11 Things Food Critics Wish You Knew
Professional food critics set the record straight on common job misconceptions (they’re not all Anton Ego from Ratatouille) and share their advice for how to dine like a pro (and write about it!).
Feast like a Food Critic
Being a food critic sounds like a dream job, right? The ones we polled are passionate about discovering new restaurants and sharing the stories behind the talented people who cook your food, but there are a few things they’d like to lay out on the table.
Illustrations courtesy of CopyPress
They’re Not Paid to Eat
Eating is just part of the sometimes-delicious research. The truth is, they spend a proportionately larger amount of time researching cuisines, interviewing chefs or slogging through rewrites at their desk than they do dining out. "In reality, it’s workaday journalism — researching, writing — that just happens to fall inside a popular, high-profile subject matter," explains Rick Nelson, restaurant critic for the Star Tribune.
They Eat Obscene Amounts of Food
Covering a city’s restaurant scene typically involves dining out at least three to four nights a week, but some assignments require covering a lot more ground — and food. It’s not as fun as it may seem, particularly when deadlines loom. Some critics tackle 30 barbecue restaurants in three days, find a city’s 10 best martinis and Caesar salads in 48 hours or even sample and rank 56 different foods at the Minnesota State Fair in 11 hours.
They Don’t Love Giving Zero-Star Reviews
It’s not all about finding things to nitpick. Most critics take an optimistic approach and are more focused on helping readers discover their next great meal. After all, as dishy as they can be, negative reviews can shutter restaurants and cost employees their livelihoods. "We have a responsibility to our readers to be as honest and thorough as possible, and if that means we have to write a bad review, so be it. But I sure don't look forward to beating somebody up. I walk into every dinner hoping it's going to be the best dinner I've had all year," shares Dominic Armato, dining critic for The Arizona Republic. "And if that ever changes, I'll know it's time to find something else to do."
Being Recognized Doesn’t Improve Things
Critics aren’t likely to wear a disguise to protect their identity (though Greg Cox, restaurant critic for the Raleigh-based The News & Observer, admits that he once dressed as a clown for a Halloween night reservation), but they do make reservations under fake names and pay for meals with alias credit cards to ensure that their experience is as normal as possible. But with a little sleuthing, restaurant owners can figure out who they are; when a critic is made, service can suffer. Dishes arrive more slowly as the kitchen remakes dishes, servers become overly chatty and attentive, and there’s a good chance the nervous sommelier will spill the wine. Enjoy your anonymity and know that you’re probably having a better experience.
Staying Healthy Is Hard
Since restaurant food is typically high in fat and sodium, many critics struggle with their weight. "By year two on the job, I'd gained 20 pounds. I cut snacking, made sure to eat a healthy breakfast every day, and a healthy lunch when I could. Mostly, I balanced by dialing up my workout intensity," shares Denver-based critic Laura Shunk. Other strategies for balancing the indulgence include cooking at home in their off-duty hours, packing healthy lunches and snacking strategically (or skipping snacking altogether).
Don’t Base Everything on the Stars
The star rating system critics use can be a quick and easy way to assess a restaurant, but it can be confusing. Stars oversimply an experience with lots of variables at play, especially across styles, price points and cuisines, explains Greg Cox, restaurant critic for Raleigh’s The News & Observer. Many critics will even assign two stars as a default, then go up or down from there. "How to make it clear that, say, a three-star rating for a taqueria does not equate to a three-star rating for a fine dining establishment is a challenge that I have yet to solve to my satisfaction," he shares.
Love Your Leftovers
Most of the critics we polled order more food than they can finish in one sitting, so they’re not shy about taking leftovers home (or giving them to someone in need). But they’re more than a bonus meal: There’s a lot you can learn (and love) about a dish eating it cold out of the fridge. Mark Kurlyandchik, restaurant critic for the Detroit Free Press shares his assessment of a dish from a Caribbean-Soul Food restaurant, saying "The smoked jerk ribs were pretty good hot, but after a few hours in the fridge the meat firmed up and the spices mellowed out a bit, allowing the subtle smoky notes from the cooking process to take center stage. I actually liked them better cold the next day."
Become a Regular
One drawback for critics is always needing to try new places, rather than returning to old favorites. Many envy diners who’re able to become a regular at that neighborhood gem. "There’s a temptation these days to try everything new, to get that Instagram moment checked off your bucket list before the next new thing comes along. That’s a terrible way to dine," reveals Mark Kurlyandchik, restaurant critic for the Detroit Free Press. "A truly great restaurant will recognize your loyalty and repay you in kind," he shares.
Reviews Cover More than the Meal
Good restaurant reviews help you decide where to spend your hard-earned cash, but the best ones also expose you to new foods and cultures, educate you about the people behind their food, and help you connect with your community. Brian Reinhart, the Dallas Observer’s food critic, witnessed the power of words after his review of an Iraqi restaurant became the paper’s most-shared restaurant review. "Some community organizers coordinated a dinner there to protest the new travel ban policy," he explains. "The place was packed, mostly with people who had never had Iraqi food before. The chefs outdid themselves — as good as the review had been, this dinner was extraordinary. They made a hundred new regulars that night. And the owners told me that in all their years, business had never been better than that month."
Social Media Is a Double-Edged Sword
Social media has made the world of criticism much more democratic and interactive, but beware. "On one hand, places that are doing great work and deserve recognition can now catch fire in an instant," explains Dominic Armato, dining critic for The Arizona Republic. Restaurants now need to be camera-ready on day one, giving readers their own platform and making dining criticism more egalitarian. But if you’re using social media to inform your next meal, critics advise following trusted sources since a lot of freebies are doled out to influencers and amateur reviewers in exchange for an Instagram post or a positive review, a no-no in the world of food journalism.
Critics Value Your Opinions
Critics are all for everyone sharing their opinions, if they can share thoughtfully. Most critics visit a restaurant multiple times before penning their review, and they give newly opened spots a grace period to smooth out kinks. So, if you only visited a restaurant once and it happened to be opening night, factor that into your opinion. "People's lives and livelihoods are affected by what you write, and though you should always be honest with both praise and criticism, be sure that what you write is thoughtful, and don't ever write out of malice or vindictiveness," advises Dominic Armato, dining critic for The Arizona Republic.