Nov 192013

Time-Gods-Of FoodIf you’ve read the news on who’s a top US chef, they are all men, according to a male food editor and a male restaurant critic.

Two features stirred the wrath of many: a cover story on “The Gods of Food” in Time magazine; and a list of Rising Stars from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Eater interviewed the Time magazine food editor about why female chefs did not appear, and here is his reply:

“We discussed that for a while, we actually thought about it. We wanted to name a couple. Another reality: none of them have a restaurant that we believe matches the breadth and size and basically empire of some of these men that we picked. They have the reputation and all that and it’s an unfortunate thing. The female chef is a relatively recent phenomenon, except for Alice who has been around for a long time. None of them have the recent breadth that these guys have.”

Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer offered this defense of his choices in a follow-up piece (in 2011, the first time he chose only male chefs — and this is his 4th year running), saying Continue reading »

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Nov 272012

In the old days in newspapers and magazines, if a restaurant chef or owner didn’t like my review, they called my boss. The editors never passed the phone call on to me.

But now that reviews are online, chefs can vent at reviewers directly, and that is not a good thing. Two bloggers who wrote less than glowing reviews of good restaurants were subject to vulgar and harassing comments that generated a lot of press.

The incidents brought up some good questions, however, about our expectations of reviewers, and I’ll get to that. First, let’s look at what happened:

1. Chef’s response: “…Wear a condom on your tongue to contain the orgasm of your ignorance.”

Dubai food writer and blogger Samantha Wood of FooDiva wrote a review of Giannino, an offshoot of a three-Michelin starred restaurant. She and a friend paid more than ‘a3200 (around $350) for a two-course Continue reading »

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May 152012

By now you’ve seen the announcements for the Oscars of food writing, the James Beard Awards for books, broadcast and journalism.

But have you read the pieces that won over the judges? I thought not.

I tracked down a handful of feature stories and explain why this is food writing at its finest. Here’s what it takes to win an award of this caliber, with links to writers so you can investigate who won as well:

1. Cooking, Recipes, or Instruction: Anna Thomas, Eating Well, for “The Soup for Life”

Here’s a sensuous look at how Thomas concocted recipes for green soups for her most recent cookbook, Love Soup. Her writing is full of action verbs (“a bitter wind was swatting down the last damp leaves”), evocative writing (“onions, slowly sizzling in the skillet, turned the color of Continue reading »

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Feb 062012

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

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 Continue reading »

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Sep 202011

Does opinion still matter? Yes. (Photo by Stuart Miles.)

Now that the New York Times’ latest restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, has moved on, the hand wringing begins anew about whether career food critics are doomed because of Yelp and food bloggers.

Let’s ask a different question. How have food bloggers changed restaurant reviewing? Here’s what I see as the biggest shifts:

1. Food bloggers don’t wait to review. In the old days, reviewers waited a month or so for the restaurant to get its groove. Bloggers figure that if they’re open for business, they’re fair game.

I like this approach. It implies there’s no cozy relationship between the two. Except that sometimes, there is. See No. 2.

2. Restaurants have opening events for bloggers. Print reviewers go to restaurants undercover and hope not to be recognized. They have expense accounts or get reimbursed as freelancers, whereas most bloggers write for free, as a hobby. So restaurants pay for them to come sample a meal. The cozy relationship is back.

3. Bloggers are more likely to cover an event than to review the food. Cover means “I went there and this is what I had,” versus. reviewing, which requires opinions Continue reading »

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Nov 092010

You know that secret smile you carry around after reading a good book? Especially one that makes you laugh and ponder the food world we love so much? I just finished Anthony Bourdain’s memoir, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food, and I’ll be smiling all day.

He’s toned down the macho swagger I staggered through 10 years ago in Kitchen Confidential, but he’s still writing about his man-filled, foul-mouthed food world. Expect brutal honesty about what constitutes exciting restaurant food, why we should cook and what, no-holds-barred opinions on selected food writers and chefs, and dirt on restaurant reviewers who suck. In this self-deprecating, thoughtful memoir, Bourdain also looks back at his life and how he got to be so lucky to be a best-selling author, dad, and world traveller with a TV show.

You can’t help but laugh out loud, and often. After consuming an elaborate tasting menu at Per Se in New York by the chef he respects most, Thomas Keller, he writes:

“But look across the seat at the woman with you. Do you really think she’s breathlessly anticipating getting back to your apartment to ride you like the Pony Express? Or do you think it far more likely that (like you) she’s counting the seconds till she can Continue reading »

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Sep 072010

Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan

If you read my recent post on recipe writing that generated dozens of comments, you’ll see that commenter Victoria von Biel, executive editor of Bon Appetit, named a blogger who’s a killer recipe developer — the only food blogger who works for her. I’m going to tell you why.

First, let’s identify the golden girl. She’s Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, 35, founding editor of an Apartment Therapy sub-site, The Kitchn. (Her husband, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, founded Apartment Therapy.)

And why does Gillingham-Ryan qualify? Here’s what von Biel told me during an interview at the recent International Food Blogger Conference: She wants someone who understands “international flavor combinations that are fresh and unusual.” Someone to whom she can say, “Do a casual Spanish dinner party for six people” and the writer will give her four complete menu ideas that contain “ideas significantly different from each other.”

When I asked Gillingham-Ryan why she succeeds with von Biel, she said it’s because “My guess is it’s because I give it to her straight, in as few words as possible, and I give her lots of choices.” For example, if von Biel asks for one savory and one sweet, Gillingham-Ryan will give her five recipe ideas for each.

Gillingham-Ryan had help on the way to the top. She had a mentor and teacher in her mother, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times food section, a home economist who later quit to become self-employed as a writer, recipe developer and food stylist. “I was around. I saw how it worked,” said Gillingham-Ryan.

When she wanted to become a writer, her mother introduced her to an editor friend of the family at Tribune Media Services, where Gillingham-Ryan wrote food features. “A lot of it was just luck,” she admitted. Later Gillingham-Ryan took the short course at the French Culinary Institute.

How a Recipe Developer Thinks

I asked Gillingham-Ryan how she comes up with recipe ideas. “I draw on my experience as a cook and eater and reader of Bon Appetit,” she began. “I think, ‘What have I eaten recently that’s really amazing?’” She will try to recreate it in her mind. She tries to remember what she thought at the time, such as “This would be better with orange peel, or with chicken thighs instead of lamb.” Using her memory as a starting point, she heads into the kitchen to improve upon or change the dish, accessing a taste library of which flavors work together best. She tries to stay away from fads (“Not doing a ton of cardamom right now. It’s been done.”).

When she’s brainstorming a recipe, she’ll turn to books as a reference to see how people she respects think, such as reading Shirley Corrhier or Harold McGee on how baking soda and powder work together. At this stage, she’s not tinkering with measurements yet, and she’s up on what’s already been done in the magazine. If she looks at similar recipes to dishes she’s imagining, it’s to decide what she would do differently to put a personal stamp on it. “I know the basic formula for most foods,” said Gillingham-Ryan. “A lot of that came from culinary school and the cooking afterwards.”

What is her advice for food bloggers and other food writers who want to build expertise as recipe developers? “People think they can just call themselves (recipe developers) and start doing it, but it just takes time to develop a craft.” She also recognizes what worked for her. Find people who will “take you in and show you the ropes.”

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