Top Chefs Rate America's Food Critics (2012)
If you listen to Brad A. Johnson (or believe what he wants you to from his site), he is the "best food critic in America and worldwide." Seriously, it says that when you Google him, so it must be true. "Renowned food and travel journalist Brad A. Johnson is the only critic in America to win both the James Beard Award and the Cordon Bleu World Food Media Award for restaurant criticism."
Chefs disagreed with this assessment: Johnson scored or nearly scored the poorest review of all critics in all categories. Culinary knowledge? Last. Prose style? Almost at the end. Perceived integrity? Last. Interesting or likable enough to want to share a meal with? Tied with The Washington Post’s Tim Carman for last. "He’s a better travel writer than a food writer," proposed one chef. "He needs to learn about food and substance, and then include them in his reviews."
Best things anyone could say about him? "Prose style — that’s his better strength," and "Picky, but he knows his constituency." Some endorsements!
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 1.86 stars (20th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2 stars (19th place)
INTEGRITY: 1.68 stars (20th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.424 stars (19th place)
Tim Carman has himself a James Beard Award and has made the leap to the big time, landing a gig as a food reporter at The Washington Post after years at Washington City Paper. But at least when it comes to the dozens of America's top chefs surveyed, he still has some work to do to build up his reputation. Carman finished last or near last in every category voted on.
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 1.952 stars (19th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2 stars (tied 19th place)
INTEGRITY: 1.8 stars (19th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.4 stars (20th place)
What do some of America's most well-known and respected chefs think of New York Magazine's chief restaurant critic Adam Platt? "Mean, divisive, and petty," "boring," and "very, very smart." There were a few positive comments, most notably, "He has a great stage and fit it well."
But even chefs who admired Platt's work couldn't resist digs. "I like and read him with pleasure, but does he know that America is not only New York City?" asked one. "A great writer trapped by a star system," said another, adding, "But what does he know about cooking?"
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.32 stars (15th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.048 stars (17th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.12 stars (15th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.08 stars (13th place)
Opinions about Bon Appétit's restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton came quick and curtly. "Sharp and young," quipped one chef. "Style over substance," added another. The kindest things anyone would say? "Very involved" and "Smart about drinks, but his opinions about food are unfounded."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.24 stars (17th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.46 stars (9th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.064 stars (17th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.864 stars (16th place)
Described as "the Zelig of the industry," TIME columnist Josh Ozersky was noted by chefs as "bombastic and pompous, but fun," and "one of the smarter guys around, but one who was always looking to make a deal."
Does showing up everywhere and being a human chameleon really make you liked or trusted? The numbers don't back that up. Ozersky ranked 16th on the list when it came to integrity, and for all that ability to be everywhere and everything to everyone, he was in the bottom third when it came to the question of whether chefs would actually want to sit down to a meal with them. Given his familiarity with many of these chefs, you have to consider this answer in response to the question, "Would you want to have another meal with Josh Ozersky?"
One chef played Ozersky Mad Libs, "Well-read, but heavily ________." Heavily what? Opinionated? Armed with self-aggrandizing behavior? Involved with his subject matter? You fill in the blank.
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.59 stars (13th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.24 stars (15th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.07 stars (16th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.90 stars (14th place)
James Beard Foundation
Comments were mixed about Robb Walsh, largely praising him for his work and somewhat giving him a pass for not being in a larger market. "Honest, but in a secondary market," said one chef. Another exclaimed, "Grumpy and smart, a very good combination!" Not everyone was so kind to Walsh or Houston. "Limited knowledge in a limited market," said one chef. "The food scenes in Houston, and in fact Texas are still quite far behind overall," agreed another. "But he's a good, simple writer."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.62 stars (12th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.136 stars (16th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.2 stars (12th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.888 stars (15th place)
He's well-respected in the industry and was even a heavy favorite for The New York Times' restaurant critic position before Pete Wells was appointed. So it's a little surprising that The Times-Picayune's on-again-off-again restaurant critic Brett Anderson only rated 12th place in the survey. Still, chefs did have positive things to say."Smart, friendly, forward and genuine," one chef noted. "Has done some really great writing. He's famous, almost qualified for the food critic position at The New York Times."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.264 stars (15th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.256 stars (14th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.472 stars (8th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.256 (10th place)
The Village Voice’s head food critic was described as a "good reporter" and a "good dude," someone who may be ready for "the uptown jump," which we’ll take to mean a larger publication with a wider audience. You’d have to think that would be a disappointment to the chef who said he liked Sietsema "more than Jonathan Gold for food knowledge," and praised the critic for being "in tune with his publication’s style."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.448 stars (14th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.448 stars (11th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.288 stars (10th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.344 stars (7th place)
Insatiable Critic Gael Greene has been in the game for some time — she practically helped write the rules — so it’s not surprising most comments focused on her status as an icon. "She’s more about the '80s than anything else," declared one chef. "Old-school and passionate, but maybe hypercritical at times," said another.
Longevity also meant chefs definitely had opinions about her one way or another. "Whiny," declared one chef, declining to say anything further. "The best at capturing a restaurant’s overall feeling," said another. "She was one of the best, but she’s way too much of a New Yorker," condoled one chef. "I love Gael, but she’s not a deep writer," one chef confided. "Still, she’s fun to read."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.656 stars (10th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.488 stars (8th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.2 stars (tied 12th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.448 stars (6th place)
Given that one of the top Google search results for this columnist for Esquire and Bloomberg news is "Why Does Everyone Hate John Mariani?" (a bit unfairly, since the charges detailed in the story have been refuted), it's a bit of a surprise to see this writer rank among the top six critics in America. "Another survivor — another great example of a well-aged writer and traveler who knows better than most about the world of food and its trends," said one chef. "Really smart — has lots of insight," another noted.
The compliments continued to roll in. "He does what he does very well," one top chef explained. "John has been at this a long time — like The Daily Meal’s own Colman Andrews — yet he still has great delivery." One chef went so far as to tip his toque to the writer for having taught him a thing or two about Italian food: "Mr. Mariani has always shown great attention to detail in recapping his dining experiences. I am passionate about the history of Italian food, but acknowledge that I have learned from him."
Still, Mariani didn't go unscathed. Criticism started off as lightly as "mostly good, though he can be off," and "Among the most knowledgeable about food, but he seems to have burned some bridges with freebie requests — though not with us," to, "Sadly, he’s wasted a great pedigree by being a shill."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.704 stars (10th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.824 stars (4th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.192 stars (14th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.696 stars (2nd place)
"Persnickety," "underrated," "fun and inclusive" — what’s one to make of this mishmash of adjectives chefs used to describe The Atlantic's food writer Corby Kummer? Lengthier opinions didn’t exactly do anything to clarify the matter one way or the other. "He’s one of the best," said one chef. "He’s a survivor, an intellectual, knowledgeable — he prefers a quiet market like Boston to others that are more glamorous."
If one chef is to be taken for his word, apparently chefs don’t want their critics to be too smart, "He is too intellectual for restaurant reviewing, but he has an excellent understanding of food and a talent for capturing the subject."
In stark contrast, another of the country’s most respected chefs called Kummer a "farce who does not even eat food." That sentiment was echoed by another chef, "I find it somewhat disturbing that Mr. Kummer is a vegetarian who doesn’t try meat dishes but never mentions that fact." For the record, Kummer says, "I most certainly do try meat at restaurants I write about, pretty much at every review meal I have, and often they’re my favorite things on the menu."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.72 stars (tied 7th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.8 stars (5th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.4 stars (9th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.24 stars (11th place)
Chefs couldn’t resist analyzing the development of The New York Times’ current restaurant critic Pete Wells, weighing in on his style and ability (or lack thereof), and handicapping how long he'll be able to keep the gig.
Some were fans. "Developing his confidence and chops," assured a chef, adding, "He shows great promise." Noted another: "Seems tough. I’ve known him for years. He seems to have a star realignment in mind. Knows his food and prep very well." Another chef was less effusive but complimentary: "Funny, sharp, and incisive."
One of Wells’ most memorable positions taken as critic made an impact: "Articulate and not afraid of being critical of fashionable trends like tasting menus."
Others were less certain. "Good journalist, wrong milieu?" "One-sided views." "He does well writing and describing, but there’s no passion whatsoever." "Great writer but very overrated for this position. And he was a mediocre editor in his previous position."
"I don’t think he will last too long… after Ruth [Reichl] (a 10 out of 10), things have gone toward mediocrity at The New York Times."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.744 stars (7th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.88 stars (3rd place)
INTEGRITY: 2.88 stars (3rd place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.576 stars (5th place)
Among the dozens of chefs polled, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer was singled out repeatedly for his knowledge about food and restaurants. "Mr. Bauer has a strong understanding of what needs to be done in a great restaurant," one chef noted. "I like his style," said another. "And he’s still well-followed."
But those sentiments weren’t universal. "Michael has been writing in the same style for more than 20 years," complained one chef. Another echoed that critiquing the writer’s "dated prose."
Other chefs were more concerned about Bauer’s tone: "Negativity permeates even his positive reviews. I prefer his articles over his reviews." For all that, the writer was given one of the highest compliments in the form of one of the most well-turned chef comments submitted, the title of "the best ‘expressionist' for any one restaurant reviewer’s city in the industry."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.776 stars (4th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.4 stars (tied 12th)
INTEGRITY: 2.648 stars (7th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.288 stars (9th place)
Notably, a quarter of chefs’ comments about Vogue's food critic Jeffrey Steingarten focused on one subject… his books. Among those comments, declarations were overwhelmingly positive about The Man Who Ate Everything. "A great book author and storyteller," noted one chef. "Wicked smart and bent on selling his books," avowed another.
Qualitatively? Besides "mostly good — he can be off," remarks were pretty positive. "Good, good, good, but he hardly reviews restaurants," said one chef. Noted another, "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." Steingarten was also described as "a great student who doesn’t hide his opinions," a "hidden comic genius," and "wacky, irreverent, and very knowledgeable."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.8 stars (tied 3rd place)
PROSE STYLE: 3.152 stars (1st place)
INTEGRITY: 2.728 stars (4th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.632 stars (3rd place)
Flickr/New Amsterdam Market
As with comments about the Houston Chronicle’s critic Alison Cook, criticism about The Washington Post’s restaurant critic Tom Sietsema spilled over onto the food scene over which the critic has purview. "Too much drama," noted one chef. "A very formidable palate stuck in a town that should have better food," said another.
But overall, Sietsema rated very high. He was second highest for both his culinary knowledge and perceived integrity. Chefs’ comments were fairly positive. "A great successor to Phyllis Richman," complimented one chef, "very straightforward and a good fit for The Post." Echoed other chefs, "The Washington Post is lucky, Tom knows his stuff and writes accordingly," and "Underrated — Tom has great command of the industry he covers."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.92 stars (2nd place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.704 stars (7th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.904 stars (2nd place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.336 stars (8th place)
Does anyone dislike Jonathan Gold? The Los Angeles Times' critic was regarded by the overwhelming majority of chefs as being "very, very knowledgeable" and described as "perhaps the best of them all — art, food, politics, and music in one smooth stream."
It was a general sentiment echoed throughout the survey, one that resulted in an overall 3-star review, the highest of any critic in the survey. "'The ‘Gold Standard’ (no pun intended), although he clearly has a passion for food under $25," said one of America’s top chefs.
But it wasn’t all roses and rainbows for Gold. "I have a very hard time following what he’s saying," one chef complained. "He writes about his neighborhood finds, but forgets who the main players are that he’s supposed to be paying attention to." One chef’s critique begged serious questions about the role of critic, "He’s very partial and opinionated about his liking and disliking. I don’t think he’s a good fit with the Los Angeles Times, but he’s a great writer." (If a critic shouldn’t be opinionated one way or the other, what should he be?)
One chef simply said "Da kine." (Ask a Hawaiian.)
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 3.12 stars (1st place)
PROSE STYLE: 3.064 stars (2nd place)
INTEGRITY: 2.976 stars (1st place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.704 stars (1st place)
Chef comments about the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook were pretty harsh, and spilled beyond the critic’s skills, style, knowledge, and likability to blast Houston’s newspaper and food scene. "Alison Cook is a critic with limited knowledge in a limited market and at a fading newspaper," one chef noted. Ouch. "It’s not her fault if Houston is a mishmash and she’s assigned to write about mediocrity." You going to take that, Texas or just secede?
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.04 stars (18th place)
PROSE STYLE: 1.8 stars (20th place)
INTEGRITY: 2 stars (18th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.84 stars (17th place)
Though she scored in the top ten, there were few positive comments about this Los Angeles Times restaurant critic. "Smooth, smart, and a good writer," said one chef. "A well-spoken communicator," noted another. The compliments stopped there. "Inconsistent day in and day out," said one chef. "After Lois Dwan and Ruth Reichl, her reviews didn't fill up restaurants." Explained another chef, "She got tired. Too long on the job in a brutal city. It's a pity because she knows her stuff." One chef summed up the same sentiment more succinctly asking, "Where's the passion?"
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.72 stars (7th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.456 stars (10th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.704 stars (5th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.112 stars (12th place)
In 13th place in this first annual survey, the Chicago Tribune's food critic Phil Vettel didn't fare too well overall with chefs. But ranking in the top three food writers and restaurant critics surveyed in one category, he was well-regarded for his culinary knowledge. And hey, he makes a mean egg salad.
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.8 stars (tied 3rd place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.4 stars (tied 12th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.24 stars (11th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.736 stars (18th place)
"Smart, snarky, and passionate," one chef said when describing GQ’s columnist Alan Richman. "A comic genius," observed another. "He plays the everyman but loves the luxury."
At least three chefs’ opinions about Richman seem to betray a belief that the writer has failed to rise to either his potential or his platform. "He doesn’t rise to the greatness of his publication," said one chef. Why? "Poor judgment and score-settling." "He could be the best," noted one chef, "but he’s so damn opinionated." And to boot, "outside New York City, things go downhill."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.76 stars (6th place)
PROSE STYLE: 2.776 stars (6th place)
INTEGRITY: 2.68 stars (6th place)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.592 stars (4th place)