In light of Sam Sifton’s imminent departure from the New York Times‘ dining section and the firing of the Chicago Sun-Times‘ critic Pat Bruno, the Atlantic posted an interesting article about whether food critics still have a role in journalism today. Its author, Adam Martin, wisely notes, “It also demonstrated how the role of food critic has morphed from the kind of job one holds for decades, with increasing local power and seniority, to the kind of job one holds for a few years, before going off and doing something else. For those who have dreams of moonlighting as a critic, it’s great news. For those who thought they could turn their palate into a 401(k), it’s a tough slog.” While there’s no question that Yelp and online rating sites have had a profound influence on creating a wider discourse about food and restaurants, I’d like to think that restaurant critics still serve an important role in contemporary society — and not just because my paycheck depends on it.
In many ways, Martin is correct. I benefited from good luck and the breaking down of old school barriers when I found my current job off a posting on Craigslist of all places (that in itself should tell you something about the democratization of the role of the critic). I am also certainly younger than most food critics at present. And while I possess both a culinary school diploma/restaurant experience and a Master’s in food studies, the funny thing about food criticism, unlike, say, dance criticism where a profound understanding of the craft is essential, being a restaurant critic requires a bit less of technical experience. What is needed is good writing and an even better appetite.
But can anyone be a critic?
Arguably, yes: With sites like Yelp or Menupages, everyone is a critic. But these critics are a part of a collective criticism that manifests as a singular entity. What’s different about professional restaurant critics is that we have single viewpoints that are based upon the same criteria week after week.
All artistic mediums (art, music, film, dance) are judged based on personal preference. Food, especially, because taste is highly subjective. What tastes delicious to you might taste gross or underwhelming to another. Even the overall experience of a restaurant will differ. For example, I found the youthful spirit of Do or Dine in Bed-Stuy charming, in part because I, being young, currently participate in the cultural references that the restaurant espouses. I get it. But it’s not the kind of place my grandmother — or even my parents — would be able to appreciate. Their reviews would come out differently. Both might be correct reviews, but it’s up to the reader to figure out whose they would want to follow.
So therein lies the role of the contemporary critic: Today, we serve perhaps not as much to judge on matters of taste, but we serve as a barometer by which consumers can make better informed decisions in an information era. With restaurant review sites, you have no constants, no standards, and a hearty dose of personal preference that changes from person to person. By reading old-fashioned (meaning career) restaurant criticism, you get to know our likes and dislikes, and can then follow our recommendations if our outlook matches your personal preferences. As my co-critic Robert Sietsema astutely pointed out yesterday, the role of the critic has also morphed from being a critic to being a critic-blogger-social media pro. This puts considerably more constraints and pressure on the writer, but it also opens up a dialogue with the reader and allows for greater dissemination of thoughts and ideas that go beyond saying what tastes yummy or no. Which, at the end of the day, is arguably the role of the press.
And remember, although today’s critic looks very different than those of yore, so, too, do those people reading restaurant reviews. Fifteen years ago, “foodie” wasn’t even a word, and now — for better or worse — everyone’s one. And so we adapt.