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Wojo

A restaurant critic becomes a waiter

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I'm sure this has been said here before, although I don't remember seeing it.

The problem with the Times's restaurant reviewing is a problem they (and most publications) used to have with film criticism but no longer do: they don't seem to view food as "a beat", requiring special expertise, experience, and knowledge. Rather, they seem to see it as something anyone who's a skilled writer can write about.

As I said, that used to be the way film criticism was handled: the movie reviewer's job was handed to people who proved their writing abilities elsewhere and had no demonstrable expertise in the history and esthetics of film; they just liked going to the movies. That's no longer the case, and people like Manola Darghis (sp?) are now hired precisely for their film expertise. The Times would no longer dream of giving a film critic's job to someone without such demonstrated expertise.

But the Times doesn't yet accord food the same respect it has now come to accord film. The last two principal restaurant reviewers -- Grimes and Bruni -- were people with no apparent expertise in food and the food industry. The paper just doesn't take appear to take food seriously enough. I suspect that will change with time, as the paper's approach to film did.

This is why, BTW, I was so much more appreciative of Amanda Hesser than everybody esle seemed to be. To me, her knowledge of food and experience in the industry made her reviews much more illuminating than Grimes's had been. No matter how unfairly she might have favored Jean-Georges Vongericthen.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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

I think this is absolutely untrue.

With the possible exception of George Bernard Shaw (who is obviously a fairly exceptional person), could you give an example?

I can't imagine a worthwhile music review being written by someone who can't follow along the score.

(I assume you're talking about classical music. Pop music reviewing -- which I've done; it isn't like I'm trying to say there's anything wrong with it -- isn't even really music reviewing, IMO, but more like cultural criticism. But even there, you need a solid basis of experitse in the field, even if not technical knowledge, for your criticism to have any value -- it isn't enough to just listen to like listening to records. Read Elizabeth Wurtzel's lamentable pop music "critiscism" for the New Yorker in the 1990s and you'll see what happens without such expertise.)


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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The opening lines of Alan Richman's book FORK IT OVER make a good argument:

I am a restaurant critic. I eat for a living.

Chefs complain about people like me. They argue that we are not qualified to do our jobs because we do not know how to cook. I tell them I'm not entirely pleased with the way they do their jobs, either, because they do not know how to eat. I have visited most of the best restaurants of the world, and they have not. I believe I know how to eat as well as any man alive.

Clever, sure, but I agree with the general idea. As stated upthread, music critics don't necessarily have to be virtuosi to be able to discern well-played music from bad. Film critics don't have to know how to pick lenses or write screenplays to render an opinion on whether a film works. One doesn't need to know how to fly a plane in order to understand that crashing it into the ocean is bad.

More knowledge is usually helpful, but I don't think a restaurant critic necessarily has to know how hard it is to be a server, or what's involved in making the food in order to tell us whether the food was tasty, and whether the whole experience was pleasant.

It's all well and good to have sympathy for a kitchen or FOH in the weeds, but still, we're paying customers, it really shouldn't matter what's going on with the staff. Yes it's a hard job, yes, all kinds of things go wrong, but that happens everywhere, and one doesn't hear that kind of understanding for other vocations too often. Yeah, sure the wheels fell off your car, but come on man, give the guys a break, maybe the main bolt-tightener threw a fit and walked off the job. They sold you the car as if it were perfect, but deal with it, these things happen... Suck it up, pay for it, and hey, tip the guy too while you're at it, he's underpaid.


"Philadelphia’s premier soup dumpling blogger" - Foobooz

philadining.com

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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.

My first job in a restaurant too - actually in a 24 hour diner. And guess what, it was and still is one of my favorite restaurant positions. I have always found comforting the knowledge that if life should ever throw me a hard ball and I lose it all, I will always be able to get a job that I like - running a dishwasher.

There is something about the clatter, the steam, the chlorine smell and the instant gratification of makining scattered stacks of dirty dishes, glasses and silverware, orderly and glistening clean.

Or maybe it's just that I miss the diner waitresses. That too, but running a dish machine was and would still be a great job.


Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I know this is totally off-topic, so I'll apologize and post it anyway. :smile:

Holly, I just had to say that yes! there is something about that damn kitchen. Once in a while I have an itch to go back in, after which I have an itch to get back out. But the sight of stainless steel offers some sort of visceral thrill that I cannot yet put my finger on.

I'm going back in today to cater an event...and counting the minutes until we get started. I'm truly a sick human being.


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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As stated upthread, music critics don't necessarily have to be virtuosi to be able to discern well-played music from bad.
At any respectable newspaper, music critics have musical training. They aren't usually virtuosi, but they are more than just enthusiastic fans.
One doesn't need to know how to fly a plane in order to understand that crashing it into the ocean is bad.
True, it doesn't take much expertise to identify an unmitigated disaster. But restaurant disasters take up only a miniscule percentage of a critic's time. It's in the large gray area between awful and extraordinary where most of his time is spent. The ability to identify and explicate those shades of gray distinguishes a professional critic from a wannabe.
Edited by oakapple (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!

Hi John,

Actually, I think we are more in agreement here than disagreement. How's that for diplomacy?

:biggrin:

My biggest point is that yes, the reviewer needs to be able to reflect the customer experience. He also needs to understand when he or she is being duped. And I think the best source of knowledge is hands on experience. You can read about sex, or voodoo, or composing a sonata - but does that mean that you really understand about sex, or voodoo or composing a sonata?

Did the waiter screw up the order? Or did the kitchen and food runner screw up the order? Or did the waiter have bad handwriting? or did you just get someone elses order because some other waiter wrote in the wrong table number?

Was it the waiter's responsibility to refill your water glass? Or was it the responsibility of the wait back? Or the bus people? Was the waiter overcome with volume, or just didn't care? Was the wait captain on the floor, directing his staff? Or was he absent after seating you for the duration of the meal?

Where do you lay the blame? On the restaurant as a whole, of course. But you really have to have the knowledge of the mechanics to understand the subtleties of where to lay the blame.

I guess I am sensitive, because what I do can and will have an effect upon the individuals I evaluate. Even if it is just a discussion and review of wait procedures between the captain and the server. It is still a reprecussion.

Publish the stuff in the New York Times, and the reprecussions magnify. Exponentially

Yes, the final result is at the table, and the dining experience is the point of the review. Granted. However, you can receive an exceptional dining experience in a house that is not running up to standard every day, or receive a dissappointing experience in a house that is running on all sixes. How will you tell the difference? Knowledge, pure and simple.

Enjoying the discussion, and thank you.

Annie

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anne

it is not really of any import who is to "blame."

a restaurant review by a critic comments on the quality of service and really does not need to assess blame.

That is for the restaurant to do.

however-someone who is writing a piece about restaurant service needs to have knowledge or an understanding of how restaurant service works (or doesn't)

there is a distinction here.

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

I think this is absolutely untrue.

With the possible exception of George Bernard Shaw (who is obviously a fairly exceptional person), could you give an example?

I can't imagine a worthwhile music review being written by someone who can't follow along the score.

(I assume you're talking about classical music. Pop music reviewing -- which I've done; it isn't like I'm trying to say there's anything wrong with it -- isn't even really music reviewing, IMO, but more like cultural criticism. But even there, you need a solid basis of experitse in the field, even if not technical knowledge, for your criticism to have any value -- it isn't enough to just listen to like listening to records. Read Elizabeth Wurtzel's lamentable pop music "critiscism" for the New Yorker in the 1990s and you'll see what happens without such expertise.)

I am talking about any and all kinds of music and any other art form.

Understanding something does not mean mastering it.

I am talking about knowledge--which may or may not come from being able to create in the medium in which one is working as a critic.

In fact, the case has been made that criticism is in and of itself an artform.

(It is writing)

Susan Sontag was an esteemed critic, she was also, in the context of her criticism, an artist. (she was also a novelist). John Simon is also a respected critic (who I believe never acted in a play).

and so on.....

I agree with Richman (quoted in this thread). I also enjoyed of Reichl, and many others who bring wildly divergent experiences and perspectives to food writing and restaurant criticism.

My problems with the Times are not with individual writers and critics and their specific experience, knowledge and perspectives.

I have a feeling that the paper is not differentiating between assignments and the particular writer assigned to the task.

For eg--I find Hesser to be a knowledgeable and entertaining writer on food (one can certainly argue about her writing style--some will like her others not, true of any writer).

Unfortunately, IMOP she approached her restaurant reviews not as a disciplined critic but as a food writer.

As for Bruni--he is a good writer/reporter. His reviews sometimes reflect a reporter's approach not a critics--he seems to be looking for an angle over and above reviewing food atmosphere and service and proivideing some perspective and insight on these things.

I would also note that the Times food section does have some marvelous writing and does a good job with their features. It is in the area of criticism and reviewing that they seem to be confusing things--this is IMOP a more editorial and editor issue.

Though I have never written or worked at a newpaper-- I have difficulty putting my finger on where the "blame" lies--I am responding as a restaurant goer and food lover/ eater and a long time reader of the Times.

I hope I am making some sense.

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anne

it is not really of any import who is to "blame."

a restaurant review by a critic comments on the quality of service and really does not need to assess blame.

That is for the restaurant to do.

however-someone who is writing a piece about restaurant service needs to have knowledge or an understanding of how restaurant service works (or doesn't)

there is a distinction here.

Absolutely, there is a distinction here. I agree.

However, it must be said, assessing blame is important.

For example, "The food was cold and tasted bad."

OK. The bottom line is that the food was cold and tasted bad. What happened? Was the food neglected, was the chef negligent, was the food runner lazy?

If the restaurant does not understand what happened, how will they improve? Bad feedback without some specifics is just bad feedback.

I can give you a specific example with my personal experience. I was reviewed as the server at Bistro One in Orange Park, Florida. It was a great little place, owned by the people who ran the Raintree in St. Augustine. It was one of my favorite jobs. The site has since been bulldozed, and I was between babies, so that would be 1985 or so.

It was a Sunday night, and I was simply in the weeds up to my neck. Something was going on, in that I had to take double my normal section on a Friday or Saturday in order to handle the volume. Staffing in the kitchen reflected the expected business that one would expect on a Sunday evening. Understaffed, that is.

I served the critic a cold cup of coffee. I should have checked but didn't and just poured it up and served it. When I checked back, she told me the coffee was cold, I immediately pulled the cup and apologized, then went into the back and started the fresh pot. I returned to the table, apologized for the delay, and told her I had started a fresh pot of coffee for her and that I would be serving it my next trip out. Then I did so.

Guess what? I got a great review. The restaurant was booming for several months later. I got a bonus from my boss that was more than generous, and I got the pick of wait sections for at least a month later until I was pregnant again, and had to slack off. I saved the establishment some ugliness in the Jacksonville, Florida paper, because I made time to make an error right.

I must add, that I was on very great terms with the kitchen there. If they told me the plate was going to be late, I went out and stalled. If they told me they had to start the plate over again, I went out and smiled and offered a free cocktail. Whatever it took, it was a team effort.

Do you realize what a disaster a cold cup of coffee could have been for that establishment if it had been written up differently? I was not aware that this was a critic until well after I waited on her, and the article was published. She dutifully recounted the episode in her review of the restaurant, and that is how we recognized her at a later date. It did wonders for business, and I made some additional bucks in the meantime.

She knew what was going on. Pure and simple. And her one complaint was mitigated by her knowledge, expertise, and experience.

One remark in her column that I will never forget was, "The waitress was busy, but never too busy to bring a straw for the child at our table, or start a fresh pot of coffee..."

Perceptions are not always reality. There is plenty of blame to go around, and it is usually spread pretty thick, but it needs to be identified and corrected. And I guess that is the point I am trying to make with all this typing.

Thanks again John.

Annie

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These sorts of behind-the-scenes restaurant pieces were hardly revolutionary when I did them, and they're positively tired at this point, but he did a good job with his version. I'd have rather seen him try a kitchen experience, but maybe next year.

I have to agree that this is a very tired topic. And I have to politely disagree that he did a good job with this piece. Not one interesting tid-bit or insight. Not one. What, the margarita lady? The myriad of specials to be memorized? The hungry, angry customers? Gimme a break! As a friend sarcastically snarled " Yeah, this expose' really blew the lid off the service industry." As I've said before, a great city deserves a better paper.

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These sorts of behind-the-scenes restaurant pieces were hardly revolutionary when I did them, and they're positively tired at this point, but he did a good job with his version. I'd have rather seen him try a kitchen experience, but maybe next year.

I have to agree that this is a very tired topic. And I have to politely disagree that he did a good job with this piece. Not one interesting tid-bit or insight. Not one. What, the margarita lady? The myriad of specials to be memorized? The hungry, angry customers? Gimme a break! As a friend sarcastically snarled " Yeah, this expose' really blew the lid off the service industry." As I've said before, a great city deserves a better paper.

I do agree.

I think the Times has been on a crusade to become a "National" newspaper.

The writing is watered down compared to what it once was.

as a result

They are losing relevance here in new York (and readers).

too bad

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STOP THE PRESSES! I HAVE A GREAT IDEA FOR AN INSIDERS LOOK IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS!

Lets pose as a dishwasher and get a job at a high end restaurant to document the piss poor treatment they get so we can actually do something good for these hard working people.......is that un pc?


Future Food - our new television show airing 3/30 @ 9pm cst:

http://planetgreen.discovery.com/tv/future-food/

Hope you enjoy the show! Homaro Cantu

Chef/Owner of Moto Restaurant

www.motorestaurant.com

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...Though I have never written or worked at a newpaper-- I have difficulty putting my finger on where the "blame" lies--I am responding as a restaurant goer and food lover/ eater and a long time reader of the Times.

Ahh, you've put your finger on an interesting analogy: there's almost constant complaining about Bruni's reviews in The Times here on this site, but I haven't heard a lot of claims that we don't really have standing to comment because most of us haven't worked as professional critics at major newspapers. As JohnL says, many of us are avid restaurant goers and readers and are able to form valid opinions about restaurant reviews without a journalism degree. It doesn't matter if Bruni had a time crunch that week, it doesn't matter if the editor told him to cut 50 words. What's on the page?

Surely classical music critics need some musical education, but are we really saying that they can't competently critique a violin solo without being able to play the instrument? Yes, a restaurant critic can benefit from knowing how a restaurant works, but she doesn't need to have good knife skills or be able to memorize today's specials to understand that.

If I get a piece of fish that's not cooked the way I asked for it, there are lots of ways that could have happened. Even if I've worked every position in the place, how can I possibly know whether the waiter didn't write it down correctly, or legibly, or if the line cook just doesn't know how to get that fish to medium rare, or if it's been sitting because the expediter's lost? I can't, and I don't care whose "fault" it is: the restaurant didn't get the fish to me the way I asked. There are certainly times when yo can tell that the kitchen is good and the service is undermining it, and vice-versa, but again, I don't think one needs to have donned an apron to get that.

I used to run a Hobart, I kind of got into the zen repetition thing... I still perversely enjoy the feel of really hot plates... I don't think it gave me any insight at all into assessing my dining experience. If I have a dirty fork, it doesn't help that I know how that can happen.


"Philadelphia’s premier soup dumpling blogger" - Foobooz

philadining.com

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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.

Hands on experience is very important. I have a degree in art history. I do not have any artistic talent whatsoever (unless my beautiful pastry and quilts count), but I did take a few studio art classes. Why? Because I felt that I could not adequately write about paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, etc without knowing how to do them myself. This does not mean that I had to do it well (and I didn't), but that I needed to be familiar with the actual mechanics and process.

This applies to any critic. A literary critic should try and write some poetry or novel and experience the process. A restaurant critic should try the various jobs in a restaurant and see how the whole team fits together. Restaurants are about teamwork--from the dishwasher (yes Holly, that was a great job--they were happy days) to the executive chef. They are cogs in the wheel and one bad cog can throw off a whole operation.


S. Cue

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STOP THE PRESSES! I HAVE A GREAT IDEA FOR AN INSIDERS LOOK IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS!

Lets pose as a dishwasher and get a job at a high end restaurant to document the piss poor treatment they get so we can actually do something good for these hard working people.......is that un pc?

STOP THE PRESSES! DONT LISTEN TO THIS GUY, I HEAR HE IS AN IMPOSTER FOR SOMEONE WHO RANDOMLY JOINS FORUMS AND ADDS IMPERTINENT INFORMATION REGUARDING MATTERS THE MAN DOEST GIVE A DAMN ABOUT. Does that make this very pc?


Future Food - our new television show airing 3/30 @ 9pm cst:

http://planetgreen.discovery.com/tv/future-food/

Hope you enjoy the show! Homaro Cantu

Chef/Owner of Moto Restaurant

www.motorestaurant.com

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Hands on experience is very important. I have a degree in art history. I do not have any artistic talent whatsoever (unless my beautiful pastry and quilts count), but I did take a few studio art classes. Why? Because I felt that I could not adequately write about paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, etc without knowing how to do them myself. This does not mean that I had to do it well (and I didn't), but that I needed to be familiar with the actual mechanics and process.[...]

I salute you, but it's not just the mechanics, it's also about how to make space read, which even many studio majors aren't taught nowadays. By rough analogy, it would be great if every food critic knew how to construct a creative dish -- or at least how to analyze its composition expertly -- not just in terms of technique, but how and why the sum is (or is not) greater than the parts. But it's also true that there are many ways to gain knowledge. For example, although I've never painted a canvas, I learned a great deal from listening to and observing my father, who is a painter. I could see how someone could learn a lot about food just by having parents who owned a restaurant or by hanging out with people in the restaurant industry, without any formal training.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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I agree with you, Michael. When I said way up-thread that I think he should have spent time in the kitchen, it is exactly for that reason: to observe, to gain a better understanding. He doesn't need to be a professional chef to do that.

Again, I think it makes for a richer knowledge base for anyone in the food industry -- whatever their niche -- just as it is important to visit a farm, or anywhere else that is part of the food chain.


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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A lot of this comes down to: do you consider yourself an arts critic or a consumer reporter?

Currently, restaurant reviews in most newspapers serve primarily a consumer reporting function. For that, it's not particularly necessary or even helpful to acquire behind-the-scenes knowledge. The consumer, indeed, doesn't and shouldn't give a crap why the steak is overcooked -- it matters only that it is overcooked, something that can be judged with accuracy from the vantage point of the average customer.

The arts critic is, understandably, a lot more interested in the nuances of the art form being analyzed. There is no particular loyalty to the consumer, the chef, the restaurateur or anyone else -- the only loyalty is to the cause of excellence in that art form. In that regard, it is often helpful to have a good understanding of the mechanics of the form. This is especially true when evaluating the performing arts -- which restaurants most resemble -- because it becomes important to distinguish among various components of what you're looking at: in music or theater, for example, there's a difference between the composition/script and the performance, and there are all sorts of sub-categories such as the set design, lighting, acoustics, etc. As an amateur theater-goer, I haven't got a clue what effect lighting has on my perception of a production, but I have a friend who does lighting for a living and he assures me that it's awfully significant. Were I to become a theater critic, I'd certainly want to get to the bottom of that sort of thing. I wouldn't have to learn how to operate one of those huge lighting boards with a million sliders and dials (though these days I think it's more like just a Mac running some software), but I might spend a few days with my friend in the lighting booth just to get a clue.

It's not even that the critic should talk about all that technical stuff. It would be boring and pretentious. It's just that understanding it should subtly inform a critic's writing. And it helps with accuracy. You don't have to be a professional, but when they read your reviews professionals in the field shouldn't burst out laughing on account of your ignorance.


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 was beautifully said, Steven. You've captured and put into words what I was unable to; that is exactly the crux of the matter I've been pondering. Thanks.


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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A lot of this comes down to: do you consider yourself an arts critic or a consumer reporter?

Currently, restaurant reviews in most newspapers serve primarily a consumer reporting function. For that, it's not particularly necessary or even helpful to acquire behind-the-scenes knowledge. The consumer, indeed, doesn't and shouldn't give a crap why the steak is overcooked -- it matters only that it is overcooked, something that can be judged with accuracy from the vantage point of the average customer.

The arts critic is, understandably, a lot more interested in the nuances of the art form being analyzed. There is no particular loyalty to the consumer, the chef, the restaurateur or anyone else -- the only loyalty is to the cause of excellence in that art form. In that regard, it is often helpful to have a good understanding of the mechanics of the form. This is especially true when evaluating the performing arts -- which restaurants most resemble -- because it becomes important to distinguish among various components of what you're looking at: in music or theater, for example, there's a difference between the composition/script and the performance, and there are all sorts of sub-categories such as the set design, lighting, acoustics, etc. As an amateur theater-goer, I haven't got a clue what effect lighting has on my perception of a production, but I have a friend who does lighting for a living and he assures me that it's awfully significant. Were I to become a theater critic, I'd certainly want to get to the bottom of that sort of thing. I wouldn't have to learn how to operate one of those huge lighting boards with a million sliders and dials (though these days I think it's more like just a Mac running some software), but I might spend a few days with my friend in the lighting booth just to get a clue.

It's not even that the critic should talk about all that technical stuff. It would be boring and pretentious. It's just that understanding it should subtly inform a critic's writing. And it helps with accuracy. You don't have to be a professional, but when they read your reviews professionals in the field shouldn't burst out laughing on account of your ignorance.

Umm, what if it is the only overcooked steak that left that kitchen in the last six months, and the critic won the lottery?

Just asking.

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anne

it is not really of any import who is to "blame."

a restaurant review by a critic comments on the quality of service and really does not need to assess blame.

That is for the restaurant to do.

however-someone who is writing a piece about restaurant service needs to have knowledge or an understanding of how restaurant service works (or doesn't)

there is a distinction here.

Isn't a restaurant review, criticism, whatever you call it, generally laying "blame" regardless of the positive or negative results?

Having worked in one, yes, it does lay blame upon the establishment for either being a failure or a success.

Laying blame is the whole point of criticism. After all, while a painter only has himself to blame, the director has writers, cinematographers, actors, all have a responsibility concerning the final product.

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Hands on experience is very important. I have a degree in art history. I do not have any artistic talent whatsoever (unless my beautiful pastry and quilts count), but I did take a few studio art classes. Why? Because I felt that I could not adequately write about paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, etc without knowing how to do them myself. This does not mean that I had to do it well (and I didn't), but that I needed to be familiar with the actual mechanics and process.[...]

I salute you, but it's not just the mechanics, it's also about how to make space read, which even many studio majors aren't taught nowadays. By rough analogy, it would be great if every food critic knew how to construct a creative dish -- or at least how to analyze its composition expertly -- not just in terms of technique, but how and why the sum is (or is not) greater than the parts. But it's also true that there are many ways to gain knowledge. For example, although I've never painted a canvas, I learned a great deal from listening to and observing my father, who is a painter. I could see how someone could learn a lot about food just by having parents who owned a restaurant or by hanging out with people in the restaurant industry, without any formal training.

It has been my experience, that anyone whose parents owned a restaurant got training, formal or not.

:biggrin:

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Hands on experience is very important. I have a degree in art history. I do not have any artistic talent whatsoever (unless my beautiful pastry and quilts count), but I did take a few studio art classes. Why? Because I felt that I could not adequately write about paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, etc without knowing how to do them myself. This does not mean that I had to do it well (and I didn't), but that I needed to be familiar with the actual mechanics and process.[...]

I salute you, but it's not just the mechanics, it's also about how to make space read, which even many studio majors aren't taught nowadays. By rough analogy, it would be great if every food critic knew how to construct a creative dish -- or at least how to analyze its composition expertly -- not just in terms of technique, but how and why the sum is (or is not) greater than the parts. But it's also true that there are many ways to gain knowledge. For example, although I've never painted a canvas, I learned a great deal from listening to and observing my father, who is a painter. I could see how someone could learn a lot about food just by having parents who owned a restaurant or by hanging out with people in the restaurant industry, without any formal training.

E.B. White was a great writer. He also co-wrote Strunk and White's "Elements of Style", which is the style book used at newspapers, businesses, and anybody else who wants to get it right.

Experience.

This is one of my favorite quotes on the subject:

http://www.bartleby.com/141/

"Asserting that one must first know the rules to break them, this classic reference book is a must-have for any student and conscientious writer. Intended for use in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature, it gives in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style and concentrates attention on the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated."

Both, and most notably White, broke the rules.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Charlotte's Web" and my children did after me. My daughter adored "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" that broke quite a few rules.

One must first know the rules to break them.

I think that is a good philosophy, that transfers to many facets of life.

MOO.

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A lot of this comes down to: do you consider yourself an arts critic or a consumer reporter?

Currently, restaurant reviews in most newspapers serve primarily a consumer reporting function. For that, it's not particularly necessary or even helpful to acquire behind-the-scenes knowledge. The consumer, indeed, doesn't and shouldn't give a crap why the steak is overcooked -- it matters only that it is overcooked, something that can be judged with accuracy from the vantage point of the average customer.

Umm, what if it is the only overcooked steak that left that kitchen in the last six months, and the critic won the lottery?

Just asking.

As Mimi Sheraton noted upthread, no critic at a major newspaper reviews a restaurant after just one visit. Over the course of several visits, the critic will find out if that over-cooked dish was an anomaly or a recurring problem.

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