customers are pretty low. Perhaps a least common denominator effect is in their writing?

The NY Times, in its Chef columns, goes behind the review and describes much more about the chef's background, influences, ingredients. Perhaps this more closely addresses your needs?

The Wall Street Journal has taken a broad approach to its wine writing, which anchors about 1.5 pages of ads. Breezy, consumer friendly, catholic in its choices, with accessible wines. Well read, and Dorothy / John have become a brand on their own.

Contrast this with the estimable Frank Prial in the NY Times. Every column is an indepth look at the culture, terroir, personalities of the makers - exactly what you seek in the analysis.

Paul

Apparently it's easier still to dictate the conversation and in effect, kill the conversation.

rancho gordo

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In the UK restaurant critics do not, as a rule, take their job seriously enough to bring to it the gravitas that other creative activities attract.

It as if they themselves feel that they would, if they were given the choice, be international war correspondents reporting on events in Iraq rather than on the latest set price lunch at The Beetle and Wedge.

All critics MUST take the art form they are criticising seriously and believe it to be important to people's lives if they wish to be taken seriously themselves.

Too many UK restaurant critics try to compensate for their sense of irrelevance by writing about things other than the restaurants or the food they are supposed to be reviewing. They feel they must display their wit, their erudition, their wisdom etc. Thus their review ends up being less about the food than about themselves.

And yes the truth is-reviewing restaurants requires very little journalistic skill. As one who reviewed dozens of London restaurants in the seventies for a London listings magazine I can confirm that the job is a total piece of piss. Most reviews can be knocked off in 5 minutes after a three cocktail lunch.

But that's allright. There's no law which says jobs have to be difficult to be worthwhile. Too many critics give the impression that because anyone with an interest in food and the ability to write a sentence could do the job then somehow it is not as important or as worth doing as a more difficult job.

INTEREST and GRAVITAS. Those are the words critics need burned into their brains. If they show those two qualities and stop being ashamed of their job there's no reason why they can't garner the same sort of reputation of critics in other fields.

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I've read interviews with the restaurant reviewers from both Chicago newspapers and they both said that they don't give negative reviews because they don't "want to put a place out of business".

Reading other cities newspapers and magazines this seems to pretty much be standard.

How can you be a critic if you only give positive criticism? I can think of no other critics (music, literature, movies, etc.) who do this.

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Look I have just returned from seeing the Richard Avedon exhibit at the Met. And I would like to be able to read (or listen to as it was in this case) somebody speak about the food at Jean-Georges (just an example) from the aspects of aesthetics, sociology, anthoropology, popular culture, style and fashion, etc. That restaurant reviewing doesn't really get beyond, "And the Veal Chop with Morels at Daniel was a new and interesting take on the dish" is sort of a drag. Or maybe I am being too snooty about food, and it can never rise to that level.

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My biggest complaint about restaurant criticism is that it is consumer oriented.

I wonder why no one writes about restaurants from the same perspective as other arts and other crafts?  

I think the fact that publication insist on reveiwing restaurants as if they are reviewing the way a new Lexus drives,

They wrote about food from the perspective of culture. That the food they wrote about was exceptionaly delicious was just something that whet our appetities so we could learn about the various cultures they were describing and the various situations they were in when they had the experience.

I share your frustration with what is known as restaurant reviews, and I think you touched on the answer to some of your questions in your critique.

Restaurant dining experiences, like autos, are physical products marketed to consumers. While the cooking, or even the setting or organization of a restaurant may be akin to an artistic production, the patron/consumer is not expected to purchase and live with the product but only to enjoy a temporary experience.

Being a long time devotee of auto enthusiast magazines I can assure you that your comparison with a Lexus driving review is spot on. This could be because of the similar disconnect between the subject, (customer/critic), and the purveyor, (auto manufacturer/restaurant) which eliminates direct contact with the actual person (artist/designer/ chef/engineer) responsible for the work.

I share your preference for writing about "food from the perspective of culture", but I guess we must look to books by food writers and specific journals such as Gastronomic, (along with some innovative new internet sites), for this information.

THANX SB

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Or maybe I am being too snooty about food, and it can never rise to that level.

Well you have argued cogently elsewhere on this site that food is not art. And I agree with you. Having said that there is no reason why critics could not take a more intellectual approach but I get the impression they are discouraged from doing so by editors who believe the review itself should be "entertaining" rather than analytical or informative.

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Well I have argued that food is not art because it isn't purely aesthetic. It is functional, and I am big on saying that function deprives something of being art. But it doesn't deprive something from being a craft that expresses a serious aesthetic which is a metaphor for our daily lives or even something larger.

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Couple of thoughts:

I would like restaurant reviews to be more detailed and informed taking into account the wider influences that have affected chefs and their development.

As for restaurant reviewers, aren't they often jorunalists who have not specialized in culinary topics? A couple of journalists I know go from writing articles on movies, to books, to travel, to art, to very silly humorous topics.

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Actually to add to this, an anthopology of dishes would be a great guide for someone to write. Like the history of sauces that were paired with salmon and how they evolved. Or how crusts on meat was fashionable once upon a time and how searing replaced it and what different types of methods people used for searing including spices to help form a crust. I would love to hear someone take a dish from say ADNY and speak of it in the continuum of dishes that preceded it.

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first, i should point out that i see any form of intellectual or cultural authority as suspect, since i really don't believe that, within human affairs, one person has a better understanding than another. none of us really know that much to begin with, so to look to a critic as having a tantamount opinion or understanding on a particular issue is absurd. credentials don't matter much. when i read a restaurant review, i take it with a grain of salt.

second, i think it's problematic for steve to reject food as art on the one hand, but to expect for it to be treated as serious art on the other. i do think food can be, and often is, art (note: i'm not looking to start a debate on whether or not it is, since it's ultimately an objectively unanswerable question). i do not think most people see it as being such, since it's a non-narrative, functional media. since it's not viewed as being an art, i think very little is understood about aesthetic preference and sensational experience; in other words, there's no "food theory" in the same sense that there's a music or architectural or literary theory. one of the key components of serious art writing and criticism is based on the fact that the relevant art can be abstracted in some way (food can be, in my opinion), that the creative and interpretative acts are intellectualized as much as the art itself. the culinary arts have yet to witness this corollary.

third, the study of food as art isn't institutionally academic, a point steve and yvonne have pointed out.

fourth and foremost, food is viewed as a business first, craft second, and very little else last.

there are a lot of stumbling blocks from point (a) to (b), and i'm not sure we'll ever get there. that's why we have egullet--so we can do it ourselves.

ian

ballast/regime

"Get yourself in trouble."

--Chuck Close

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Why restaurants aren't covered differently is simply because editors don't believe they serve their readers by covering them any differently. Impose on Liebling and Trillin the same weekly grind, conditions, expectations and limitations of the form which are imposed on a Grimes or Tom Sietsema or whomever and see if you get the art or nuance you'd be satisfied by.

But Steve, to your comment that "newpapers feel they can put almost anybody in that job is part of the problem. What did William Grimes write about before he reviewed restaurants, architecture? Would they make anyone the movie critic or theater critic? I don't think so."

I can lend some support to the first: I've had conversations with two Food editors--one running a major newspaper Food section and the other overseeing the food and wine coverage of a major city magazine--and both have told me point blank they look to hire "voice" and writing ability first--and feel demonstrated food knowledge or awareness is, essentially, irrelevant. There was a sense that "writers write" if you know what I mean.

If true--and more widespread--as I believe it is--the debate, then, seems to be is this necessarily bad and does this legitimately contribute to your dissatisfaction?

Some at eGullet have previously expressed that they find Grimes lacking a joy or emotional connection to his subject--how much of that is simply a style choice or ingrained, is also open to debate. There was a long thread previously which essentially revolved around the accepted value of a restaurant critic remaining distant and anonymous--which would fit your consumer advocate model of food writing versus those like Fat Guy who said, basically, this anonymity thing is a canard and then innovatively argued for complete and utter lack of anonymity--and even more close relationships between critics and the beat they cover--as a way to break down any barriers and simply be about the content. A critic either had integrity and knew what he was talking about or didn't--why hide behind the wall of feigned consumer advocacy and why keep our critics detached from the nuances of their subjects? I would, however, gently disagree with you about reviewers assessing price point--I think we still need more direct writing on excellence achieved at all price points which transcends the transparent cheap eats-fine dining distinction.

Plus this does nothing to examine the career arc of many of these food writers and critics--which is often pay your dues on a beat, writing food profiles and features and articles with recipes then graduate to the job of restaurant critic somewhere--then basically settle in for as long a ride as you can doing the same thing for years and years until you retire and move on to something else. Think Phyllis Richman--would you have wanted her kicked out as restaurant critic after 5, 10, 15, even 20 years and told, at some point, you've been reviewing restaurants for too long--go back to writing about food?

And it may be off topic but I certainly believe lots of people are assigned the movie and theatre beats will little real qualifications other than they are smart, have a voice, and can write. What about theatre critics who move on to political commentary?

Now on to Ian--yes, points all well-taken, but as an explosion of awareness and concern of food and chefs and cooking rises all around us--so too does minimal expectation in professional food writers of the very things Steve is postulating--things like an evolutionary flow chart of certains aspects of cooking and how it evolved throughout the ages is precisely relevant today. In ways that we wouldn't even have been aware of in the not-too-distant past--we now have average home cooks, watching the Food Network or reading some drivel in a glossy magazine asking themselves "Hey, I wonder who the first chef to make a creme anglaise was and how long it has been around?"

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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To address this question you have to agree on the purpose of restaurant reviews. I suspect they have different purposes or uses, depending on the reader.

The main purpose, clearly, is to give people who have not eaten at a place some useful information to help them decide whether or not to go there.

There are two kinds of information: descriptive and evaluative. I want lots of description--of the food, of the room, noise level, comfort, lighting, of the service, etc. I want evaluation too, but unless I know how close the reviewer's tastes and palate are to mine, opinions are taken with a grain of salt. I also find it helpful to have a frame of reference, if possible. Are there other restaurants that this one is similar to?

Overall I find that most reviews in the media fall far short on all these levels. Using Egullet posters reviews as a standard, I find Cabby's reviews extremely helpful, because they are so detailed. Lizziees's aare also very helpful, as they are so complete, and objective, as well as evaluative. I also know both reviewer's biases and have a high regard for their knowledge and experience. I can't say anything like that for media reviewers.

I think the first duty of a restaurant reviewer is to convey a complete and accurate description, lucid and easy to read. The second duty is to offer an evaluation of the food against criteria that the reader understands. The third duty is to help the reader know what the place is all about and what it's strengths and weaknesses are.

I don't look to a reviewer to be entertaining, witty, clever, or even provocative.

Edited by jaybee (log)
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Whether a restaurant critic is "qualified" to be so is less important than a passion for the subject. And that subject is simple-restaurants and food. And I use the word "passion" carefully. Lots of us love eating out and love food. But I, for one, would not want to be a restaurant critic any more than I would want to be a film or music critic, because I don't have a deep passion that takes me to the point where it becomes all consuming for me.

The greatest film and literary critics devote their lives to their subject. They become as important to their fields as the artists themselves. Editors do not appear to understand this when it comes to food. We all eat-so anybody who can write can write about food. BULLSHIT. It takes a true level of serious commitment to write restaurant criticism of knowledge and intelligence. In the UK only Fay Maschler of the London Standard even begins to approach the task with the seriousness it deserves. The rest spend half their time either sneering at the diners at a particular restaurant (does a film critic spend his column inches sneering at his fellow filmgoers?) or carping on about decor, or some scattily unimportant aspect of service or whatever.

True analysis of food and cooking is absent from restaurant criticism and If I was a restaurateur I too would want to sling them out unless they were prepared to take what I was doing at least as seriously as those who review films and theatre and exhibitions.

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Massive oversimplification warning...

Throughout the discussion, I seem to see the ideas of 'food criticism' and 'restaurant reviews' somewhat jumbled together.

Can I oversimplify and generalize to two terms, practical and theoretical?

Practical is journalism's "who, what, when, where." The guts of most restaurant reviews.

Theoretical is journalism's "why." In general food writing, it might be an article on sauces for salmon over the ages, but that wouldn't generally fit into my idea of a restaurant review. In a restaurant review, it might be some exposition on how the chef developed his fusion of Lithuanian-Cambodian food, and why he (and by implication we) might like it. The theoretical parts of a restaurant review are limited to being strictly on-topic for the particular restaurant/chef being discussed. A history of bechamel and it's uses may be interesting in itself, but I'd rather see that in it's own general food article rather than buried in a restaurant review.

Edit: X-post with jaybee, more-or-less.

Edited by Human Bean (log)
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Which brings us back to the separation of church and state as practised by some-- restaurant critic versus food writer. Here was our first go-round in case anyone missed it, called "Compromised Food Critics"

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?act=ST...&f=2&t=3030&hl=

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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A major reason for the dearth of aesthetic or artistic food criticism is that in academia, all writing about food is limited to the sociological side. Food is simply a signifier for other aspects (more important to sociologists, philosophers, etc) of culture like politics, religion or ethnicity. This translates to the popular press where the aesthetic evaluation of food (and related matters like wine, cigars or spirits) are considered leisure pursuits like an appreciation of cars, boats or stereo equipment. If one appreciates a 'serious' topic like music or painting in the same comparative and experiental terms like we do food or wine, this would be dismissed as 'conoisseurship,' which is darn close to a fighting word in the art criticism community. Food writers may not be born of academia, but this void makes it unlikely that food writers will have learned the disciplines of criticism needed to take their writing to another level.

Placing food primarily in the realm of the socio-political can be seen on egullet where threads like that about religion and dietary restrictions generate intense discussion that is both passionate and well-informed. Even food-people like egulleteers see more at stake for food as a marker for some 'deeper' value than food-for-food's sake.

A.

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I don't see what this has to do with seperation of church and state? If the newspapers thought their readers cared about viewing restaurants from an aesthetic perspective, they would hire people to do it that way. But they perceive their readers want it from a consumer perspective so they hire writers to do it that way. It has more to do with food being looked at as a consumable instead of an aesthetic and newspapers not motivated to change that. But if some publication broke the mold and it caught on, that would possibly cause them to change their thinking. In fact if a publication wanted to change this today, where would they look to find someone? Who reviews restaurants on this basis? Not even in private tipsheets do you have restaurants being reviewed based on the aesthetics of their food.

Edited by Steve Plotnicki (log)
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Baphie - That was one excellent post and could make for it's own topic. How is it that food came to be studied as part of sociology? Was that driven by the foodies, the sociologists who were looking for one more item to add to their discipline, or by the aesthetes who rejected food as not being on the same level as real art.

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In fact if a publication wanted to change this today, where would they look to find someone? Who reviews restaurants on this basis? Not even in private tipsheets do you have restaurants being reviewed based on the aesthetics of their food.

While I'm willing to grant that newspaper editors and publishers know their customers better than I do, the internet, and related 'zines, offer an alternate means of communication that can adjust to any niche market, no matter how small. The mass media watches these smaller markets for developing trends, so perhaps there is hope.

Just a few related thoughts:

I notice the CIA, and probably some other culinary institutions, offers courses in food writing. Is anybody familiar with the contents of these courses?

Gastronomica magazine does restaurant "reviews" based on more sociological and aesthetic considerations than any other publication I'm familiar with.

I would also hazard a guess that restaurant reviewing in Japan might reflect more aethetic concerns than ours.

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