Paid to Eat
By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (email@example.com) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.
WHEN THE HARTFORD COURANT posted an opening for a restaurant critic, it drew 105 applications--and that's in a city renowned for insurance, not incomparable dining.
Which only goes to show how desirable the beat has become. "It's a dream job," says Bill Daley, who's been writing "A Matter of Taste" for the paper's Northeast magazine since May 1997.
"You can always have a night away from the children. You get to entertain your friends" at the company's expense, says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's John Kessler, who has three youngsters. "Eating's a pleasure."
"If you're doing it as a full-time job, you have enormous freedom.... Usually you can work from home," adds Ruth Reichl, who gave up those liberties at the New York Times to become executive editor of Gourmet magazine in May. Best of all, "you have an amazing, built-in audience. There is an incredible hunger for information about restaurants."
Dining critics have become de rigueur for mid-size and larger newspapers, plus select print and online publications, as well as radio and TV operations. Roughly 39 percent of the Association of Food Journalists' 275 members do restaurant reviews, weighing in on some of the nation's 815,000 eateries and their nearly $1 billion-a-day industry.
Phyllis Richman, the Washington Post's restaurant critic since 1976, says she's seen marked improvement in her field over a quarter century. When she started, the editor of a major paper confided he'd chosen a reviewer by scanning the newsroom, settling on "a guy [who] was not married, so they wouldn't have to pay for a wife," Richman recalls.
Today, she says, "most papers of any recognized quality expect critics to operate as anonymously as possible, expect them to visit the restaurant more than once, and expect the reviewers to have some food background."
Richman has taken numerous cooking classes but doesn't think a toque--a tall white chef's hat--should be a prerequisite. "A chef often turns out to be too sympathetic to a restaurant, or unreasonably hard," she says.
Kessler, who prepared patˇs and sauces for a French restaurant in Denver, has a bias toward kitchen training. Reichl, who "worked in restaurants in just about every capacity," suggests that experience is a boon, along with travel.
"The one big change in my generation from the people like Craig Claiborne [the New York Times' food news editor for all but two years between 1957 and `88] is that in those days you needed to know French food, continental cooking, a little Italian," Reichl says. "Today, you need to know seriously about Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food. You need to have been to those countries...to know where [a dish] started from."
The San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer, food editor and critic for a ravenous restaurant culture, relies on objective standards--a minimum of three visits; separate ratings for food, service and ambiance--"then you overlay that with subjectivity," he says. "If a sauce is curdled, it's objective."
Bauer is president of the Association of Food Journalists, which recently established a critics' committee that Daley heads. It plans to conduct a survey of members, provide advice and a sounding board, and perhaps establish suggested procedures, such as a set number of restaurant visits and instructions on preserving anonymity.
All the critics interviewed agree on one thing: Their work demands a certain stealth.
To avoid unduly favorable treatment, they brandish credit cards with fake names, slip into eateries after friends have been seated, and master the art of disguise: donning hats, glasses and new hairstyles.
Bauer, whose photograph is rumored to be posted in restaurant kitchens, changes his hairstyle and plays around with eyeglasses. Daley, Kessler and Richman try to blend in.
Reichl admits she once hired a makeup artist to age her. Five hours later, her dark hair was silvered, her face wrinkled. "I looked like my mother!"
But at a New York restaurant that Reichl's mom had frequented, several chefs "looked at me and burst out laughing," the former critic says. "It was a great disguise, and it failed totally."
Not even gender is disclosed by the Times-Picayune's S.M. Hahn, who joined the New Orleans paper in December. "Our restaurant critic goes to great lengths to preserve anonymity," says Editor Jim Amoss. The critic's job is "a premier beat. Food and eating are just all-important to our readers."
But then, there are the downsides.
"I don't get to go to as many parties or see my friends as much as I might like--unless they want to go to dinner," says the Chicago Tribune's Phil Vettel, critic for nearly a decade.
"You have to eat what you have to eat, whether it tempts you" or repulses you, says Richman, whose books include the novel "The Butter Did It."
Steady onslaughts of fat and cholesterol send critics to the gym. Unsanitary kitchen practices occasionally hurry them to bed or the emergency room. "I've gotten salmonella [poisoning] a few times, and I'm sure it's from food I've reviewed," Kessler says. "It's nasty."
And then there's the wrath of indignant readers or, worse, irate restaurant personnel.
Daley reports that a handful of restaurant staffers once stormed the Courant's magazine office, "and they were so angry and violent the security staff had to come." Bauer says he's even had death threats.
But killing a restaurant isn't within a critic's power, the pros say. "The No. 1 reason people go to a restaurant is a word-of-mouth recommendation," says Karen Kraushaar, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.
Still, those one-star reviews aren't taken lightly. "This is such a deadly serious job," Daley says. "I've covered Mafia trials and I've never been threatened [like this]. Food reviewing is that passionate for some people.... You just wish they'd put that effort into the food in the first place."