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...