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Critics Critiqued: Tips for Portland Food Writers

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Photo credit: VaMedia on Flickr (Image cropped)

Dallas Chef John Tesar tweets an expletive to a critic who gave his new restaurant only three of four stars. Hungry chefs around the globe wait to see if there’s fallout while licking their chops. The dysfunctional relationship between chef and critic is in trouble.

A couple of months ago, right here in River City, one of the biggest cowboys shot a nasty social media zinger at a critic who he identified by initials after he/she didn’t include him in a best new restaurant article.

Is this bad-ass or bitchy?

Both, really, but it’s complicated, especially here. The food-loving community is informed, fanatical and wired. Instant news and “scoops” are shouted by a chorus that threatens to drown out the last remaining “food critic.”

Unfortunately, Portland food writing was bad and has gotten worse. The slow bleed-out of print media has shrunk budgets such that critics visit a restaurant less and have less money when they dine. Today’s critics are a revolving cast of interns, hobbyists and old timers. Their compensation, if any, is tiny.

Pig pile of reviews

Accelerated news cycles and attempts at relevance drive newspapers to the hot new spots immediately after they open. The result is a pig pile of reviews on a restaurant that is finding its stride.

Critics don’t research their topics. A review of the original “taqueria nueve,” carped at the special incongruity of Caesar salad on the menu. The city of Tijuana rioted. Food historians tittered.

Recently, a local judge, moonlighting of course, convicted the Quartet crab cake of being cut with “cheap brown gulf shrimp.”

His proof? The “unmistakable iodine stench” of shrimp (and crab) from... EVERYWHERE (if it’s old).

But the tides are changing. The internet democratizes criticism.

Recently, that husky muckraker Nick Zukin went after a reporter who betrayed obvious ignorance of the provenance and even ingredients in his sauces. She made the miscalculation of engaging him on various social media platforms. It was a virtual beat down.

A Yelp review can carry as much weight as a Sarasohn sonnet, a Brooks fawn or a Cizmar snark.

Take your job seriously

It has come to the point where numerous, anonymous diners pay for their meals, photograph them, then write about their experiences.

I know: crazy, right?

There’s just one teeny problem... most of those people know even less. I guess we do need knowledgeable and knowable food critics who get paid for their opinion.

But how about this: Take your job as seriously as we take ours. Don’t announce yourself or expect special treatment. Research the cuisine, or at least the dishes you eat. Wait at least two months to begin reviewing a new restaurant, go several times and report on food you actually taste. If you’re a vegetarian, don’t pass off your dining partner’s palate as your own.

Please stop telling us about the “vibe”- write about the food and the service. And for god’s sake if you’re gonna be a star humper, make some effort to conceal your crush.

Leather Storrs is an Oregon native who has served 20 years in professional kitchens. He owns a piece of two area restaurants: Noble rot and nobleoni at Oregon College of Art and Craft, where he yells and waves arms. He quietly admits to having been a newspaper critic in Austin, Texas and Portland.


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