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Everyone’s a Critic

Everyone’s a Critic

With some work and a little training, you could be a restaurant critic

By Irena Chalmers

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If you love food and love restaurants and are looking for a job, consider being a restaurant critic. Just look at the explosion of online sites devoted to restaurant criticism today. Four million “experts” are yelping online, while Zagat guides still flourish in print.

The restaurant criticism biz is changing rapidly. As Regina Schrambling points out in the Los Angeles Times: “Restaurant criticism can be divided into two eras: BG and AG. Before Google, reviewers could pretty much move freely about their business. Some might have felt compelled to slap on a wig and those with integrity would definitely reserve and pay under an assumed name. By all standards of old-media journalism, restaurateurs were not supposed to know when a reviewer with the clout to make or break his investment was anywhere near the kitchen. After Google, the rules are being rewritten by the hour.”

Successful Critics

There are many columnists who write restaurant reviews. The most successful have a solid culinary background, which helps establish their credentials. Having at least an A.O.S. (Associate in Occupational Studies) degree from a professional cooking school is a major credential. When you understand the fundamental techniques of cooking and know how restaurants are operated, you are in a much better position to have an educated opinion. This doesn't mean you have to make allowances when things go wrong, but it can save you from making embarrassing mistakes.

Some people have romantic ideas about looking for a job as a restaurant critic. They think it means free dining in fine restaurants and tossing off an opinion after taking a nap.  Sadly this is fantasy, not reality. Most of the top professional critics acknowledge they spend a minimum of 30 hours a week eating. The rest of their hard-working time is spent writing.

Abide by the Rules

If you are starting out, it's important to abide by the rules. This means remaining anonymous and unless you have an assignment from a publication or an online entity with an expense account, you will have to pay for your own meals. Most established publications reimburse you for your expenses, but many small publications do not, Nearly all pay (usually a pittance) for the article.

Restaurant critics learn to live in an atmosphere where their presence – if detected – is met with groveling and cringing servitude, anxiety embedded with hostile loathing. But being liked is not part of the job. Honesty is. When critics go out on a limb the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to express an opinion, and there is not much an aggrieved restaurant owner can do about it.

Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic of The New York Times and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet notes: “The critic's responsibility is to the public. I don't care about restaurants,” she said. “I care about readers.”

Advice from the Pros

Bill Rice, the food and wine columnist at the Chicago Tribune and former chairman of the Restaurant Awards committee for the James Beard Foundation, rightly points out: “A restaurant critic is a consumer advocate. His role is to provide the reader with a second-hand experience before going for a first-hand one. What the reader wants to know is if he can anticipate receiving a good meal at an appropriate cost. The more the meal costs, the higher will be the expectations of both the critic and the guest.”

How are well-thought-out restaurant reviews written? Take it from a master like Alan Richman. In Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater,he chronicles his brilliant career as a witty restaurant critic for GQ magazine and lists five essential qualities a restaurant critic should have.

“A good critic has to have taste,” says Richman, “That's number one. Number two: experience, because it's vital that you've tasted a lot of food. With experience comes confidence. Something that is often missing in food critics today is passion. That's three. Fourth, critics should have a sense of humor, because so much of dining out today is about entertainment. I hope nobody thinks it's about sustenance, because when dining out, food is no longer about survival. Finally, we get into writing. Critics have to know how to write.”

These are very good tips!

Irena Chalmers is the author of Food Jobs: 15 Great Jobs for Culinary Students, Career Changers and Food Lovers. It received the Best Food Book for Professionals in USA; Visit

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