Top Chefs Review — and Rate — America's Food Critics
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It’s time to turn the tables on critics.
Restaurant critics launch and crush chefs’ careers and, to some degree at least, make and break restaurants. Chefs spend years honing their craft in other peoples' kitchens before spending countless hours to open their own places; restaurateurs have typically toiled for others, then mortgaged their lives to investors. But then it all comes down to (typically) between 800 and 1,200 words about cuisine, atmosphere, décor, and service written by someone who often hasn’t ever cooked in a professional kitchen or run a complex business of any kind. That’s fine if a restaurant gets a four- or five-star review, but when a critic lays down a goose egg, what’s a chef or restaurateur to do?
Sure, they can take to the Web. If a chef or restaurateur is rich (and angry) enough, he can, as Jeffrey Chodorow did, take out his rage in a full-page ad (rumored to cost as much as $80,000) in the paper where his restaurant (in this case Kobe Club) was made a laughing stock. If he’s big-time enough, a chef might even say his piece to the nation on TV. Guy Fieri recently did, accusing The New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells, on The Today Show, of having "an agenda" after the writer used 50 question marks (yes, 50) to eviscerate Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar to national attention.
But not every chef or restaurateur has the platform and notoriety to be able to respond to accusations of serving drinks tasting like a "combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde" so publicly — much less to affect a critic's reputation in any lasting, evaluative way.
But what if they did? What if chefs and restaurateurs could rate critics and food writers? "OK," you can almost hear them say, "Want to visit my restaurant incognito a few times on your company’s dime and complain about a mistakenly sent plate and how loud I play my music then run to your messy desk and dock me a star? Gonna judge me on cuisine, atmosphere, décor, and service? I’ve got a review for you, too!"
For this, our first annual critics' scorecard, The Daily Meal polled dozens of the nation’s most notable chefs and restaurateurs and asked them to vote on America's best known critics. Twenty critics were rated on a restaurant review scale of zero to four stars (four being a glowing review) based on four criteria: culinary knowledge, prose style, integrity (perceived), and likability. Even better, participants could actually critique critics and writers. Yes, anonymity was granted to the chefs and restaurateurs who responded to our questions, but they're all elite industry figures, and most are household names. We could tell you who they are and where they come from, but then you'd have to kill them.
So which critics do chefs think don’t know kimchi from kombu? Which ones write prose lacquered with more clichéd adjectives than there is miso on Nobu's black cod? Who writes objectively and can be trusted not to be getting his or her wedding catered for free? And which writers would these restaurant professionals want to eat or have a beer with?
America’s smartest and stupidest critics, the nation’s best and worst food writers, the most and least trusted reviewers in the U.S., the most likeable and unimpressive epicurean scriveners — these are the titles to follow.
First, it's important to note that both critics and other food writers were included. Several of the nation's most prominent food writers, while not regular critics per se, hold the same power to make or break restaurants by what and how they write. Second, it should be pointed out that the survey was done before Pete Wells' review of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar. It's also interesting to recognize that nobody came anywhere near a full four stars, and that nobody was given a goose egg.
The highest anyone scored in any category was 3.1 stars — Jonathan Gold, who led with chefs as the critic with the most culinary knowledge. Conversely, the lowest anyone scored in any one category was the Washington Post's Tim Carman, whose 1.4 average for the category, "But would you want to eat with them?" won him the dubious distinction of Least Liked Food Writer or Critic. (Sorry Tim, but nobody seems to want to share your table.) But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
OVERALL CRITIC SCORE
The nation's best food critic? Jonathan Gold. America's worst? The Orange County Register's Brad. A. Johnson — who was, ironically, named "Best Restaurant Critic" at the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards — and who barely beat out Tim Carman for that dubious distinction. The difference between the best and worst critics as rated by chefs? One and a quarter stars. Some surprises? GQ's Alan Richman and Esquire's John Mariani were also near the top, while New York Magazine's Adam Platt wasn't far from the bottom.
Click image to enlarge.
The top three scoring critics or food writers overall as rated by some of America's best chefs were the Los Angeles Times' Jonathan Gold (2.97 stars), Vogue's Jeffrey Steingarten (2.83 stars), and The New York Times' Pete Wells (2.75 stars). These three writers were separated by about a quarter of a star, but comments about them were a little more clearly defined. About Jonathan Gold one chef wrote, "Perhaps the best of them all, art, food, politics, and music in one smooth stream." Comments overall about Jeffrey Steingarten and Pete Wells were a bit more mixed. "An excellent writer, I’m a long-time fan of his style, but he is aging too fast in the very fast-changing world of food," one of America's top chefs confided. As for Wells? "Great writer but very overrated for this position," wrote one chef. "And he was a mediocre editor in his previous position." That's right, those were the top three.
On the other end of the spectrum were Alison Cook, Tim Carman, and Brad A. Johnson. "He’s a better travel writer than a food writer," explained one chef of Johnson.
CRITICS' CULINARY KNOWLEDGE
Quick, who do you think most chefs would say is the most knowledgeable food critic or writer. Until 2006, many chefs would probably have answered The New York Times' R. W. Johnny (Johnny) Apple. These days, at least according to this survey of dozens of America's top chefs, The New York Times isn't even in the top five. Jonathan Gold, The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema, and (tied) the Chicago Tribune's Phil Vettel and Jeffrey Steingarten take top honors. America's smartest food critic? Jonathan Gold. "Very, very knowledgeable” noted one chef. The dullest critic according to chefs? Johnson. "He needs to learn about food and substance, and then include them in his reviews," noted one chef. Click for Culinary Knowledge Graphic
CRITICS' PROSE STYLE
The best writer according to chefs? Jonathan Gold may have the overall score, but he's beaten out by Jeffrey Steingarten in this category. Per two chefs, Steingarten was described as a "hidden comic genius," and "wacky, irreverent, and very knowledgeable." The worst writer per dozens of America's top chefs? The Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook, who one chef called "a critic with limited knowledge in a limited market and at a fading newspaper." Ouch. Click for Prose Style Graphic
CRITICS' INTEGRITY (PERCEIVED BY CHEFS)
Which critics and food writers do chefs trust the most? The most trusted critic was Jonathan Gold. He kept company (perhaps aided by their newspapers) with The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema, Wells, Steingarten, and the Los Angeles Times' S. Irene Virbila. The country's least trusted reviewer was, yes, Brad A. Johnson, who was joined by Carman, Cook, Andrew Knowlton, and Josh Ozersky — the latter of whom, one chef claimed is "one of the smarter guys around, but one who was always looking to make a deal." Click for Integrity Graphic
WHICH CRITIC WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL WITH?
Critics and food writers need dining companions to help them do their jobs, but judging by chefs' scores, they'd just as soon critics ate by themselves. The highest scores for critics in this category were the lowest of all four. At the top? Jonathan Gold was dubbed the most likeable critic by this criterion. The least likeable of all? Tim Carman.
But nobody's being done any favors by reading the excerpts, right? You have to read the full reviews. So click through the slideshow to see what some of America's top chefs said about the nation's most well-known critics. Click for Likablity Graphic
WHAT THE STARS MEAN
As anyone who follows the restaurant criticism racket knows, the star debate runs in cycles — how many, what they mean, if they should exist — it all gets navel-gazed at every year or so, even by critics who can no longer find theirs. The Daily Meal settled somewhere between the no-star rating used by the Los Angeles Times and the five-star system used by New York Magazine.
[CRITIC'S NAME HERE]
Daily Planet, Fifth Street and Concord Lane, (111)111-1111
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE An exemplary mud-to-opera understanding of varied culinary traditions and the nation's and the reviewer's city's culinary history, and prescience when it comes to trends.
PROSE STYLE A grabby lede that doesn't try too hard to show how smart or hip the writer is; interest enough in food to actually talk about it before the 300-word mark; a balance of pithy, memorable, and zingy quips and wonderfully cadenced sentences that give insight into food; and the ability when appropriate to deliver a killer kicker.
INTEGRITY Doesn't accept free meals (or even free bottles of wine) while "anonymously" reviewing, doesn't pressure chefs or restaurateurs into catering private events for free, never wields power to secure reservations for non-work-related dining experiences, and in general measures up when facing the will-I-do-the-right-thing-when-I'm-faced-with-that-right-or-wrong dilemma.
WANNA SHARE A MEAL? Cares deeply about food and beverage and the people preparing them and can talk about them with a distinct point of view; and has the charm, lack of ego, and recognition of what they don't know to make them interesting enough to actually share a pizza or drink a beer with.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.
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