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Wojo

A restaurant critic becomes a waiter

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As entertaining as it may be to read of a restaurant's critic's experience as waiter or cook, the idea behind such a stunt is that the critic then will "understand" what restaurant owners have to contend with. And then what? Make allowances in reviews placing onus on customers? A critic should not "understand" anything.Only how it works out, front-of-the-house for the customer.  Restaurant prices are high, meaning owners are playing hard ball. So should customers and critics.

I too asked myself what's next, or was this just an article and irrelevant to a reviewer's main work, or perhaps a step towards a higher calling--culinary journalism. If, in fact, this stint could have any bearing on his reviews, he's come up too short and too late. He's already raved about and panned restaurants and awarded a place in the rankings that may stay with a restaurant for several years. Will future reviews be more acurate or understanding? Will the old ratings need an asterisk. If this week's work has any importance, it's minor next to what could be gained from a week in the kitchen, as Fat Guy noted, although something much less easy to do without more rigorous training as Holly noted.

Actually that wasn't the question I asked myself, but I did wan't to pick up that thread. What I thought about originally was "what was the restaurant thinking when they put him on the floor?" It sounds as if they shortchanged the diners in the service department. I was reminded of the TV commercials where they substitute instant coffee for freshly brewed coffee. In the latter case, I questioned the taste buds of the clientele and assumed the restaurant normally catered to diners with impaired taste buds and factored that in when considering the restaurant's reputation. My guess is that a "fine dining establishment" wouldn't allow a writer the opportunity to serve its guests. Any thoughts on that?


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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As entertaining as it may be to read of a restaurant's critic's experience as waiter or cook, the idea behind such a stunt is that the critic then will "understand" what restaurant owners have to contend with. And then what? Make allowances in reviews placing onus on customers? A critic should not "understand" anything.Only how it works out, front-of-the-house for the customer.  Restaurant prices are high, meaning owners are playing hard ball. So should customers and critics.

Although one might have thought the conceit of the embedded journalist had passed its sell-by date by now :blink: , we need not fear the reviewer who understands too much. Here, any empathy was for the staff, not the owner. But his tenet in walking this much trodden ground was to supposedly educate the customer. The fact that for obvious reasons he doesn't, of course, reduces the exercise to low comedy.

In fairness, he does paint the landscape of those universal customers: Type A: Only had kids so they can get Pre-Boarding; Type B: The cheerful, accepting, thankful and generous; and Type C: "People interested in having the experience of being disappointed".

On the whole, most of Mr. Bruni's body of work does in fact admire your suggested protocol: He understands little. That's abundantly evident in his unthinking (or unknowing) sales pitches for swordfish and monkfish, two species in dire straits indeed. Here his ignorance does not benefit the customer; on this coast a critic promoting endangered fish - even in the context of a mock-u-drama - would be looking for a real job and quickly.

That being said, at least he finally made it off the island, if only just.


Edited by jamiemaw (log)

from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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Bux: When I was setting up the various first-person visits for Turning the Tables, I was not able to find any reputable fine-dining establishment to put me in a server's role. They felt it would be irresponsible, and so did I. So what we worked out with Danny Meyer's people was that I would pose as a manager: wear a business suit instead of a server's uniform (I doubt they even had any in my size), wander around the floor during service but not actually do anything and try, if asked to do anything by a real customer, to screw up as little as possible. I managed to screw up a few things anyway, but it was all very low impact.


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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Yes and no. 

When I had my restaurant we received consistently good to rave reviews.  We were lucky.  No reviewers were there the Saturday evening my chef walked out and took half the kitchen with her.  No reviewers were there the day the kitchen roof caved in.  No reviewers were there on those occasional dreaded days when enough minor things went wrong to throw us totally off our timing.  Bad things happen to good restaurants.

A reviewer should have enough understanding of the restaurant business to know if a restaurant is doing a bad job because it is a bad restaurant or doing a bad job because it is a good restaurant that is just suffering one of those inevitable days that happens in any restaurant except, perhaps, the Per Se's and Daniel's of the world.

Because a review stays with the restaurant for years a reviewer should have the empathy and does have the responsibility to understand the difference between a mediocre restaurant offering a representative experience and a good restaurant providing an atypical one.

That's why a critic should go at least three times..to counteract the one-time off night then average out the experiences..I believe that minimum is still a NYTimes rule.

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Let's put Frank Bruni to work. I'd like to see him continue with his work experiences to encompass other aspects of the restaurant industry.

One week washing dishes, the next prep cook, graduating to grill bitch, then the line, etc. Kind of like a reality TV series but in print.

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I think this was a good piece to write, if not maybe for the expected reasons. I'd like to hope some people will recognize their own behavior towards waiters here. That guy who made him repeat the specials over and over while turning and talking to his companion could have been a boss of mine who used to act like he was ready to order and then change him mind. One server came back six times that I counted. He thought that was cute.

This is what I thought was going on. Not everyone who reads the NYTimes has been a waitron, but many if not most have been served by one. I read Bruni's piece as meant to inform the reader about the waiter's job and perspective. I didn't necessarily take it to be Bruni informing himself so as to enhance his future dining reviews.

Tangentially--I understand from what I've read elsewhere that Chris Schlesinger is an exceptionally humane chef/owner, pays and feeds his staff well and generally supports a decent work environment. It would have been nice for Bruni to acknowledge this.


Margo Thompson

Allentown, PA

You're my little potato, you're my little potato,

You're my little potato, they dug you up!

You come from underground!

-Malcolm Dalglish

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Well, I say good on Bruni for at least giving it a shot. Although, he'll never really "get it" in a week, but I am sure that some will stick.

For some time now, I have evaluated service in a wide varitiety of establishments. Everything from fast food, to chain steakhouses, to supper clubs, to very exclusive business clubs, and even a few privately owned fine dining establishments. It's commonly referred to as "mystery shopping", and believe me, you'll never get rich doing it! But since my health is an issue, and this sort of thing gives me a flexible, interesting way to fill my time and make a little jack on the side, and enjoy a meal on someone elses dime - I thoroughly enjoy it.

But I digress. My past experience in food service, all the way from sandwich shops through to fine dining in my 20's, has been invaluable. I probably have to bring more detail back than would be neccessary for a reviewer - service times, traffic, employee names and descriptions, etc. but I have had to write narratives adding up to four or five pages, single spaced, of the entire dining experience from start to finish. Objectivity and fairness are at the top of the list - after all, someone's job may depend on my narrative, just as a restaurant's business can be dramatically enhanced or ruined depending upon how Bruni writes it up. I cannot imagine being able to fairly evaluate a restaurant, its food and service without ever having worked in one. I mean honestly, there are so many tiny things that a diner takes for granted - were you offered bottled water? was your bread preset and was the butter soft? was your silverware and glasswear spotless? was the server neat? did the server smile AND make eye contact? did the staff work together as a team to ensure service? was the hot plate hot and the cold plate cold? did you get the "tour" of the menu? was the server knowledgable? how long did it take the server to pick up on the cues that you were finished with your plate? did the establishment manage to feed you lunch from start to finish in 30 minutes? was the food cooked to the proper temp? was it sloppily plated?

All this and many more details add up to make the subjective judgement that the service was "good" or "bad". And we all know that taste is subjective, especially.

I cannot see how some hands on experience could do anything but make a reviewer better, and enable him to do a better job for his/her customer, the reader interested in a restaurant.

Just my two cents - and as usual I inflated it to a $1.02

:biggrin:

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Tangentially--I understand from what I've read elsewhere that Chris Schlesinger is an exceptionally humane chef/owner, pays and feeds his staff well and generally supports a decent work environment. It would have been nice for Bruni to acknowledge this.

Indeed, it did sound like a cheerful place to work, which the photo seemed to support as well, and that usually means an emancipated owner somewhere. Which made me wonder the louder, why the swordfish and monkfish?


from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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I think this was a good piece to write, if not maybe for the expected reasons. I'd like to hope some people will recognize their own behavior towards waiters here. That guy who made him repeat the specials over and over while turning and talking to his companion could have been a boss of mine who used to act like he was ready to order and then change him mind. One server came back six times that I counted. He thought that was cute.

Bravo, Mimi, bravo!

Bill


Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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That's why a critic should go at least three times..to counteract the one-time off night then average out the experiences..I believe that minimum is still a NYTimes rule.

This minimum requirement of visits may be a NY Times rule, but as newspaper profits sag and less young writers are taken on staff, fewer and fewer critics will be given that kind opportunity -- or be willing to put in the time if the pay-per-piece is the same for one visit or twelve.

Restaurateurs read Mimi Sheraton saying "a critic should go at least three times", and then use that kind of quote to say their review was not fair.

This kind of rule really irks me because it's bandied about by the critics who have (or had) that kind of opportunity, and used to discredit those who do not.

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I read Bruni's piece as meant to inform the reader about the waiter's job and perspective. I didn't necessarily take it to be Bruni informing himself so as to enhance his future dining reviews.

I think he advertised it as being about his own perspective. In his words:

I usually spend my nights on the other side of the table, not only asking the questions and making the demands but also judging and, I concede, taking caustic little mental notes. . . . But last week I traded places and swapped perspectives, a critic joining the criticized, to get a taste of what servers go through and what we put them through, of how they see and survive us.

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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Waiting on tables is one of the hardest jobs in the world. It taxes your short-term memory unlike any other job. Fill, delete, fetch, refill, this one gets-- this other one gets -- fill, delete. The physical aspect is strenuous, though I personally enjoy that.

Working on the line (kitchen) of a busy restaurant is perhaps even more difficult, but most people there would not do anything else. The pay is far less than the servers make. For accomplished chefs and cooks, it is a "calling." For servers, it is often a gig between actting jobs, unless the have decided to make this their life's work, and then I say, Hurray. You can make decent bucks at this, and if your temperment so suits this, congratulations. There are far too few servers who are willing to commit to this life, and they are sorely needed as front-of-the-house managers.

Know this: you may be calling Bangladesh when you call your credit card company, but restaurants are local, and the work will never be sent overseas.

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That's why a critic should go at least three times..to counteract the one-time off night then average out the experiences..I believe that minimum is still a NYTimes rule.

This minimum requirement of visits may be a NY Times rule, but as newspaper profits sag and less young writers are taken on staff, fewer and fewer critics will be given that kind opportunity -- or be willing to put in the time if the pay-per-piece is the same for one visit or twelve.

Restaurateurs read Mimi Sheraton saying "a critic should go at least three times", and then use that kind of quote to say their review was not fair.

This kind of rule really irks me because it's bandied about by the critics who have (or had) that kind of opportunity, and used to discredit those who do not.

Professional curiousity: Do you ever feel compromised by a lack of budget Lesley? How many menu items are you able to afford with your budget in order to evaluate a restaurant?


from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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I cannot see how some hands on experience could do anything but make a reviewer better, and enable him to do a better job for his/her customer, the reader interested in a restaurant.

Precisely!

I am amazed at the number of food writers who seem to have little to no industry experience. It's good to walk a mile in another person's shoes.

But for a real behind the scenes treat--why doesn't he try dishwashing? I did it for two years in high school. It was my first job.


S. Cue

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Forgive me for joining this conversation a bit late, but how completely lame is it that such an endeavor was pursued as an opportunity for a lighting storm of insight -- by the *New York Times* restaurant critic?!

Even worse, why wasn't he in the kitchen? Shouldn't that be slightly more relevant, given his job description? It might be helpful to understand exactly how one works, for example. Perhaps touch the shiny things.

Please excuse this snarky venting, but I too am of the opinion that until you understand what goes on behind the kitchen doors *and* in the dining room, you might want to stay out of the food business -- or at the very least, restaurant criticism. Call me quirky.


Jennifer L. Iannolo

Founder, Editor-in-Chief

The Gilded Fork

Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Home of the Culinary Podcast Network

Never trust a woman who doesn't like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. (attributed to Federico Fellini)

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I'm sympathetic to your views, Jennifer, but I think I share them only partly, because if we take them to a logical conclusion, that would mean that anyone writing political criticism would have had to have worked for a political campaign or something, and I don't believe that, so I guess that, in theory, I also don't think it's absolutely necessary for restaurant critics to have had experience other than as a writer and discerning customer in order for their views to be of some use. But I think there's another thread somewhere where we talked about the qualifications for being a restaurant critic vs. other types of criticism. (I can't remember the name of the other thread.)


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Thanks Michael. I remember there was a thread about that somewhere, yes.

I think the root of what irks me in this case is that he didn't spend time in the kitchen as well. I realize that a person need not have done time in the trenches, but it is my opinion that such experiences enrich what one then brings...er...to the table. There is passion and knowledge to be found in those trenches, and they can often be a catalyst for great writing, great food insight, and a greater appreciation of the craft of cooking. I think he went halfway and made a big show of it; something that perfumes the air with stale reality TV. Sigh.

:smile:


Jennifer L. Iannolo

Founder, Editor-in-Chief

The Gilded Fork

Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Home of the Culinary Podcast Network

Never trust a woman who doesn't like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. (attributed to Federico Fellini)

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Thanks Michael. I remember there was a thread about that somewhere, yes.

I think the root of what irks me in this case is that he didn't spend time in the kitchen as well. I realize that a person need not have done time in the trenches, but it is my opinion that such experiences enrich what one then brings...er...to the table.[...]

I would have to agree. Of course there are exceptions, like former sports stars who are terrible commentators and don't really understand the game on an analytical level, but as a general case, if you weren't brain-dead while you were working on the field, in the kitchen, or whatever, and can speak or write articulately, your experience should help.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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I cannot see how some hands on experience could do anything but make a reviewer better, and enable him to do a better job for his/her customer, the reader interested in a restaurant.

Precisely!

I am amazed at the number of food writers who seem to have little to no industry experience. It's good to walk a mile in another person's shoes.

But for a real behind the scenes treat--why doesn't he try dishwashing? I did it for two years in high school. It was my first job.

That would be a good spot for someone who really wants to know how things work in a restaurant. Service sort of revolves around the basic necessity of clean plates, silver and glassware, pots and pans. The dishwasher often gets drafted by both sides of the house at times as well to bring up any slack that may be going on. Unfortunately, the dishwasher gets grief from both sides of the house as well when things aren't running efficiently.

I don't know what kind of shape Bruni is in physically, though.

What struck me was that he did not bring back, or at least did not acknowledge in his story, the fact that a great server can smooth over delays in food and beverage service that are beyond his/her control. Handle the grumpy customer who really just wants to complain, or make appropriate small talk with the one top that is lonely and just wants to chat. A great server can handle all of the above, plus the six top out on prom night, and make them all think they had a fantastic time in a first class restaurant and are eager to return or spread some positive word of mouth. It is an art form.

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I'm sympathetic to your views, Jennifer, but I think I share them only partly, because if we take them to a logical conclusion, that would mean that anyone writing political criticism would have had to have worked for a political campaign or something, and I don't believe that, so I guess that, in theory, I also don't think it's absolutely necessary for restaurant critics to have had experience other than as a writer and discerning customer in order for their views to be of some use.

I agree that a restaurant critic need not have worked in the industry, but I think some expertise is called for, beyond mere enthusiasm for dining out—which is all Frank Bruni seems to bring to the party.

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I'm sympathetic to your views, Jennifer, but I think I share them only partly, because if we take them to a logical conclusion, that would mean that anyone writing political criticism would have had to have worked for a political campaign or something, and I don't believe that, so I guess that, in theory, I also don't think it's absolutely necessary for restaurant critics to have had experience other than as a writer and discerning customer in order for their views to be of some use.

I agree that a restaurant critic need not have worked in the industry, but I think some expertise is called for, beyond mere enthusiasm for dining out—which is all Frank Bruni seems to bring to the party.

I don't think it is "expertise" that is important. One rarely, if ever, refers to critics and reviewers as 'experts."

I believe it is perspective that is important. That perspective can be the result of a critic who draws upon a certain expertise such as Pierre Franey or Craig Claiborn--it can be a cumulation of myriad experiences as a restaurant patron and food enthusiast--Johnny Apple or Ruth Reichl etc.

There is also IMOP a difference, though it can get somewhat murky, between a reviewer and a critic.

At its very basic level the Times should be providing an accurate review of the dining exxperience one is likely to have--decor/atmosphere, food offered, service, wine list, value/prices, dress code, hours of operation.--just the facts basically.

This is information that must be conveyed in any review.

The criticism part requires that the critic now bring his or her life's experiences, to bear wherein they apply a critical eye to the restaurant.

Now readers get a certain perspective and context from the critic, and the "review" becomes something more than a basic assessment of the restaurant based upon--decor, food, service etc.

There should be little that one can argue with in a basic review but in a critical piece there is much that can be debated.

For example, the theatre critic John Simon who could infuriate people with his reviews/critical pieces but the gravitas he brought to his writing almost demanded that one interested in the theatre read him.

As for the Times and Bruni, IMOP , it is not so much about reading Bruni for the gravitas and perspective he brings--actually, I probably care less about Bruni's reviews and the Times than I ever have. I really used to look forward to reading Reichl (though I did not always agree with her).

So this piece about what it is like to be a waiter though well written and entertaining could have been done by anyone--any writer at the Times. Why was the restaurant critic doing it?

I would challenge anyone to state what special perspective or insight is conveyed in the piece by Bruni. Basically the piece is an anecdotal recounting the events that happened the night Bruni acted as a waiter.

Instead of discussing the piece itself--the focus seems to be more on Bruni and his experience or lack thereof etc and why he did the piece. Why?

I believe it is because the Times now makes little distinction between the job of restaurant critic and features writer--they are interchangeable.

IMOP--the Tmes is losing its gravitas--it is losing the fine perspective and insight its pieces once provided.

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Instead of discussing the piece itself—the focus seems to be more on Bruni and his experience or lack thereof etc and why he did the piece. Why?

I believe it is because the Times now makes little distinction between the job of restaurant critic and features writer—they are interchangeable.

IMOP—the Tmes is losing its gravitas—it is losing the fine perspective and insight its pieces once provided.

There are many Times writers who have that gravitas that John referred to. I have not yet seen it in very many Frank Bruni pieces, which is probably why the discussion about this article is inextricably linked with Bruni's lack of food-industry experience generally.

Bruni's job calls for him to write two restaurant reviews per week (a rated review and the unrated "Diner's Journal"), and a periodic ideas/trends piece called the Critic's Notebook. I don't see any problem with the job having those parameters, but I think that Bruni has largely wasted the bully pulpit that has been handed to him. One or two of Bruni's Critic's Notebook articles have been modestly insightful. This one was not.

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I'm sympathetic to your views, Jennifer, but I think I share them only partly, because if we take them to a logical conclusion, that would mean that anyone writing political criticism would have had to have worked for a political campaign or something, and I don't believe that, so I guess that, in theory, I also don't think it's absolutely necessary for restaurant critics to have had experience other than as a writer and discerning customer in order for their views to be of some use.

I agree that a restaurant critic need not have worked in the industry, but I think some expertise is called for, beyond mere enthusiasm for dining out—which is all Frank Bruni seems to bring to the party.

I don't think it is "expertise" that is important. One rarely, if ever, refers to critics and reviewers as 'experts."

I believe it is perspective that is important. That perspective can be the result of a critic who draws upon a certain expertise such as Pierre Franey or Craig Claiborn--it can be a cumulation of myriad experiences as a restaurant patron and food enthusiast--Johnny Apple or Ruth Reichl etc.

Hmm. Please help me understand. Isn't being an "expert" a vital component of being a critic? And isn't it implied, if not stated?

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/critic

I think that is where the source of the "gravitas" lies, in being expert. An art critic, a food critic, a music critic, in order to be taken seriously, must necessarily be an "expert", correct?

Drawing upon expertise is a life experience and can make one an expert, does it not? As does dining in numerous venues, and assorted cuisines and cultural influences and just plain not liking liver.

I guess I should make it clear, I do not think that having some hands on experience is required to be a critic, but I do believe that hands on experience can only increase one's expertise, thus making them a better critic, thus endowing the "gravitas" so necessary for the critic to be successful. In other words, a person can call himself a critic all he likes, but if he wants to be taken seriously he better have taken many steps across a kitchen or dining room if he wants me to listen to him. I certainly take with a HUGE grain of salt the opinion of anyone who has never worked in the industry, because I know that some subjectivness is going to creep in there, no matter how hard the reviewer or critic tries to remain objective. They just can't begin to realize the mechanics required to pull off a beautiful plate of food for several hundred people, seamlessly and, from the point of view of the customer, effortlessly. A great server will never let you see them sweat.

Some hands on experience can only improve the job the critic is being paid to do, and the worth of his opinion more valuable.

Then there are the objective/subjective opinions and evaluations heaped upon the bonfire of the review or criticism. I did find the story to be rather vain and self centered, but aren't most diners? It cannot hurt to offer the regular reader an insight, either, as some diners are of course oblivious.

:rolleyes:

Edit to add: A great server can and will make you like what you get. It is a simple fact that a multitude of sins can be handled with grace and diplomacy and sometimes a smattering of attitude, leaving the customer with the perception that the food was wonderful, the atmosphere incredible, and the service outstanding, even if they went through 3 cocktails and half a bottle of wine before dinner. In fact, especially if they went through 3 cocktails and half a bottle of wine before dinner. Unless one has snowed the customer, the customer will not even realize he is being snowed. If the face at the table does the job, and believe me, they will if they can (The tip depends upon it).


Edited by annecros (log)

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annecros,

Hi

Knowledge is important, actual hands on experience is less so, though i do not want to minimalize it.

For example a great music critic does not have to know how to play an instrument or even read music.

Some literary critics are also novelists and poets etc some are not.

They all need knowledge of the subject though.

As someone earlier noted in this thread--one can critique a restaurants service without having once been a waiter.

One can critique a dish without having prepared it.

I do not need any special insight or experience to recognize that a waiter is providing bad service (food and drink spilled, long waits for water glasses to be filled, orders screwed up etc).

That's not to say that someone who has been, say, a chef, does not bring something valuable to the art of criticism of food and restaurants.

I do not know if Johnny Apple (who I admire immensely as a writer and critic) was ever actually a waiter or ever actually worked in any capacity in a restaurant-but I trust him totally when he writes about food and service!

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