If we’re not being vilified as grim reapers with the despotic power to make or break a business, we are mocked as culinary dilettantes who couldn’t poach our way out of a papillote.
Aw, you cluck. Those poor gluttons, force-fed with foie gras and truffles night after night. What hardships they endure!
Okay, I’ll admit that this is actually a pretty plum job. But during my three years as The Globe and Mail’srestaurant critic in Vancouver, I have learned a thing or two about how the racket really works.
If I had done things differently, I would definitely be much more successful, wealthy—and delightfully plump.
So before you embark on a new career path, please consider the following words of wisdom. Herewith, my five-step program for making friends, influencing people and rising to the top as a restaurant critic:
1. Publish a food blog
In the old-fashioned days of restaurant reviewing, critics were expected to have some semblance of food knowledge, an ability to write and a desire (at least feigned) to keep a respectable distance from the industry they covered.
Nowadays, all you need is a computer and an appetite to blog your way to fame. Cozy relations with restaurant owners and chefs will vastly improve your chances of success.
Take, for instance, the case of Danyelle Freeman. In 2006, the New York actress launched a website calledrestaurantgirl.com. In no time at all, she was being feted with free meals by all the major restauranteurs in town. Last summer, she was hired as the new restaurant critic for the New York Daily News.
Here in Vancouver, a former waiter called Andrew Morrison started up a website called waiterblog.com that chronicled his toils in the trenches. Some three years later, he is now the full-time restaurant critic for theWestEnder weekly, the Vancouver editor of Eat (a bimonthly magazine published out of Victoria), occasional contributor to the food pages of Vancouver Magazine, and the editor and publisher of a new website and member’s forum called Urban Diner (from which he draws a monthly salary from the site’s restaurant-fuelled advertising revenues).
Does Mr. Morrison ever bite the hands that feed him? He’s already built a small food-writing empire. Who cares?
2. Be nice to the other food bloggers
I am often asked about my feuds with restaurant owners and chefs. While I am sure there are many who hate my guts, I rarely hear from them and don’t have any great horror stories to share.
Well, there is one local restaurateur who stopped inviting me to his family’s Easter parties after a bad write-up. And I suppose that for some of the local restaurant reviewers, almost all of whom eagerly attend the lavish event each year, this would be a most disgraceful act of social ostracism.
But really, I have never received a death threat, been kicked out of a restaurant, poisoned, punched or verbally assaulted.
If, however, you were to ask me about my ongoing feuds with those pesky food bloggers, well, that’s a whole different story.
These self-appointed food critics regularly take me to task for being “mean,” not considering a restaurant’s economies of scale or not making repeat visits until the kitchen miraculously produces something vaguely edible.
What about honesty, you ask? Ha, in this business that value is highly overrated.
3. Take a course in restaurant management
If you think a restaurant critic is an independent journalist who pens impartial consumer reports for the benefit of the general public, think again.
In the increasingly compromised world of food writing, critic and consultant are often confused as being one and the same.
When new restaurants open, reviewers are routinely asked to sit down with the chef to help fine-tune the menu or dine with the owners to discuss their market positioning.
You think I’m joking?
Consider the invitation I received last December to a pre-opening dinner at Pinkys Steakhouse and Cocktail Bar.
This wasn’t just any ordinary meal. It was a “focus group” evening for a new Vancouver restaurant chain that was planning to roll out 10 locations over the following two years.
The goal was to get “honest feedback” in a “casual, enlightened atmosphere fed by large quantities of good wine and great big steaks.” The chummy night was hosted by the company president, director of operations, executive chef, general manager and interior designer. Invitations were issued to food writers and restaurant reviewers.
The event’s food and drink was provided free of charge. The cost to the professional integrity of the guests who attended? Well, that was the elephant on the table that nobody wanted to talk about.
Now if I were a restaurant consultant, I would have told the president of Pinkys that I didn’t plan to step one foot inside his establishment until he properly punctuated its name.
Unfortunately, I don’t get paid to represent the interests of the restaurants I write about.
4. Plead broke
If you are offered an expense account from the media outlet you write for, do not accept it. Any sort of budget, no matter how meagre, will put you at a serious disadvantage.
While you are at home, carefully counting your pennies and trying to empathize with the way the rest of the world lives, your peers will be out every night gobbling up free food and drink.
Why pay for your own meal when most restaurant owners will gladly cover it for you? Oh, sure. Some might begrudge the request, but most astute businesses know that this is the best way to get favourable publicity. All you have to do is phone ahead, tell them you’re coming in to review and all expenses will be taken care of.
Some city magazines and small publications actually depend (wink, wink) on this system. Yes, they pay by the word—maybe 50 cents, if you’re lucky—but you are expected to cover your own expenses.
“I love your columns,” a colleague said to me recently. “But I guess The Globe and Mail encourages you to be bitchy.”
Uh, no, I think that just comes naturally. “I wish I could write the same way,” she continued.
Why don’t you? I replied.
She rolled her eyes knowingly.
“It’s difficult to give an honest review when you go to a restaurant and it’s all on their dime. It’s hard not to write in their favour, especially when you’re getting the red carpet treatment.”
Hmm, I guess so.
In the end, the standard arrangement works out well for everyone—except, of course, for the consumer or any journalist with an ounce of integrity.
5. Break up with your significant other
In the old way of doing things, when anonym-ity was still a remote possibility, restaurant reviewers invested huge sums of money on wigs and identity-concealing, broad-brimm-ed hats.
The theatrics were, for the most part, a laughable affectation. Any restaurant in Manhattan fishing for stars had a full dossier on Ruth Reichl (when she was still the grand dame reviewer for The New York Times) that included full-blown portraits framed behind the servers’ stand.
When I began reviewing restaurants, my mug shot had already been regularly published in the newspaper for at least five years. I couldn’t pretend to be anonymous, especially not with those pesky bloggers who were more than happy to out me with digital cameras whenever they had the chance.
But the truth is, most servers are too busy doing their jobs to notice who they’re serving. I rarely get recognized in restaurants, especially because it’s mostly the new ones that I’m reviewing.
There have, however, been several occasions when my boyfriend has been recognized. And it was in much the same way that I discovered the identity of The Vancouver Sun’s so-called anonymous reviewer.
The moral of the story? It’s a cold, brutish world out there, with no place for family or virtues. Don’t even think of going into the restaurant-reviewing business unless you’re willing to sell out or be hated.
Alexandra Gill is a freelance writer in Vancouver. She is a graduate of Ryerson’s magazine program, Class of ’97.