Jan 1, 2006

A Former Food Critic's Lament

Salon had this interesting piece written by Ann Bauer, self-proclaimed "restaurant slut." In this article, she talks about how the practice of writing restaurant reviews started out fun and glitzy and just unreal in terms of the level of privilege she received while dining out, and then how it turned into such a "job," and how the pleasure started fading away. She likens her experience to a scene in "Klute," in which Jane Fonda, an aspiring actress and prostitute, shifts between the requisite sultriness required of her by her client, to ambivalence and annoyance. How food writing "becomes work," essentially.
But food is linked to religion, history and culture. It defines ethnic groups, brings families together, and plays a role in the rituals around everything from holidays to executions. Jesus had his Last Supper, condemned men have theirs. For a novelist, this was rich stuff.

So I wrote stories about how fresh fish is sourced and shipped to the Midwest. About a slow-food chef who used only organic ingredients found within a 250-mile radius and a southern Minnesota farm that raised ducks humanely. A restaurateur whose caustic ad campaign caused picket lines to form. And a local line cook with bipolar disorder who burned through a dozen fine dining jobs before opening a Gothic-themed breakfast spot downtown.

But my signature was to interview people over dinner. It proved my theory that food is a platform upon which we build relationships and share confidences. Sitting knee-to-knee at a candlelit table, people would tell things they'd never revealed. Not shocking behind-bedroom-doors sorts of things, but facets of their stories no one had ever before heard. A famous conductor told me how his faith in God had shaped his music. A National Book Award winner admitted that she'd been surprised and frightened by her last pregnancy, at age 47.

I wrote traditional reviews, too, but I tended to avoid the places so hot only people who knew someone could get in. Restaurants opened to great fanfare, but I waited. Sometimes up to six months. And when I did visit I went casually, often without a reservation, sussing out the attitude of the wait staff toward unknown customers, pretending all the time it was my own money that was on the line. How would I feel if I'd hired a baby sitter, put on high heels for the first time in a month, and blown $200 on this meal?

Then Wolfgang Puck announced he was opening a restaurant at the newly expanded Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. So I flew out to California to interview him. It was the first week of January; back home, the temperature was below zero. But I was sitting in the courtyard at Spago in Beverly Hills. Over three utterly hedonistic hours, I was served a "taste" of everything Puck and his chefs could dream up: tiny pumpernickel blini with smoked salmon and caviar; French prawns in a fiery red-and-yellow curry; fatted duck breast studded with bacon, black truffle and dates.

Unlike Ms. Bauer, I'm all about the food. The act of dining out. Dissecting flavor. Tasting, and talking about what I taste. I work in the specialty food industry. It's what we do. And I could totally get down with this gig.

But alas, I don't think my attempts at restaurant crits are that great. I need more practice or something. It's harder than it looks. If only my reviews could be as funny as Drew's. But anyway, I digress. In grad school, some friends of mine in the journalism program (I was in the PR program - don't judge) took a class that focused on writing restaurant reviews. I wanted to change programs right then. But knowing that was impractical, I decided to tag along with them, writing my own reviews. I've even tried to write one for this blog.

I've thought about doing some kind of web-based outlet for my reviews - but then again, how could I differentiate myself from all the other online restaurant review sites out there? I have to give this more thought.

And now with the new apartment, my days of fine dining will surely be limited to very special occasions and dates - assuming I will have dates in 2006.

Heh heh.

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