The One about the Food Critic
“A man is a critic when he cannot be an artist, in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier”― Gustave Flaubert
There’s a scene in the movie Birdman where Michael Keaton and Edward Norton’s characters are at a bar discussing the play they are about to open on broadway. Both men play eccentric actors who give everything in each performance on stage, and this play they’re about to open is the biggest risk of their career. As Norton’s character (Mike) leaves the bar he notices the critic who will surely be attending opening night and starts by quoting the line by Flaubert to her.
The critic responds with:
“He's a Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird suit.”
“Yeah. And at 8 o'clock tomorrow, he's gonna get on stage and risk everything. What're you gonna be doing?” Mike responds.
“Don't you ever worry that I'll give you a bad review?”
“Oh, I'm sure you will. If I ever give a bad performance.”
So here we are, talking about something that’s kind of taboo and which I’m not sure why. Why do critics hold the power they do over us?
At Sauce/onside, we don’t do critiques and reviews because it’s not about that. It’s about the discussion of what we do and the passion we have. It’s about our perspective on issues that we face, the struggles that we overcome and the great things that we constantly try to bring to our guests. A chef once told me to always cook like you’re cooking for your mother. Another said, if a mistake never leaves the pass, then it’s not a mistake. There’s so much pressure to do what we do day in and day out that it’s little words of wisdom like these that help me balance my sanity on my road to being the best I can be.
If you want a little insider scoop, a major key to cooking is trial and error. Seems like a crazy concept right? But this is what cooking is all about. It’s an artform to a certain extent isn’t it? The amount of ups and downs that go into menu planning and execution is exhausting. When the Chef finally puts out a menu, there’s so much of themselves in the food they’re sending out. After so many hours in each day and in the months of prepping, there’s nothing like a new menu launch. Daunting is not a fair word for it, but that’s what it is. Sometimes Chefs have entire menus planned out and then when they soft launch they realize that much of it isn’t going to work. Going back to the drawing board happens a lot more than you think because a Chef always wants their guest to have the best experience. The entire process is wild and exhausting. So many pages of ideas and recipes just thrown out the window because it didn’t translate to the plate. It’s Chefs locking themselves in a room, reading and studying. Then they go into their kitchens hours before service and stay much later when hotline is called, to perfect what they envision. When it all comes together, it’s something beautiful. There could not possibly be any greater feeling than to get the food a Chef has worked so hard on to finally be out there for the guest to enjoy.
...Then comes the reviews.
Now, there is a place for them. In all forms of a business, you need to be reviewed and checked. Whether as a company or an individual, in big businesses or in the arts. What I’m talking about is the culture of critics who have never been behind the line or gone through the experiences of what we in the industry go through daily, but still get the privilege to be behind the pen or keyboard judge the blood, sweat, and hours put into the dishes they eat. Let’s call some of them keyboard warriors.
The positive about having food reviews is that it’s an informed opinion on what goes into a dish. It’s great to read a well written review of a restaurant or dish that helps in your decision as to whether or not you would find yourself enjoying a night out at a certain place. But not everyone should feel they have the authority to be a critic. The same way someone who knows how to make a really good meatloaf at home shouldn’t think to themselves they know how to execute an entire menu.
There should be better relationships formed between the critic and the artist. But that probably won’t ever be the case due to an inherent disconnect between the both. The disconnect being the understanding of how hard a Chef fucking works to get new and exciting dishes out and the mental and physical strain it takes on them while the critic just gets to sit down and pick apart what they’re currently eating.
The crazy thing is, people make careers out of these Chef’s incredible hard work. I can’t say that I don’t find it a little laughable. But again, I find more legitimacy in the educated writer than I do in the food blogger that has a little bit of money to spend and a computer at home. It goes back to always cooking like it’s for your mother. When a “blogger” comes to a restaurant and announces themselves, it’s just in poor taste if they try to sneak it into the conversation at any point in the dining experience. We as culinary professionals try to cook for everyone equally. It’s sometimes these same bloggers who feel like they can relate to what we do, sorry to inform you that is not the case. And to those that just tweet and post on instagram their thoughts about the industry, when they never worked a shift in their life, should know that we don’t take you seriously.
For someone to be educated in what goes into the food and can eloquently put their opinion into words, this is a constructive tool. It needs to be on a more human level instead of looking at what we do as binary. There are so many other factors that go into each dish and its execution. Sometimes it’s not as simple as cooking the food and plating it. For the writers that are truly informed about our craft and have the credentials to write about it, those are the words that we recognize.
It’s pretty common knowledge that we in the service industry aren’t out to get the guest. We want to make it the best experience it can be! Educated and informed reviews are vital, but not those who had an unfortunate experience and didn’t try to get it rectified at the time, only so that they could go home and get behind their tripadvisor account to bury so many people’s hard work and effort. That power is a delicate thing to hold over people’s heads. A restaurant will succeed or fail over their consistency. It shouldn’t have to come down to online stars.
People nowadays will almost always look up the places they’re going to eat at from a couple sources. I’m impressed when people decide to blindly go into a restaurant. We want to be certain about what we’re getting into. But sometimes these online reviews are laughable. If a restaurant consistently doesn’t live up to serving its guests the best way it can, it won’t stay open for long. It’s not ok though for a guest to come in and proclaim themselves to be a food blogger and put unnecessary pressure on the people who are trying to cook and serve everyone the best way they can. It’s clout that should hold no weight.
“Yeah. And at 8 o'clock tomorrow, he's gonna get on stage and risk everything. What're you gonna be doing?” I fucking love this line because of the truth it holds. The kitchen and dining room is our stage, and each night we really do risk so much. Yes when you look at it it’s only food. But it’s experiences and memories that we all create as an industry for you, the guest. It’s a shame when we are all so quick to judge without informed opinions.
Anton Ego says it best in his final review of Gusto’s,
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”