My Life as a Restaurant Critic (Not Really!)

Posted by on October 20, 2015 in culture, recent | Comments Off on My Life as a Restaurant Critic (Not Really!)

One of the great things about living in the greater Washington DC area is the number of classes one can take.  There are adult ed offerings at all the major universities, plus all sorts of special programs offered through trade associations and other groups.  Alas, my time is limited like anyone else’s, so I don’t get to do as many things as I’d like, but I always keep a close eye on what’s happening at the Smithsonian, especially through their Resident Associates program.

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On Sunday evening, I attended a Smithsonian class: “The Mind of a Critic.” The program was held in the auditorium at the Navy Heritage Center, which is unfortunate because the chairs in the auditorium at the Navy Heritage Center are some of the least comfortable in the metro area.  Nevertheless, the description of the panel was tempting enough for me to risk persistent lower back pain for a couple of days.

The program was built around a panel of local restaurant critics — Tom Sietsema (who writes for the Washington Post), Todd Kliman (the Washingtonian), Stephanie Gans (Northern Virginia Magazine), Jessica Sidman (food editor, Washington City Paper), and the grand doyenne of DC restaurant criticism, Phyllis Richman (who wrote for the post for many years but is now retired.)  They were interviewed by Mary Beth Albright, a food writer and media personality.

The three current critics arrive in disguise — scarves and baseball caps, large sunglasses, etc. Despite problems with the sound system (a persistent problem in all Smithsonian venues!), the panelists told answered questions about how they work, the challenges they face, the effect their work can have on restaurants, etc.

There was a fair amount of disagreement among some panelists about the value of “citizen critics”, through sites like Yelp.  Sidman, in particular, noted that “we all use Yelp, whether we admit it or not” and Kliman disagreed, saying that Yelp reviews are overly generous and completely unsourced.

And as they spoke, I realized that the critics’ experience mirrors mine as a writer in two key ways.  First — I often discuss research with other writers, some of whom spend days, weeks, or months researching their novels either before or as they write. As a librarian, I completely understand the value of research, including the importance of identifying the biases of sources.

And yet, more often than not, I (and most authors I know, with the possible exception of those writing historic fiction) begin my research at Wikipedia. Yes, I know Wikipedia is written by “citizen scholars.” I know I have no way of telling the actual credentials of an article’s author. I know I sometimes find mistakes in articles when I know the subject well enough to evaluate veracity.

And yet, Wikipedia is good enough for a lot of my spot research. If I’m trying to create a  supernatural being that has the ability to divine truth, I can use Wikipedia to get a vague idea of such creatures, prior to adapting them, merging them, contorting them into my own. And if I want to research a specific fact-bound point, where accuracy matters, I can still use Wikipedia to get a basic notion of the facts, prior to confirming them with multiple credentialed sources.

The second point raised by the critics, though resonated even more strongly with me:  Critics are constantly confronted with untrained individuals who think they can write as well about food and restaurants as the critics can.  This challenge is only natural — we all eat food. We all have opinions about the food we eat.  We all share those opinions with friends and family on a regular basis. But critics (who aren’t organized in any formal union, complete no formal training, have no accreditation body) do something more than we regular folks — they draw on years of experience, on industry-specific knowledge, on a wide range of actual dining to hone their skills.

Similarly, the vast majority of people have written stories. Maybe not a novel, maybe not a novella, but we all wrote short stories for English and/or Literature classes. We learned about protagonists and antagonists, about Man against Man, Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself.

So, with all that so-called experience, it’s not surprising that a huge percentage of the population thinks they’re ready to write professionally. I literally cannot count how many people have come up to me at a party, or at a non-writer conference, or elsewhere in my life, telling me that they want to be a writer too, that they have a story to tell, that they want to do what I do, often when they retire from their “real” jobs.

Everyone’s a critic. And everyone’s a writer.

Bottom line: I enjoyed the Smithsonian class.  (I was surprised to discover there were swanky cocktails offered as well — I had a lovely gin and lemon thing, flavored with sage, but there were lots of other options!) And I realized I had more in common with food critics than I thought.

And I figured out a way to get a food critic to Harmony Springs 🙂

So? How about you? Do you Yelp?