Cooking Informs Writing, But Storytelling is King, says Award-Winning Critic Jonathan Kauffman

Feb 062012
 

Critic Jonathan Kauffman's huge brain let him store info about dining without taking any notes. (Photo courtesy smokedsalmon, FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

Ever had dinner with a restaurant reviewer? Usually I’ve been on the other side, so when I got the invitation I jumped at the chance to see a multiple-award winning writer and critic in action.

Jonathan Kauffman, restaurant reviewer for San Francisco Weekly, invited my husband and me to dinner at AQ, a sleek new restaurant serving what Trendologist Kara Neilsen calls “modern cuisine meets foraging.” Jonathan and I had exchanged tweets and emails, but had never met.

I began the evening with a faux pas. Jonathan had made a reservation in a false name, which I forgot and said his name when I introduced him to my spouse. We looked around to see if anyone noticed, but no one seemed to care. He also had a credit card in a false name.

Professional critics have to be careful about being recognized. Jonathan says he manages his online presence to ensure there are no photos of him online. (I checked and he’s right: you can’t find his face in an image search. Strangely, there are lots of photos of women and food.)

Over dinner, the critic was relaxed and open to our impressions. He had been to the restaurant a month before, and already knew what he wanted to write. The dishes were complex and beautiful, and Jonathan took no notes. What impressed me was the remarkable recall in his literary, sensuous review, and his ability to tell a tale so fluidly.

Most of the awards Jonathan has won are for his narrative story telling. They include:

A few days after our dinner, we discussed the challenges of being a critic, how he got there, his influences, and what he thinks about food bloggers and Yelp:

Q. You’ve been a critic since 2001, at three alternative weeklies. What did you do before becoming a restaurant reviewer at San Francisco Weekly?

A. I cooked all through college and cooked in San Francisco in my 20’s, then worked as a copy editor while freelancing for East Bay Express for two years.

Q. Why did you stop being a cook?

A. I realized I didn’t want to be doing it when I was 40. It’s hard on your body and I knew I didn’t want to be wedded to a restaurant.

Q. What kind of cooking did you do?

A. At the last place I was a sous chef. We did California French, Southern French-tinged dishes such as cassoulet and variety meat like squab, sweetbreads and tongue. I learned a lot about offal, before it became cool.

Q. How important is it to your career as a food writer and critic that you were a cook?

A. It helped me talk about food. I don’t think it’s necessary, but helped me discuss what’s going on on the plate and my palate, and gave me a good understanding of classic French technique. It helped my taste memory to recall the particulars of what I ate at a restaurant. Formal training is good for understanding of the subject, but it has nothing to do with crafting an article and making a story that people want to read from start to finish.

Q. How did you learn to do that?

A. I had good editors. I read constantly, from the time I was very small. Even when I was cooking, I would have a long bus ride, and I was on the couch reading before work.

Q. What were you reading?

A. Mostly fiction. David Foster Wallace and Italo Calvino were big heroes of mine.

Scallops with parsnips at AQ. (Photo by MBarnesPhoto.com for San Francisco Weekly. Used with permission.)

Q. How often are you eating meals at restaurants?

A. I probably average dinner out three nights a week. I’m out at three to four lunches per week. During the peak periods, such as the “Best of” issue, then I’m probably out four to five nights a week and another one to two times for lunch.

Q. What do you like most about restaurant reviewing?

A. As a writer, I love the weekly deadlines, the practice of always writing, and always having something to work on. There’s no time for writer’s block. As a critic, I love both helping people find places they wouldn’t have gone to, and making the city a bigger place by talking about the breadth of the food scene. San Franciscans eat broadly, so it’s not just about bistros and cheap eats. There’s this huge richness of food worth eating and writing about.

Q. What drives you crazy about it?

A. Always feeling like I’m working when I’m eating, anytime I’m out. There’s a part of me that has to be lodging details to possibly write about it.

Q. How do you feel about food blogs?

A. Food blogs are fantastic. I love the diversity of voices that reach the public. For me, restaurant going isn’t necessarily a positive experience, though. There’s so much more that being in a restaurant brings out than excitement about the food. So I love it when bloggers write about that — that it’s not uniformly positive food, or about the best food ever. That there are shades. The food can be boring and tasteless in addition to being good, or the experience has its flaws, or that it calls up emotions other than delight, like specific memories, or the broader social issues that play out in restaurants.

The real Jonathan Kauffman, at a tender age. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kauffman.)

Q. You said over dinner that you never go to soft openings (meals for family and friends when a restaurant launches). Why is that?

A. For me, there’s the anonomity issue. I’m sure there are people who know what I look like now, but the more I can limit the exposure the better. As a journalist and blogger, having relationships with people can help the writing, but as a critic, I need to be more removed. I may love one person’s restaurant, and then their next one I don’t like so much, but I don’t want to soften my criticism because it can affect my relationship with the person. Some people are very good at that, but I’m not.

Q. How does it feel to be in a town where one reviewer has a lot of power, and it’s not you?

A. That was a question I had about coming back to San Francisco. In Seattle it’s more of an open field. San Francisco has been a one-critic town who has had most of the economic power. In the end it doesn’t bother me, though. Yelp is taking over that role of what makes or breaks a restaurant. For me it’s about the experience and writing more broadly about restaurants. (For contrast, see Michael Bauer’s review of AQ.)

Q. What does the word “reviewing” mean to you?

A. It means not just evaluating the success and failure of every dish, but looking broadly at what the chef or restaurant owner is trying to do: what image they’re trying to sell, what crowd they’re trying to attract, what larger trends they’re participating in. It’s more like cultural (movie, film and book) criticism.

Q. Do you consult Yelp when researching a restaurant for review?

A. It depends on what kind of restaurant. I love skimming Yelp to see what restaurants might be popping up. If I’m going to a restaurant serving a cuisine I’m not so familiar with, it’s good to see who’s writing about it and how they’re talking about the dishes. It gives me hints. Back when I started, food critics were the enemy of cooks and restaurant people. Now they appreciate that we spend a lot of time thinking about what we write, compared to Yelp.

Q. How has your job changed due to social media and blogging?

A. I work twice as much as I did when I started. I write two to three posts per day for SFoodie. I also tweet. I write one full-length review, plus I’m always going out to update our online dining guide and add new restaurants. I’ll write about them on the blog and then throw them into the dining guide. The past couple months I’ve also made assignments and scheduled posts on the blog, but someone else does the actual editing and posting.

Q. What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a restaurant reviewer? Are there still full-time jobs?

A. There are about a third of the jobs from when I started out. It’s definitely harder and harder to break in. Maintaining a blog or writing for a group blog, either for an alternative paper or others, gets your name out there and gives you a lot of practice. If you do it for a while, it gives you a certain amount of authority.

Q. What are three or four restaurants where you would like to go to dinner tonight?

A. I’m interested in a school of cooking right now that I can’t name: Chefs are combining an intense focus on local foods and making everything from scratch with an interest in gadgets that used to be avant-guard, like immersion circulators for sous vide, siphons for whipped cream, and dehydrators. There’s an amazing font of activity. If I see a pair of tweezers in the chef’s hands, I know I’m in the right place. I’d choose Sons and Daughters, Coi, Commonweath, and Bar Tartine.

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  51 Responses to “Cooking Informs Writing, But Storytelling is King, says Award-Winning Critic Jonathan Kauffman”

  1. What an amazing opportunity for you to dine with such a famous, yet unrecognizable, person. It feels so James Bond-ish when I read that he has a credit card in another name.

    Interesting that he loves food blogs, that he enjoys reading the good, the bad, and the less than “amazing” accounts, and that he works twice as hard now as when he started. Social media is a blessing, and a curse…there is NEVER downtime; we’re all always working!

    • I guess he is part of a vanishing group: the professional critic, where it’s important to stay anonymous so they can be objective. Seems a little quaint now, eh? I know other critics in other towns who don’t believe in this.

      Re social media, yep, it’s all about getting eyeballs for the SF Weekly blog. But for the rest of us, there is downtime if we make it. It depends how relentlessly driven we are.

  2. Great piece, thanks Dianne for sharing. Although I no longer update mine, I have to thank Jonathan for ‘getting’ food blogs.

    • Hey Sam, you are welcome. It’s easy for a food-obsessed person to love food blogs. What both he and I have trouble with is the idea that bloggers are loathe to critique. Someone at a conference I spoke at said it was a lot more work than just saying, “I love X.” Yep.

      • Of course it’s a lot of work! That’s why I couldn’t sustain it in the end. Maybe bloggers are wary of critique because in the beginning they were often slammed by the main stream press regardless of how well they performed? I am not sure about bloggers of today as I don’t read them any more, but on the whole I think the bloggers I knew were a fairly conscientious well-meaning transparent bunch who simply did it as a hobby, for the joy of it. Now that it is commercialized I can get that standards are more questionable.

        • It’s still true that bloggers are a fairly conscientious well-meaning bunch, and that blogging is a ton of work. The transparency issue, well, we’re still working on that.

  3. I’ve recently been working on a fairly lengthy (by my blog’s standards) narrative-like post on a restaurant experience I had last year, and it’s hard work. The improvements I can make to it seem endless. Thank you for sharing this interview with Jonathan, and also the links to his award-winning pieces – very helpful!

    • Those links are gold! They let to see how to structure a story, the content, the quotes and transitions — great that you’re going to study them.

  4. What an interesting interview, thank you so much for this! I find it very interesting that Jonathan reads Yelp. I always assumed that legit reviewers would find Yelp irritating. I must admit that I do, but perhaps that’s because I work in a restaurant and often read widely inflated and sometimes just flat-out wrong accounts on our Yelp page. It’s discouraging.

    Anyway, thanks again for this very insightful interview!

    • Thanks. Yelp IS irritating. But there’s good information, once you scroll down and read lots of the comments. You have to filter all the nonsense out and make your own decision. I loved his point about how critics are now held in higher esteem by restaurants because of Yelp.

    • Yelp is fascinating and irritating in equal measure, I agree. I don’t know what other critics do, but I tend to skim Yelp in the same way I eavesdrop on the tables around me — just checking to see if there are any cult dishes that people talk up to their friends.

  5. Really great read. Thanks Dianne. Just a quick note, one of the other reasons a reviewer might not review during a friends and family meal is because some restaurants (I don’t speak for all) use the friends and family meal as a rehearsal to work out the kinks and to polish front and back of house operations (with a group of actual diners) before officially opening to the public. But of course, the soft opening “period” varies from restaurant to restaurant. Hence, what someone experiences during the soft opening may not the same as when the restaurant is officially ready (or open) to the public.

    Great interview!

    • That is a very good point. Traditional critics usually wait a while before going to a new restaurant, to let them get the kinks out, as you say. However, bloggers go to the soft opening and just put it all out there in a post, with photos. In some ways I agree with the bloggers. If the place is open to for business and taking your money, it’s fair game.

      • CL, I agree with you. I’ve always waited a minimum of 30 days after opening before my first visit — partially because that was considered the professional standard when I started, but mostly because restaurants change so much in their early days. When I give a place a rocky review and then hear 6 months later how great the restaurant has become, I feel like I’ve gotten it wrong. (The converse happens, too.) But on the SF Weekly’s food blog, other bloggers and I will definitely visit and write about casual restaurants or food trucks that have been open for just a few days.

  6. Great interview Dianne. Thanks for sharing. I do think that he is of a dying breed and wish there were more like him. So many reviewers (especially here) are well known and make little or no effort to disguise themselves. It is hard to take them seriously if the reviews are always glowing.

    • When I was the editor of a city magazine, my restaurant reviewer saw no reason to disguise herself. She had lived in the town forever and everyone knew her. I have another friend who feels the same way and has chef friends. I guess if they can do a good job despite being recognized, more power to them.

  7. Great article. I am a new blogger after reading your book. I would like to get into more restaurant reviews but I feel uncomfortable giving a restaurant a bad review because I have owned a restaurant and know how hard it is to always produce great food. I want to review the local restaurant in my small town because I adore the owners and all of their hard work to keep their place open in such a small town but something goes wrong everytime I am there.
    I look forward to all of your posts!

    • Thanks Connie. Reviews are not about trashing a place. The ones that are printed are mostly good (65 percent+), with comments about what didn’t work so well. Reviews that are all gush or all trash are boring to read, so I wouldn’t worry about that. There is so much to say besides a list of what you ate. Go for it!

  8. How does one get a credit card in a fake name, and how can it be legal? That involves a false credit history, a fake social security number … the mind boggles! Are you sure he just doesn’t borrow someone else’s?

  9. Once more so informative. I remember when Jonathan first came on the scene. It’s been really interesting to see how his writing has changed over the years. I appreciated reading about approaches to get to be a reviewer. One question, how does he keep his weight down or does he when eating out so much ?

    • Thank you, Rose. I asked him that but I took it out of the interview. He said he hasn’t been able to take it off! He has gained weight. But he works out 4-5 times a week.

  10. Jonathan Kauffman is hands down the best food critic in the City. I savor his reviews and love that they don’t contain the requisite snark.
    I heard, years ago, he was offered a job reviewing at the Comical and turned it down. If true, it was a smart move, brother. You’re the best!

  11. Very nice interview. I’m an amateur reviewer and I really love finding out the process that experienced reviewers follow. They can be so mysterious!

    • Thanks Cristin. Jonathan tells a good story. Click on the links at the top of the post and try to learn how he does it! That’s what I would do, even though they’re not reviews per se.

  12. I was honored to have Jonathan write about me and my Art of the Pie workshops when he was with The Seattle Weekly. He was great to have in class, too. We miss his great work in Seattle.

  13. I really enjoyed this, and reading Jonathan Kauffman’s work – always a joy to read a review from a consummate expert! I live in Shanghai, where restaurant reviewing (in English) is lacklustre, and every critic is on the take in some way, shape or form. The quality of writing is better in the Chinese press although the corruption is worse – journalists may receive a hong bao (a red envelope containing cash) as a routine part of their attendance at a restauarant opening or event. It’s just the way it’s done here, but it doesn’t make for particularly unbiased restaurant reviews!

    • HI Fiona, how wonderful that you’re reading about a No. California critic while in Shanghai – -and also reading my blog. Thank you. Did you know that my parents were born and raised there?

      So you say every critic is on the take! I suppose I shouldn’t judge the system there — it’s just different, and since people are pretty open about what’s going on, you have set your expectations accordingly.

  14. A really fascinating behind the scenes look Dianne. It shows that it’s not always cut and dried when reviewing a place and there are many more things to consider than just accepting an invite and pitching up!

    • Thank you. Indeed, his reviews are complex. Bloggers tend to enthuse and post photos. This kind of reviewing takes a lot more thought.

  15. I really enjoyed this interview, Dianne – thank you! I appreciate how modest and thoughtful Kauffman is in his approach to reviewing. I also really appreciate that he has a background in cooking and a focus on the craft of writing. I’ve realized that I place my trust in a reviewer based largely on how much I like their writing. As much as I respect Frank Bruni, I could never get behind his writing style, but I find myself immediately drawn to Pete Wells narratives.

    It is also so true that while food reviewing seems glamorous it actually gets exhausting very quickly. Suddenly eating out is always work. I can’t wait to check out his reviews, thanks again Dianne!

    • You’re welcome, Kathleen. As he said, it’s more about telling a story than anything. And maybe you didn’t like the way Frank Bruni told a story. I’m enjoying Pete Wells’ reviews as well.They seem less overwrought than his predecessor.

      I was reviewing for the same publication and left it for that reason. I didn’t like being out at night several nights a week. I wanted my life back!

  16. It is interesting to think about the differences between a professional restaurant review and the reviews on blogs of the same places. When we look for a restaurant or look for information about a place we have heard about, we tend to look for both and balance out the professional view (maybe gathered from several visits, more thought out and, as Mr. Kauffman says, more based on an overall vision of the space, the chef’s intentions and the concept) – and personal reviews shared either on blogs or on forums which may be gut reactions based on a one-time visit. They both have their worth, and in this day and age maybe work best together?

    • Agreed. Bloggers have the advantage of usually beating out the print reviewers, and they can show tons more photos. I would just like bloggers to gush less and be more analytical. Think that’s going to happen?

      • There do seem to be bloggers who have taken it upon themselves to be serious restaurant reviewers and then there are others who seem to decide to post a “review” by chance simply because they ate somewhere or were invited to eat somewhere. There is a qualitative difference in the writing and the opinion….but I wonder if bloggers only write about places they liked, preferring to not write about those places where the experience/food was bad? I have only written a few reviews and usually as part of a larger story – about a travel experience and mostly as a story – and now I need to go back and see what I said and how I said it!

        • Well, the difference is that, on your blog, you are always telling a story. If you include some impressions of a place and not a full review, that is part of the whole. Most bloggers don’t seem to review. They post photos of the dishes and say what they ate.

  17. Great post and relevant to an article I am writing so thanks Dianne! Good to see some of the true critics are still alive and well. Jonathan and A.A. Gill seem to be the few true restaurant reviewers left. While blogging is more instantaneous does it prevent that moment of contemplation that journalists have? Time to craft thoughts and words and dwell on the experience for a more informed review. Should we as bloggers be taking the time to reflect before we publish a host of photos and make a judgement on the experience?

  18. Thanks for this interview. I like the idea of examining a restaurant and telling a story about what the chef is trying to do on a broader scale than just individual dishes. I think a lot of restaurant reviews on blogs are just “oh I ate this and this and this and that was good but this wasn’t so great” (I am probably guilty of that myself). But I’d like to get more into the story-telling aspect of a restaurant review, because I think it’s more interesting to tell a story than just talk about what you ate.

    • You’ve got it, Nate. I have been guilty of that myself. Some of it is just inexperience and a lack of confidence about evaluating the dishes, but overall, his message hits home. If you can’t tell a story, what’s left? A list.

  19. What an amazing experience for you Dianne! Thanks for posting about it. Interesting his comment that he is working twice as much now as he did when he started. So much more to do now with social media and blogs versus traditional print or even the online version of printed media. Those scallops look divine. Wish we lived closer to SFO and could try out those restaurants!

    • Yes, very true. With all this short attention span stuff, I don’t think he’s writing the long-form stories he won awards for above.

      You’ll have to come up here and try these new restaurants!

  20. Dianne, this was a fascinating read – I’ve been a critic in my city for a national newspaper for about a year and a half now, and I’ve learned a lot from reading this. Unlike Jonathan, I don’t bother being anonymous – but I don’t draw attention to myself either – but like Jonathan, I’m doing it in a place where there’s a long established sole voice of authority (not me!) also reviewing.

    I like that he wasn’t quick to dismiss blogging :) and also his words about looking at the wider context and not just the individual dishes.

    • Thanks. Just wondering why you don’t bother being anonymous? Probably in the beginning, it was irrelevant, as no one knew who you were, but now they probably do.

      Regarding the blogging, at SF Weekly, Jonathan has to blog in addition to his other duties, so maybe he has a real appreciation of it as a form.

  21. [...] Use fewer adjectives, connect the food to a story, and incorporate action [...]

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