It’s easy to imagine that being a restaurant critic would be one of the best jobs on Earth — particularly when millions of people are eager to churn out lengthy reviews for free on sites like Yelp and Chowhound.
As someone who was the food critic for a glossy magazine in San Francisco in the 1980s and quit, however, I can tell you that being a roving palate-for-hire is a mixed blessing. While dining out is one of life’s most enduring pleasures (and is certainly a rare privilege on a planet where one in six people are starving), having to eat in restaurants several nights a week, while manufacturing an opinion about every bite, can get to be a drag.
Of course, at first, being a critic in one of the great restaurant cities on Earth felt like getting paid to have sex with someone you love.
The Quest for the Platonic Cheesecake
It would not be an overstatement to say that I have a complicated relationship with food. Some of my fondest memories of growing up in New York are of crossing the street from my elementary school (P.S. 26 in Queens) to a store called Sweets ‘N’ Treats. There, mesmerized before a rack of Sugar Daddies, BB Bats, Atomic Fireballs, and Bonomo Turkish Taffy, I would ponder the virtues of a Mounds (twin ovals of waxy chocolate stuffed with coconut goo) versus those of an Almond Joy — which was the same thing, but topped with whole almonds. I’d often buy both to see which I liked better that day, and generations of future gym coaches wept.
In fifth grade, I became obsessed with the idea of finding the best cheesecake in the world, or at least the New York metropolitan area. Because cheesecake is a staple in Greek diners — displayed in acrylic “hat boxes” with crowns of Chernobyl-scale strawberries in ruby fluorescent glaze, or positioned under angled mirrors in coolers facing the door — my potential data set was enormous.
At the less dense end of the spectrum were fluffy, nearly dry Italian versions that sublimated on the tongue to yield the milky tang of ricotta and a refreshing note of lemon peel. At the heavy end were moist, cream-cheese-laden gut bombs with enough mass to tip the table, armored in forkproof graham-cracker crusts.
My teenage search for the Platonic ideal between these extremes foreshadowed more than my foray as a food writer. On my hard drive, I currently have 74 different versions of a haunting melody called “Nardis,” composed but never recorded by Miles Davis, and made famous by pianist Bill Evans and his trios. Micromanaging nerdy quests for perfection became a life-long vocation for me.
In a dialogue called Gorgias, Plato quotes Socrates on the subject of self-control. The philosopher contrasts two men, one temperate and one intemperate. The temperate man, Socrates explains, is like one who carries around secure vessels for storing milk, wine, and honey; these pleasurable things may be hard to find, but once the temperate man fills his vessels, they tend to stay that way. The vessels of the intemperate man, on the other hand, are cracked and constantly leaking. For the intemperate man, Socrates says, pausing in the unceasing labor to keep the vessels full, even for a minute, causes “an agony of pain.”
The winner of my search for the perfect cheesecake was a commercial brand called Baby Watson, which was both light and creamy, and most importantly, widely available in delis and franchises all over the area. I’m a leaky-vessel kind of guy. By the time I was in high school, I was already a Weight Watchers veteran.
Lessons in Simplicity
Luckily, my career as a reviewer for the magazine followed several relatively svelte years as a vegetarian cook in the hippie boot camp of Oberlin College, where refined flour and sugar were treated as industrial toxins. Once I became a professional critic, however, I reverted to my old omnivorous ways.
When in Rome, I would eat like a Caesar. I wouldn’t just fuss and dither about ambiance and décor, as some critics do. I would focus on what was on the plate: the food, its relationship to local culture and regional concerns, and the long-simmering traditions behind every bite.
I had indispensable help in this effort from a true culinary scholar who was also a chef at one of the city’s best restaurants. When he wasn’t sweating over a stove, my former partner John (who has earned a huge following as @SFoodie on Twitter) was thinking about the nexus of botany, anthropology, and place that blogger Nicola Twilley calls “edible geography.”
And John walked the talk. He cultivated plump peas and sweet lettuces in our foggy Haight-Ashbury backyard, and bought a stone mill to grind grain for baking (freshly-milled wheat produces loaves with a ripe, grassy quality that makes bread made of store-bought flour seem chalky and lifeless by comparison). To create an avian version of prosciutto, we suspended a duck carcass from Chinatown on a chain from the ceiling — where it proceeded to dribble a dank, sour-smelling fluid on the floor for weeks.
For fun, we read cookbooks — preferably out-of-print obscurities compiled by home cooks in previous centuries. If we lifted a forkful of pie to our lips, invisible Shaker housewives stepped forward to offer their opinions on the crust.
If this all sounds impossibly twee in an age when penitent KFC addicts seek absolution from the Church of the Food Network, remember that I’m describing a naive time before Emeril kicked it up a notch, before Iron Chef took the first victory lap in Kitchen Stadium, before Martha and Mario were transnational first-name-branding strategies, before Chowhound and Eataly — when Jaime Oliver was still a cherub in short pants dicing onions at his parents’ pub in Essex, and Starbucks was a Pike Place Market storefront in Seattle selling beans for home brewing.
It wasn’t yet hip to be a foodie. The word foodie — which I hate — didn’t exist.
But foodies we were. We emulated the passionate, erudite, tart-tongued scribes whose books we loved to cook from, like Elizabeth David (An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, French Provincial Cooking, English Bread and Yeast Cookery) and Richard Olney (Simple French Food). We learned from critics like Patricia Unterman of the San Francisco Chronicle, R.W. Apple of the Times, and Seymour Britchky, who launched a newsletter in New York City in the ’70s, claiming as his only qualification the fact that he ate three meals a day.
Like John, I also worked in restaurants, both in the kitchen and the “front of the house.” In fact, I once waited on Elizabeth David herself, coming in on my day off to dote on the woman who single-handedly revived British cooking with an infusion of seasonal ingredients and sunny Mediterranean flavors after years of war rationing and the onslaught of convenience foods. (To obtain real olive oil, she dispatched her readers to pharmacies, where it was available as a treatment for ear infections.)
The restaurant’s chef-owner, Anne — another David devotee — had been in a frenzy all week trying to come up with dishes worthy of the author whose recipes (never presented as mere lists, always in authoritative prose) launched the careers of James Beard, Alice Waters, Deborah Madison, and a dozen other world-class chefs. David never hesitated to be scathing about overwrought fads touted by other writers (Nathan Myrhvold’s $600-plus Modernist Cuisine, for any home cook willing to invest in a Large Hadron Collider, comes to mind).
“The habit of flambéing everything from prawns to figs has become so prevalent,” she declared in Summer Food, “that one can now scarcely dine out in London without being hemmed in by sheets of flame.”
In the middle of lunch, David’s companion, the legendary wine writer Gerald Asher, waved and indicated that the lady had something to tell me. Whatever it was, I knew chef Anne was likely to be peeking anxiously through a slit in the kitchen doors, preparing to have a heart attack.
“This butter,” said the venerable author, “is marvelous. Where do you get it?”
A Fowl Impostor
My reviewing began with that kind of respect for the integrity of basic ingredients and the desire to be of service to my readers. Unlike some critics who warn the maître d’ of their arrival to ensure service attentive enough to make Kim Jong Il blush, I remained anonymous so I would know what I was getting my readers into — an ethic harder to maintain in an age when every busboy with an iPhone and Facebook feed thinks he’s Ron Galella.
Instead of touting only potential hipster magnets, I was happy to promote underappreciated family-owned joints that deserved more business. We raved about Chinese clay pots filled with anise-scented duck, whole cloves of garlic, and slices of taro root in the Inner Richmond; scarfed down Hangtown Fry — a heady cholesterolic extravaganza of eggs, fried oysters, and bacon — at the oldest restaurant in town, the Tadich Grill, where the quaint dish has been on the menu for 160 years; and prowled the Mission for paletas — popsicles perfumed with ripe cantaloupe, tart lime, and refreshing tamarind — on Indian Summer afternoons.
We made pilgrimages to Chez Panisse, that rustic Berkeley temple of organic, sustainable, locally-grown cuisine that has changed the way that the First World eats. But we were equally enthusiastic about a Salvadoran hangout called El Tazumal, where for less than $10, you could order a snowy-fresh whole Pacific rock cod, fried crisp and smothered in onions, chiles, and cilantro, and wash it down with frosty Mexican beer. In the pre-crowdsourcing era, the livelihoods of people like the cheerful, dapper owner of El Tazumal, who waited on the tables himself, could depend upon a single review in a major magazine.
Occasionally, we found ourselves in a fraudulent establishment that compelled us to lower the boom. The most flagrant offender I recall was a place in North Beach called RAF (that’s Royal Air Force to you, yank) that had been mobbed since day one. The dining room seemed to have been designed by an overambitious Macy’s window-dresser trying to evoke a Medici palazzo on the cheap, with trompe l’oeil statuary, urns, and porticos stenciled on the walls. In this riot of faux opulence, I ordered a dish I’d never seen on a menu before — African pheasant.
One taste of this allegedly exotic delicacy brought back memories, but not those of tucking into roasted game after a particularly grueling safari; instead, they were recollections of dining with plastic cutlery at 30,000 feet. Whatever circumnavigations the poor bird had taken before arriving on the end of my fork, it tasted like Cornish game hen from a supermarket freezer, slathered in a too-sweet sauce. (Not that the junk-bond traders and their mistresses chattering away against the backdrop of phantom porticos and discus-hurlers seemed to care.)
The next day I phoned the restaurant, telling the guy who answered that I had been bowled over by RAF’s legendary African pheasant, and simply had to know where a rare bird like that can be gotten retail. He volunteered that the fowl-in-question was not African pheasant at all, but frozen Cornish game hen.
“But when we call it game hen on the menu,” he added brightly, “no one orders it.” RAF and its trompe l’oeil cuisine went out of business a few months after the review came out.
Exit, Pursued by a Mob of Angry Chefs
Though Paris often gets credit for inventing the concept of restaurants, the practice of dining out was probably born in Kaifeng, the capital city of old China, where thousands of bustling public houses proffering regional specialties sprang up in the 11th Century. By 1275, proto-foodies were already terrorizing waiters: “The people of Hangchow are very difficult to please,” scholar Nicholas Kiefer quotes from a historical account. “Hundreds of orders are given on all sides: this person wants something hot, another something cold, a third something tepid, a fourth something chilled; one wants cooked food, another raw, another chooses roast, another grill…”
But it was in 18th century Paris that an entrepreneur named Grimod de La Reynière, the son of an aristocrat, built an empire out of telling choosy Parisians where to chow down.
Born with birth defects in both hands, de La Reynière was raised by his cruel, status-conscious mother in darkened apartments so that his fingers wouldn’t be seen by outsiders. This experience left him eager to display his wit and intelligence, and starved for sensual pleasures. Lawyer by day, he became the discerning epicure’s best friend at night, sampling the menus of the city’s restaurants with custom metal prostheses he concealed in leather gloves.
It was de La Reynière who advocated the notion that dining out well is an art, and declared himself its first critic. In 1803, he published his landmark L’Almanach des gourmands, which chronicled the birth of the bistro and rise of haute cuisine from the ashes of the Ancien régime. The innovative book featured street maps of recommended destination for foodies, with chapter titles like “On the Consequences of Dishonesty in Pastry.”
L’almanach caused a sensation, selling out all seven editions. To generate updates for subscribers, de La Reynière convened a jury of master tasters who struck fear into the hearts of chefs all over the city. Then, however, rumors circulated that the jury’s opinion could be swayed with un pot de vin (“a pot of wine,” the generic French term for bribery), and an angry mob of chefs and restaurateurs chased de La Reynière out of town. His typically grandiose response was to send out invitations to his own wake, inviting mourners to a banquet amid coffins and skulls, as a band played funeral marches. But de La Reynière’s 15 minutes de gloire were over, and few people showed up.
Even if you’re never forced to exit stage left by toque-wearing hordes, one of the downsides of inheriting the vocation that de La Reynière invented is that it makes your friends hesitate before inviting you over for dinner. “Well,” they sigh with a mixture of apology and exasperation, “it’s not like the food you’re used to.”
Little do they know that after the second goat-cheese crème brulée, the third ahi-shiso tuna tower with wasabi foam, the fourth porcini-dusted scallop with padron-pepper beurre blanc, and the fifth “deconstructed” s’more, a baked potato with a little butter and salt can seem like one of humanity’s most ingenious inventions.
You eventually realize that the only secret ingredient that matters is paying attention to what you’re eating — and a dash of gratitude.
Blood at Noon
Even 25 years later, I can still recall every detail of the lunch that ended my career as a restaurant critic.
Arriving by elevator rarely bodes well for a meal. The only time that reservations were available at this particular altitude in one of San Francisco’s swankiest hotel towers was 11:30 am. That seemed a little early to be plowing through several courses in a room “influenced by the journey of Marco Polo to the court of Kublai Khan,” as the menu described it. But the word-of-mouth network was already abuzz about the place.
The first dish out of the kitchen was an amuse-bouche of puff pastry, adrift like a little raft on a greenish-yellow sea. So much excess butter had been worked into the pastry (O Monsieur de La Reynière, we need you at this hour!), the butterfat was weeping out in amber tears, mingling with whatever was leaking from the raft to congeal in an oleaginous pool that was spreading ominously across the plate.
The source of the greenish leak turned out to be an abundance of pesto sealed inadequately in its pastry pouch. One bite revealed that this verdant filling — which stung our tongues with oxidized garlic — concealed yet another surprise: escargots.
Now, I have nothing against snails, or even against eating them. (My neighbor, Barry Roth, happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on them.) But I must say, if the intention of a chef in sending out a complimentary appetizer is to whet the appetite, an oily croissant crammed with snails swimming in pesto fails miserably. It didn’t help that the gastropods had the texture of something you’d desperately try to hock out when getting over the flu.
Then my first course arrived: a plate of lobster fettuccine in garlic cream sauce. Freshly-made noodles are one of the humble triumphs of civilization. (I’m thinking of goose-liver ravioli in reduced balsamic vinegar at Babbo in New York, and bowls of homemade ramen in ivory miso broth with shochu-braised pork at Suzeran in Tokyo.) But these noodles were anything but toothsome and delicate. They had been rolled and cut unevenly, so some strands were slimy and overcooked, while others were raw, with pockets of uncooked flour. Meanwhile, the cream had been over-reduced to a gummy white paste, which made the noodles clump up, like petrified fat clogging some crucial capillary network in the heart.
As for the poor lobster — it was a long, long way from its home in the chilly Atlantic. The creature had been boiled so mercilessly that the pale chunks of its flesh resembled disemboweled mattress stuffing: straw-like, fibrous, and impossible to cut even with a knife.
This was going to be a very long lunch. I had to take a breather in the men’s room to gather my strength.
I returned just as the chirpy waiter brought the coup de grâce, which looked like evidence from a crime scene: a dish of angry red flesh with a knob of pale bone jutting out of it. This, apparently, was my “grilled veal chop with wild forest mushrooms.”
I had ordered the chop medium-rare, but it arrived bleu, as the French say; ultra-rare, chilly in the center (calf sashimi, if you will), with crimson blood pooling on top, drowning the chanterelles, porcini, Hen O’ The Woods or whatever they were in the taste of pennies. This was like veal à la Dexter.
Having only recently re-embraced meat-eating, it was as if all the gluttonous karma of the West took its revenge on a lapsed vegetarian in a single meal. I feared that if I tried to choke down all that raw meat, I’d end up strangling — spewing bloody chunks of calf, clots of cream, and skeins of raw fettuccine across the starched tablecloth as a horrified busboy tried to administer the Heimlich maneuver.
Enough! Check, please.
Not long after that, the poet Allen Ginsberg, whom I had studied with years earlier, asked me to become his teaching assistant at Naropa University in Colorado. It was just a summer gig, but it gave me a way to extricate myself from the trap formerly known as the best job on Earth. I gave notice at the magazine and haven’t written about food for publication since the ’80s, with the exception of this post.
Arriving at Ginsberg’s apartment in Boulder, the first thing I noticed was that the author of “Howl” didn’t own a proper kitchen knife. I ran out and bought him one, and soon found myself in charge of preparing macrobiotically-correct dishes that the poet was trying to talk himself into liking after a lifetime of borscht, pastrami, and spaghetti alla vongole. Breakfast, for example, was often a bowl of oatmeal with soy sauce and kelp flakes.
All things considered, it was a relief.
[Update: The description of my last meal as a critic originally contained the phrase “copper-laden hemoglobin,” but helpful commenters at Boing Boing pointed out that the element in question is actually iron — d’oh! Thanks for the correction.]
[Note: This post was solicited by Nicola Twilley, food editor of GOOD magazine and creator of Edible Geography, as part of a week-long online event called Food for Thinkers to celebrate the launch of the newly relaunched GOOD Food Hub. Please visit the Hub to read the other posts in this wonderful series, and follow the hashtag #foodforthinkers on Twitter. Thanks, Nicky!]