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Critics need love too!


Suzanne Podhaizer
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I've been publishing as a food writer for some time, but just recently became the all-around food writer/newshound/critic for an artsy newsweekly. For the first couple of weeks things were kind of quiet -- I got one note that scolded me for writing positively about a foie gras experience -- but one of my recent articles really pissed some people off. As a very sensitive soul, this isn't easy for me.

So food journalists of all varieties -- how do YOU deal with YOUR hate mail? Do you post it on your dartboard? Correct your critic's spelling? Forward it to your friends so they can console you? Make me laugh...I need it!

Owner of Salt in Montpelier, VT

www.saltcafevt.com

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eGullet has an excellent resource on food journalists: Conversation with Nancy Nichols which may bring you some further edification on this topic ...

and please check out this discussion as well ...Restaurant criticism, Possibilities for great journalism?

and, lastly, this from Daniel Rogov: Who criticizes the critics?

Edited by Gifted Gourmet (log)

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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If you piss people off enough to write, then you're doing your job. Writing about food in a critical matter is extremely subjective, like being a movie critic. As long as you know what you're talking about from a technical standpoint, then your opinion has credibility. If I were in your shoes, I'd find good hate mail interesting, especially the articulate, well composed variety.

Of course, I'd be more apt to fire back at the Foie Gras protester, but that's just me.

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To tell the truth, some of us thrive on hate mail...It means we have hit the mark.

Thanks Mimi!

I think it will be beneficial for me to cultivate that perspective...I know I'll need thicker skin to do this job.

At the moment, my critics outweigh my credentials (at least in the eyes of the public, since I'm new at the job) but eventually, the equation will reverse, I hope!

Owner of Salt in Montpelier, VT

www.saltcafevt.com

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I agree with Mimi that receiving a modicum of hate mail means we're hitting the mark. It also means that we are being read.

When I receive letters like that I judge them much as I do a meal or a wine....that is to say, is it well composed and intelligent or simply a kind of mad (literally or figuratively) rant. If intelligent, the letter gets a personal response. After all, if the critic is not open to criticism, nobody should be! If simply a rant with no basis in logic other than someone hates me, the letter goes into the trash basket.

One important thing to keep in mind, not so much with true hate mail but with letters criticizing our work is that no critic can visit as many restaurants as often as he/she wants to and intelligent feedback from readers can give us clues as to places to which we really must return because they may have shifted up or down in quality in a major way.

I just saw Mimi's second post and it made me smile. The critic that needs to be loved within his/her field of endeavor is a fool indeed. Respect will do quite nicely......

Edited by Daniel Rogov (log)
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Re: Title of this thread. The need for love is a fatal flaw in a critic in any field, not only food.

While you guys must needs possess a granite-like epidermis, that is also true of us chefs. I must admit I have on occasion taken vociferous exception to a novice critic's presumption. As when a critic ,searching desperately for something to criticize in a restaurant where I was chef in san Francisco, said there was too much cheese in the soupe a l'oignon gratinee. This, after having praised all the items on my menu that required "touch."

When I first came to this culinary backwater (Memphis) and opened a restaurant the local paper sent me a critic who had never seen a sun-dried tomato and likened it in print to a "tomato raisin." Oh, and I had a carefully tailored 200-bottle wine list. She was a teetotaler. Not a word there.

But, on the other hand, you guys who have done your homework - and educated your palates - warm my cockles and mussels. I feel quite comfortable with knowledgeable critics in the building.

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An editorial writer I know once taught me a good phrase: "A hit dog will holler." Means, when you hit the mark is usually when your target complains most bitterly. I always keep it in mind.

I also keep my favorite letter to the editor of all time posted in my cubicle. (Best line: "Ms. Purvis may be a writer, but she is definitely not a Southern Lady." No surprise to my mother, ma'am.)

So yes, sometimes we can use our best complaint letters to cheer us up on dark days. Keep those cards and letters coming, folks!

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

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In everything I do, I try to please all of the people all of the time. I can't stand criticism (especially of me) or controversy. Nobody ever complains to me or about me, but if I ever did receive or get wind of a letter of complaint I'd retract whatever I'd written and pursue another career. In particular, I never post in online discussions, because they're not safe.

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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Would you have questioned the novice critic's credentials if the review had been a rave?

So true!

But my favourite are the chefs or restaurateurs who throw a fit (or threaten to take legal action) over a poor review, claiming the critic is corrupt or has lousy credentials, who never complained about corruption or credentials when they had previously received a rave from the very same critic.

You can't have it both ways people, you can't have it both ways.

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Would you have questioned the novice critic's credentials if the review had been a rave?

I did not articulate that well. The San Francisco review actually was a rave.

My ineptly put point about novice critics is the fact that they take the word "critic" entirely too seriously. They are not satisfied if they don't find *something* to criticize.

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--Would you have questioned the novice critic's credentials if the review had been a rave? --

If she was raving about my "Tomato Raisins', then yes, probably.

Good reviews can make you scratch your head as much as bad ones. My first review here in Portland the critic gave me a B+, which is a pretty solid grade from him. However, the review itself was so pedestrian and on the fence that I think you could have changed the letter grade to a C and the person reading it wouldn't have noticed the difference.

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In everything I do, I try to please all of the people all of the time. I can't stand criticism (especially of me) or controversy. Nobody ever complains to me or about me, but if I ever did receive or get wind of a letter of complaint I'd retract whatever I'd written and pursue another career. In particular, I never post in online discussions, because they're not safe.

You can't be serious...

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Would you have questioned the novice critic's credentials if the review had been a rave?

I did not articulate that well. The San Francisco review actually was a rave.

My ineptly put point about novice critics is the fact that they take the word "critic" entirely too seriously. They are not satisfied if they don't find *something* to criticize.

But there always is "something" to criticize.

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But there always is "something" to criticize.

thats what my husband says i am guilty of.

i think its a good thing, he thinks it churley (sp?) ......i counter by saying that to criticize if you are being honest and not just nitpicking or ignorant, can facilitate making things better. or if it is in print, at least it serves as a warning to others out there.......

as for the animal rights folks and foie gras....just mention foie gras once and a bombardment of nasty letters and worse commences. i would ignore them unless they are being reasonable, and then, well, any reasonable response deserves an answer in my book. still, once i even got a protest letter when i ran a recipe for duck breast or perhaps it was roast duck, anyhow the reader was confused and thought that duck equaled foie gras..... the reader had no limit to the pompousness and self-righteousness with which he/she felt that she owed me with regards to my "foie gras" ........

(as my late cousin marc would say: there is indeed a limit on human intelligence, however there is no limit on ignorance).

but perhaps my situation is different from that of critics: i'm not a critic-- i'm a story teller who offers up yummy (that is the aim) things to eat.

Edited by marlena spieler (log)

Marlena the spieler

www.marlenaspieler.com

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Would you have questioned the novice critic's credentials if the review had been a rave?

I did not articulate that well. The San Francisco review actually was a rave.

My ineptly put point about novice critics is the fact that they take the word "critic" entirely too seriously. They are not satisfied if they don't find *something* to criticize.

But there always is "something" to criticize.

Spoken like a serial former spouse.

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In everything I do, I try to please all of the people all of the time. I can't stand criticism (especially of me) or controversy. Nobody ever complains to me or about me, but if I ever did receive or get wind of a letter of complaint I'd retract whatever I'd written and pursue another career. In particular, I never post in online discussions, because they're not safe.

You can't be serious...

I confess I was kidding. In reality I play a little game where I analyze my inbound hate mail, blog and message-board posts about me, and voicemail messages and assign points to the various epithets and scorn heaped upon me. "Nazi" or "Stalinist" gets 3 points, an attack on my integrity gets 2 points and garden-variety swear words are 1 point each.

So far I have 3.1 million points.

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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In everything I do, I try to please all of the people all of the time. I can't stand criticism (especially of me) or controversy. Nobody ever complains to me or about me, but if I ever did receive or get wind of a letter of complaint I'd retract whatever I'd written and pursue another career. In particular, I never post in online discussions, because they're not safe.

You can't be serious...

I confess I was kidding. In reality I play a little game where I analyze my inbound hate mail, blog and message-board posts about me, and voicemail messages and assign points to the various epithets and scorn heaped upon me. "Nazi" or "Stalinist" gets 3 points, an attack on my integrity gets 2 points and garden-variety swear words are 1 point each.

So far I have 3.1 million points.

That's better!

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I agree with Mimi's sentiments that if you're not pissing someone off with a review, you're not doing it right.

I had a brief gig reviewing restaurants. Brief because whenever I actually voiced a criticism, I was asked to rewrite it. Why would I be asked to do that? Because each of those restaurants were potential advertisers, and we didn't want to upset them.

Upshot is that I learned quickly how to say "this restaurant sucks" in very vague, weasel-y language: Mediocre. Lackluster. Adequate. I'd advise all restaurant goers to raise the red flag whenever they see a review that notes that a restaurant is quiet...empty....a good place to read your novel undisturbed. (Meaningful, specific adjectives like "serene" and "peaceful" are another story.)

Or a review that praises the atmosphere and the crowd, but never once mentions the food. That's code for GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.

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I had a brief gig reviewing restaurants. Brief because whenever I actually voiced a criticism, I was asked to rewrite it. Why would I be asked to do that? Because each of those restaurants were potential advertisers, and we didn't want to upset them.

Or a review that praises the atmosphere and the crowd, but never once mentions the food. That's code for GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Newspapers or magazines with such a policy and journalists who agree to work under such conditions are known as "whores".

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You know what the biggest difference is, a critic can ruin the lively hood of a restaurant, even if it is bad. Sorta sucks if its your restaurant and you just had a turnover of chefs or workers and it was just bad timing. Or even just an off night, yet now you have a review that could stick for a while. Same goes for good review, great chef leaves and new crappy chef comes in. Yet, gets the spoils still, unless your in a place that updates regularly.

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