Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Food Critics But Were Too Afraid to Ask

Categories: Leftovers

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I have yet to meet a food critic who looks -- or acts -- like Anton Ego.
"So many critics. Do any of them have any training?" A question posted by a chef to the Food Media section of the Chowhound forums four years ago.

From the same forums, earlier this year: "How do people become food critics?" And eHow asks about the "salary range for a food critic."

I found the answer -- $90,000 at the top end? -- laughable (we are certainly paid a good salary, but we are not rich people), but the fact remains that as food becomes an increasingly popular topic of pop culture and conversation, so too do the jobs in its periphery.

While some people entertain great aspirations of becoming the next Ferran Adrià or Thomas Keller, still more are just as fascinated with the how, what and why of becoming a food critic.

"When I tell people that I'm a restaurant critic, everyone immediately thinks I have the world's best job," says Lauren Shockey, food critic for the Village Voice in New York City. It's similar to the way people fantasize about the imagined fabulousness of busting your hump behind the line in a busy kitchen. But Shockey is the first to admit that -- as with any other job -- there are other considerations than simply eating food and writing about it.

"While it is certainly a great job, there are some aspects that people don't often think about."

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None of us look like Mr. Creosote, either.
"The misconception that I find most frustrating -- other than the pervasive belief that food writers spend their nights gorging themselves on free food and drink and their days gleefully writing gratuitously nasty reviews -- is that critics can't ever stop reviewing," says Hanna Raskin, former food critic for the Dallas Observer and now at the Seattle Weekly.

"Just as musicians somehow make it through malls where Muzak's playing, critics can enjoy a meal without scrutinizing it."

It's this determination to "leave your work at the office," as it were, that makes the job possible for me as well. When your chief responsibility day in and day out is examining, analyzing and dissecting food, you'll quickly develop a complex about what is -- in the end -- a basic and necessary life function if you can't shut it down.

And that initial misconception that Hanna mentioned -- that we gorge on food and wine, then retreat to our caves to pound out A.A. Gill-style reviews -- wasn't perhaps as pervasive as it was before the dawn of blogging and sites like Yelp, where online "reviewers" have been termed the "Mafia" by such publications as BusinessWeek for their extortion-like demands of free food and drink from hapless restaurants.

Instead, every food critic I know pays for their food at restaurants -- me included -- and is then reimbursed for their meal by their respective paper...but only if you're writing about the meal directly. And this may differ at other, larger publications, but many of us spend our own money and time researching and staying abreast of food trends or new restaurants.

And this is just one way in which food critics wholly and happily devote ourselves to our jobs.

"What no one but my close friends and my partner realize about the job is how thoroughly it controls my social life," says Jonathan Kauffman, food critic at the SF Weekly in San Francisco. "Since I go out for six to ten meals a week on the job (the larger number takes place during top 100 dishes/Best Of season), I do most of my socializing through my work."

Raskin agrees: "I enjoy my job immensely, but I'd hesitate to classify any of my responsibilities as 'easy.'"

Our jobs often mean working days and evenings, rarely seeing family and friends unless we can fit them into our dining schedule. Our jobs also mean cultivating contacts while trying to stay as under-the-radar as possible. Reporting can be difficult for a critic, because people are so often unexpectedly angry at you for a review or a blog post you wrote, meaning that they're unwilling to comment for news stories or even softer, more feature-oriented stories.

One of the most frustrating things about the job is the eternal misconception that advertisers have anything at all to do with our coverage.

In last week's not-so-stellar review of Tan Tan, one commenter accused us over and over of slamming the restaurant because it had apparently cancelled its advertising with us: "I understand Tan Tan recently cancelled advertising in the HP so HP turns around & writes a damning review as retaliation. I've seen this Houston Press tactic in the past. HP never criticizes the businesses paying for advertising space in the paper."

The truth of it is that there is a hard and fast line between editorial and advertising at our paper. And while I'm quite sure that our sales reps would prefer it differently some days, the fact remains that advertising doesn't have any input into our editorial product, and vice versa.

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This is how I deal with hate mail now.
And then there's the hate mail.

"It's hard to deal with hate mail, especially when it's sexist and anti-Semitic," says Raskin.

For me, it was difficult to come to terms with being hated solely for expressing your opinion, for doing your job. I made the mistake once, before taking over the position of food critic after Robb Walsh left, of Googling myself. I found an entire forum of complete strangers discussing how much they hated me, what an awful person I am and how they hoped I wouldn't get Walsh's job.

That's a hard thing for a standard, non-celebrity, civilian with a non-journalism background to take. On the other hand, you quickly come to realize that if you aren't irritating at least a few people, you're not doing your job correctly. Criticism, after all, is the product of honesty.

Last but not least -- although this is not true of other publications -- it's difficult to stay on top of all the news in your city's dining community and produce coherent, thoughtful, well-reported pieces in the modern atmosphere of a 24-hour news cycle. Many of us are expected to write 15 posts a week, a restaurant review, maintain a daily Twitter and Facebook presence and also -- of course -- find time to eat.

And then there are the same questions every single time we introduce ourselves to someone: "How did you get that job?" "Do you eat for free?" "Do restaurants know that you're coming in?" "How do you not weigh 300 pounds?"

Shockey, Raskin and Kauffman admitted they get the very same questions all the time. Their most frequently asked questions are on the next page.



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32 comments
Frequentdiner20
Frequentdiner20

Ummmm.....is there a review in here somewhere?  Too much credibility is given to food critics these days.  Nobody really cares.

Fear2stop
Fear2stop

How do you manage to take pictures without anybody from the place noticing and/or commenting?

I've always dreamed of being a food critic; sadly I don't have the money to eat everyday, much less eat out. So while i still have electricity I like to read your columns, kinda living vicariously. I for one think you're doing an outstanding job.

Jamie M
Jamie M

Mmm. I love licorice. Especially black. :)

William Breathes
William Breathes

great post Katharine. I find myself giving a lot of the same answers....

CRB
CRB

I always look forward to your reviews and blog entries!  Keep up the good work!  You're awesome! 

neighthundred
neighthundred

I think you have a pretty sweet job.  Don't complain!  No one reimburses me for my meals when I'm doing research.  

SirRon
SirRon

Hold up, people that make $90K/yr are rich people? Maybe I'm not doing it right.

Eric Henao
Eric Henao

"unicorn sparkles" - Awesome! (Makes me think of the Oatmeal comic)Keep up the good work. I think you're doing a great job and will continue to enjoy reading and taking your reviews/blogs/tweets into consideration for my dining experiences. Shit, if half of all my friends, who think I'm a foodie, knew I get 90% of my info from YOU, I wouldn't be nearly as popular or considered the "google of restaurants in houston".

Thank you!

big red
big red

Couldn't you take one of those small pocket sized recorders with you and talk about the details of your meal, and then play it back at your office?

TQro
TQro

Katharine, I remember when you took over for RW and the backlash.. even on this blog.  I was a 'silent' reader back then.  Like CMN touched upon, it feels like we get to know you all.   I think we could definitely sit and enjoy a meal together.

food.culture.experiences.enriching our lives

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

No one ever asks the question I want them to, which is "What do you love about your job?"

The answer(s): the ease with which you can relate to people of all types with food; the constant study of food as a what I think is the single greatest tool of cultural transmission; always getting to expand my own horizons, and -- hopefully -- my readers' horizons as well through new foods and new experiences; shining a light on places and people that work hard and deserve praise; and, of course, introducing readers to a food or a restaurant that they will hopefully love and cherish.

CMN
CMN

How much easier the food critic profession must have been before the internets. 

KS: Congrats on keeping your sense of humor amidst the nastiness the anonymity of the internet seems to bring out in people.  FWIW, I've been reading the HP for a few years now and, creepy as it may be, feel a bit like I know you.  I appreciate your funny, honest writing and have countless delicious dining experiences to thank you for.

Adrienne Byard
Adrienne Byard

Oh, really? 'Cause I'm sure you never talk about your job to anyone...

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Thanks! You know, the saving grace of food bloggers/online reviewers being so prevalent is that restaurants seem to have become accustomed to people taking photos of their food. No one gives me a second glance these days, which is really nice -- that, and I try to use a small camera and take the photos as quickly as possible.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I guess everything is arbitrary. $90,000 a year is a lot of money to me.  :)

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

That's what I'm talking about! My goal is to allow our readers to be as knowledgeable as possible about our incredible -- and incredibly vast -- dining scene. Go Eric.  :)

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I tried doing that, but it's so hard to go back through an hour or two of recorded conversation for the good stuff. When I do a data dump, it's of the most important -- to me, at least -- points of the meal.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I am nothing if not honest. (And overweight. At least right now.) Heh.

Jim Ayres
Jim Ayres

Katharine, my sentiments exactly.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

With the advent of blogs, I wonder WHAT the food critics did everyday before the internets.  I believe they wrote maybe ONE review a week, if that for their respective papers.  Now I wonder how people like KS find time to eat at all with the number of words they are cranking out each week.

SirRon
SirRon

Not so much arbitrary as relative. You don't have two toddlers :)

And can we get less of these posts. I want to continue thinking you have the World's best job. I read your work to escape my job. Don't take that from me.

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

That's not to say that person's (or a woman's) weight should be some secret to be ashamed of. I just know the haterz gon hate

Wolfie
Wolfie

Wondering the same thing especially about Ken Hoffman. What does he do all day long...

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

Ooops, I often confuse Ken and Robb Walsh.  Hey, YEA!  What DOES Ken do all day?

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

Err, his restaurant, blog, writing for a myriad of publications.  Probably not much.

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