FIRST PERSON The Chef Strikes Back

The creator of the red-hot Star Canyon barbecues critics and gives his recipe for fair and useful restaurant reviewing.

WHEN THE EDITOR OF THIS MAGAZINE asked me to write an article reviewing the restaurant reviewers, my first thought was “Great! It’s finally my chance to turn the tables,”

Then came my second thought: A chef never gets the last word with the press.

One example of this truth-and an example of what not to do as a restaurateur-is an experience a close friend and colleague of mine in another major city had a few years back. His spectacular restaurant was given a mediocre review upon first opening by the critic of the city’s most prestigious newspaper. In a subsequent interview with another publication, my friend made the mistake of vigorously defending himself and systematically questioning the critic’s ethics and qualifications.

The result? Each year, when the nationally read critic lists her favorite restaurants in the area, my friend’s internationally acclaimed restaurant doesn’t even make it into the top 50, or 500, or whatever the number happens to be that year.

As this incident shows, the reviewer is often the prosecutor, judge, and jury, and there is no court of appeal. However unjustified, the mud thrown at one’s reputation has a nasty way of sticking, and there is little a restaurateur can do about it. I can think of many other such personal vendettas industry-wide, and while it’s an unfortunate and unnecessary side of the business, it also happens to be reality.

I have also had my own experiences with food reviewers. A few years ago in a national publication, a famous critic reviewing the Routh Street Cafe set the tone of her article by complaining that she had been seated in an unfavorable section of the restaurant’s “Siberia! ” She was referring to the entire second floor, which took up more than half the restaurant and was preferred by many of our regular guests. This was quite unfair. But some reviewers undoubtedly need to feel important and want to be treated with favoritism, even if they’re supposed to remain anonymous, the usual practice.

Which reminds me of something that happened when the Routh Street Cafe first opened. The restaurant received glowing reviews in The Dallas Morning News and the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald. However, the restaurant critic for a certain Dallas magazine held a different opinion. Of my cooking, he said, “his reach exceeds his grasp ” and he was even critical of the all-American wine list, In the ensuing years, even’ time this particular critic reviewed Routh Street, he always had something negative to say-for instance, “sea scallops on black bean cakes with tomatillo salsa is a bizarre combination. ” This analysis came from someone who also reviewed the performing arts, such as the opera, symphony, and dance. Is such a person generally qualified to critique the culinary arts as well? Perhaps. All reviewers have their own personal tastes-but is it fair to be so publicly and consistendy out of place with one’s peers and colleagues, and at the restaurant’s expense?

This brings me to wonder how reviewers earn the right to wield such power. The experiences I’ve described might be easier to accept if the credentials of the reviewers were impeccable or even particularly noteworthy. So who are these people? While some food reviewers for the larger newspapers and magazines have impressive credentials, most of the breed have no qualifications at all for becoming critics except for a passing interest in food. Would a food critic with proven credentials really have found the centuries-old combination of scallops, black beans, and tomatillos “bizarre?” This is hardly fair when the livelihood and reputation of chefs, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs are at stake.

At a food writer’s conference two years ago at The Greenbrier Resort in Virginia, a well-known food critic for two large-circulation Midwestern newspapers freely admitted his lack of culinary credentials. He then somewhat glibly related how he had put a restaurant out of business with a scathing review. Ironically, the conference session was entitled “The Ethics of Good Reviewing.” The first question asked from the floor at the end of the presentation was, “So, what is ethical about food reviewing?” A good question indeed!

In my experience, and that of my colleagues, I think some food reviewers are guilty of what in England is called the “tall poppy syndrome,” where writers will take dead aim at successful chefs and restaurants and try to cut them down to size because the critics can score more points for humbling a high-profile target. One nationally known reviewer (the same Siberian Princess) has “exploded the myth ” of one nationally acclaimed restaurant after another in a spiteful display of pique. Knowing food and having eaten at these restaurants, I can honestly say that most of these “myth-exploding” criticisms were flat-out wrong.

I also find it particularly disturbing that many reviews I have read of my food are factually inaccurate: A critic refers to basil in a sauce when there was none; spies pecans in a salad when they were actually peanuts; proclaims an accompaniment to be a cream sauce when it was a simple beurre blanc; describes an empanada as deep-fried when it was baked.

I also take issue with certain non-food critiques that deal with a restaurant’s ambiance and decor. The reviewer of one Dallas publication claimed that the decor of Star Canyon “lacks dramatic impact” while another reviewer, one week later, said the restaurant had been “designed in obsessive detail.” Which is it?

Of course any good restaurant has off nights. Not only have I experienced these nights first-hand at my restaurants, I’ve also encountered them while dining at establishments rated in the top 10 in the world! But you will find the more respected critics will not base their reviews on one bad experience, and will return to see if their experience was unrepresentative. I think this is an excellent practice and should be applied universally. Reviewing a brand new restaurant is also a difficult endeavor, and rarely a fair test. Rather than making a premature assessment, I think the restaurant reviewer should wait at least three or four weeks to allow the restaurant to work out the kinks.

Over the years I’ve been asked whether, conversely, mediocre restaurants ever benefit in the long term from favorable reviews. I cannot think of any restaurant of national acclaim that has existed for any length of time based solely on good reviews. The public is too perceptive and intelligent to suffer fools or incompetence gladly, and ultimately, the most important factor in a restaurant’s success is word of mouth, I know this is true for me, especially if I’m trying a new place for die first time, and I’m always skeptical of accepting a restaurant review at face value. The weight I attach to a review is always directly proportional to my knowledge and opinion of the particular critic.

It is interesting to note that other countries, in particular France, have more serious food reviews written by well-informed and, usually, professionally trained food writers. The ultimate food review and reference book, the French Michelin Guide, applies stringent and consistent standards across the whole country, giving a more equitable system of assessment. Globally, American cooking will never be taken as seriously as cooking in other countries until we develop a similar system for nationally consistent food criticism and evaluation.

HOW WOULD I CHANGE THE SYSTEM OF food reviewing? I firmly believe that food critics should have at least some restaurant experience, taking sabbaticals, if necessary, to understand the inner workings of the business. They should spend time in the kitchen, and perhaps be tested on the accuracy and perceptiveness of their palates.

As well, they should learn the intricacies of how a dining room is run. It should be the food reviewer who explains to a perplexed public that although there are empty tables in a restaurant early in the evening, those tables cannot be seated because they are reserved for specific diners later that night. When a reviewer complains that she was not seated until her whole party had arrived, does she understand the practicality of this policy from the restaurateur’s perspective? Shouldn’t she try to be a conduit of understanding to the public if indeed the policy does have merit?

Fine food does not magically appear on the tabic, and discussing dishes, ingredients, and food combinations with chefs would help reviewers understand the many nuances of the kitchen. After all, would you trust a lay person with no understanding or working knowledge of automobiles to recommend which car to drive? Would you trust just anyone to suggest which computer system your office should buy?

We should set high standards for food reviewers. It seems to me that meeting these standards is the least they can do, given their responsibility to the readership of the community they purport to serve, not to mention the chef and restaurateur. Dallas is blessed with a couple of very good food critics; I would like to see them set the standards for those who are not so good.

A few years ago in San Francisco, prominent local chefs and food critics were invited to change roles for one evening at a charitable fund-raiser. The critics prepared their finest dishes for a limited public audience and the chefs each wrote a critical review of what they were served.

I wonder how many of our Dallas critics would be game for such a challenge? Clearly, the public would pay well to see the tables turned, Is there a charity out there seeking a new forum for raising money? Does the chef ever get the last word? Let me know.


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