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

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.[pullquote:right]
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." 
How did Eater critics fare with the chefs polled? Ryan Sutton (2.09) scored in the bottom third overall. "He knows a lot about statistics and the business of restaurants," one chef commented. He was joined by colleague Robert Sietsema (2.22) who wasn't considered in 2013 after being fired by The Village Voice, but who scored a tine higher in 2012 (2.38 stars). Sietsema can take consolation that chefs seemed interested in sharing a meal with him and that at least one commended his "great understanding of ethnic and inexpensive restaurants." Bill Addison made a strong overall debut just outside the top 10 writers with 2.58 stars, but comments were perhaps the most polarized. They ranged from calling him "intelligent," commending his "great sense of culinary history and well-rounded, thoughtful reviews," and being "almost upset he went to Eater and didn't replace Pete Wells at The Times," to calling him "swayed by the most over-the-top, new for new sake" trend, "ignorant and uninformed, close-minded, and small."
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. 
Who do you think chefs would say is the most knowledgeable food writer? For the first time in three years, Jonathan Gold (3.06) didn't hold that spot, slipping below Jeffrey Steingarten (3.17) and Pete Wells (3.1). While Steingarten scored slightly better, comments were mixed. Not so perceptions of Gold, who was described as having "encyclopedic knowledge." The biggest movers up were Pete Wells (six spots) and Adam Platt of New York Magazine (10 spots), while Brett Anderson of The Times-Picayune (down 12 spots), Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly (down 11 spots), Robb Walsh of Houstonia (down 13 spots), Tim Carman of The Washington Post (down 16 spots), and Craig Laban (down 15 spots) fell at least 10 spots. 
A grabby lead that doesn't try too hard to show how smart or hip the writer is; interest enough in food to discuss 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.
Maybe it was the way he got "rats, longshoreman, and wayward bookies" in the first line of a review of The River Cafe that also included "romance." Or the time he likened a Food Network star to Miles Davis and said the Iron Chef was giving diners nothing less "than the full Flay." Whatever the prompted, chefs rated Pete Wells America's most talented writer (3.13 stars). Said one chef, "Excellent writer, classic form, sarcastic and creative." Brett Anderson ("flowery") climbed two spots and into second place, tied in a shocking six-way tie at three stars with Corby Kummer, Ligaya Mishan, Pat Sharpe, Tim Carman, and Brad A. Johnson.
Speaking of the last two, they were among perhaps the most surprising moves up (Carman 13 spots, Johnson up 17 spots); with Michael Bauer (down 12), Daniel Vaughn (down 19), and Josh Ozersky (down 12) falling furthest. "In the old days, the reviewer would use stealth in attempt to represent an objective review," one chef complained. "This practice has been abandoned, and in its place it's the personality of the food writer as culinary lifestyle critic that is at the fore. Lifestyle publications and newspapers attempt to use the overblown personality of the writer, let's say over what they are writing about. 'What does Josh Ozersky think about X?' Sorry Josh, but your shtick typifies this. I say 'Who cares?'"
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.
Pete Wells was perceived as having the most integrity of all writers considered (3.38 stars), followed by Jonathan Gold (3.3 stars), Ligaya Mishan (3.17 stars), last year's title-holder Michael Bauer (3.13 stars), and S. Irene Virbila of the Los Angeles Times (2.8 stars). The bottom three included Alison Cook (1.6 stars), Robert Sietsema (1.57 stars), and Brad A. Johnson (1 star).
This category was categorized by some of the most contentious comments throughout the survey. Certain magazines were said to not be able to be trusted, "It's all about what they are looking for and who will buy it," claimed one chef. "I know hotels and restaurants comp him or he doesn't visit," claimed one chef about another writer. "Bill [Addison] has great integrity and I believe always maintains his objectivity," said a participant. Of Josh Ozersky, another commented, "True to the point that he likes what he likes and all else is suspect." Even the highest-starred critic didn't go unscathed; of Pete Wells, one chef volunteered, "The power of this job goes to everyone's head. The Times has its favorites and each critic makes or breaks their own stars."
Cares deeply about food and beverage and the people preparing them and can talk about them with a distinct viewpoint; and has the charm, lack of ego, and recognition of what they don't know to make them interesting enough to share a pizza or drink a beer with.
It's one thing to respect someone's work and another to actually want to eat with them. When it came to chefs, the writers they were most interested in break bread with were Pete Wells (3.19 stars), Jonathan Gold (3.08 stars), and Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appétit (2.85 stars). They were least interested in eating with Leslie Brenner (1.57 stars), Craig Laban Philadelphia Inquirer (1.4 stars), and Stan Sagner (1.25 stars).
Chefs had mostly positive things to say about dining with critics they reviewed. Sole exceptions were Alan Richman, Adam Platt, Josh Ozersky, and Leslie Brenner. "Laying down in a pile of fire ants while covered in honey, I imagine would be more pleasurable," one chef said of eating with Alan Richman. Of Adam Platt one noted, "No interest." "I have eaten with him and it goes just about how you would expect," another chimed about sharing a meal with Josh Ozersky. Things were less polite when it came to Leslie Brenner, about whom one chef said something we're unable to print.
But enough excerpts. If you want the whole story about what some of America's top chefs said about the nation's most well known writers, read their comments while viewing the slideshow (or visit each writer's individual slide using the list below). As for who might be considered for next year's survey? "Why didn't you include Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite from New York Magazine?," one chef chided. We're open to suggestions, chefs.



#28 Craig Laban, Philadelphia Inquirer