My son has an assignment for his 8th grade English class to write a restaurant review. I read the memo in which the assignment is laid out, which includes a checklist for the review itself, and felt just a bit insecure that the task could be so easily reduced to its elements. Thing is, the checklist is pretty thorough, and while I think there’s some art to what food writers do, it certainly can be a paint-by-numbers affair.
I don’t generally write restaurant reviews. When I do write about the food I’ve eaten at a restaurant, it’s to describe a meal I’ve enjoyed. I started writing about food when the internet was young, and blogs were a thing. It was early enough that my foodblog, which was called Appetites, became somewhat popular merely because it began with an “a,” and thus appeared high on the “blogroll” of other foodblogs.
My theory has been, since I started doing this sometime in the late 90’s, that if I have a bad meal at a restaurant in New Orleans, I’m not going back. There are too many good restaurants in this city to return to a place where I’ve had bad food, and it’s not fair to write a negative review of a restaurant based on a single meal.
That’s sort obvious, I guess, but there are actually standards for this sort of thing, and that’s one of them. The Association of Food Journalists, for example, has some guidelines here. I can’t claim to follow all of them; most significantly the anonymity part; I don’t announce myself as a writer when I walk into a restaurant, and I try to be discreet about taking notes and photographs, but folks started recognizing me long before I was writing professionally.
That’s got more to do with the fact that New Orleans is a small town than my influence. I promise you there’s not a significant food writer in this city who is actually anonymous, and most of us don’t really try to be. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my thought is that as long as I’m honest and consistent, there’s no real basis to complain. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if that’s the case please accept my heartfelt desire for you to bite me. (Please do not bite me).
What I find interesting is that it’s a lot easier to be critical – or more accurately to write negatively – than it is to find new and interesting ways to describe why a meal was good. I’ve eaten great food at a lot of great restaurants, but I could find something to fault everywhere I’ve dined. And if I wanted to, I could amplify those faults and, shudder the thought, make up reasons to slam a place.
And you know what? You’d never know I was doing it. Because taste is subjective, and each of our experiences will differ, and you can’t prove my opinion is wrong. Put another way, “the fish was over-salted,” or “the waiter was rude” are no more susceptible of being disproven than “my favorite color is blue.”
But if you pay attention to a food writer or restaurant critic for any length of time, you’ll realize whether they share your tastes and opinions, and whether they’re worth your time. You can read a body of work, and compare the author’s experience not just to one or two restaurants where you’ve both shared meals, but to dozens.
To me, that’s the value of professional food writing. But then, I guess I would say that, wouldn’t I? (I would, and just did).
I am looking forward to seeing what my son and his classmates write. I suspect it will be a lot more sophisticated than what I’d have come up with at the same age. That’s a function of our current culture where food is concerned, of course, and there are good and bad things about that. To me, though, the good outweighs the bad, and I wish I’d had the same assignment when I was in the 8th grade. Who knows, I might have turned out to be a restaurant critic…