The most enduring question I receive about my line of work is: "Do they know you're coming?" And by that I guess people wonder if a restaurant gets fair warning that they are going to be evaluated, and of course the answer to the question is an emphatic "no."
Do they know that you're coming? The general public? With your hard-earned money and your buying power — whether you'll choose to return again and again, or alternatively to tell all your friends that it sucked and to never go there? Yes. Restaurants should know this if they plan on keeping their doors open for long.
But that hasn't kept many food critics from putting up a veil of anonymity, in hopes of ensuring a similar experience to that of the general public so that they can go forth and ethically report. But that conceit might be a bit anachronistic. At least Rick Nelson thinks so, and so do I.
Nelson rightly states in his Sunday announcement that in a relatively small, laid-back town like the Twin Cities, over time it becomes nearly impossible to maintain anonymity, even though attempting to do so has been the accepted standard in the business.
He goes on to say, and this is an important point, that there is very little a restaurant can truly do to change the quality of experience in the time it takes for one restaurant critic to complete one — or even several — meals. Either you have a good product, or you don't, and that will manifest itself no matter who is dining.
Toss in social media, and unless you figure out a way to opt out completely — not an option for writers — very few Americans enjoy anything resembling true anonymity anymore.
There isn't such a thick dividing line between culinary critics and industry people these days. Many people who have worked, or still work, in the industry write about food (yours truly included), making it impractical to be a faceless phantom ghosting around and scribbling missives in the shadows.
I've spent 15 years in various aspects of the culinary world — as a line cook, cheese monger, caterer, server, and chef all while simultaneously enjoying a second career as a freelance food writer. Without one career I never would have had the other, and I believe deeply that my real-world background gives me an insight and edge that I would never have otherwise.
Naturally, I have developed a great many friends and acquaintances throughout these dual careers, many of them at the helm of kitchens that I must report on. Something else I have developed: an experienced palate, a deep appreciation for technique (and lack thereof), an obnoxious bead on the inner workings of restaurants — their rhythms, what makes them tick, what can go wrong and why, and signs and signals when they're operating properly.
When it comes time for me to criticize a former colleague or even a friend — and those days can and do come — the endgame is thus: to illustrate what is broken and can be potentially fixed and to use my own hard-won skill set for the good of the reader and the potential eater, which is ultimately for the good of the chef and the restaurateur, too.
The work of the critic, if done ethically, is not to wield a scepter of judgement for fun or for entertainment (though we do hope to entertain, some of the time). Food industry people are fiendishly fond of this quote by Anton Ego, a character depicting a creepily daunting restaurant critic in the brilliant 2007 animated Pixar film, Ratatouille:
"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."
And it is easy to sit in judgement over something, or someone who you choose not to know. The very business of prejudice, meanness, and hatred is based on ignorance.
So I say, the more familiar we are with our subject, and the more risks we ourselves take, the better the sum total for everyone.
And hey, Rick, you've got a really nice face.
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