On food critics

Food critics can be a pompous lot. I have said before that much restaurant criticism is little more than posturing: ‘Look at me! Don’t I write well and with such culinary wit!’ The truth is, as one interested in food and restaurant culture, I find most reviews unhelpful. Granted, jealousy could be a factor. A prominent Melbourne critic recently tallied up the number of restaurant meals he eats in a year. The total was obscene. After drooling uncontrollably over his column, I was indignant!

The book Kitchen Con: Writing on the Restaurant Racket, is an insider’s account of the critic’s role. It’s been around a while  though still one of the best on its subject. Written by veteran reviewer Trevor White—an Irishman who for several decades has written restaurant reviews for magazines and newspapers from London to New York—it provides a unique perspective on restaurant culture and those who hover on its edges professionally.

White is the first to admit that much that happens in the name of restaurant criticism is nothing more than a con and deserves to be exposed. Routinely loathed by chefs—‘asking a chef what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post what he thinks about dogs’—White says critics ‘are like very bad lovers. They only come once a year, they don’t care if you’re not ready, they leave without saying a word and then they tell everyone what you did wrong.’

Furthermore, that a critic’s review is treated by readers as the authoritative last word on a restaurant’s worth is laughable:

‘The implication that another person can describe what your meal is going to be like on the basis of their experience is no more rational than announcing your horoscope, which is also full of pompous fictions. When you see a restaurant review and the astrology column on the same page of the newspaper, you know that the editor has a sense of humour. They are two great rackets, and the public can’t get enough of them.’

That said, the con is not only the purvey of critics. In a burgeoning restaurant culture, the kitchen con is alive and well. Diner beware! In this context, the role of the critic is to nurture our relationship with a lively and diverse eating culture while exposing both practices and places that treat the diner and the business of hospitality with contempt.

Perhaps the most helpful point that White makes is that good restaurant criticism needs itself to be hospitable–welcoming to and empowering of its readers. There is no place for pomposity. The great food philosopher Brillat-Savarin once described a top gastronomic experience as ‘good food cooked simply and eaten in surroundings in which everyone can feel at home.’ As White says:

A critic is not someone who is paid to keep the peasants off the land. We are supposed to open the gates to all, not hide behind some culinary dogma. If we promote the myth that good cooking is some esoteric French art that you fools will never understand, or indeed that dining rooms should feel like sombre, self-important shrines, we are failing to serve the public.

Hmm … perhaps writers of theology could do with the same advice!

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