So You Think You Want to Be a Restaurant Critic?
On the surface, eating at restaurants for a living seems like a dream job right up there with “rock star” and “being Ryan Gosling.” These lucky men and women get paid to eat and share their opinions with the world using fancy words such as “ambrosial” and “piquant.” It sounds downright glamorous and fulfilling. Of course, there can be a downside to anything. Just ask Pete Wells.
The brouhaha started after Pete gave LocoL not just a poor review, but an offensive, cellar-dwelling rating that gobsmacked everyone in the culinary world Zero stars. To be clear, we are talking about a rating completely void of a single star. One can argue that Pete was just doing his job. He has to call ‘em like he sees ‘em. On the other hand, LocoL isn’t your typical burger and fries joint. Founded by innovative chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi, the restaurant’s mission is to bring healthier, inexpensive versions of fast-food fare to inner-city neighborhoods. Daniel and Roy are doing noble work that is both ideological and heartfelt. That doesn’t mean they get a free pass on food quality. The proof is in the pudding – or the chicken nuggets in this case. There does seem to be some agreement among customers and critics that LocoL’s offerings could use improvement. And that’s OK. The chain is a work in progress. No one argues with that. The debate boils down to whether or not Pete should have taken off his critic’s hat for a moment and put more emphasis on the revolution these restaurateurs are trying to spearhead. As I watched the kerfuffle unfold online, I had conflicting emotions about my position. I took a walk to clear my head and meditate on the situation. As I strolled through my Chicago neighborhood on a bitterly cold afternoon, the frigid air helped give me clarity. I started thinking about a special moment in one of my favorite movies, “The Lion King.” In the scene, Mufasa says to Simba, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” Personally, I translate Mufasa’s lesson into everyday life with the philosophy that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it.
There was a time when I loved reading biting, caustic, harsh restaurant reviews. I got a sense of schadenfreude when acerbic reviewers slammed other chefs. In hindsight, that reaction was a manifestation of my inferiority complex back before I learned about compassion and gratitude. These days, I have no tolerance for scathing reviews. In a similar vein, I don’t care for culinary shows with a panel of unkind chefs. I am probably in the minority. However, I refuse to denigrate a cook or a chef for trying his or her hardest. It’s always best to pull someone up rather than put them down
Don’t get me wrong; the hospitality industry has some bonafide rascals who deserve a heaping dose of reality. However, that should happen behind closed doors and not in front of a production crew or staff members. I don’t take pleasure in undermining someone’s confidence or destroying a chef’s small business. A thoughtful, well-written review can provide guidance and insight for those who part with their hard-earned cash at the front of the house as well as those who run the show in the back. With that in mind, I want to thank some of the critics I admire. The list includes Pete Wells, who inspired this post, as well as Sam Sifton, William Grimes, Frank Bruni, Jonathan Gold, Ruth Reichl, Jay Rayner, and of course the late great A.A Gill for inspiring and challenging me to be a better writer. I truly have the utmost respect for the job they do. I want to close with an open letter to the founders of LocoL: Dear Mr. Choi and Mr. Peterson, I haven't had the opportunity to dine at LocoL, but I hope to visit soon. I commend you for what you are doing. Giving folks more nutritious options at a competitive price is worthy of respect and kindness. I am confident Pete’s review will only make you stronger. Please know that people like me around the country sincerely admire your groundbreaking attempt to revolutionize the fast-food industry. It takes courage and backbone to make a change. I am rooting for your brand and will do whatever I can to support you and your efforts. With compassion and joy, Jon P.S. for the rest of you: PIQUANT adjective 1) engagingly provocative; also: having a lively arch charm 2) agreeably stimulating to the palate; especially: spicy