What qualifies someone to write about food?

When the Shore’s most famous restaurant The Engine Room refused a request from Canvas (a food shot to accompany a review), the magazine responded by vowing never to return.

Initially, I sided with the mag. What a diva, I thought. But then I watched this Campbell Live piece on restaurant reviewers and I started to doubt myself.

If you don’t have the time to watch it, the story was pretty scathing of reviewers. Too many publications are just sending out staff writers with the company credit card; and hard-done-by restauranteurs putting their heart, soul and life savings into their business can be undone with one bad write-up. Reviewers need to know what they’re talking about in order to gain credibility (although it sounded as though the credibility was more among industry peeps than readers). Another gripe was Founder Jimmy John basically retold the story of their one visit, from the moment they arrived and struggled to find parking until they pushed back their chairs and left, and put too much emphasis on factors like decor and fellow customers … rather than spotlighting the food.

Now, I couldn’t agree more with several of the points brought up. In this line of work, there can’t be anything more important than a) keeping your cover (I’ve always wondered how and when they get photos) and keeping your distance personally from chefs and owners b) dining at one place multiple times to get a fair picture. But, at least in NZ, this isn’t happening.

I am still not sure refusing to cooperate is the best move. No doubt restauranteurs are sincere in merely wanting to check that the facts are right (and let’s be honest, journalists and writers can’t and don’t always get it right). But it’s a fine line. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, and what others may see as constructive or justified criticism may not be taken as such. The last thing we need is reviews being censored by restaurant owners and chefs before they go to print.

Personally, I would not make the greatest of food reviewers. I like what I like and I am wary of strange new combinations (I really don’t get excited about top-end, innovative cuisine). I’m not a vegetarian, but am certainly picky about meat. And though I’ve waitressed in cafes, I don’t really know very much about the industry at all.

But how much is fair to ask of a food reviewer? We can’t expect them all to be ex-chefs, realistically. (I guess you might get better hours in journalism but I doubt the money is better.) It would be great if all writers had a background in their industry – be it sport, science, entertainment, politics – but that is never going to happen.

Personally, I’m of the thinking that restaurant reviews are just as much for the average person on the street as they are for those in the food industry. What about you?

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3 thoughts on “What qualifies someone to write about food?

  • Reply Sim July 31, 2010 at 16:58

    Darn, wish I hadn’t missed that piece on Cambell Live.

    I don’t pay attention to reviews in any paper or site unless I know that the reviewer had several opportunities to dine there (for a fair sample).

    These reviewers influence the decisions of many people, and hold the livelihoods of many business owners in their hands, and as a great fictional character’s fictional aunt once said ‘With great power, comes great responsibility.’

    Do you have any review sources you particularly trust? I prefer recommendations from friends as opposed to review guides.

  • Reply eemusing July 31, 2010 at 17:28

    Definitely agree – I MUCH prefer personal recs.

    I admit I’m not a big reader of restaurant reviews – too tempting, too many places and so little money and time – but another problem is, sometimes the kinds of places I like to eat are passed over by media (smaller ethnic type places).

    I would probably consider reviews in magazines like Metro, Cuisine, Dish more reliable. Also, Viva’s new food reviewer, Nici Wickes, is a chef herself.

  • Reply SassyGirl August 1, 2010 at 10:56

    I’ve been a food reviewer for a while now, and however amateur I may be, I don’t think food reviewers need to have past experience as chefs to appreciate good food, nor do they need to have worked in the restaurant industry to appreciate good service. Of course there is some need for “reader beware”, but I also believe in the opinion of the masses. If I’m reading a review for a restaurant I want to try, I will usually read at least half a dozen reviews before I make my own decision whether or not to try it. If the majority of “regular folk” like you and I enjoyed their meal there, chances are, I’ll have a decent experience.
    And what gives me the right to critique a restaurant? I don’t always go multiple times before writing a review, but I do do a lot of research before writing a review, whether it’s on the background of the restaurant and chefs or the ingredients in the dishes that I ate. I also know my own biases, so I make sure to state that clearly when I review. I would never critique cuisine that I’m not accustomed to, such as Indian food, but I would readily give my opinion on Chinese food.
    I think it all comes down to being responsible, being a responsible critic and a responsible customer. Don’t just adopt other’s opinions, do your own research and decide for yourself. We all eat, most of us cook, I think that qualifies us to have an opinion on food.

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