Chefs reviewing restaurants: Can they beat the crowd?

July 30, 2013

A funny thing happened recently as various media outlets argued over the relative merits of professional restaurant critics vs. wannabe reviewers who post opinions on Yelp, Urbanspoon, Open­Table and the like. A third group quietly entered the discussion: chefs.

Yes, chefs, those men and women who, in a previous era, typically divided their time between a kitchen and, say, a cramped sixth-floor walk-up in Queens and/or their dealer’s favorite haunt.

This year, two new volumes have clamored for our attention: “Best Chefs America 2013” (Best Chefs America LLC, $75) and “Where Chefs Eat” (Phaidon Press, $19.95). Perhaps more important to those who view the printed page as akin to Anthony Weiner — primitive and something they’d never touch — “Where Chefs Eat” has an Apple-compatible app ($14.99), while “Best Chefs America” has a free, mobile-friendly Web site. (Both lag behind a San Francisco company that released the mobile app Chefs Feed in 2011.)

So now where should diners turn for the best advice on restaurants? To Ben W. Biddle, vice president of business development for Best Chefs America, the answer is clear.

“This is just an entirely new way for those many food enthusiasts out there to explore cuisine,” Biddle told me. “To this point, people have just had restaurant reviews, Yelp, OpenTable, and that’s all great. But it’s a lot of noise. . . . The premise that we’ve developed this on is that chefs know best.”

It’s a premise that, on its surface, makes sense. Manychefs are experts not only on food preparation and plating but also on points of service, beverage programs and the countless other elements that compose a great dining experience. Many, without doubt, can spot a stellar restaurant when they step into one.

What’s more, as British food writer Joe Warwick notes in his preface to “Where Chefs Eat,” chefs are no longer chained to the stove. “They trawl the world for inspiration and eat around as much as they can closer to home because food is their passion and they love eating out,” writes Warwick, who edited the volume.

And yet: Despite those obvious truths, neither  of  these chef-driven books can stand on its own. That is, neither provides enough information to help you decide whether to eat at a given restaurant. Both rely on a flawed theory: Because “chefs know best,” all a diner needs is a chef’s blessing before deciding to darken a restaurant’s doorway.

Okay, maybe you’re the type who would visit Burt’s Place in Chicago just because Michelin-starred chef Homaro Cantu recommended its pizzas. I’d guess, however, that many diners would prefer far more information about the pizzeria than the bare-bones data provided in “Where Chefs Eat.” I know I would, though I admit that I’m not your standard civilian diner.

A quick Google search on Burt’s Place, for instance, unearths a wealth of information, much of it dug up by professional writers, critics and bloggers. I learned from a Serious Eats item in 2008 that Burt Katz “puts a little cheese on the back of the sides of the crust before putting it in the oven, resulting in a crunchy, caramelized crust.” I also learned that Katz has a reputation for running out of dough before the end of service. Seems important to know, yes?

The chefs-know-best approach has an air of infallibility about it, as if these men and women of the kitchen don’t possess the little prejudices and personal agendas that you’ve come to loathe about so-and-so (fill in the name of your favorite critic to pummel). I once chauffeured a notable chef to three Neapolitan pizzerias in the Washington area, each well respected by critics and diners. He hated them all. He hated them because, he confessed, he didn’t care for the wet center of Neapolitan pizza. This was a man who could not put away his personal biases to judge a dish on its own merits.

The chef community is small and somewhat insular. Take a look at the nearly 80 D.C.-area toques who won a spot in “Best Chefs America” (which, I must say, looks more like one of those “Who’s Who in America” volumes, typically purchased by the people named in it). They are, by and large, familiar names: José Andrés, Jeffrey Buben, Erik Bruner-Yang, Ann Cashion, Todd Gray, Ris Lacoste, Johnny Monis, Scott Drewno, Kaz Okochi, and on and on.

Chefs were selected for the book based on interviews with more than 5,000 of their peers, who ultimately mentioned the names of more than 70,000 cooks, Biddle says. Those names were then run through software designed to weigh the data and calculate a score. Chefs above a certain score were included in the volume.

The software, Biddle says, can spot the bias of, say, a chef who repeatedly singles out a peer, presumably because they’re friends. What the software can’t do is widen a chef’s circle of experience. Maybe chefs aren’t chained to their stoves, but they still don’t have time, or much motivation, to comb their cities for the best food. So when some poor schlub asks chefs to identify talented colleagues or favorite restaurants, they will inevitably mention their friends or the late-night eateries they frequent after service. Chefs are not trailblazers when it comes to eating out. We don’t expect them to be.

No, chefs are not critics, whose job is, in part, to search out and acknowledge excellence in cooking no matter where it resides. Such a search requires time, money, endless study and a deep pool of sources to provide tips. And even if they have all of those things at their disposal, critics still will inevitably confront cultural and language barriers. They will bump into their own ignorance as they sample cuisines and dishes that require further research and reporting. Still, when a skilled critic renders judgment on a restaurant (of any quality), the review can speak with a kind of breezy wisdom, as if years of accumulated knowledge have been spilled onto the page for your entertainment and education.

For better or worse, the Internet has exposed the vulnerabilities of the professional-critic model: While a professional reviewer may pay for his own meals and may be free from relationships that could bring his judgment into question, one critic can eat only so much. One critic can overcome his biases only so much. One critic can scrub the Internet of only so many identifying photos to maintain anonymity. One critic can visit a restaurant only a handful of times before issuing an opinion.

The Web, by contrast, has few restrictions. It has opened food criticism to all comers, a fact that causes some restaurant owners to declare the end of civilization as we know it. Their concerns are legit, of course. A Harvard Business School study in 2011 found that a one-star increase in a Yelp rating leads to a 5 percent to 9 percent increase in revenue. That’s a lot of power to hand over to diners who, some restaurateurs suspect, possess all the culinary knowledge of dust mites.

But what restaurateurs think of Yelp shouldn’t concern you, the diner. What’s important about Yelp is not the star rating affixed to a restaurant — that’s a mere starting point — but the site’s sheer volume of reviews and the breadth of its reach. I regularly rely on Yelp, Urbanspoon and other sites to serve as de facto scouts for the $20 Diner, the weekly review of cheap eats I write for the Weekend section. They rarely fail me, mostly because I have the time and the torture-proof constitution to read through countless reviews to divine a certain truth about a restaurant.

To use just one example: Before I visited Kantutas in Wheaton, I browsed through the Yelp commentary, which was overwhelmingly positive. The worst review I read, at three stars, came from someone who clearly knew a lot about Bolivian cuisine. I, somewhat counterintuitively, considered that a plus; from my observations of Yelp, those raised on specific cuisines can be harsh judges of their own food, particularly if the restaurant in question is liked by the broader dining public, as if the native eaters were parading their authority over the uninformed masses. Sure enough, those Yelpers steered me right; I found much to praise at Kantutas.

You tend to develop general theories about Yelp once you become a regular interpreter of its quirky language. One-star reviews, for instance, typically are the work of diners who have been, in one way or another, insulted by the wait staff (or owner or manager or someone else who behaved badly). Other complaints that can cause a star rating to plummet: dirty bathrooms, filthy tables, hair in places where it shouldn’t be. As a regular diner at strip-mall eateries, I try to put those issues into their proper context. You can still find good food at a place with slow busers.

I’m not the only critic to analyze Yelp’s raw data for my own purposes, as I learned from reading “Yelp Help,” by Hanna Raskin, the incoming food writer for South Carolina’s Charleston Post and Courier. When Raskin was the critic for Seattle Weekly, she says, she used Yelp to help differentiate among the city’s many strip-mall Mexican joints.

“Perhaps my colleagues further south are more practiced sleuths, but I have no way of intuiting when genius lurks behind maracas-shaped cardboard cutouts and neon cerveza signs,” Raskin writes in the book, which aims to help Yelpers write more effective reviews. “A restaurant might serve a sauce that’s essentially unknown outside of Puebla or quesadillas smeared with xoconostle, but it takes a healthy dose of dumb luck (or the kind of time that’s not available to food writers living in the 24-hour news cycle) to find it. Enter Yelp.”

The simple fact is, Yelp can provide so many perspectives on a restaurant. Those viewpoints can flit between the expert and the idiotic; they can also be issued by people with less-than-savory agendas: motivations that will never be known by outside readers. But collectively, those Yelp reviews can — I repeat, can — add up to a consensus on a restaurant that’s more complete than anything issued by a single critic or chef, no matter how much those professionals know about food.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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