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Food Critics

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Yesterday's USA Today ran an article about the Association of Food Journalist's annual conference. Among the things they discuss are the disguises worn and how to take notes without being too obvious.

Being a Food Critic is Hard Work

Another challenge is avoiding being recognized by the wait staff and getting special treatment. Once, when Sheraton was dining incognito in New York, she and her husband were placed at a back table right next to the kitchen door.

"And every time the door swung open, we could see my picture on the wall," she said. But their waiter never connected the patron at the worst seat in the house with the Times reviewer on the wall.

Sietsema turned to some friends at the CIA — and he doesn't mean the Culinary Institute of America — for help in devising a disguise. The padding, wigs and accessories take about 45 minutes to put on and aren't all that comfortable, but they make him look like an unremarkable middle-aged businessman.


"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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The padding, wigs and accessories take about 45 minutes to put on and aren't all that comfortable, but they make him look like an unremarkable middle-aged businessman.
or even Tootsie, from the Dustin Hoffman film of the same name ... :laugh:
At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, John Kessler remembers one 19-course meal in which the chef seemed to be trying to put together the most unlikely tastes possible, with each course more over-the-top than the next. "There was beef with blue cheese ice cream, then short ribs braised in a Dr Pepper reduction."  To keep track of it all, Kessler kept running out to the restroom so he could use his cell phone to call his office machine.

"I came back to 22 messages, all from that one restaurant," he says.

The restaurant was Blais and the review was a wild one, after I read it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution! But he gave it three stars and the entire town was cheering ...


Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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After reading Kessler's comments I couldn't help but think that a Blackberry could be a useful tool. Of course, some at other tables would construe it as being rude to his guests. But his dining companions would understand that he's just doing his job.


"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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The other option is to take out a piece of paper at the table and write notes on it. People do this all the time in restaurants for a million reasons ranging from business meetings to collection of restaurant experiences. I know plenty of eGulleters who take much more extensive notes in restaurants than any critic. It's self-consciousness that attracts the waitstaff's attention, not the simple act of writing notes. And what is the restaurant going to do once the food is on the table and you're taking notes? Grab it away from you and cook it again? With different ingredients from the secret refrigerator where they keep all the stuff they only give to critics? Or is the concern that the food and service will all of a sudden go from terrible to fantastic one course after a notebook comes out? If so, that would seem to be something worth finding out.

I have a lot of respect for many AFJ members and organizers, but when I read this sort of thing I remember one of the reasons I got into food writing in the first place: the cartel-like nature of the old-line food press. Rather than focus on picayune technical issues like how to get fake credit cards (which by the way is easy; you just tell the company it's for your kid), the AFJ should be examining the underlying need for all this cloak-and-dagger behavior by restaurant reviewers. Is restaurant reviewing really so unique in the world of journalism that undercover reporting should be the norm, when it is a very carefully exercised departure from the norm in other areas?

In the code of ethics of the Society for Professional Journalists, a group that represents journalistic norms pretty well I think, the following is recommended:

"Journalists should . . . Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story."

The dramatic Food Lion lawsuit against ABC News brought undercover journalism to the forefront in 1997, when ABC's reporters submitted fraudulent job applications in order to get behind the scenes at Food Lion. In most newsrooms today, undercover methods are considered to be a last resort. When I was writing for Salon.com, we considered putting me into a medical study about obesity in order to expose the idiocy of so many of these studies. We ultimately concluded that it would be wrong for me to participate in the study under false pretenses -- that such conduct could only be justified by a substantial public need to know, whereas my story was mostly going to be for entertainment.

Restaurant reviewers, however, seem never to think twice about these issues. False credit cards, names, disguises . . . these have all somehow become the norm. Are restaurants really engaged in such an important, persistent, and coordinated cover-up that this is the only way to get reliable information?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The fact remains that restaurant reviewing is different from reviewing a film, theater performance, or museum exhibit, etc.

In film or art, the critic is reviewing a completed product. It's true that critics might experience them in a different way -- at a showing designated for them -- but the ambience of the movie theater or gallery doesn't really have an impact on one's opinion of the work (think about it, have you ever read a movie review that mentions decor of the theater and the pitch of the seats?).

Now it's true that with live performances there might be differences from night to night, but those aren't guided by the fact that critics are in the house. Furthermore, everyone in the audience is seeing the same performance.

In restaurants there are more variable factors: The wait-staff will act with greater attentiveness to a reviewer, they will give the reviewer what they perceive to be a "desirable" table. And in the kitchen a greater attention will be paid to the dishes ordered by the reviewer's table.

What I'm trying to get at is that in restaurants the variables can be altered to cater to one table and keep stasis elsewhere. I believe this is why critics go in disguise. They want to see how the restaurant performs for the "regular" folks.


"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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Assuming, for the sake of argument, that all of that is true, does it justify undercover reporting?

I happen to think the anonymity argument is so full of holes that it doesn't justify anything, but my point here is a different one: even if it's true, does some marginal increase in this notion of "accuracy" in restaurant reviewing represent a compelling public interest such that cloak-and-dagger methods (fake identities, disguises) are warranted?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'd like to return to a tack Steven suggested when he wrote,

And what is the restaurant going to do once the food is on the table and you're taking notes? Grab it away from you and cook it again? With different ingredients from the secret refrigerator where they keep all the stuff they only give to critics?

My brief time working in restaurants would suggest that no one would care too much: if they're doing good work, they'll keep doing it, and if they're slinging hash, it's still gonna come out hash. When I think of these photos hanging on kitchen walls, I have this image of chefs recognizing, say, Ruth Reichl, and suddenly dropping syringes, pushing away the alley cats with their fifth of Jack Daniels, flicking ash off their Lucky Strike, and firing up the stove.

Surely that's a Bourdain-inspired exaggeration, so can someone who has run or worked in a restaurant tell me exactly what happens differently if Famous Critic shows up? I'm really curious about specifics.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Former New York Times critic Bryan Miller, who had worked in a French restaurant kitchen when several known critics came in, has observed, “When the owners told us what was happening I realized there was little we could do. By this time all our sauce stocks had been prepared, the fish, meat, and vegetables purchased, and the desserts made.” He contniues, “On any given day, a kitchen can perform only up to its level of competence (or incompetence, as the case may be); nothing magical can be done for a critic's sake.” Mimi Sheraton, on the other hand, has written of numerous outrageous examples of things restaurants have done to try to improve her meals. When the stakes are high, as they are with a New York Times review, there are some restaurateurs and chefs who will do some pretty crazy things.

Then the question becomes does this actually fool the critic? I think there the answer is probably no. You look around the room, you talk to your trusted friends who have dined at the same restaurant, etc., and it becomes somewhat obvious in the rare instance someone is trying to put one over on you. Then there's this whole game of double-secret recognition, where the critic is in disguise and the staff recognizes the critic but pretends not to . . . it's all rather silly given how little difference it likely makes.

There is an industry- and media-wide cultural problem that creates what I think is a bad dynamic of suspicion: customers think restaurants are out to get them, the press encourages this belief by auctioning off Ruth Reichl's wigs, and many restaurateurs cynically get into the game as well. But the media should exercise some leadership here, and try to break the cycle by starting to question the need for this extraordinary recourse to sector-wide undercover reporting. Perhaps it is possible to get equally reliable information without such recourse, and to improve information quality in other regards, and to improve the overall relationship among consumers, critics, and the restaurant industry.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Oh God, here we go again with the SPJ ethics code! Steven, my head is spinning with all sorts of dark, deja vu thoughts as you swing into this line of reasoning yet again. :biggrin:

I still say SPJ wasn't thinking about the situations restaurant reviewers find themselves in when they wrote the code. I think they were thinking about reporters posing as insurance salesmen or cops or god knows what to pull stories out of hapless interviewees who might not be willing to talk on the record to a newspaper. You know, the "Front Page" scenario from the 20's and 30's.

Anonymity is important. But Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle is right when he says anonymity shouldn't be more important than knowledge - of the food and of restaurants. Which means, I guess, that a "made" reviewer with smarts is better than a clueless unknown.

Yet I think anonymity has its purposes, particularly for reviewers who want to dine in a situation as closely aligned to that the "ordinary" diner receives.

When I was a restaurant critic and was found out the food was a notch or two better, the service was sterling, the whole experience was more magical - and more unreal.

To go in as myself, as Bill Daley REVIEWER, is not to experience what the diner gets. (In fact, it can get pretty fawning and smarmy. That's not why I became a food writer.)

There has been plenty written in e-Gullet before on whether that's important. Are readers better served by a reviewer who can parse the inner thoughts of a chef by years of face-to-face interaction? Some e-Gulleteers say yes. I still think the consumer aspect is more important, even if that means a disguise.

Great USA Today story.

Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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Well, I used the Lloyd Bentsen "You're no Jack Kennedy" line on Frank Bruni today, so I guess it's okay for you to use the Ronald Reagan "There you go again" line on me! And I agree that the SPJ people weren't thinking about restaurant reviewers, nor were the AFJ people likely thinking about the SPJ when they wrote their code. But that doesn't mean the issue isn't the same. When a restaurant reviewer presents a false identity, including a false credit card, and engages staff in dialog, and gets into quoting the staff or describing conduct they engaged in under false pretenses, I think these Food Lion-type issues start to rear their ugly head. No, it's not the same as lying on a job application, but it is a form of institutionalized deceptiveness. I think the media should discourage institutionalized deceptiveness. To use one more tried and true line, even if restaurants are trying to fool critics, "two wrongs don't make a right."


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Wow. Spectacular name-drop. Is there a sub-text to that somewhere on eGullet? (I'm sorry, I havent had much chance to look today.)

I don't think its false pretenses. When a staffer is rude or clueless or otherwise unhelpful to me it's me as a customer not me as the reviewer and that means he or she can be rude/clueless/unhelpful to any customer as well.

The only thing different is that I never complained face-to-face to the management, like most customers, I just complained in print.


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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My second assignment for the magazine involved eating at a million different steakhouses and noting which I thought were the best. In order to create a level playing field, the 'zine set up appointments for me to try three specific cuts. After that, the meal was left to my discretion as to sides, appetizers, drinks, dessert, whatever.

While it's not restaurant reviewing per se, I was awfully noticeable surrounded by platters of mid-rare steaks and much much more. Not the mention the notes. I never eat out without a notebook, and sometimes I get people who want to discuss the restaurant reviewing process. That in itself can become quite obvious.

So having been under the spotlight, however unintentionally, I can say that idea of "undercover" dining is kind of silly to me. Any restaurateur worthy of the name knows they'll be reviewed, if they are doing the job at all well. So going to any kind of extreme to treat reviewers differently is just going to make you look like you have something to hide. And that would make a great opening line to your review, no? :hmmm::laugh:


"My tongue is smiling." - Abigail Trillin

Ruth Shulman

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Some potential differences for service to a "made" reviewer and an anonymous one: it may be assured that the "made" reviewer gets the best examples of product in the house and that they are prepared as perfectly as the kitchen can. This may or may not be the case for the average diner.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I can' t tell you how many chefs called me up the morning after the review to say how surprised they were. I didn't think you'd be in for a couple of more months! Or, I didn;t think you'd come on a weekday or whatever...

Did this magazine you worked for tell the steakhouses you were coming and representing the magazine? If they did, I bet you got the best....

Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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Because I had owned a restaurant and I had taught at the local restaurant school prior to writing restaurant reviews, I went in with the paranoia that I would probably be recognized, and I sometimes was.

When I was recognized, the unexpected took place. Everything went down hill. Severs pandered. Hosts hovered. The kitchen's timing was thrown off - I believe because they were taking extra care with my order, but the end result was some of the food at my table was cool. Portion sizes wonderously increased (compared to nearby tables) as did plate layout and garnishing become more spectacular - on occasion overwhelmingly so.

I never liked writing reviews. First because they are formula pieces - opening graph or two, description, what we ate, the service, closing graph or two. Adjectives. Lots of adjectives. I came to hate adjectives. But mostly because they really don't tell all that much about a restaurant. I found I could learn a lot more by fessing up, hanging out in the kitchen during prep and turnout, talking to the chef, the owner, servers and the kitchen crew. Watching the food come together, from raw to plated. Not only did did I always better understand and appreciate the restaurant than I would if I had been confined to a table in the dining room, I sometimes happend upon a story that made a far more fun and interesting write-up than the one I had initially intended.


Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I found I could learn a lot more by fessing up, hanging out in the kitchen during prep and turnout, talking to the chef, the owner, servers and the kitchen crew.  Watching the food come together, from raw to plated.  Not only did did I always better understand and appreciate the restaurant than I would if I had been confined to a table in the dining room, I sometimes happend upon a story that made a far more fun and interesting write-up than the one I had initially intended.

Now that's the only kind of dining review I like to read! (Sissy adjectives and obscure references bore me to tears, or make me want to gag.)


_____________________

Mary Baker

Solid Communications

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I can' t tell you how many chefs called me up the morning after the review to say how surprised they were. I didn't think you'd be in for a couple of more months! Or, I didn;t think you'd come on a weekday or whatever...

Did this magazine you worked for tell the steakhouses you were coming and representing the magazine? If they did, I bet you got the best....

Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

As far as I know, the restaurants were advised: "We're coming sometime this week." Other than that, I have no idea. Freelancers are thought to flourish in the dark. :biggrin:


"My tongue is smiling." - Abigail Trillin

Ruth Shulman

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I found I could learn a lot more by fessing up, hanging out in the kitchen during prep and turnout, talking to the chef, the owner, servers and the kitchen crew.  Watching the food come together, from raw to plated.  Not only did did I always better understand and appreciate the restaurant than I would if I had been confined to a table in the dining room, I sometimes happend upon a story that made a far more fun and interesting write-up than the one I had initially intended.

Holly, those kinds of stories are certainly informative, and they are interesting. They're a form of food journalism. But they aren't reviews.

The problem with getting to know people in the kitchen is that it's awfully hard to mention the negatives, and that's what a review must be free to do. Otherwise, it's not a review.

In defence of disguises (although Bill has certainly addressed this better than I -- as I've pointed out on this forum, I'm not a reviewer, I'm a writer): A good reviewer is going to go more than once, and often as many as three times. If they know who you are the first time, you can be sure they'll be waiting for you the next time.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte Observer.


Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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I hate to say this, but many people I know who works in restaurants keep pictures of food critics, their various disguises and the name and number of the numerous credit card they might use. But, that aside, I really believe that friends of the house and food critics and journalists sometimes get better treatment (service, food and otherwise) than the average diner. A chef I know once told me that while he may not make anything special for a food critic, he will triple check everything before it went out to the table, and make his cooks re-do every component on the entree until it is perfect.


Ya-Roo Yang aka "Bond Girl"

The Adventures of Bond Girl

I don't ask for much, but whatever you do give me, make it of the highest quality.

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I found I could learn a lot more by fessing up, hanging out in the kitchen during prep and turnout, talking to the chef, the owner, servers and the kitchen crew.  Watching the food come together, from raw to plated.  Not only did did I always better understand and appreciate the restaurant than I would if I had been confined to a table in the dining room, I sometimes happend upon a story that made a far more fun and interesting write-up than the one I had initially intended.

Holly, those kinds of stories are certainly informative, and they are interesting. They're a form of food journalism. But they aren't reviews.

The problem with getting to know people in the kitchen is that it's awfully hard to mention the negatives, and that's what a review must be free to do. Otherwise, it's not a review.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte Observer.

Kathleen, I agree what I described is not a review. But I also believe my sort of piece can often give the writer a better and perhaps fairer insight into the nature and capabilities of a restaurant than a review based on one or two meals. Over the course of a day's prep and turnout, when the kitchen is under fire, the real nature of the restaurant is going to come out, both good and bad.

I had a self-imposed policy in writing both reviews and pieces such as I described here that my job was to find good restaurants for my readers and not to warn them away from bad restaurants - that there were enough good and great restaurants in Philadelphia to cover that I didn't want to squander my column inches on the poor ones. Those would be gone soon enough, anyway. If a restaurant was bad I did not write about it. If it was good but flawed I did, and mentioned the flaws as well as the favorable aspects. That is how I handled my kitchen "embed" pieces too.

My self-imposed policy, along with my having a restaurant background, did leave me open to shots about my credibility. More than one foodie has said to me, "How can I trust what you think is a good restaurant if I don't know what you consider to be a bad one." But correctly or not, I always assumed that those who were disappointed by my not writing bad reviews are the same people who back up traffic for miles on the interstate so they could inch past a three-car accident hoping to see blood and maybe even a dead body or two.

I don't intend to come off as downplaying restaurant reviewers. There are a lot of great ones out there. Here in Philadelphia two come to mind. Elaine Tait and Jim Quinn. Both had great credibility. Both had tremendous impact in shaping Philadelphia's Restaurant Renaisance of the late '70s - in encouraging restaurants to excel. And both wrote both favorable and not favorable reviews. (Both also showed their wisdom and excellent judgement in that they gave Holly Moore's Upstairs Cafe great reviews :wink: ) And it is entirely possible that their good reviews meant more to their readers and to the establishments because they also wrote bad reviews.


Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

Twitter

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Trust me, it makes a difference.

I'm the Fine Dining Critic for the Montreal Gazette and I try my best to enter incognito. Why? Because I’m there to represent the reader, not write a profile of the chef.

I have also worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in France where a VIP order meant you busted your ass to make sure your plates were PRISTINE. One up from the VIP order was the Gault-Millau or Michelin order. When one of those popped up we would clear the table, ignore the mise-en-place and start the dish from scratch, reaching for the best and freshest stuff possible. I have churned a sorbet to order for a critic. Sometimes we would completely re-think the plates. The waiters would focus in on that table, and don’t think for a minute that water glasses were not refilled or the mignardises plate was not beefed up.

I’ll never forget once, before I was a critic, talking to a superb young chef who had opened a casual-style restaurant. The food was good -- nothing more -- probably because the chef spent most of his time in the dining room talking to customers.

The day the local critic came in to review, the chef spotted her, headed straight for the kitchen, insisted no one touch the critic’s plates, cracked out the truffles and foie gras and whipped up a lunch he said was worthy of a three-star restaurant. He wanted a good review and you know what? He got it – a friggin’ rave. Problem is, most of the time when the kid wasn’t in the kitchen the food was pretty average. But that review packed them in at a time when he really needed the business. So good for him.

Anyone who thinks extra attention is not allotted to critics has not spent significant time in a professional kitchen. And any chef who says an extra effort is not made when a critic is spotted in the dining room is either a fool or a liar – especially if he or she is a chef owner.

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A chef I know once told me that while he may not make anything special for a food critic, he will triple check everything before it went out to the table, and make his cooks re-do every component on the entree until it is perfect.

You say it like it's a bad thing. Critics aren't visiting restaurants 100 times in order to take a reliable statistical sampling of how often the dish is flawed. They're visiting 1, 2, 3 or maybe 5 times if it's a well-funded critic like at the Times. I'd like to see them get the dish in its best incarnation. If you have a steakhouse that serves 100 steaks and overcooks 2 per 100, and the critic visits once, and gets one of the overcooked steaks, how is that a helpful review? Let Zagat's surveyors determine how many steaks out of 100 are overcooked, and let the critic get a properly cooked steak in order to write about the quality of the meat.

The day the local critic came in to review, the chef spotted her, headed straight for the kitchen, insisted no one touch the critic’s plates, cracked out the truffles and foie gras and whipped up a lunch he said was worthy of a three-star restaurant. He wanted a good review and you know what? He got it – a friggin’ rave.

That's just idiocy on the part of the reviewer. It's not hard to identify when a chef is behaving that way, and to adjust a review and expectations accordingly. Critics are likely to get recognized in a substantial percentage of instances anyway, so it's not as though they can get by without this skill.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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That's just idiocy on the part of the reviewer. It's not hard to identify when a chef is behaving that way, and to adjust a review and expectations accordingly. Critics are likely to get recognized in a substantial percentage of instances anyway, so it's not as though they can get by without this skill.

Oh-ho! I'm laughing at this one. :laugh:

Critics think they are so smart. But you know what? Chefs are way smarter.

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I think it depends on what you and your column is all about. If it is me, Bill Daley REVIEWER! (ta-da! imagine sound effects here), relating tales of my glam life eating and drinking with the swells of the food world at a level far above you, the great unwashed but clearly in awe of me reader, ok then. Let's be elitist - there's room for that.

But if you want to be a serious, respected reviewer who writes for and serves the people who keep you in paychecks - the reader - you do all you can to blend in, be Bill Daley AVERAGE JOE, so you can scope the place out and give them a word picture of what they, too, will likely experience at a restaurant. And you can't do that or do that well if you're known.

Being made is a really sinister thing, I think.

Sure, you notice it if it happens once or twice but what if it happens all the time either because you the reviewer don't care or you've been sloppy and not switched out credit cards or taken along foodie friends. After a while that special treatment can seem "normal" and that's where much danger lies. Because, again, you ain't getting what everyone else gets. And, some undeserving chef gets a three star review and your readers get burnt when they show up and get one star food.

That's letting the reader down.


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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Oh-ho! I'm laughing at this one.  :laugh:

Critics think they are so smart. But you know what? Chefs are way smarter.

Is this a new variation on the saying 'The Pen is mightier than the Sword'?

Now it is...'The Chef's Knife is mightier than the Pen'....hmmmm. I sort of like that.... :wink::biggrin:

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