How to Be a Food Critic…Or Die Trying

August 29, 2012 • Culture Dept.

How to Be a Food CriticWhen it comes to dining, I have admittedly provincial tastes. My gustatory galavanting ends a mere stonefruit’s throw past meat ’n’ potatoes. I was anemic as a teenager because I refused to eat anything “with a face.” I instead tried to enjoy veggies and grains like my animal brethren. Then, I grew round in my 20s because I would only eat things with faces, figuring the animals had already eaten the veggies and grains, so why duplicate their efforts? I thinned out when my writing career hit the skids in L.A. and eating fell below “living indoors” on my list of priorities.

This is why, despite my relative naiveté, I leapt when I was offered a gig as a restaurant critic for a downtown newspaper.

Mind you, this was 10 years ago when, as a bachelor, my kitchen know-how ended with the beep of a microwave and my food selections had such long shelf-lives they would see Halley’s Comet at least twice if uneaten.

If real food crossed my plate, I probably wouldn’t know what to do with it let alone write about it. And this, despite being raised in a family with decidedly bourgeois tastes and the air-miles to prove it. On a family trip during my early, carnivorous 20s, I remember ordering steak tartare in Paris and then horrifying my parents and the wait staff when I complained that it was undercooked.

When it came to fine dining, I just didn’t get it. But being paid to eat free food and tell the tale? How could a starving artist go wrong? This is how.

That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I learned about my latent food allergies on the job for the L.A. Downtown News, which sent me to R23, a hip downtown sushi joint with a Web site that boasts it was a “railroad loading dock” before becoming a “hideaway for those who like it raw.” Somehow, this reads more like James Ellroy jacket copy than a seafood place but that’s L.A. for you —”high-concept” sensationalism that can fit on a bus ad.

I hated the name. If Wikipedia had existed at the time, I might have learned that “R23” was also an international “risk phrase” or “r-phrase” convention established by Annex III of European Union Directive 67/548/EEC: Nature of special risks attributed to dangerous substances and preparations. R23 apparently means “Toxic by inhalation.” Turns out, left un-chewed, most food is lethal if inhaled—hence, molars I suppose. Incidentally,  R25 means “Toxic if swallowed,” so “R23” is a wiser choice for a restaurant even if it sounds like a cast reject from Star Wars.

Toxicity and certain seafoods go gland-in-gland for some people, and I learned I’m one of them. Within a couple bites of R23’s so-called “Japanese Bouillabaisse” something went dreadfully wrong. At least that’s what flashed on the faces of my dining companions, one of whom, inconveniently, was the restaurateur himself. The other was my Scottish roommate who was raised on haggis and had subsequently lost his ability to get squeamish (I was squeamish from the moment I learned R23 was a sushi restaurant).

This is what happened: My face bloated, turned crimson and was beginning to bubble or something. Needless to say, the restaurateur was nonplussed that the paper had sent a writer who was going to eat his food and die before filing 500 words of sparkling prose about it. The Scot had to finish my courses (and his!) and tell me how they tasted as I hightailed it to the hospital. A shot of Benadryl later and all was well.  I would never learn which sea creature had set me off since the bouillabaisse was like the “greatest hits of the sea.” I’ve avoided seafood since (though I do occasionally chance a Hog Island oyster). The review, naturally, was a rave.

Food Voodoo

Yes, slipping entrees to my dining companions and asking them to describe them might, at first blanche, seem rather like being blind and having the subtle hues of a cerulean blue described to you. But you’d be forgetting the human capacity for simile, which is the secret key to food writing when you have no taste for it. A real-life example: “The veal was as tender as a kiss from your Nonna, and the accompanying [rabbit] cassoulet was like donning one’s favorite pajamas.”

Though totally devoid of actual content, the above does somehow convey a warm and cozy sense of the experience, which I could hardly remember for all the wine. The review was one of six written for The Sonoma Index-Tribune — five of the joints have since gone out of the business. This had nothing to do with my reviews, of course (they were all positive), though I wouldn’t doubt that I bring some sort of food voodoo with me. I’m like the Bladerunner curse—all the corporations featured in the futuristic flick have gone kaput. If I gave your restaurant a good review, I apologize.

Critical Mass

Seven years ago, famed French restaurant critic André Gayot was appointed an Officer of the Legion of Honor, France’s greatest civilian award. Shortly thereafter, he received my first invoice. A slightly harried editor named J. (I’m protecting his career) hired me for André’s Web site, Gayot.com, based on little more than the fact that we once shared a byline on a restaurant round-up piece for the aforementioned L.A. Downtown News. We had never met (our collaboration was stitched together by an editor) and J. sought to correct that over drinks in Napa. He was fishing for freelancers and figured I was good for some cogent Wine Country-themed copy so I kept my food phobias to myself.

This, after all, was the big leagues: J.’s man André had coined the term “Nouvelle Cuisine” in the ’70s, which helped spur the nascent American gourmet movement and is the reason my youth was drenched in Béarnaise sauce courtesy of a foodie father. Perhaps this is where my issues began and it would be on André’s dime that I would attempt to work them out.

Uh, yeah-no. That lasted until my next review, of Yountville’s Étoile. The chef sent over a complimentary “amuse-bouche,” which I openly assumed was the name for a kind of sausage until my date explained it was French, literally, for “amusement for the mouth,” as the waiter tried not to roll his eyes. To my chagrin, this particular amuse-bouche was a fancy spoon brimming with fish eggs and foam. The rest of the evening went accordingly. Four stars!

When Gayot’s sister Sophie was passing through Wine Country and lacked a dining companion, I was called on to accompany her to the three-Michelin-star-rated Meadowood in St. Helena.

An elegant and charming woman, Sophie had an adventurous palate and was happy to receive everything the chef sent out, which amounted to an artful vivisection of the entire animal kingdom. I tried my best to keep up without gagging, throwing up or dying, in that order. At the end of it, she complimented me on my palate. Fooled her. What she didn’t know was I had a napkin overflowing with half-chewed bits of animal parts of the “eye of newt, wing of bat” variety. Sure, the linen service would soon learn my secret but by then, I’d be long gone, never to return.

This trend toward omnivorism—eating anything, whether it has a face or not—has always distressed me though many embrace it. A pal of mine crows about the various “adventure meats” he’s eaten. Whatever they may be (badgers, wallabies, crow), it all seems like a gateway drug to cannibalism. That’s how it always ends up in fiction. Some decadent bastard gets a jones to hunt “The Most Dangerous Game,” then the next thing you know, he’s firing up the grill to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

This is why I’ll stick to the basics in both diet and career. I’m not proud of this and, traveling between Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto and Wine Country as I do, my provincialism has made me a bit of a social liability. Invitations to dinner have simmered down and work-related functions come freighted with the possibility that I’ll either starve or appear rude or both. As they say, I don’t know about food but I know what I like. If that should change, I’ll happily eat my words.

From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA

Tags: , , ,