Critics launch and crush chefs’ careers and, to some degree at least, make and break restaurants. Most chefs spend years honing their craft in other peoples' kitchens before opening their own places; restaurateurs typically toiled for others, then mortgaged their lives to investors. Then it all comes down to between 800 and 1,200 words about cuisine, atmosphere, décor, and service described by a writer who often has 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 down a goose egg, what’s a chef or restaurateur to do? Not every chef or restaurateur has the platform and notoriety to be able to respond to accusations as publicly as the initial review — much less to affect a critic's reputation in return in any lasting way.
With this disparity in mind, last year The Daily Meal polled dozens of top chefs and restaurateurs and asked them to vote on America's best-known food critics, rating and ranking them. A year later, top chefs and restaurateurs have voted again, and for several critics the results weren’t pretty.'OK,' you could almost hear the restaurant folks saying, 'Want to visit my restaurant incognito a few times on your company’s dime and complain about a mistakenly sent-out 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? Well, I’ve got a review for you, too!'
The Daily Meal asked chefs and restaurateurs to vote on America's 20 most prominent critics in 2012, 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. We also asked for comments. "OK," you could almost hear the restaurant folks saying, "Want to visit my restaurant incognito a few times on your company’s dime and complain about a mistakenly sent-out 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? Well, I’ve got a review for you, too!"
Last year, it was interesting to recognize that nobody came anywhere near a full four stars, and that nobody was given a goose egg. The nation's best food critic? Jonathan Gold. America's worst? The Orange County Register's Brad A. Johnson — who, incidentally, has described himself as the "best food critic in America and worldwide." Chefs rated Jonathan Gold and Brad Johnson (respectively) as America's smartest and dullest critics, gave Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue his due as having the best prose style, and identified The Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook as having the worst. The most trusted critic was Jonathan Gold; the least trusted reviewer, Brad A. Johnson. As far as likeability — we asked our panelists which critics they'd most like to sit down at a table with —Jonathan Gold again took first place, while Tim Carman of The Washington Post brought up the rear. (Check out last year’s full report for more details, and chefs, ahem, pithy comments.)
There have been some significant developments in the field this year. Pete Wells of the New York Times has cast his net wider, announcing that he'll be reviewing restaurants outside of New York City (without assigning stars). GQ’s Alan Richman started filing weekly reviews, via the magazine's website. Twenty-year New York City restaurant reviewing veteran Robert Sietsema was let go from the Village Voice (junior critic Tejal Rao resigned soon after), resurfacing with a non-review column on the food blog Eater. Texas Monthly made history by hiring Daniel Vaughn to be the only full-time barbecue critic on the staff of a major publication. Longtime Houston food writer Robb Walsh fully settled into non-anonymous reviewing as Houstonia’s restaurant critic. And a year after firing Brett Anderson, The Times-Picayune rehired its widely-respected reviewer in September after he completed a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.
Accordingly, there were a few changes to this year’s scorecard lineup. We dropped Robert Sietsema from the line up and added Daniel Vaughn and the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo. And Craig Laban, who has been reviewing restaurants for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1998, also joined the party. Several of the nation's most prominent food writers, while not regular critics per se, do write about restaurants and have the same power to make or break them that regular critics do, so we've included these in our list.
Once again, we granted anonymity to the chefs and restaurateurs who responded to our questions. We can assure you, though, that 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?
OVERALL CRITIC SCORE
For the second year, Jonathan Gold took top honors while the Orange County Register's Brad. A. Johnson garnered the lowest overall score (though first-timer Steve Cuozzo nearly took that distinction). Gold, who last year was described as, "Perhaps the best of them all," was once again noted as a “one of a kind.” As for Johnson? One chef refused to mince words, “We wrote a long letter to the editor about Brad and how disparaging his reviews have been in Orange County, but they didn’t publish it. Let’s just say he’s not my favorite and I’m in good company on that one.”
More stars, more graphs, more on chefs rating critics...
Brett Anderson, Andrew Knowlton, and Tim Carman made the biggest gains (9 places), and Carman jumping 7. The biggest drops? Jeffrey Steingarten (down seven spots), Gael Greene (down four), Alan Richman (down 11), Josh Ozersky (down four), and John Mariani (down 14). Steingarten’s, Richman’s, and Mariani’s falls, and Tim Carman’s climb were among the most surprising moves based solely on where they placed in 2012. And Pete Wells (who in 2012, was rated third in a survey given before Wells' review of Guy Fieri's restaurant) fell out of the top five. Click for Full-Screen Overall Critic Score Graphic
CRITICS' 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.
America's smartest food critic? Still Jonathan Gold (3.47 stars). “Definitely keeps current with dining trends,” noted one chef. The dullest? Still Brad Johnson (1.71 stars). Still, there was some movement in between. After Gold, the top writers and critics for food knowledge were Brett Anderson (3.3 stars) and Tom Sietsema (3.13 stars). At the bottom, just above Johnson, were Steve Cuozzo (1.86) and Adam Platt (2.27). The biggest moves belonged to Brett Anderson (up 14 spots), Phil Vettel (down 15), Tim Carman (plus 9), and Alan Richman (minus 9). Click for Full-Screen Culinary Knowledge Graphic
CRITICS' PROSE STYLE
A grabby lead 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.
Considering this category centers around the, er, bread and butter of America’s bestknown critics and writers, you might think most chefs would at the least give them a gimme on this category. Tell that to Adam Platt (2.21 stars, described as a "has- been"), John Mariani (2.06 stars, "Is he always accurate? No. But then who is?"), Steve Cuozzo (1.71 stars, "Poor!"), and first-timer Craig LaBan of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who at 1.6 stars was tied with Brad Johnson for last place (the latter called out for being "obsessed with tearing apart everyone's french fries"). That duo took over from the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook, whose 2.29 stars were an improvement over the 1.8 stars she scored last year. Only two of the writers who scored highest last year remained in the top five — Jonathan Gold and The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer — and they took the top spots. They were joined by Tom Sietsema, Brett Anderson, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer, who leapfrogged Jeffrey Steingarten, Pete Wells, and John Mariani, the last of whom plummeted 15 spots ("Always up for a free meal," noted one chef, who managed to add, "but he’s generally objective and does write a lot of positive pieces"). Click for Full-Screen Prose Style Graphic
CRITICS' INTEGRITY (PERCEIVED BY CHEFS AND RESTAURATEURS)
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.
Which critics and food writers do chefs trust the most? Not Steve Cuozzo (1.94 stars), Gael Greene (1.88), or Brad Johnson (1.6 stars — though one chef described him as "overall a writer of integrity"). This year, chefs put their faith in Michael "Hates Payola" Bauer (3.64 stars), Brett "High Integrity" Anderson (3.63), Tom "OldSchool Gentleman" Sietsema (3.6), Jonathan "Uncompromising" Gold (3.36), and Corby "Trust!" Kummer (3.14). Newcomer Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly made an impressive debut in sixth place, tied with Pete Wells with three stars, and Tim Carman catapulted up 10 spots from the 18th place he held last year. Click for Full-Screen Perceived Integrity Graphic
WHICH CRITIC WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL WITH?
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.
When it came to breaking bread or sharing a brew with critics, our panelists were kinder in 2013 than in 2012. They gave almost a full star more to this year’s most likeable critic, Jonathan Gold, who reprised the role ("That would be so fun!" said one chef). They even demonstrated more willingness to invite their least favorite writers to the table — Brad Johnson (1.57 stars, "I invited Brad to share a cup of coffee with me, but he declined") and Steve Cuozzo (1.56) were virtually tied. Not far behind were TIME’s Josh Ozersky (2 stars, who one chef said he’d never eat with because "I’d like to keep my food down") and John Mariani (who with 1.89 stars fell dramatically from second place). For the record, one chef came to Mariani’s defense noting, "Just had a meal with John and would do it again." The least-likeable writer from 2012, Tim Carman, climbed five spots, a virtual invitation to the chef’s table. Click for Full-Screen Likeablity Graphic
But enough with the excerpts, right? If you want the whole story, 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.
#22 Brad A. Johnson, The Orange County Register, 1.62 Stars
#21 Steve Cuozzo, New York Post, 1.77 Stars
#20 John Mariani, Esquire and Bloomberg, 1.88 Stars
#19 Josh Ozersky, TIME, 2.11 Stars
#18 Craig Laban, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2.18 Stars
#17 Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle, 2.35 Stars
#16 Alan Richman, GQ, 2.39 Stars
#15 Adam Platt, New York Magazine, 2.41 Stars
#14 Gael Greene, Foodie.com, 2.413 Stars
#13 Phil Vettel, Chicago Tribune, 2.47 Stars
#12 Tim Carman, Washington Post, 2.56 Stars
#11 Robb Walsh, Houstonia Magazine, 2.59 Stars
#10 S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times, 2.61 Stars
#9 Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue, 2.62 Stars
#8 Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly, 2.81 Stars
#7 Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appétit, 2.82 Stars
#6 Pete Wells, The New York Times, 2.99 Stars
#5 Corby Kummer, The Atlantic, 3.12 Stars
#4 Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle, 3.16 Stars
#3 Brett Anderson, The Times-Picayune, 3.2825 Stars
#2 Tom Sietsema, Washington Post, 3.2875 Stars
#1 Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles Times, 3.44 Stars
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.