Of late, I seem to have been embroiled in more than one debate about anonymity and the life of a restaurant critic. Rather than simmer in a pot of my own angry pho and rant in silence (e.g. at my long suffering wife), I figured I’d just put down my own two penneth on the subject here. Then I can go back to arguing about far more important things in life, like five dollar pieces toast.
The common perception of restaurant criticism is that it demands the same form of covert, clandestine operations normally employed by special forces. To be a restaurant critic is to be just a handgun and a less flabby belly away from a Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne. In my case, a significantly less flabby belly would be required. You’re welcome for the mental image by the way.
In this spy vs spy world of intrigue, chefs and general managers are the dastardly counter intelligence agents. Equipped with thick dossiers of names, photos and preferences they cunningly toil to unearth the critics in their midst. Some might recall such a handbook doing the rounds in DC earlier in the year.
The simple truth of the matter is that most restaurants in SLC wouldn’t know what to do with such a file even if it landed in their lap. That’s not a criticism by the way, Salt Lake is simply a modest dining market. This is not NYC. I am not Ruth Reichl.
Moreover, a miserable menu with ill conceived dishes can’t be resuscitated on the spot no matter how well you know me or recognize me. An incompetent service team led by clueless management aren’t suddenly going to up their game to Michelin standards. There exist very few restaurants in SLC equipped to change gears in such fashion. Moreover, these specific restaurants will generally deliver a great dining experience regardless of the guest anyway.
To underline this, take the person most familiar with me – me. I’m pretty sure I recognize myself on a daily basis. Still, I don’t care to tell you how many times I’ve collapsed in tears in front of the grill, grasping some poorly realized attempt at BBQ in my hand. Don’t I know who I am? And you should see how I serve myself a drink, I’ve been known to pour fine wines into a plastic cup. Mais non!
So, anonymity, completely useless? No, not at all, the issue is far more nuanced. There exists a spectrum of anonymity – from avoiding total detection through study of arcane ninja teachings to flagrant disregard for any kind of concealment at all.
I never announce my presence loudly as I walk into a restaurant: “Behold my arrival, your potential benefactor or destroyer has arrived, fear the ensuing 90 minutes of service. For ye shall know no mercy.” When I attend dining events, I avoid photographs or introductions to chefs I expect to have to write about critically in the future. Yes, I have hidden behind a plant pot before.
I have declined numerous TV and public appearance requests. I don’t ‘friend’ chefs or business owners that I have no personal one to one with already, and I refrain from using my ugly mug on food related social media. I know some of my colleagues in the industry take a similar approach, I know some don’t. Que sera, sera.
Of course, there are only so many plant pots to hide behind. Being active in such a small community as I am, leads to a gradual erosion of my anonymity, I’m fine with that. That’s why I personally believe any restaurant critic only has a set useful shelf life, I know I do. Heck, I might already be past my best by date, please be sure to check my label and let me know. I’m humbled and grateful for the culinary experiences I’ve had in this town, but every time I take up an offer from a business owner, to check out a chefs latest creation – that’s one more place I’m not ever able to review again. Not critically. For reference, for the Tribune, I outright decline assignments in advance if I know an owner or chef.
Anyway, that’s my take on it all. So, how do you spot a restaurant critic? Simple, here’s an easy guide:
* They will have 2-3 times more food in front of them than is reasonable by any standard
* They’re the one asking all the weird questions. Ordering may take hours as every ingredient and technique on the menu is examined in microscopic detail normally befitting CERN projects
* They will likely spend more time inspecting, prodding, sniffing and pontificating over their food than actually eating it
* They’re constantly looking around the restaurant, looking at what others are eating, looking at how others are being served, much to the dissatisfaction of their dining guests. Their companions are merely there for show and/or running interference
* Their companions are also probably signing a lot as a result of the above, holding their head in their hands, and generally expressing a “this is not as much fun as you think it is” look
* There will be alcohol
* There will be lots of alcohol
* The alcohol will be ‘for journalistic reasons’
Featured image courtesy of Flickr user, under creative commons license.
Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you! I’m the founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review; I’m also a former restaurant critic of more than five years, working for the Salt Lake Tribune. I’ve worked extensively with other local publications from Utah Stories through to Salt Lake Magazine and Visit Salt Lake.
I’m a multiple-award winning journalist and have covered the Utah dining scene for more than a decade. I’m largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words I don’t understand. I ate all the pies.