What Good Is a Restaurant Critic Anyway?

Categories: Kauffman
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A few months back, the New Yorker ran a cartoon with one overstuffed type pointing out another overstuffed type to a fellow guest at a party. "One of our greatest minds in restaurant criticism," read the caption, the humor being the absurdity that restaurant criticism would take deep thought. I've been mulling over that cartoon since then, alternately agreeing with the joke and resenting the way it dismisses everything I've been doing for the past 10 years.

Today on the Atlantic's food blog, Clay Risen attends a tasting of a $40,000, 50-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich. Though he's transported by the flavors in the few $100-sips he's poured, he walks out wondering what the point of writing about food and drink is:

The role of the art critic―dance, literature, painting, film and so on―is hardly a straight-forward one, but for now let's say that there are generally two parts. On the one hand, the critic provides a catalyst for thinking about a work of art, and art in general; on the other, the critic tells his audience if it's worth their time and money. The worst critics merely do the latter, the best do both.

You might say the same about the food and drink critic, but let's face it: readers aren't looking for an intellectual discussion of a restaurant's spaghetti alle vongole―they just want to know if it's worth the extra clams.
Of course, I have the same reaction as I did to the cartoon: Half of me agrees, and half of me thinks ― and defensively, I'm willing to admit ― Risen's a pompous ass.

The Atlantic's great food editor, Corby Kummer, followed up Risen's post with a response defending restaurant critics, talking about their professionalism and arguing something a little larger:

I also believe that a restaurant critic has an enormous field to write about, including the farmers, cooks, and food producers around it, the cultural life of the city, food fashions, the role of small businesspeople versus large corporations ... the list is long.
I agree, and I think he could have taken that argument farther:

1) If you look at the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Jonathan Gold, and the selection of a poetic, lit-quoting writer like Sam Sifton as New York Times food critic, they're great because their reviews are less and less about spaghetti good, clams bad, and more about the factors Corby Kummer describes above. These critics' influence is thriving because of their focus, while Yelp, for better and worse, takes over the yum-yuck function of restaurant criticism. The critics I read ― and the critic I keep trying to be ― write their reviews to be lyrical, aesthetic experiences in themselves. But I suppose, to Risen, that's just piping elaborate icing rosettes over a cardboard box.

2) Risen is a dupe if he thinks the only story that $40K whisky tells is the fruit and woodsy notes in its bouquet. Why isn't he writing about the production and marketing of this whisky, of what it says about our culture to make and have such a rarified product? Why isn't he writing about the other people in the room tasting this with him, or the language with which the event organizers push this product? There's an awful lot of story in gastronomic experiences that we food writers, to our detriment, tend to ignore.

3) Here's where I agree with Risen and the New Yorker, where, even as I write all these four-syllable words, I'm thinking, "Good God, Kauffman, you spend your days chasing down dumplings and tacos, not analyzing foreign policy or Tolstoy." If you look at this week's review, for example, it's about two brewpubs. I get two paragraphs intro to introduce my thoughts on the enduring populism of beer, and then the rest of the piece evaluates the owners' business models, describes the decor, and bitches about the pot pie. Concrete stuff.

A movie critic, by comparison, will spend 40 percent of her review summarizing the plot and 10 to 15 percent evaluating the performances, and then she devotes a larger percentage of her column to writing about the ideas that the filmmaker consciously or unconsciously embeds into the movie. (You do believe that movie criticism has intellectual value, Mr. Risen, don't you? Just checking.) As much as I blather on about the symbolism in the food and the fascinating tales a dish tells about the changing cultural makeup of America, restaurant criticism is, still and in large part, a consumer service.

4) But the thing that tugs at me, over and over again, is the way Risen and the New Yorker privilege aesthetic experiences designed to make us think over aesthetic experiences that are purely sensual.

The heart of Risen's argument is that cooking is not intellectual: Ninety-nine percent of cooks don't cook to express their commentary on society, and the one percent who do end up cooking for the elite. Instead, good cooks want to make food that makes your eyes roll up in your head, that makes you freeze, fork poised to mouth, stripped of thought or speech or any sense of what's happening two inches away from you. The only response most of us know how to express that feeling is "Holy shit!" Sex is like that. Ecstatic club music is like that. Flopping down on the ground on a sunny day, your ears filled with birdsong and your arms tingling in a thousand places where the grass brushes against them, is like that. These experiences may not affect the contemporary discourse around wanketywankwank, but they sustain us, emotionally and physically, in ways Pynchon doesn't.

So my end goal, as a restaurant critic ― even as I'm talking about how the rice is undersalted and the wine is served too warm ― is to get people to go out and have their own aesthetic, sensual experiences (I just want them to have great ones, not middling or bad meals). I do think more and more diners, unlike Mr. Risen, are thinking hard and long about the dining experience. Writing about food may not make me Susan Sontag, but to eat is one the great pleasures of my life, and to share it with other people, the reason I ― like all the other food and wine critics I know ― put thought and energy into my job.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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