Chefs Rate America's Food Critics at the Daily Meal; Two Houston Writers Get Ranked

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Chefs are not fans of Cook's prose stylings, according to The Daily Meal.
Photo courtesy of Eater Houston
They say that turnabout is fair play, and that's just what The Daily Meal did this week when it polled a group of chefs across the U.S. to see how those chefs rated some of the nation's most preeminent food critics.

Those 20 food critics were chosen by Arthur Bovino, executive editor of The Daily Meal, and editorial director Colman Andrews, who sat down and -- according to Bovino -- "developed a 'wish list' of chefs and restaurateurs who are among the most well-known and revered in the industry." Each of the 20 critics was rated by chefs on four metrics: culinary knowledge, prose style, integrity and likeability (the latter of which is arguably the least important measure of how good a food critic is at his or her job).

Two of Houston's own made the "wish list": Alison Cook -- longtime food critic at the Houston Chronicle -- and Robb Walsh, who was the former food critic here at the Houston Press and has lately been writing independently at RobbWalsh.com.

And while Walsh escaped relatively unscathed in the rankings, Cook was near the bottom of the pile: She came in at No. 18 out of 20, beating out the Orange County Register's Brad A. Johnson -- whose own website humbly suggests that he is the "best food critic in America and worldwide" -- and Tim Carman, food critic for The Washington Post and former managing editor here at the Houston Press.

At the very top of the list were Pete Wells of the New York Times at No. 3, Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue at No. 2 and Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times at No. 1.

But exactly what methodology is behind these rankings? And which chefs are responsible for stating of Cook that she "is a critic with limited knowledge in a limited market and at a fading newspaper"?

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Robb Walsh, the new food editor at Houstonian Magazine, is a critic once again.
Bovino was mum on the topic of which chefs said what when I contacted him yesterday afternoon, but was willing to shed some light on how these rankings were compiled.

"Between two and three dozen chefs and restaurateurs agreed to participate anonymously," Bovino stated, "but were quite vociferous with their critiques. As to exactly who they are and where they come from, the answer is across the country."

It doesn't strike me as quite fair that the chefs were allowed to voice their opinions anonymously when professional food critics aren't afforded the same luxury -- this isn't Yelp, after all -- but Bovino stands behind The Daily Meal's brigade of chef critics.

Those chefs ranked Walsh in 12th place overall for both culinary knowledge and integrity, but 15th and 16th place for likeability and prose style respectively. Of his writing, one chef noted that Walsh is "grumpy and smart, a very good combination!" while another praised Walsh as a "good, simple writer."

Cook was ranked dead last for her prose stylings, but slightly higher in other metrics: 18th place in culinary knowledge and integrity, and 17th place in likeability. Whether the low ranking comes as a surprise depends on who you ask: Cook has die-hard fans, but she also has her detractors.

After Cook recently took umbrage with the way that Eater was linking to her weekly posts on 29-95 (the Chronicle's dining, arts and entertainment supplement), Eater Houston editor Eric Sandler called her out on Twitter, saying: "One would think the highly paid food critic with the massive expense account wouldn't be so petty, but that's not our @alisoncook."

What was more surprising than Cook's low ranking, however, was the fact that the group of polled chefs roundly derided Houston when discussing both Cook and Walsh -- something sure to pique what's already been noted as our city's "inherent insecurity."

"It's not her fault if Houston is a mishmash and she's assigned to write about mediocrity," said one chef. Another, when critiquing Walsh, simply noted: "The food scenes in Houston, and in fact Texas are still quite far behind overall."

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Honestly; how important is likeability when it comes to food critics?
Cook took to Twitter to defend her ranking, in a way, saying (quite accurately): "If you give out bad reviews, you should be prepared to take them, too. Few critics do it to be liked."

"I am at the bottom of the critic barrel," she elaborated, "in good company with Carman and Knowlton."

Cook also noted that Walsh hasn't been a food critic since retiring from the Press in 2010, stating that The Daily Meal "thinks Robb is still a critic," something which Bovino was quick to acknowledge.

"We most definitely knew that Robb is no longer the critic for the Houston Press," Bovino said, "but unlike former critics like Sam Sifton or Frank Bruni, Robb does still write about food pretty frequently."

Bovino explained further: "Our stance was that several of the nation's most prominent food writers, while not regular critics per se, hold the same power to make or break restaurants by what and how they write."

This turns out to be quite a prescient statement, whether Bovino knows it or not. Because -- sorry, Alison -- Walsh is still a critic. He was recently hired as the food editor of the soon-to-launch Houstonian Magazine, a metropolitan monthly which will print its first issue this spring.



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14 comments
mgovshteyn
mgovshteyn

  1. Definition of Kangaroo Court: An unofficial court held by a group of people in order to try someone regarded, esp. without good evidence, as guilty of a crime or misdemeanor.
  2. Definition of Opportunism is the conscious policy and practice of taking selfish advantage of circumstances – with little regard for principles, or with what the consequences are for others.Opportunist actions are expedient actions guided primarily by self-interested motives. The term can be applied to individual humans and living organisms, groups, organizations, styles, behaviors, and trends.
  3. You know what's more notable than the irrelevant, trashy Eater gossip? Mariani and Ozersky scored higher on the integrity scale than Cook. The former is a notorious freeloader and the latter admitted to pressuring chefs he covers to cater his wedding at no charge. 

Jack_Around
Jack_Around

I find these ratings shallow, and pedantic.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

Another thing I don't like about the piece is how much specificity it lacks. Walsh and cook demonstrate "limited food knowledge" in which piece? And if you read either of these two, you know how *not* limited the Houston food market is.

Bitspitter
Bitspitter

Other than the obvious schadenfreude factor for those who delight in 'getting back at' critics, I don't really see much value in The Daily Meal's piece.

I'm disappointed, but not surprised, that Katherine used this post more as an opportunity to pile on Ms. Cook than to emphasize that the chefs don't seem to be very aware of Houston's current food scene, which brings the rest of their opinions into question.

Both Alison Cook and Robb Walsh are near the bottom of the list of critics the chefs would "like to share a meal with." (Great writing there, Bovino.) I know them both to be charming, animated and informative dining companions, and I'd be happy to share a meal with either of them any time—at a fancy restaurant, or a BBQ, crepe or taco stand.

It's cute if you like snark, but worthless otherwise, and I'd have preferred that Katharine spend more of the post pointing out the flaws than delighting in Alison's low ranking.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

Inherent insecurity, eh?  I'm sorry if folks have a problem with us speaking up when someone makes a comment that is flat out wrong.  It's not my problem if someone gets butthurt when we tell them they are an ignorant buffoon.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

The trouble with anonymous quotes is, how do I know these are actually chefs and not just a Jayson Blair writer making up something that sounds good? Anonymous quotes are barely acceptable for reporting on high level government negotiations, so I don't see why they should be allowed for food writing. It's not journalism.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Who ares what people think about Houston? The moment they start caring, prices for everything will go up and we will be inundated with trustafarians and yuppies demanding $7 tacos and boysenberry foam reductions over a platter of steamed ham.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

"The food scenes in Houston, and in fact Texas are still quite far behind overall."  Here's the thing, I have likely eaten in your city, Chef, but it is unlikely that you have ever eaten here in Houston. I am always happy to return to the "food scene" here.  What a gadfly.

carriebwc
carriebwc

I am also not much of a fan of Cook's prose, sorry to say.  I find her writing overwrought.

Matthew
Matthew

the survey doesn't seem to have much credibility once it's revealed that the chefs don't really know what they're talking about regarding houston.

Fluerie
Fluerie

@mgovshteyn Mishkayevitz, why avail yourself of this opportunity to spread more gossip about other critics. It's unseemly, as Ms. Cook might quip.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editortopcommenter

@FattyFatBastard What did Karl Popper say? "True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it." I feel like that applies to peoples' view of Houston quite often...

Fluerie
Fluerie

@mgovshteyn @Fluerie 

Pecksniff   peck·sniff , noun

a person of Pecksniffian attitudes or behavior: a virtuousness that only a pecksniff could aspire to.

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