The Critical Crucible

Does an artist need a critic?  For acclaim, for livelihood?  Does a chef need a critics?  Does a restaurant need Yelpers?  Does a warrior need an enemy–or a scribe?  If Achilles had lived during the Pax Romana instead of the Trojan War, would we know his name?  On the other hand, without Homer, would we remember Odysseus?

Can greatness exist in a vacuum?  Which art, or performance, or display, is elite without a pack from which to separate itself?  Or without a chronicler to convey it to an audience?

Restaurant critics inspire fear, obeisance, and blood-thirst in chefs.  They filter and interpret and broadcast, rather than report, the restaurant experience.  In the more crowded competitive sets, their writing often adds to the critical mass of public interest, or ambivalence, that causes a new restaurant’s survival or failure.

What makes a restaurant critic any good?  I don’t think all of them are knuckleheads, prima donnas, or sycophants, but since, to my mind, they can keep a thumb on the scales of my career, I remain suspicious.  I tell myself, and my crew, that we can either believe everything or nothing that’s written about us, but we cannot believe only the positive feedback and expect to survive.

I respect critics who write stimulating, efficient prose, and who can speculate on flavors, preparations, and inspirations without reckless inaccuracy.  I don’t respect the ones who veer off beyond exposition and critique and twist their reviews to please or irritate, or even ruin, certain restaurateurs.  The restaurant critic, from his bully pulpit, judges a godless flock.

I think I would make an exemplary restaurant critic.  My restaurant knowledge and experience qualify me, and my prose is less than frightful.  The influence of the position, the power over the life or death of an establishment,  don’t tempt me.  I am lured by the thought of being read and listened to as a result of the long years I’ve spent in kitchens (which partly answers the “Why?” of writing these articles, and adding the time to do so to an already very full life).  But anonymity is a key component of objective restaurant critique, and I couldn’t remain anonymous; the restaurant network sprawls far and wide, in part because cooks and chefs are an itinerant tribe.

Review day is judgement day.  Critics may be inured to the sensations that they provoke in their subjects, so I’m going to describe the experience of reading the reviews of my own restaurants: pre-digital age–waiting for the newspapers to arrive at the gas station in the half-dawn, car running, coffee steaming, shoulders clenched and shivering with anticipation; digital age–slowly rocking back and forth on an office chair in front of my computer at 4:00AM on a Friday, refreshing a web site every thirty seconds, because the featured Sunday review is published online first, around this time each week, and I want to make damn sure I see it before anyone else.

My skin chills as hot blood rushes up to it: a prehistoric, reptilian response to conflict.  The few times I’ve felt this sensation before or since:

  • trips to the principal’s office
  • during a few life-altering conversations
  • when confronted with mortal danger
  • preparing for an unpleasant termination of an employee
  • perhaps a few extremely important UNC basketball games.

–all in all, not happy occasions, but ones with enormous potential swings between risk and reward.  I inhale deeply, scan the review top to bottom once, read it really fast a second time, read it more slowly a third time, cuss quietly about the inaccuracies, and start calling or texting or otherwise looping in sous chefs, bosses, partners and the like with the good or bad news.  I do want them to hear it from me, if possible.

That’s followed a primal scream or three, a few deep breaths till the lightheadedness levels out, and push-ups to exhaustion.  And read it again.  And shower, dress, drive to work, and turn on the stoves.


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