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:
- 2010 Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Awards, Society of Professional Journalists Region 10, for “… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of German Butterballs”
- 2010 AAN AltWeekly Award for “Healing from a Hot Pot”
- 2010 AAN AltWeekly Awards for “Drawing Room Comedy at Number 1 New York Pizza”
- 2009 Bert Greene Award for Food Journalism, “What I Saw, and Ate, at the Pig Sacrifice”
- 2006 Association of Food Journalists Award for restaurant criticism, circulation 150,000 or less
- 2006 James Beard Award for newspaper reporting on nutrition or consumer issues, for “Endangered Species.”
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?
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.
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.