I have just finished reading yet another very uninformative, unconstructive and subjective “review” of a meal prepared by 3 starred Michelin chef from a person who obviously calls themselves a “foodie” and I feel obliged to talk about it today. Throughout my career in food and beverage industry I have met some outstanding chefs, restaurateurs and food critics whose contribution to the culinary world is enormous and it really hurts reading highly unprofessional feedback about them.
Let’s have a realistic look at a few attributes of professional food critics and how they are different from the “foodie wannabes”:
1. Excellent writing and/or presentation skills.
Professional food critics: actually, a lot of them have a degree in journalism, English or broadcasting because once they are done eating they have to be able to describe the experience to their audience either through an article or a video/podcast. For that reason, excellent writing or public speaking skills are a must.
Foodie wannabe: they describe their culinary experience like a sixth grader – simple, short sentences, a lot of emotions, not too many adjectives, no descriptions of the taste, texture, cooking methods, presentation or the quality of service. “It was a bright sunny day”, “the interiors are to die for” or “ceviche was ok, but a bit too meaty” is what these self-proclaimed “experts” are communicating to their readers. It makes me (and the majority of culinary professionals around the world) sad and sometimes even angry.
And don’t take me wrong – restaurant professionals love when people give them feedback about their restaurant: the service, the food, the overall experience but we always wish this feedback was somehow constructive. If things went wrong or you really didn’t like the dish I would love to hear the details or why and how. Yes, I agree some people are not capable of describing their feelings or opinion and this is fine as long as these people don’t go online claiming that they know and even advertising themselves as experts on social media channels.
2. Strong food and beverage knowledge.
Professional food critics: they train their tasting palate for years (similar to muscles the palate needs regular training), always being the first to try any kind of dishes or flavors even if it is something new for them or even if they personally don’t like it. Food critics also have deep and thorough understanding of ingredients, cooking methods, history of various dishes, celebrity chefs’ and famous restaurateurs’ biographies and they can easily intertwine all this information with their thoughts while talking about their culinary experiences.
Furthermore, most of the time they would not only show the outstanding food knowledge, but they can also professionally talk about wine, craft beers, spirits, mixology, tea, coffee, chocolate, farming and many more topics that are associated with the restaurant industry. Even if the food writer doesn’t personally like a dish for whatever reason they will be able to deliver a quality, unbiased review to their audience.
Foodie wannabe: these guys base their reviews on personal opinions, likes and dislikes. Judging by the way these articles are written some of them have never heard of different cooking methods, never tried authentic dishes from the countries of origin, their taste palates are very primitive and they would not be able to recognize half of the ingredients on the plate, hence we end up with something along the lines of “the soups were equally good and light on stomach which was a good thing”.
I have recently come across an Instagram photo posted by a “foodie” that has a healthy few thousands of followers; the photo was taken at one of the fresh produce markets, that person was holding a chili plant in their hands. The caption read: “I found some cherry tomatoes and taking them home”! Well… I certainly hope those “tomatoes” didn’t burn too much, but on a serious note we are not talking about differentiating between 2 tomato varieties by looking at the plant, we are talking about two very different plants altogether! If you are a foodie, I expect you to know that basic difference.
What I also noticed is that these “critics” have never even stepped in a restaurant as an employee or didn’t even bother to at least perform some research on how restaurant operations work. They very rarely talk about service: the maximum you would hear is “our waiter/-ess was good”; they would not know what responsibilities of each of the team member are, what they supposed to do/know and what not.
Professional food critics: have you ever heard of a Michelin inspector calling the restaurant, introducing themselves as so and making a reservation? No? Me neither. And you know why? Michelin highly values anonymity of their employees. If everyone in a restaurant knows the food critic how they would make sure they get a standard service and food and not VIP treatment. They would very often go as far as making a booking under a fake name or even sometimes disguising themselves (wearing a mustache, beard, wigs etc). They would ask for the bill and pay it like any other regular customer.
Foodie wannabe: they would post pictures of themselves all over the social media and of course become highly recognizable. Once they collect a few thousands of followers on Instagram or Facebook and have decent traffic numbers on their blog they would expect the restaurants to invite them for FREE to try the food and write a review about it. Now, there is nothing wrong with being paid for reviews or getting things for free for advertising something to your audience, but it is a different kind of business – these people are influencers, not food critics. Let’s be honest – if you are in this business for freebies it is not really food you are interested in.
Professional food critics: I have briefly touched upon this aspect earlier – food writers have an amazing ability to present their audience with an objective review of their culinary experience. No matter whether they love or hate the chef, the owner, the restaurant, the food or the service. Most of them have been writing about restaurants for years, they have visited thousands of establishments and ate thousands of various dishes. When Michelin, New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller or Zagat publish their reviews or star ratings, they have a history of doing that for a really long time, they have the necessary reputation, authority and expertise. While they still might be disliked by restaurateurs or chefs they will present a solid case of why they are giving a particular review.
Foodie wannabe: very often it is someone who is just starting in this field (and hey – there is nothing wrong with starting something new as long as you do it right). They would have only a few posts on their blog and they would make such loud claims as “When the 3 Michelin star chef does not live to your expectations” or “my first Michelin star experience and I have to say I am far from being impressed” (said about a restaurant that has nothing to do with Michelin starred chefs at all). Excuse me, one more time, who are you?
Whenever I read the “About me” section on these blogs it very often sounds something like “I have always loved food and my friends call me a Foodie, or a Food Nazi, so I have decided to share my food journey with the rest of you”. Somehow it reminds me of a person who got a few compliments about their karaoke singing and next thing you know they become Youtube laughing stock at an X-Factor audition.
Look, to sum up all the above: no, I don’t think you should stay away from becoming a food critic. If this is the passion of your life, you truly love food and you really believe this is what you would like to do – please go ahead. But please learn as much as you can about the industry; aspire to the greatest chefs and critics, read their books and publications, learn to form an objective opinion and to describe it properly and please do not expect free meals if your goal is to write independent and unbiased reviews. Do your due diligence and strive to be just a little bit more awesome every single day.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your opinion and thank you very much for reading this article!