Everyone's a Critic

One time, Star Tribune restaurant critic Rick Nelson and I were on the same airplane returning from New York. Probably the best way to obtain such work would have been one well-placed bomb. Otherwise, I bet there are more self-supporting astronauts than restaurant critics in the U.S.

For me, the path went something like this: born a writing nerd (you know the type, editor of the kindergarten haiku collection, pleased to get pens at Halloween), blundered into a restaurant job at 13 in Cape Cod (dishwashing!), and then was adopted by a ragtag bunch of lesbian chefs who whisked me through a series of kitchen jobs for which I had no formal training, landing me eventually in a sous-chef job in a busy bistro, whereupon I took all my knowledge of braising and garnishing and went off to study art history at Carleton College. There, they thrashed all the writing-nerd they could out of me, replacing it with the art-history mantra: "What do you see?" Not "What do you think," not "What do you think we want you to think," but "What do you see in the picture with your own eyes?"

So then I spent some summers as a pastry chef in the mornings and waitress in the evenings, and eventually my training in "What do you see?" came out as "What do you taste, what do you smell, what do you hear, who do you see?" And then, because of the Internet Boom prequel of 1996, restaurant critics were needed for the Internet, and I started there, and soon got here. So, Caitlin, do exactly that. Skip no steps, vary not one whit. Then your life will be a delight in every aspect, I assure you.

 

Dear Dara,

Are you in cahoots with Chino Latino or what? I just read your review of the restaurant off the City Pages Web site, as I ate there last Saturday. My whole party and I basically concluded that we would not go back there nor recommend it, as the food basically sucked. You, on the other hand, apparently believe it to be the Second Coming of Christ.

--Internet-Connected Kurmudgeon

Dear ICK,

I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.

You, personally--and quite likely your friends and family--are the specific reason the world is in decline. Where to even start? First, let me dust off the solid-gold desk supplied to me by Chino Latino. Ahem. You have a bad meal, so I'm corrupt. Fine. You like to peruse the Web site, and think somehow that year-and-a-half-old reviews are indicative of the current state of the restaurant, because everyone knows that every single thing you find on the Web is updated hourly. Fine. You can't read particularly well, taking away from a review saying Chino is a great place to people-watch and drink and "the food ain't bad" that I thought it was the Second Coming of Christ. Fine.

But I will never, ever, ever forgive you for introducing the thought to my mind of what restaurant critics would say at the Second Coming: "I've got to say I found a lot of this corny and predictable, but wielding the PR juggernaut they had coming into this, you almosthad to expect a popular backlash." "I agree. I expected more. Loaves, fishes, great. But I feel like today, the American consumer expects more: Fresh pasta, foie gras... I mean, we've been to Europe, we've added the best of California, and I mean, get real. The whole pre-refrigeration-desert-nomad thing just isn't going to cut it anymore."

 

Dear Dara,

Having used your review of Arezzo as a teaching tool last week in my restaurant management class, I feel compelled to write to you again and thank you for unwittingly having become part of my curriculum. Lesson: Selected one student to act as Arezzo general manager, one as chef, three as cooks. Read review. Asked for reactions and an action plan. One guy was so into it that, as a cook, he threatened to resign. Chef (predictably) thought you were unfair.

--Steve Lerach

Art Institutes International Minnesota Culinary School

Dear Steve!

Again! This is simply too much to be believed. If culinary students start acting out the restaurant column, what next? Will theater students begin to eat the theater column? I'm warning you, down this path lie dogs with the heads of cats, vegetarian wolves, and codfish marinated in broom-handles. I will not be held responsible!

And by God, you know what, the student playing Chef was right. Sometimes I could literally just take my head in my hands and weep with how unfair it all is. Do you have any idea how much easier it is to sit back and criticize than it is to get out and do? Holy cats, man, it's cush! Do you know how much mozzarella I hand-pull? None! Do you know how many tables of crabby, to-the-manner-born, rabies-infested idiots I successfully massage through a three-hour meal? None! Do you have any idea how many words I've written telling people how to do these things--and all sorts of other things I can't do--better, faster, and more correctly? Student playing Chef, Steve, everybody, it alarms me to say (I'm not even joking): I'm closing in on a good half-million words of pure unadulterated criticism.

May God have mercy on my soul.

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