There are many strategies for becoming a mouth for hire. Some spring from journalism or cooking schools; other tactics involve luck and timing. (When Bob Woodward and Phyllis Richman were both looking for assistants, my fate was sealed when the former sent me a “thanks, but no thanks” note.) Really, though, anyone aspiring to a gig like mine ought to consider training as a spy.
Think about it. The work life of a food critic involves making reservations under pseudonyms, trying to throw restaurants off his scent and never letting on what he’s really thinking, at least ahead of deadline.
In lieu of a restaurant review this week, I thought I’d demystify the process by which I work, using the questions I get at least once a week.
How often do you eat out?
I typically dine away from home 10 to 12 meals a week, depending upon my schedule. For my preview column, First Bite, in the Food section, I frequently eat in a restaurant twice; for a star-rated critique in the Magazine, three times is the average.
As my deadlines for the spring and fall dining guides approach, it’s not unusual for me to book double dinners. Other times, I’m scouting restaurants, occasionally based on (hint, hint) reader recommendations. Needless to say, this is as much of an eating job as a writing one.
Why go to a restaurant more than once?
In part to explore the full range of the menu and in part because restaurants, unlike some other subjects of criticism — say, books or movies — can change a lot from visit to visit. Ordering an entire menu in a single visit would draw attention to myself. Going multiple times allows me to see how a restaurant performs on a slow Monday and a busy Saturday, and how lunch stacks up against dinner. Repeat meals also let me check on the consistency of both cooking and service.
How do you choose the restaurants you review?
New restaurants have an advantage over established places, but I’m inclined to write about the latter when there has been a major change in the kitchen or on the menu. A steady diet of anything would get boring, so I try to mix up the neighborhoods, cuisine styles and price ranges of the establishments I cover from week to week.
Who accompanies you?
I’m fortunate to have a group of about 50 trusted friends, colleagues and family members who join me for the bulk of my reviews. They make easy dining companions, because they know the drill, which is to order what I ask them to, share tastes of their meals, be discreet about what we’re doing (before and after the meal) and not be fussy.
That said, I’m always adding new stomachs to the equation. It may come as a surprise, but I’m least inclined to ask food fanatics to a meal. At the end of the day, I prefer to talk about anything but what I’m putting in my mouth.
What do you look for in a restaurant?
The same thing most civilians do: food, service and ambiance that make me want to come back for more. While my focus is primarily on the cooking, service and comfort can make or break a meal away from home. Over the years, I’ve devoted more column inches to those aspects of the dining experience; not everyone goes to restaurants for the food, after all.
As a critic, I try to judge a restaurant based on what it aspires to be and whether it meets that goal.
Is there anything you won’t eat?
Bring on the blood, the snakes and the lungs! The only thing I’ve declined in nearly 30 years of professional eating is food that’s unsafe or appears to be, which still didn’t stop me from checking out a recommended roadside stall in New Delhi where the onions for a dish of mutton were chopped on a rickety stool, and the meat was served on plates that bore traces of another meal. (Thank goodness for bleach wipes.)
Although a critic has to have an open mind and a broad palate, there are certainly foods I’m not keen on. To my mind, zucchini is about as exciting as reading the phone book. And black licorice is something I’ll eat only for work purposes.
Are you recognized by restaurants?
Much to my regret, and despite attempts to dine unrecognized, there’s no way, in this age of iPhones and Facebook and Twitter, that a critic can be anonymous all the time. But I never let restaurants know I’m coming, and if someone uses my name to book a table, you can be assured it’s not really me. On occasion, I don disguises to throw restaurants off; during my run in Washington, I’ve eaten in most of the top restaurants at least once as a man my intimates would not recognize.
How did you train for this job?
The old-fashioned way: I started as an assistant to the great Phyllis Richman, my predecessor, under whom I tested recipes and penned suburban reviews, and moved on to increasingly bigger jobs at publications in Milwaukee, San Francisco and Seattle before returning to The Washington Post as a food reporter in 1999.
That’s not a career path I can recommend anymore; some of my previous employers no longer exist. But to prepare for a job like this, it pays to learn to cook, to eat widely, to travel and to write, write, write and get feedback from a mentor.
Do you cook?
Although I tested thousands of recipes, beginning with my first tour of duty at The Post and continuing as a food editor in Milwaukee and as a reporter in San Francisco, my cooking these days is pretty limited. However, I make an attempt to have people over for a meal once a month or so, just to keep my hand in the pot, so to speak. If there’s one thing I look forward to in retirement (still years away, you upstarts!), it’s an opportunity to spend more time with my stove.
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