Top Chefs Review — and Rate — America's Food Critics

Revenge is a dish best served… by chefs
Top Chefs Review — and Rate — America's Food Critics

Ravi Bangaroo

What if chefs and restaurateurs could rate critics and food writers? How many stars would the critics get?

In 2012, we had the idea to devise a way for prominent chefs and restaurateurs to turn the tables on restaurant critics and food writers. Chefs don’t lack venues for self-expression, nor is their profession replete with wallflowers; perhaps more than ever, many chefs feel more empowered these days to speak out and fight back in the face of what they perceive to be uninformed restaurant criticism. Take for example the battles last year between the Dallas Morning News’ restaurant critic Leslie Brenner and various local chefs. Despite the fact that chefs are talking back, while reviewers use bells, beans, and stars to codify restaurant experiences, there hadn't been a system for rating them in return. With that in mind, we created a scorecard for chefs, and are publishing here their third annual rating — and were their knives ever sharp. 

View: How Do Chefs Rate America's Best Critics?

The Daily Meal asked chefs to grade writers on a restaurant-review scale of zero to four stars (four being best), based on four criteria: culinary knowledge, prose style, integrity (perceived), and personal likeability. Several of America's most prominent food writers, while not critics, write about restaurants and have more or less the same power to make or break them that critics do, so we've included them. The chefs we polled are elite industry figures (as they have been every year); many are household names. To help them avoid retribution and feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, we grant them anonymity, but also offer to act as a bullhorn should they want to go on the record (we do request comments).

As with the subjective reviews starred imperfectly (and, some chefs would say, inconsistently) by the nation’s best-known critics, this is not a perfect system. In the spirit of striving for the good, we invite chefs across America to vote in the 2015 survey (please email your request to be included in next year's survey), and welcome suggestions for improving it from both chefs and writers. If imperfect, consider this survey in the spirit of one participating chef’s comment: “I welcome the criticism. When one decides to be the chef of a restaurant one opens themselves up to critique in all forms and fashion. To think otherwise is misguided and naïve.” At least, it’s a chance to raise questions about how writers qualify experiences at America’s restaurants.If imperfect, consider this survey in the spirit of one participating chef’s comment: 'I welcome the criticism. When one decides to be the chef of a restaurant one opens themselves up to critique in all forms and fashion. To think otherwise is misguided and naïve.' At least, it’s a chance to raise questions about how writers qualify experiences at America’s restaurants.
Every year, the results have been intriguing, garnering attention of national publications from Forbes to Poynter. They’ve also consistently named one man America’s best critic: Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times. In 2012, he scored 3.1 stars, then edged higher in 2013 with 3.4 stars. Conversely, Brad A. Johnson of the Orange County Register had been the least celebrated food writer (1.7 stars in 2012, and 1.6 stars in 2013). 
Reactions of the critiqued writers have also been interesting. Some took lukewarm ratings as poorly as they would have an entrée sitting too long on the kitchen pass of one of the chefs they’d panned. “Does it hurt to find your lifetime of work is disrespected nationally and locally?” Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook tweeted in 2012, “Yes.” Time food columnist (now Esquire restaurant critic) Josh Ozersky took particular issue with critiques of his writing prowess: “My prose should be rated much higher. Even my enemies would give me that. The literate ones, anyway.” And the scorecard rankled former Eater national editor (now Bon Appétit web editor) Raphael Brion, who, while not included in our surveys himself, took issue with food writers being rated alongside restaurant reviewers (huh?) and seemed to believe that his former colleagues should be the only ones allowed to use anonymous quotes
But making writers feel one way or another about themselves hasn’t been the point of this exercise. The point is that critics launch and crush chefs’ careers and to some degree make and break restaurants. Most chefs spend years honing their craft in others' kitchens before opening their own places; restaurateurs typically toiled for others, and often mortgaged their lives to investors. Then it comes down to 800 or 1,200 words about cuisine, atmosphere, décor, and service described by someone who has usually neither cooked in a professional kitchen nor 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 a goose egg, what’s a chef or restaurateur to do? Not every chef has the platform and notoriety to respond to accusations as publicly as the initial review — much less affect a critic's reputation in any lasting way. It’s for these hard-working chefs and restaurateurs that we publish this annual rating.
Eater hired three restaurant critics last year — former Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema, Atlanta Magazine’s Bill Addison, and Bloomberg reviewer Ryan Sutton — so those writers have been included in this survey. Other new additions this year are Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner, Texas Monthly’s Pat Sharpe, restaurant reviewer Stan Sagner of the Daily News, and Hungry City columnist Ligaya Mishan of The New York Times. All told, 28 writers were rated by dozens of chefs.
This year’s results featured a dramatic reshuffling at the top. But before digging into numbers and recounting praise, digs, and chef punditry, it’s important to note a sea change. Besides having more chefs participate, it’s the first year several of them have been brave enough to go on the record. 
Count among them Jim Lahey of New York City’s Sullivan Street Bakery and Co.; John DeLucie of Manhattan’s Crown, Bill's Food & Drink, and The Lion; Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega Restaurant, and Chez Fon Fon in Birmingham, Ala.; Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill in Los Angeles and Las Vegas; Brian Zenner of Oak in Dallas; and outspoken Texas super-chef John Tesar of Knife and Spoon Bar & Kitchen. We’re grateful for their time. They should be commended for participating on the record on behalf of hard-working chefs across America.
So, which critics do chefs think don’t know a cronut from a croquelin? Who writes prose lacquered with more clichés than a tamarind-glazed roast duck? Who writes objectively and can be trusted not to be getting their wedding catered for free? And which writers would these professionals actually want to sit down and eat or have a beer with?
Only two of last year’s top five writers remained in rarified air: Michael Bauer and Jonathan Gold. Tom Sietsema, Brett Anderson, and Corby Kummer were replaced by Jeffrey Steingarten, newcomer Ligaya Mishan, and Pete Wells. The most any of the top five writers were separated by was a third of a star, with Pete Wells (3.2 stars) wrestling the title of nation’s best critic from second-place finisher Jonathan Gold (3.08 stars). Gold still holds the record for all-time highest ranking with his 3.44 stars in 2013. On the other end, Brad Johnson (2.04) finally crawled out of the cellar, with Leslie Brenner (1.91 stars), Stan Sagner (1.89 stars), and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig Laban (1.74 stars) rounding out the bottom.
Comments about Gold (“Great understanding of food, restaurants, and atmosphere -- he gets it right,”) and Mishan (“Incredible food descriptions! Reading her reviews makes me hungry!”) were unanimous in their praise. Reviews of Steingarten and Wells ran the spectrum. About Steingarten one chef wrote, “Quirky and brilliant. He gets the details right and is so passionate about his topics, it's contagious.” But another quipped, “This #$%&ing guy. You ever watch him eat? Don’t, because you won’t be able to. There’s food always falling from his mouth. I just don’t get how he has hung around.” Wells was described as “Well-written, well thought-out, well-educated in food, “ and also, “The worst Times critic in years. It’s sad. He makes me miss [Frank] Bruni and Bruni s@#ked.” 
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