May 17, 2006

Gourmand or Glutton for Punishment?

The life and times of a food critic.

Catherine Nash

My dining companion has just disassembled her carne asada taco to analyze the miniature tortilla that serves as its foundation. She tears a piece off, squints at it, then sniffs it before taking a small nibble. I stare, fascinated. What is she looking for? Is this sort of culinary sleuthing an everyday occurrence? What will the neighbors think?

Mamacita Taco
Catherine Nash (all photos)
A carnitas taco at Mamacita with handmade tortillas, grilled corn, and salsa verde.
"The edge of the tortilla is crisp, so tearing it lets you see the middle," explains my companion, Susan Dyer Reynolds. "I taste [the taco] all at once because that's the way everybody else experiences it. But I also pull it apart to taste the caramelized onion, the carne asada. Then I smell it to see what it's like." What it is like, we both decide, is delicious.

Susan is a professional restaurant critic. We are discussing the ups and downs of reviewing food for a living over dinner at Mamacita, a hip new restaurant in the Marina. Though the San Francisco neighborhood is known less for its food than for the drunken flotsam and stiletto-heeled jetsam that litter its nighttime streets, it is part of Susan's territory and she's obliged to hit the new spots. Some, like Mamacita, are oases of gustatory delight, but others are nothing more than a desiccated mirage. "People who love to eat out think [food critics] get to go to all the restaurants that they want to try," she sighs. Uh-uh. Susan's eating habits are dictated by business, not by fancy.

I first met Susan a year ago. Like a lot of people in the Land of the Frites and the Home of the Braise, I had dreamed of reviewing restaurants for a living. In these dreams, I sailed into restaurants without reserving a table two months ahead, regularly got my foie gras-filled ass kissed by chefs named Thomas and Alice and Jean-Georges, and flew first class to Tuscany for tours of the countryside's best trattorias, all on someone else's dime.

In hot pursuit of my goal, I started a food blog, Food Musings. I soon found myself creating mnemonic devices at dinner for phrases like "Hawaiian pink sea salt" and making frequent bathroom visits to take surreptitious notes. I worried that I was giving myself away and wondered what the pros did. The night I forgot my notebook in the car and resorted to tearing corners off the paper tablecloth, I realized I needed expert advice.

That's where Susan came in. She is the food critic, editor-in-chief and, as of the May issue, publisher of a monthly newspaper called Northside San Francisco. I approached her about writing food reviews, and instead landed a job as a fashion columnist, but my restaurant lust refused to die. Over the last year, I've picked her brain obsessively in an attempt to try to glean the tricks of the trade. What I got was a peek at the soft, white underbelly of the business.

Basic Training

Soon after we first met, Susan took me to Yoshida-Ya, a sushi joint near her office. As we talked about a feature she'd assigned me, she pushed a plate of hamachi kama my way. Eager to prove my food knowledge, I assured her that I loved yellowtail cheeks, and confidently dunked the delicate fish in the ponzu sauce. That's when she scolded me.

"Always try it without the sauce first," she explained. "That way you can taste the meat." Wiping a dribble of sauce from my chin, I felt like a Russian peasant at the tsar's dinner table. In that moment it dawned on me that reviewing requires more than a love of good food or the ability to regurgitate phrases like toothsome fettuccine in a sauce flecked with gravlax and caper berries.

As I would come to learn, it also requires strategic eating, attention to detail, and a vast database of food knowledge. Susan can converse with equal ease about the difference between Ipswich and geoduck clams, the characteristics of southern Indian food, and where the freshest unagi within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco can be found.

Despite growing up in a part of the Bay Area she jokingly refers to as "the Valley of the Olive Garden," Susan was raised in a family so driven by food it is nearly a caricature: the Sicilian grandfather who took her clamming; the mother whom Susan calls "Alice Waters before Alice Waters," a reference to her penchant for buying produce from roadside farmer's stands and visiting the butcher, the baker and the burrata maker daily; a father who loaded up the family car every summer and dragged her on cross-country culinary odysseys in search of the perfect lobster roll or Southern-style cheesy grits.

After graduating from San Jose State with a degree in journalism, Susan worked as a copy editor before landing a job at LookSmart during the halcyon days of the dot-com era. Her homegrown food knowledge quickly got her promoted to lifestyle editor, and before the bubble burst, Susan left for what she calls her roots: print journalism. As the editor first for the Marina Times and then Northside San Francisco, Susan introduced a restaurant review for no other reason than that it interested her.

Northside San Francisco may be a free monthly paper, but because it is distributed in well-heeled neighborhoods like Pacific Heights, the city's most affluent citizens are readers. Susan has nabbed interviews with luminaries like megawatt superstar chef Thomas Keller, Gary Danko (a notable media recluse) and Food Network hottie Dave Lieberman.

Though Susan is among an elite handful of full-time restaurant critics in the number two food city in the country, she's no snob, and she's not above admitting she digs the fried zucchini at T.G.I. Friday's. "I would like to think that I'm the people's food critic," Susan says. "My problem with snobby food critics and foodie people is that they only go to a certain kind of restaurant, or they go to the same places over and over. The words McDonald's or Black Angus would never cross their lips. They're only going to slum it if it's cool," she continues. McDonald's I can understand—I love a Quarter Pounder as much as the next girl—but Black Angus Steakhouse?

"They have a damn good lobster tail," she says, unapologetically. "I've had worse in fancier restaurants."

Eating Right

Susan is unflinchingly honest, a trait that comes in handy as she talks about the difficult parts of her job. Yes, there are times when the hardest thing she has to do is choose a champagne to wash down her caviar. There are also times when she wrestles with ethical decisions, like whether or not to eat foie gras and veal, or what to do if a restaurant wants her help firing a server she criticized in a review.

A few years back, Susan wrote an unflattering review of a well-known spot popular for its pan-Asian menu. In it she called the food overpriced and mentioned the rude service she got. She had no qualms about printing the review, but when the manager asked Susan to name the server so he could fire her, she refused. "As bitchy as she was, I didn't think it was my place to tell him that."

In general, Susan steers clear of negative reviews. Like many editors, she thinks her readers would rather know where to go and what to eat, not what to avoid. The policy isn't written in stone, but it can lead to a last-minute scramble come deadline if a place she has slated for a review turns out to be a disappointment. She is also mindful of the devastating effect a negative review can have, especially on a small, mom-and-pop operation. In the past, she's elected not to pen a critique of a place rather than publish something universally damning. "There's really no reason to take a little restaurant and crush them, because eventually if their food sucks, they'll close."

The San Francisco Chronicle has a similar policy regarding neighborhood restaurants, but when it comes to bigger players, it's another story. "Any restaurant with a well-known chef, a big-budget interior, public relations support and high-profile name is fair game," writes Michael Bauer, the Chronicle's primary critic, on his blog. With the Chronicle throwing tomatoes at flashy places that don't live up to the hoopla, neighborhood publications like Northside San Francisco can trumpet hidden gems rather than toss more heirloom produce on the pile.

Manresa Starter
A starter at Manresa restaurant: French radishes with organic butter and sel gris
So what do chefs think of critics? Getting a chef in Susan's territory to go on record about her is tricky. Though they might happily agree to chat, I wasn't convinced they could be objective, knowing that she might be reviewing them next month. So I went as far afield as I could, contacting David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, a wealthy community 50 miles from San Francisco. Manresa was one of the food world's best-kept secrets until Restaurant Magazine named them to their World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2005. Susan followed up with a profile of the man behind the stove, and Kinch speaks highly of her curiosity and professionalism during their daylong collaboration.

In Kinch's opinion, what distinguishes a good critic from an average critic (or the average Joe) is the ability to divorce personal taste from a critique. "Objectivity and subjectivity are two very different things and I think subjective opinions have no place in a critical review," he tells me over email. "Most people cannot separate the two. It is always great to have constructive criticism but one must identify comments based on their objectivity. Some critics have it, others don't."

Though Susan feels it is part of her job to point out dishes that she doesn't like, she tries to keep it constructive. "You're never going to hear something from me like ‘It tasted like an ashtray.' To me that's not food reviewing, that's bitchy." Snarky reviews can also, she believes, mask ho-hum writing talent. "The most important part of being a food critic is the writing. Even if you have the best palate in the world and know more about food than Gary Danko and have been to culinary school, if you can't express on paper what that dish tasted like, you aren't doing your job." In other words, even if you can detect the onion salt in the tuna salad, you still need some serious writing chops.

Occupational Hazards

Eating for a living is not always enjoyable. It can mean choking down fried chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a feat Susan once performed for an issue devoted to the Bay Area's best fried birds. When you or I go out to dinner, we can relax, order whatever looks good and put away an entire bottle of Syrah if we're so inclined. Susan, on the other hand, has to ask detailed questions, take copious mental notes, and limit the amount she drinks. "The more you drink," she explains, "the less you taste."

In a typical month, Susan eats as many as 36 restaurant meals, splitting her time between press tastings, anonymous reviews, and research for issues like "Best Mexican." When she's not working, she shuns meat and often pours herself a bowl of cereal for dinner. She names tofu, not truffles or chocolate, as her desert island food. Still, Susan's restraint is no match for the excesses of the job, and weight gain is an occupational hazard.

Food Journalism vs. Food Blogging

What defines good food writing was recently the subject of hot debate in the food blogosphere. In March, Food & Wine columnist Pete Wells devised a list of must-read blogs, calling many of the rest "cheese-sandwich blogs," a derisive term alluding to their navel-gazing tendencies. In my own post on the subject, I proudly admitted that one of the reasons I read blogs is for that very same navel-gazing. What makes many blogs addictive—and distinguishes them from journalistic endeavors—is that laying bare of the soul. When you feel like you know someone, and that someone can make you laugh about their grilled cheese sandwich capers, it can be as cathartic as stomping on the failed experiment on your own kitchen floor. But that was not Wells's perception, and his article was perceived by many as a backhanded compliment. Tempers flared and venom followed, with many accusing print publications of feeling threatened.

Susan, though, isn't losing sleep over the increased competition. "I know a lot of bloggers think we're afraid of them, but I can tell you it is unequivocally not true," she says. As a former dot-commer who once thought she'd put Old Media out of business, she views the print-vs.-online debate through humbled eyes. "I think that print has major staying power, and I say the more the merrier."

She also believes that bloggers are good for the restaurant business. Susan lauds them for some things ("Bloggers are way ahead of the trend on organics and sustainable farming, way ahead") but reproaches them for others ("They all go to the same restaurants and they all talk about the same restaurants and I don't think there's enough variety out there"). Susan reads the occasional blog and has tapped several Bay Area bloggers to write for her, including the Burrito Eater, who contributed a piece for the "Best Mexican" issue. (He was also the subject of a recent Gelf profile.)

"I gained 20 pounds the first two years. I never had a weight problem my entire life," she sighs. To combat the creeping pounds, Susan works with a personal trainer 4-5 times a week, and runs, lifts weights or practices Muay Thai kickboxing. Her workouts are intense but, she says, a part of the job.

The main drawback to her work is the lack of choice. A food critic must eat whatever is the specialty of the house, whether she likes it or not, and be able to judge if it's well-made even as she's inwardly turning up her nose. On Susan's short list of dislikes are buffalo, veal, and nutmeg. "If a new restaurant opens and it's a nutmeg restaurant, I have to go and have an open mind, and I may have to go back three times," she explains. (Three times is the minimum number of visits she'll make before writing a full-blown review.)

She also has to try as many of the dishes in the chef's repertoire as she humanly can. That means limiting how much she eats of each serving, even if she'd like to devour the entire plate of artisanal tofu. "I have to be as fair to the tenth dish as I do to the first," she says.

Another solution is to take people to dinner with her. "The shovels," as she calls her male friends, often accompany her so they can share a variety of dishes without raising suspicions. "The dead giveaway for a food critic is you tell them you're stuffed and then order dessert," she jokes.

Remaining anonymous is a constant challenge. A lot of chefs know Susan on sight from tastings or industry events. At last year's Association of Food Journalists conference, for instance, top chefs like Ron Siegel of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton served nibbles to food writers from around the country. The writers, including Susan and the Chronicle's Michael Bauer, wore nametags.

Though the industry plays it down, the truth is that many chefs and critics know one another. On Bauer's blog, he acknowledges that "when you've been in a city as long as I have, it's hard to keep from being outed. However, I play cat and mouse with the best of them." This statement strikes me as coy (at best) or disingenuous (at worst). If you show up to industry parties and shake hands with the chefs, then who is the stalker and who is the prey? Still, it seems obvious, even to an amateur like me, that you can't be a food critic for twenty years in the same town and avoid the acquaintance of the very people who feed you seven nights a week.

Ruth Reichl, the New York Times' restaurant critic from 1993 to 1999, took her quest for anonymity to an extreme. It's common practice for critics to make reservations and carry credit cards under assumed names, but Reichl went as far as to consult a theatrical coach and create numerous personas. Each had her own name, wig, wardrobe, voice and even a back-story. Not all of the costumes were meant to keep Reichl in the background; as frumpy old "Aunt Betty" she shrank into the crowd, but the vivacious, red-headed "Brenda" got everyone's attention and free food as well. By all accounts Reichl's elaborate disguises were a great success, but they illustrate just how far you have to go to avoid detection. (Reichl writes about her in cognito experiences in her most recent book Garlic and Sapphires.)

"People need to suspend the belief that anonymity is possible," Susan says, adding that a good reviewer can remain fair even when recognized and showered with extra courses and top-notch service. Still, she strives to dine unnoticed as often as she can to keep her experience as close as possible to that of the average customer. Though she dismisses disguises as ridiculous, she regularly gives another name for reservations and tries to keep a low profile. (She asked not to be photographed for this article.) Susan tells stories of wearing her coat all night long, sneaking past open kitchens and saving hard-core food questions and note-taking sessions for a follow-up phone call rather than tip off an observant waiter. Once she's seated, there is only so much a restaurant can do to alter the meal, most of which centers on service. As a result, she's made a habit of observing those around her to see what kind of service they get.

The reward for all this hard labor and skulking about comes after a review is published. Many restaurants call to report a big upswing in business and to say thank you. In February, when Susan covered the reopening of The Elite Café, a New Orleans-inspired restaurant on tony Fillmore Street, she profiled chef Joanna Karlinksy and manager Terrell Brunet. Brunet is a Louisiana native who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Susan later heard that people were coming in with the paper under their arms asking to meet him.

Susan believes that the narrative counts as much as the descriptions of the food. "I like to add culture, history and personal stories of how [a dish] has affected my life. It makes reviews so much more accessible," she says. She also values humor. "To be a great food writer, you have to be funny. It's food for God's sake, not brain surgery."

“I’m passionate about food and I’m also passionate about writing. I’m doing what I love every day,” she says. “I’m very, very lucky.”

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- Food
- posted on Jul 02, 07
bruce bellingham

Catherine Nash's piece "Gourmand or Glutton for Punishment?" is funny, brash, witty, informed, and affectionate -- it's really a treat. It's a great pleasure to read such skillful writing these days while we founder in a sea of spindrift snottiness and soulessness. Catherine saves us from the mock gravitas, and -- Heaven forfend -- fake gravlax.
Thank you for the excursion.

Bruce Bellingham
San Francisco

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