Todd Kliman doesn’t miss being a restaurant reviewer.
“It becomes tiresome after a while to eat lavish food,” he explains. “No matter where you go, everything’s plated the same way and it starts feeling like you’re in this very strange little bubble. You’re all over the world and yet you’re nowhere. You’re eating things middle class people would kill to eat, but after a while it loses its novelty.”
For 15 years, though, he did that work. He wrote a food column for the Washington City Paper, and won a James Beard Foundation award. Then he was a food critic and food and wine editor for the Washingtonian, the city magazine of Washington D.C. (He also won a 2016 MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing award for his autobiography in seven meals, Pork Life. And his writing has appeared five times in the Best Food Writing series.)
I hardly ever blog about restaurant reviewing, because it seems that so few people do it or want to do it. Actually, I’m wondering whether to get rid of most of my chapter on reviewing for the next edition of Will Write for Food. To verify my conclusions, I thought I should talk with Todd.
Here’s why he said reviewing is irrelevant now, what changed, and what to do if you still want to write about restaurants:
Q. Let me just ask you flat out: Is food criticism largely irrelevant now?
A. I think so. I really don’t think it’s useful or needed or relevant in this age.
It’s because I don’t know anybody outside food people who read it and talk about it. Every once in a while there’s a piece that comes along, like the Jay Rayner piece about the Parisian restaurant with two stars, called Le Cinq. It was a wickedly funny eviceration of one of the greatest restaurants of the world. The Guy Fieri piece made me uncomfortable.
Those kinds of viral pieces get talked about, because they have shock value or they’re funny. But I don’t hear people talking about reviews. They used to, and people would pass them around and compare notes. Now you have Yelp and see photos of food and find out what people are saying. You have to sift through. There’s a lot of bad writing and misdirection. I know restaurateurs who pay to have people post negative reviews of competitors.
Q. What happened to restaurant reviewing and why?
A. What happened is the Internet. It is this incredible leveling distructive force in American journalism. It has changed journalism and destroyed the model of what we grew up on. You see this great consolidation. Now you have access to the Guardian and the Economist and the same publications are talked about again and again.
Also we live in a country with an old anti-intellectual tradition, where restaurant criticism has been viewed with hostility. It’s soaked through with elitism.
Q. How could reviewing be improved?
A. What is needed is something else, but you can’t really get it. Not a Consumer Reports pick list, but the kind of writing that puts restaurants into perspective, to give context, and tries to write about them as part of the culture. The same way we see with theatre, movies and architecture reviews. We need writing that is not just consumerist but questions what this is adding or not adding to the culture.
I tried to do that and it was hard. It’s not what people are pulling for.
Q. How many white men with expense accounts do you think are left doing this job of restaurant reviewer in the US?
A. Well there are white women with expensive accounts too, but there’s probably not more than 50 reviewers total.
The hard part about it is that I had a budget that exceeded in one year what I was paid when I began teaching college. It was perverse and says something about our priorities as a country.
Q. The average annual salary for a food critic was $88,000 per year as of 2013, according to the jobsite Indeed. Does that sound right?
A. It’s about right. I know a lot of people who are making less than that who are working at an alternative weekly. I ended up spending a good bit of my own money when I did it.
And now budgets have collapsed. I was getting $1 per word when I was 19. Now you think it’s great. The bottom has fallen out. Everybody wants food writing but nobody wants to pay.
Q. What do we not understand about traditional restaurant criticism?
A. The hard part is that everybody focuses on the chefs at the top, and then there are immigrants and illegal immigrants working to keep the operation going, and they’re living a hand-to-mouth existence.
I wanted people from many different backgrounds to read my reviews. A lot of food writing is “look at me” and very indulgent and selling this fantasy for the good life. I didn’t want to play into that, because I wanted to write for people who were never going to go, who had a mild cultural interest in keeping up.
I would hear stories that a review would affect business, but I really had no way of knowing that. And I felt really uneasy when a good review came out, because it would bring an audience that would force a mom and pop shop to make adjustments. They’d be seeing upper class white diners that they weren’t getting before. Someone who has a mild palate and doesn’t like spicy food. Someone more persnickety about service. New people come with a lot of assumptions. I saw it happen with a number of restaurants that rely on family. Suddenly a review comes out and you have to bring in more people. A lot of restaurants struggled with it.
Q. Why did you stop?
A. I wanted to finish a book and write more books. I didn’t want to be defined solely as a food writer.
Q. What are the trends in restaurant writing now?
A. There’s a first look, where it’s reporting about a place that’s about to open, that talks about the menu, learns about the chef and what he or she is trying to do. Most people can’t tell the difference between that or critical judgment. The reason these pieces exist is that they give the impression that the publication is really plugged in.
Chef profiles are another way to learn about restaurants. There these really thoughtful analytical pieces where food is taken very seriously, like in Lucky Peach.
Q. What about the trends for writers?
A. It’s really hard to tell now who is getting freebies or going to media dinners and writing them up. Sometimes they’re paying for it, but it’s not even that. It’s that people are writing out of a certain coziness with the restaurants. They need to cultivate looking from the outside in. Sometimes they want to get on the restaurants list for parties and openings.
Q. What advice would you give someone who still wants to be a restaurant reviewer?
A. Have a lot of money. Write well, go four times, and wave your payment to get published.
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You might also like:
- Pete Wells Has His Knives Out: How the New York Times critic writes the reviews that make and break restaurants.
- So You Want My Job: Restaurant Critic
- Are Restaurant Bloggers Still Relevant?
- 5 Ways Bloggers Changed Restaurant Reviewing
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