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Pumpkin Lover

Reporting and Criticism

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Hi, Eric!

As a student at Columbia's J-School and a hopeful food journalist (someday), I'm wondering what your thoughts are about reporting within a critical piece. Right now, I'm taking a class called "The Critic as Journalist and Essayist," and one piece of advice that our prof hammers into us is that we, as writers, need to bring some sense of history or prior reporting to our criticism. In food journalism terms, this would mean being familiar with diverse cuisines and so on, but I also wonder how much hard reporting goes into a critical restaurant review.

It seems to me that not a lot of reporting is included in critical reviews right now. I could be wrong. I wonder: is reporting a common practice amongst restaurant critics? Can a critic, or at least a un-bylined reporter, ask questions to a chef about ingredients or ideas behind a dish for a review? I realize the reality of trying to hide one's identity when reviewing, but I feel that if I were ever to tread the waters of food criticism, I'd like to be able to report out as much as I could before forming an opinion about what I ate.

If I wasn't clear up there, please let me know; and it's good to read your thoughts on eGullet. Thanks! - Jayanthi

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Greetings, J-School Young'un (forgive me, I've been channeling Joyce Wadler recently).

I agree with your professor. The day a journalist -- reporter, columnist, critic or whatever -- stops reporting is the day they turn into an utter bore. It's a trap of hubris -- a writer experiences enough success that they feel merely the sound of their own voice is fascinating to everybody, and laziness sets in.

By reporting, I don't mean calling the chef to ask about ingredients. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, although some people consider it a point of pride not to do it. I mean the habit of talking to people in the business, of asking questions and of observing. Whether you are a critic or a reporter, it's a beat, and you have to treat it that way. Otherwise you turn into an "export,'' by which I mean gasbag.....

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Greetings, J-School Young'un (forgive me, I've been channeling Joyce Wadler recently).

I agree with your professor. The day a journalist -- reporter, columnist, critic or whatever -- stops reporting is the day they turn into an utter bore. It's a trap of hubris -- a writer experiences enough success that they feel merely the sound of their own voice is fascinating to everybody, and laziness sets in.

By reporting, I don't mean calling the chef to ask about ingredients. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, although some people consider it a point of pride not to do it. I mean the habit of talking to people in the business, of asking questions and of observing. Whether you are a critic or a reporter, it's a beat, and you have to treat it that way. Otherwise you turn into an "export,'' by which I mean gasbag.....

Then just one question... I was the chef at two different restaurants which you reviewed very favourably a few years ago. I still use the reviews on my resume. The problem, in both cases, is that you credited the owners for the food even though they had nothing to do with the kitchen. The reviewed dishes were my creation and somebody else got credit for it in the NY Times; my name was never mentioned. This is not a field where copyrights or intellectual property protects the individual. In a way, I felt flattered about your reviews but I've always been mad at you for not doing your homework and finding out who was responsible for the food at these places. Isn't this part of "reporting"?

No hard feelings.

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I apologize if I slighted you. Not knowing which restaurants you're referring to, I don't know the context of the reviews. I will say that my reviews are aimed at the consumer, and the name of the chef is not always a meaningful piece of information for them. Perhaps if I had reviewed a third restaurant where you cooked and noted the pattern, then I would have felt it was important. Maybe I should even have noted it on the second occasion. I do think that restaurants are generally team efforts, and when you start insisting on assigning individual credit, well, then the sous chef will feel slighted.

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