Top Chefs Rate America's Food Critics 2013 (Slideshow)
September 17, 2013
Revenge is a dish best served… by chefs
#22 Brad A. Johnson, The Orange County Register, 1.62 Stars
Last year, when you Googled Brad Johnson, the result you would most likely find was the self-description on his website, which proclaimed him the "best food critic in America and worldwide." Brad must have gotten the “it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true” memo, because you just find his accolades now. This year’s addition of three new names to the roster of critics to be judged by chefs didn’t help Johnson -- he still ranked last overall. He was joined by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig Laban for last place in terms of culinary knowledge, with one chef noting, “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.” Johnson also fared poorly in terms of how much chefs trust him (falling almost half a star to 20th place), and likeability (falling two spots to 19th place). Though according to one chef, it wasn’t for lack of trying, “I invited Brad to share a cup of coffee with me, but he declined.”
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 1.86 stars, 21st place (2012: 1.86, 20th)
PROSE STYLE: 1.76 stars, tied at 20th place (2012: 2, 19th)
INTEGRITY: 1.6 stars, 18th place (2012: 1.68. 20th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.57 stars, 17th place (2012: 1.42, 19th)
#21 Steve Cuozzo, New York Post, 1.77 Stars
The New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo, who doubles as its restaurant critic and commercial real estate columnist, was one of the critics most commented on by chefs. Their votes may have been harsh, but chefs’ comments weren’t completely negative when it came to Cuozzo’s culinary knowledge. "Good overall judgment, makes snappy decisions, and can be brutal," wrote one. "He understands restaurants," asserted another. "I love that he is not afraid to love a traditional restaurant. And I like that he books under his own name and still writes an honest review." Still, several chefs noted he was "outdated," "past his prime," and not "necessarily up with trends."
Chef comments about Cuozzo's prose style were just as wide-ranging. "Poor!" exclaimed one. "I feel like this guy writes for people who don't take the subway," offered another. "I enjoy Steve's writing, though I don't necessarily always agree with him," one chef commented, adding, "The Post is so iconic, the writers would not be there for a long time if they didn't fit the profile, and I think Steve defines that style." One chef took a less complicated view: "He makes me laugh. I really enjoy reading him. Akin to a good beach read."
Chefs were mixed on Cuozzo’s perceived integrity as well. "Poor!!!!" one chef’s critique shouted through The Daily Meal’s survey. "While I may not agree with him," another said, "I trust him." "You have to notice him or he gets upset," confided one. Another offered a sensible enough defense: "Steve is very workmanlike in the best fashion. Critics need to sell papers, and have opinions, not please everyone. Steve appears to be very diligent, I would hate to do his job."
As for likeability? "Unfailingly cordial," "Does not like salt in bowls, needs a shaker," and "Probably the biggest @#$% in the business."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 1.86 stars, 20th place
PROSE STYLE: 1.71 stars, 19th place
INTEGRITY: 1.94 stars, 16th place
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.56 stars, 21st place (last)
#20 John Mariani, Esquire and Bloomberg, 1.88 Stars
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 was a surprise to see him rank among the top six critics in America last year. While chefs weren’t completely without praise (one chef called him "one of the best critics in the country"), there seems to have been a correction of his score in 2013 — he fell dramatically in every category. When it came to culinary knowledge, there was a chorus of conflicting assessments. One chef praised Mariani for an "interesting take on tasting menus," a second called him "outdated," another said he "understands food," and yet another called him "fairly knowledgeable, but not very well-rounded." It didn’t stop there. "I don’t always agree with him, but he gets it," noted one chef, with another countering that he "should not be writing about the restaurant industry because he clearly doesn’t understand it."
"Does he excite me?" asked one chef, describing Mariani’s prose style. "No. Is he always accurate? No. But then who is? He would not be around for a long time if he wasn't readable." Another chef wasn’t as kind, weighing in by saying, "I don’t waste my reading time with self-centered indulgence writing." Still, there was some praise. "I like the way he writes," added another chef, who was joined by another admirer, "Mariani has "an easy approach and isn’t trying to prove anything." And in brief, "John is a pro."
Fair or not, at least seven chefs commented on a reputation for accepting, and seeking "freebies." Comments varied:
"Generally objective and does write a lot of positive pieces."
"A really trustworthy critic."
"Always trust him, and always will."
"If there was a negative number, I would give it to him."
"Doesn’t mind telling you how it is and I respect that."
"Reviews places after one visit. Everyone knows he accepts lots of stuff for free and penalizes folks who don't play that game."
"Always up for a free meal, but is generally objective and does write a lot of positive pieces, which we like."
As for whether chefs would want to sit down at a table with him? "Just had a meal with John," one chef replied, "and would do it again."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 1.86 stars, 20th place (2012: 2.6, 6th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.06 stars, 18th place (2012: 2.82, 4th)
INTEGRITY: 1.29 stars, 20th place (2012: 2.19, 14th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 1.89 stars, 16th place (2012: 2.7, 2nd)
#19 Josh Ozersky, TIME, 2.11 Stars
"Josh thinks he knows everything and I like that," one chef opined. "He is very professorial in his tact, which can be silly with food, but funny as well. I appreciate his verve, and I think he makes his points in a timely fashion." Other positive comments followed. "Great writer." "Smart and full of energy." "Knows meat like it was a relative." "Josh is a lot of fun, embraces food, and is always up to hear about what is going on in our restaurants." But it wasn’t all positive. How could it be for a writer that chefs ranked near the bottom of the pack? "A boob," said one chef. "Give him bacon," added another. "Rabble rouser." "Funny fellow," wrote one chef, "he can be both exasperatingly pedantic and very warm and funny at the same time." Another echoed that saying, "This guy is funny, but he unfortunately doesn't have a palate. I was once on a judging panel with him and several others and he was so far off what the other panelists (mostly other esteemed chefs) thought." When it came to the writer’s perceived integrity, Ozersky was not as disparaged by chefs as Mariani, but words like "mooch" and "bought" weren’t kind. As for whether chefs would like to sit down to a meal with him? "I want to keep my food down," said one.
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.37 stars, 16th place (2012: 2.59, 13th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.53 stars, 12th place (2012: 2.24, 15th)
INTEGRITY: 1.53 stars, 19th place (2012: 2.07, 16th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2 stars, 15th place (2012: 1.9, 14th)
#18 Craig Laban, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2.18 Stars
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s critic debuted toward the bottom of the pack, in between TIME’s Josh Ozersky and the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook. It was a consistent showing across three categories — when it came to culinary knowledge, perceived integrity, and likeability, LaBan was ranked 13th. For prose style he fared a bit worse, at 20th. Comments were kinder, with one chef calling LaBan "an oasis in a sea of no print journalism."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.57 stars, 13th place
PROSE STYLE: 1.6 stars, 20th place
INTEGRITY: 2.29 stars, 13th place
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.25 stars, 13th place
#17 Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle, 2.35 Stars
Last year’s 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 mishmash and she’s assigned to write about mediocrity." Chefs were a bit kinder this year — Cook climbed at least three places in every category, and made her biggest move when it came to her perceived integrity, climbing eight places to 10th on that list. Ironic, given the most salient chef comment: "I cannot be objective; she gave me a bad review once."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.4 stars, 15th place (2012: 2.04, 18th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.29 stars, tied at 16th place (2012: 1.8, 20th)
INTEGRITY: 2.57 stars, 10th place (2012: 2, 18th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.13 stars, 14th place (2012: 1.84, 17th)
#16 Alan Richman, GQ, 2.39 Stars
Serious and thoughtful, a great writer with an interesting perspective, smart, and incisive — these are just a few of the positive things chefs said about GQ’s Alan Richman. But when asked about his culinary knowledge, others were less kind. "Please retire," pleaded one. "Outdated [obviously the word of the year]," said another. Other chefs’ opinions fell somewhere in the middle of the road. "Calls it how it is usually," said one chef. "Does he have a reality show yet?" asked another. One chef’s advice? "Food is food, fashion is fashion, stick with one or the other."
As for prose style, Richman faired pretty well. "I like the way he writes as a whole," offered one chef. "Clean and clear, but a bit sarcastic at times," observed another. "Alan is someone I always look forward to reading," one chef panelist added. "Whether or not I agreed with him mattered little, he has strong ideas and they melt into the page."
For chefs, the matter of Richman’s integrity was "complicated." Said one chef, "I trust him, but I don’t always agree." "Must be noticed and acknowledged," said another. "Alan is too good to be not paying his own way, but if he were, he would be beyond reproach," finished one chef. As for whether chefs would like to share a meal with him? Said one chef, "Well that would be entertaining."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.45 stars, 14th place (2012: 2.76, 6th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.56 stars, 11th place (2012: 2.78 6th)
INTEGRITY: 2.12 stars, 15th place (2012: 2.68, 6th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.41 stars, 11th place (2012: 2.59, 4th)
#15 Adam Platt, New York Magazine, 2.41 Stars
Wow. Chefs had quite a bit to say about New York Magazine’s Adam Platt. The good news? "Distinguished guest with a good sense of humor." "Knowledgeable but super New York-centric." "Has his quirks like all of them, but on balance, one of the better critics out there." The bad news? "Straight-up hater." "Can’t tell the difference between a piece of meat that has been cooked via sous-vide and a traditionally cooked piece of meat." "Nasty and outdated." "A has-been." The most biting? "So tired. How many years do we have to read his same shtick? I can hear a resounding sigh ringing through the chef community every time he includes his wife's opinion." Middle-of-the-road news? "Ticky-tacky at times." "A little too taken in by trends. Not always thoughtful but very fine writer." "He doesn't take himself too seriously and delivers dry criticism. I just wish he would share more enthusiasm for the industry in his writing." A last criticism seems like one any writer wouldn’t be too averse to receiving: "Reviews too early in the game, does know food and wine, but sometimes a bit pithy for my taste."
Platt’s ratings on prose style (which one chef called "too sarcastic") stayed pat with last year’s. Noted one chef, "I like the format of New York Magazine. I liked it when Gael set the tone, but Adam has really made it his own. I don't like the star system to be honest, but with that said Adam is very honest, and can be brutal. But then, it is New York City."
When it came to integrity, chefs gave Platt a fairly average rating. But their comments were more positive. "While I often disagree, I don't think he has an agenda. He works for New York Magazine… there’s the agenda!" "Very straight and narrow, even if I don’t always agree with him. He has rock-solid integrity." "Straight as an arrow. I sometimes wish he would incite a riot."
Would chefs like to share a meal with him? "Rather not," said one. "Sure, so I can stare at his giant dome and tell him his brother is cooler!" added another, laughing.
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.27 stars, 19th place (2012: 2.32, 15th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.21 stars, 17th place (2012: 2.048, 17th)
INTEGRITY: 2.44 stars, 12th place (2012: 2.12, 15th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.72 stars, 6th place (2012: 2.08, 13th)
#14 Gael Greene, Foodie.com, 2.413 Stars
Insatiable Critic Gael Greene has been in the game for some time — she helped write the rules — so,l as happened last year, it’s not surprising most comments focused on her status as an icon, especially as several of the chefs who voted on her attested to have known her going back through the decades. Some claimed to know her fish doneness preferences ("she likes her cooked fish raw"), others made reference to her knowledge of French cuisine, and at least one called her "an honest writer and a pro when it comes to food," but other comments were mixed. "Parochial." "La Grande Dame." "She slept with Elvis." "One of my favorites." "Funny, smart, and insightful." Some chefs, it seemed, were quite tired of the icon. "In her day, it was another story. But now, she's on another planet." "Also past her prime but she still has a ton of knowledge." "She should really retire." "Knows plenty, but has really become a cranky old bitty [sic]."
Chefs on Greene’s prose style? "Generally, I love reading Gael’s reviews, though sometimes, she’s a bit ornery." "Tends toward clichés." "Gael is the consummate prose master. Even if you dislike her opinion you gotta love her way with the short framework of the review process. She can be a bit preachy, but hell, that's Gael."
Perception, experience, reputation — chefs judged Greene on all these criteria. "Through the years, I have learned to trust Gael," said one chef. "I think she is true to heart. In the early days she may have given some preference to friends, yet on the whole, I trust her." "Zero integrity, and able to be bought," accused another. "Hates graft and anything less than integrity," said one chef. "She hates when I send her even a small token of my esteem without it appearing on the bill." As for sharing a meal with her? "That would be pure entertainment."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.68 stars, 10th place (2012: 2.66, 10th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.42 stars, 15th place (2012: 2.49, 8th)
INTEGRITY: 1.88 stars, 17th place (2012: 2.2, 12th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.67 stars, tied at 7th place (2012: 2.45, 6th)
#13 Phil Vettel, Chicago Tribune, 2.47 Stars
In 13th place in last year's survey, too, 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. That respect for Vettel’s culinary knowledge fell off in 2013, but he gained votes for his prose style, likeability, and perceived integrity. "Phil is the gold standard of food critics," said one chef. "Not a fan," added another, who was joined by a common refrain about many of the bottom critics and writers in this survey: "Can be bought from what I hear."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.33 stars, 17th place (2012: 2.8, tied at 3rd)
PROSE STYLE: 2.6 stars, 10th place (2012: 2.4, tied at 12th)
INTEGRITY: 2.6 stars, 9th place (2012: 2.24, 11th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.33 stars, 12th place (2012: 1.74, 18th)
#12 Tim Carman, Washington Post, 2.56 Stars
Last year, at least when it came to the dozens of America's top chefs surveyed by The Daily Meal, James Beard Award-winning writer Tim Carman still had some work to do to build up his reputation. Carman finished last or near last in every category voted on. Seems like his hard work is paying off, at least when it came to the chefs surveyed this year, because he climbed considerably in every category. In fact, with his climb up seven spots, Carman made among the biggest gains of any writer on the list last year. Noted one chef, "Tim is a meticulous writer who carefully researches his critiques and articles."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.75 stars, 9th place (2012: 1.95, 19th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.29 stars, tied at 16th place (2012: 2, 19th)
INTEGRITY: 2.86 stars, 7th place (2012: 1.8, 19th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.33 stars, 12th place (2012: 1.4, 20th)
#11 Robb Walsh, Houstonia Magazine, 2.59 Stars
Robb Walsh (and Houston) took a few hits from chefs surveyed last year. "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 things weren’t all bad for him. He was called "honest," "smart," and "a good, simple writer." This year, panelists were kinder, perhaps because after settling into non-anonymous reviewing as Houstonia’s restaurant critic, the Houston icon — who is also, incidentally, a restaurateur, owner of El Real Tex-Mex Café — has returned to higher visibility. Walsh climbed three spots, landing squarely in the middle of the pack of critics and writers. And comments were just as positive. "Brusque, with insight and an eye on the prize," said one chef, adding, "Robb is my kind of writer." Said another, "I have known Robb for a long time. He is the real deal. Talks straight and writes the way he talks."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.8 stars, 7th place (2012: 2.62, 12th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.43 stars, 14th place (2012: 2.14, 16th)
INTEGRITY: 2.5 stars, 11th place (2012: 2.2, 12th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.63 stars, 8th place (2012: 1.89, 15th)
#10 S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times, 2.61 Stars
Falling a spot from 2012, Virbila may have lost ground, but her star rating actually climbed higher. And comments were far more positive, especially impressive considering that two chefs commenting acknowledged that Virbila’s take on them hadn’t been particularly effusive. "She was tough on us, but I still think she's a good writer," said one chef adding, "We would love to have her back." "She was really tough on us, and our chef in particular, but I still think she's a good writer," added another. The overall goodwill continued: "I like Sherry [as her friends call her]. She has always been low-key around me, and she seems to be very serious about her job." Even one tougher chef-critic was more philosophical than critical: "The Los Angeles Times was my usual for years. I think it must be hard to do this week in and week out for as long as Sherry has done it. Is she perfect, not really. But then who is?"
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.64 stars, 12th place (2012: 2.72, 7th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.5 stars, 13th place (2012: 2.46, 10th)
INTEGRITY: 2.86 stars, tied at 7th place (2012: 2.70, 5th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.44 stars, 10th place (2012: 2.11, 12th)
#9 Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue, 2.62 Stars
Along with John Mariani, Steve Cuozzo, Pete Wells, and Alan Richman, The Man Who Ate Everything was one of the critics or writers who were most commented on by chefs in this survey. And like last year, the comments were overwhelmingly positive. "Knows his food." "An actual writer who communicates through food — in a league of his own." "Phenomenal. Love, love, love his writing. I would like to spend time on a remote island just talking about food with him. His approach to the subject is so in-depth and multi-sensory. Steingarten is in a class by himself." "Jeffrey just makes me laugh — he is a walking encyclopedia with an elephant's memory for details." "The best pure writer in the business. Much better on the page than in person." "Love his style," "great writer," "knowledgeable," "wonderful," "snarky, but good," and from another admirer, "I laughed my a** off reading The Man Who Ate Everything. You can’t be at Vogue for years and not be a good writer." The compliments poured on, falling in line with the culinary knowledge and prose style categories that he dropped in but remained among the leaders of. But there was plenty of griping to match Steingarten falling seven spots on the list. "One of the greatest food writers out there," said one chef who didn’t give any examples, but concluded, "unfortunately he's getting very old and he's always been so sexist." Asked another chef, "With or without a drink in his hand? That makes a world of difference once he’s lubricated." The two categories he fell most in were perceived integrity ("gets upset if he doesn’t get free" ahem, stuff), and likeability, of which two chefs noted, "I’ve seen food falling from his mouth regularly — he forgets to swallow before he talks."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.88 stars, 5th place (2012: 2.8, 3rd)
PROSE STYLE: 2.89 stars, 6th place (2012: 3.15, 1st)
INTEGRITY: 2.25 stars, 14th place (2012: 2.73, 4th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.47 stars, 9th place (2012: 2.63, 3rd)
#8 Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly, 2.81 Stars
Texas Monthly made history by hiring Daniel Vaughn to be the only full-time barbecue critic on the staff of a major newspaper or magazine in America, and the newcomer made a good first showing overall with an eighth place debut, just one spot below Bon Appétit’s Andrew Knowlton. Vaughn made impressive debuts in culinary knowledge and prose style in sixth and eighth place respectively, was tied with Pete Wells at three stars for perceived integrity, and ranked ninth just below Adam Platt on likeability.
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.86 stars, 6th place
PROSE STYLE: 2.71 stars, 8th place
INTEGRITY: 3 stars, tied at 6th place
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.67 stars, tied at 7th place
#7 Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appétit, 2.82 Stars
Last year’s 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. Chefs were much more generous this year, both with stars and compliments. "Andrew’s culinary travels are well documented and he’s always seeking different story angles around the globe," said one chef. "Respectful of chefs and the work involved in running a restaurant," vouched another. Others called him a "nice food writer" with his "finger on the pulse," a few going so far as to call him an "up and comer," and the "wave of the future." Still, it wasn’t all rose-petal cocktails and rainbow cookies. While he was generally approved of for having "fairly wide-ranging interests," being "knowledgeable about food," "a good writer," and trusted, he was accused by one chef of being "a bit of a sheep," and a little too on-trend. "Doesn’t review New York City," added one chef, "only Brooklyn."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.65 stars, 11th place (2012: 2.24, 17th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.69 stars, 9th place (2012: 2.46, 9th)
INTEGRITY: 2.85 stars, 8th place (2012: 2.06, 17th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.07 stars, 5th place (2012: 1.86, 16th)
#6 Pete Wells, The New York Times, 2.99 Stars
Pete Wells fared… well, pretty well last year, placing third in the list of writers and critics that chefs surveyed. It’s interesting to note that last year’s survey took place before his lashing out at Guy Fieri. He didn’t place as high this year, falling three spots overall, but once again, critics couldn’t resist analyzing his development or just weighing in on the state of restaurant reviewing at The New York Times.
"He has expanded the horizons of The New York Times reviews during his tenure, but not always favorably," offered one chef. Others described him as "fairly knowledgeable," "sharp, incisive, not afraid to mix it up," a "lovely writer who is somewhat erratic in his stances," and "Meh… smart, but too eager to demonstrate it." Some chefs were more verbose in their comments. "Wells reviews too soon," said one. "I don't understand him. Restaurants have to have some bizarre food wow factor... I just don't think he knows food that well. He does know his wine, though." And another: "Somehow, The Times' food ratings don't carry the same weight that they used to. But at least they visit three times, which is so much more respectable and potentially accurate than most magazines who only visit once (are they kidding?)"
Others were a bit more… blue in their comments. "Knowledgeable about food and says what nobody else has the @#$% to say!" said one. "A @#$%&*@ #$%& who needs to get off his soapbox and bandwagon," said another. "Try having an actual opinion of your own without being a lemming."
As for his prose style, chef comments were mixed. One said "I love his style," another found him "confusing and often off topic." Offered one: "Pete obviously can produce a fast, thought-provoking review. Does he zero in on the things that I think are important? Not really, but to each his own. I just wish he would get more excited. He seems too involved with the minutiae. I could use some passion and some more of his obvious sense of humor."
On his perceived integrity:
"I think he is moody. Just don't trust him and why he reviews the way he does."
"Tricky to pin this down with him."
"Lacks integrity if he has an agenda."
Also interesting to note? While Wells fell several places in the culinary knowledge, prose style, and integrity categories, he was tied for second when it came to chefs wanting to share a meal with the critic. "So I can tell him how much he doesn’t know over and over again," said one.
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.79 stars, 8th place (2012: 2.74, 7th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.84 stars, 7th place (2012: 2.88, 3rd)
INTEGRITY: 3 stars, tied at 6th place (2012: 2.88, 3rd)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.33 stars, tied at 2nd place (2012: 2.58, 5th)
#5 Corby Kummer, The Atlantic, 3.12 Stars
Last year’s mixed bag of chef comments included a couple of doozies, with Corby Kummer being called "persnickety," "inclusive," and "too intellectual for restaurant reviewing." (He was even accused by one chef for not eating meat at restaurants he writes about, a claim Kummer said for the record is most certainly not true.) There were a few catcalls from the chef gallery this year, too. "Doesn't understand the ins and outs of the restaurant industry," said one. "Doesn't seem to actually enjoy food," offered another. But even several chefs who found criticism in Kummer praised him. "He’s a curmudgeon, but a fabulous, intelligent writer, and one with integrity."
And negative comments were far outweighed by a chorus of praise that buoyed him two spots higher than last year. "An intelligent writer," said one, "Perfect for The Atlantic," agreed another. "He likes food!" Noted others: "Trust!" "Erudite and warm," and "Corby is a writer who brings a wonderful sense of information to the page." "I think Corby is the quintessential New Englander, cutting right to the chase always," said one chef, "I like that. And Kummer even inspired at least one chef’s inner writer, "Like a dry martini, cold enough to freeze your upper teeth, Corby is an interesting wordsmith. He has his prejudices, but isn't that the point. I find him very readable."
The most puzzling comment? "He is a Yankee after all."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.94 stars, tied at 4th place (2012: 2.72, 7th)
PROSE STYLE: 3.2 stars, 2nd place (2012: 2.8, 5th)
INTEGRITY: 3.14 stars, 5th place (2012: 2.4, 9th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.2 stars, tied at 3rd place (2012: 2.24, 11th)
#4 Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle, 3.16 Stars
Another critic whose stars increased considerably, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer endured just one negative comment from a chef: "In an ever-growing culinary city, Michael certainly has his favorites. It’s pretty clear who they are." "Thoughtful," "one of the best," "the eternal critic," said others. As for his prose style, one chef reflected, "Michael has evolved as a writer. I find his style to be very accessible and clear." And integrity? "I understand Michael hates payola. I sense he loves his gig."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.94 stars, 4th place (2012: 2.78, 4th)
PROSE STYLE: 2.92 stars, 5th place (2012: 2.4, tied at 12th)
INTEGRITY: 3.64 stars, 1st place (2012: 2.65, 7th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.14 stars, 4th place (2012: 2.29, 9th)
#3 Brett Anderson, The Times-Picayune, 3.2825 Stars
There are few more respected food writers or critics in America than The Times-Picayune’s Brett Anderson (he was even a heavy favorite for The New York Times’ restaurant critic position before Pete Wells was appointed). So it was surprising last year (though less so than The Times-Picayune firing and then rehiring him) that Anderson only rated 12th place in the survey. Chefs fixed that this year, sending him up nine spots, with not a gripe among them. "Very knowledgeable about wide variety of cuisines — adventurous and curious," offered one chef. "He has a good sense of humor," said another. Anderson was also described as both a "wonderful" and "great writer" who was "sensitive and open to a wide variety of culinary experiences," a critic with "high integrity, well-regarded by everyone in the field," "straightforward but poetic," and "a joy." Tied for third for the critic chefs would most like to eat with, apparently, he’s a great dining companion, too. Said one chef, "I had dinner with him once. He’s very knowledgeable and passionate about food."
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 3.3 stars, 2nd place (2012: 2.26, 15th)
PROSE STYLE: 3 stars, 4th place (2012: 2.26, 14th)
INTEGRITY: 3.63 stars, 2nd place (2012: 2.47, 8th)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.2 stars, tied at 3rd place (2012: 2.26, 10th)
#2 Tom Sietsema, Washington Post, 3.2875 Stars
Last year, 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 and chefs’ comments were fairly positive. This year, none of the chefs commenting this year took to D.C.-baiting and beyond a few comments that "everyone can recognize him" and that he is part of the "D.C. 'club,'" they were overwhelmingly positive. Called a "good man," a "great old-school gentleman," "adventurous and broad in scope," and "one of the best," Sietsema climbed two spots with chefs overall in 2013. "I like Tom's sensibility," explained one chef, "He is an intelligent writer in a genre that can be difficult to make exciting (rutabagas, anyone?)"
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 3.13 stars, 3rd place (2012: 2.92, 2nd)
PROSE STYLE: 3.09 stars, 3rd place (2012: 2.7, 7th)
INTEGRITY: 3.6 stars, 3rd place (2012: 2.9, 2nd)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.33 stars, tied at 2nd place (2012: 2.34, 8th)
#1 Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles Times, 3.44 Stars
For the second year running, the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold took the top spot on the list of critics and food writers surveyed by dozens of chefs, and he did that while garnering almost a half star more than he did in 2012, and even fewer dissenting comments. Consider what chefs said about Gold:
"Always a pleasure."
"One of a kind."
"Super curious and imaginative."
"Has the most common sense of any critic."
"An individual in every sense of the word. Awesome palate and curiosity."
"Definitely keeps current with dining trends."
"One of the best."
"Love Jonathan and his writing; he is down to earth, smart, and real."
"I think Jonathan is a cool dude."
Comments about Gold’s prose style included a chef who said, "He cracks me up. He is so passionate, even-keeled, informative, and that dude can write! He makes me want to eat at whatever joint he writes about tomorrow." Described by one chef as "honest as the day is long," Gold’s integrity was heralded as "uncompromising (he’s totally his own person)." And sharing a meal? "That would be so fun," said one chef. So there you have it: according to chefs, Jonathan Gold is America’s smartest, most talented, and most likeable critic or food writer. Fourth place in perceived integrity, Jonathan? Slacker.
CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 3.47 stars, 1st place (2012: 3.12, 1st)
PROSE STYLE: 3.5 stars, 1st place (2012: 3.064, 2nd)
INTEGRITY: 3.36 stars, 4th place (2012: 2.97, 1st)
LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.43 stars, 1st place (2012: 2.7, 1st)
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.”
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 breakingbread 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