So You Wanna be a Food Critic, Huh? Part 1: The Big Night
Let’s begin with an easy question: A triangular-shaped sheath of pink-tinted plexiglas arrives in the mail. It is an invitation bearing engraved party details that trumpet an extravagant opening night party honoring the arrival of the latest, greatest restaurant: Cocktail reception at 7:30 p.m. (spirits provided by the latest, greatest vodka). Passed hors d’oeurves. Sit-down dinner and dessert prepared by the latest, greatest chef and pastry chef, each course paired with the latest, greatest wines. Not only will you, Mr. or Ms. Restaurant Reviewer, be festively feted for free (along with your mate), but you’ll get to schmooze with movers and shakers from the local restaurant world (a little networking, perhaps?). Plus as a critic you’ll be privy to a pre-review sampling of the chefs’ menu, and can glean more insight still from a press kit packed with praise. If you’re lucky the latter will come in a small gift bag also containing a T-shirt or cap with the dining establishment’s name emblazoned upon it.
So you go, right?
No. You do not go. Jesus, I can’t believe you got that one wrong.
The reason you must not attend such events is because human nature dictates a feeling of obligation, even if minimally and/or subliminally, toward a generous, gift-bearing host (the more you are wined and dined, the less inclined you’ll be to whine). Schmoozing with restaurant publicists, too, forges a connection that could make it more uncomfortable to criticize their clients. Some of them have a lot of clients.
Other reasons to decline the invite: Any insights your dining experience may provide are destined to be distorted, as the restaurant will be pulling out all stops to insure meticulously finessed food and pampering service. A regular patron on, say, a hectic Friday night, will probably not receive the same level of either. Worse still is that the chefs, hosts, managers, and wait staff will get a good look at you, which will hamper anonymity when you return to review. Some will remember your face even after they’ve moved to other restaurants to be covered in the future. (I’ll discuss the importance of anonymity in an upcoming blog.)
Finally, it is best to avoid propagandistic press kits as much as possible. There is undeniably useful information contained within, but upon receiving stapled press releases in the mail I peel the front pages off and trash them, saving the menu portion, which is usually tacked on in the back. I do so because if I get up from an unbearably uncomfortable wooden chair at meal's end feeling as though my back has been trampled on by sumo wrestlers, I don’t want to feel burdened, or have my criticism softened, by the knowledge that they were handcrafted by handicapped children in Somalia. Press releases can be insidious in this way.
If you’ve got any questions regarding the inner workings of reviewing restaurants, just send ‘em on in. --Lee Klein