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Your opinion of food writing and writers

post #1 of 26
Thread Starter 
In general, I don't see a whole lot of feedback from chefs when it comes to food writing and writers, so I wanted to take this opportunity ask what the kitchen thinks.

I'm interested to hear what you have to say in terms of...

Liking or disliking about food writers / critics in general.

What do you think food writers get correctly?

What do they do wrong that makes you want to knock some sense into them?

What would you like to see more of? Less of?

...and other things of this nature.

One of my observations is that a lot of the lower profile food writers and critics are stiff. Some of them are as stimulating as a card board box. Sure, they convey some information and ultimately do their job, but it's like eating plain toast.

So, instead of me guessing what's good or bad in between the kitchen and the food writer--I hear enough from the writer--I want to know what the kitchen thinks.
post #2 of 26
Most of them remind me of dieticians. One day I was butchering a rack of veal. The dietician came in and said to me 'Thats nice Lamb" ? Same thing applies to most food writers. Would loveto see them do it and let us critique it. I worked in a place in NY where Gael Greene from the NY Times came in. The owner asked her to please leave, She did.
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post #3 of 26
One of my favourite food writers in the UK is A A Gill. He is HATED by many chefs, but his views are pithy and honest.

In the past, I also enjoy reading stuff by Fay Maschler.

don't know anything about US food writers.
post #4 of 26
whoooooa! You are lumping professional people into one catagory?

That would be like saying most chefs' curse or are egomaniacs or workaholics.....writers are people.

Some of my best friends are restaurant reviewers, food magazine editors, writers etc....shoot I've written articles, recipes, newsletters etc.....

So, qualities I like in a restaurant reviewer:
(1) be up front on how you critique a restaurant.
a. we want to know how many minimum visits (in stl for the major newspaper it's 2 visits one on the weekend, one mid week.....for cheap eats it's one visit with $30 budget.....other publications vary, most are once.

b. tell us the earliest you will visit, again the main newspaper reviewer will give a place 4 weeks after they openned, after that it's fair game.

c. some are annoymous, some aren't.....matters more to others, frankly I just don't think a restaurant can alter service/food/etc if a reviewer shows up.....you can see how other tables are served, etc. Many though really value reviewers that aren't obvious.

d. most reviewers are upfront about their selections, ie....if there is a dish the restaurant is famous for, they are more apt to have someone order that...most of the times specials of the day are not ordered.


Food Writers, well many are journalist who were transferred to the food section....they can walk a novice through basic recipes because the majority of them don't cook alot. "Foodie" foodwriters are the best, they know what they are talking about, they know where to find shtuff, they know how things are made......check out sfgate for the san francisco chronicle's food section....it is loaded with foodies.

I've got friends who started a monthly print/web STL food magazine, through the years we've had issues with some of the writers just not getting the story right, not doing their research, not fact checking, most of the time youth is involved. There are some writers that have hidden agendas and they butcher stories.....I'll never forget sourcing a writer on local plums and she promoted another market in the story that didn't have a plum grower amoungst their ranks......guess who NEVER will get sourced again.

In national publications recipes submitted are tested and altered, which if you have an attachment to them is really difficult to have happen. You get to a point where you say, " they bought it and paid good money for this, it's theirs.....just keep reaping the royalties.

If there is something I feel strongly about I call some food writing friends and give um a scoop....they've come through so many times it's not funny.
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post #5 of 26
Are we talking about "food writers" or "restaurant critics?" They are not one and the same. All restaurant critics are food writers, but not all food writers are restaurant critics. There is a huge difference. And beyond that, there is such a huge varience in food writers, just like with chefs. I have known food critics that knew more and had a better palate than most chefs I know, I also know some that are complete dumb**ses, that truly don't have a clue. Same with food writers. I know many that have way more knowledge than me and are fantastic cooks, whether they can cook in a restaurant is another matter. And I have read food writers that seem like this is their first article beyond writing for a mechanics magazine. I don't see how you can lump all food writers into one catagory. It would be like asking what do you think of chefs.
post #6 of 26
Thread Starter 
I agree that food writers and critics are generally of two different "breeds," however they are of the same "species."

I intentionally left the distinction ambiguous so that whoever decides to respond can respond with their opinion of one without having to exclude the other. I'd like for it to be at the discretion of the poster. I think we can discuss both in one thread.

I'd like to write seriously about food in the future. Part of that is me at home burning fingers and food until I get it right and also learning from those who know what their talking about.

Unlike the food writer who couldn't tell veal from lamb, I figure if someone is going to pursue something, they need to make their bones by going about it the right way. One of those ways is by asking professionals in the related field the good, the bad and the ugly. Some chefs will never like food writers or critics, I’d like to know why, some chefs love them, I’d also like to know why, and some are indifferent, again, why?

There seems to be a large disconnect between the two, chefs and writers or critics. I could never quite understand a food writer or critic that went out of their way to avoid chefs. A lot of them do—which is what creates this gap—but that to me seems like a poor approach. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t know how someone could write knowledgeably about something that they don’t have a hand in, in one way or another.

So, basically, I’m just looking for general opinions and information to help me, do what I would like to do, the best that I can.

And one way to do that is to find out what the chefs think of food writers and critics, because we all know what food writers and critics think of chefs.
post #7 of 26
I absolutley love to cook. And I really, really enjoying writing about my experiences. Can I do one better than the other? Sure. I think what I find most refreshing in quality food writers, is their forthright balance; an impeccable sense of flavor and understanding of the art of cooking as well as their ability to talk about it so that you can feel the gritty-sweetness of a pear in your mouth. Writing about food without having been a cook is much akin to doing surgery without having studied anatomy; it is a bloody mess and the results are always a disaster.
Quite honestly, I think critics can be helpful, if (and only if) their knowledge is grounded in fact. For instance, if a critic has negative feedback about, say, meatloaf, Is the insight based on subjective experience or grounded in something with which we can all relate (i.e. undercooked, overcooked, etc?) Flavor is subjective. No way around it. What I like you may not. So, there is a fine line between objective critique and subjective criticism.

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Invention, my dear friends, is ninety-three percent perspiration, six percent electricity, four percent evaporation, and two percent butterscotch ripple

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post #8 of 26
Since opening my current biz (artisan chocolates and pastries) I have had a few experiences with writers/critics.

To be fair and honest, I've always had decent reviews. Some were gushing and bubbly, some where brutally honest. I respect these people, and respect thier work, really don't have any bones to pick with them.
But.... (yep, here it comes) but, all writers who work for publications or any other media outlets have one thing in common:

They don't like to be the first one to write about a new place.

Before our grand opening I must have contacted just about every person who claimed to be a "food writer" or "food critic" from EVERY media source in the whole lower mainland. No one replied, no one showed....


Meh, I have to admit, even though I've been in this business for almost 26 years and ran a succesful catering biz for 10 years, I had no prior media coverage. I was an unknown.... Very undesireable in the media's eyes...

Once we got the website up and running I got a few enquires from the very same people. First it was an all-chinese interview with a local all-chinese media group, then, a few months later a small write up in a ethnic daily. Then, before Valentine's day I hit paydirt and wrangled a 40 min LIVE in-house piece--oh to be sure it was aired at 6:30 am but it was mainstream TV. A few months ago I was featured in a two page article in a very popular bi-weekly paper. Business really picked up then...

Thing is, ever since grand opening nothing really has changed. Same me, same place, more-or-less- the same products. ( I do play "seasonal variety", and invent new stuff, but the same core-menu is there) I still do the same choc. and pastry classes for local schools and community centers that I did a year and a half ago, still drive the same car and live at the same place.

Whole thing reminds me of my Uncle and his business philosophy: Never accept a new customer unless he's done business with you before......
...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
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...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
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post #9 of 26
I'm a little confused, sksoze, both by your statements and implications.

You sign on as a food writer. But your posts are filled with comments such as "I'd like to write....." and "....help me do what I would like to do." What, exactly, are your qualifications as a food writer? Because I have to say, you come across as a wannabe who doesn't really know what the job is all about.

Food writing covers an incredibly wide field. The dozen people who write book reviews here at Cheftalk are all food writers (and all of them, btw, have in-the-kitchen credentials---many of them, indeed, have earned the right to be called chef). Restaurant critics are food writers. So are those who focus on culinary travel. And those who do newspaper columns. Food historians are all food writers, by definition.
As are those who do technical manuals and spec sheets. And those who write cookbooks. And essayists who use food and culinary matters as their beats. Many chefs, themselves, are food writers and critics. And the articles you see on the cheftalk homepage are produced by food writers. The hundreds of food-oriented blogs that now cover the internet---good, bad, and mediocre---are all posted by food writers.

Yet you persist in treating all these diverse disiplines and specialties as if they were an amorphous whole.

I'm sensing that you have, either via their writing or in person, run into some writers who behave unprofessionally, or who are unqualified to do the job, and are painting the entire profession with a broad, but unjustified, brush.

I also find comments like: "because we all know what food writers and critics think of chefs" rather arrogant. I'm a food writer. Not a wannabe---I earn a considerable part of my income by writing on culinary matters. And you haven't the faintest idea what I think of chefs.

You also imply that most chefs have negative feelings about food writers. Where do you get that information? Personally, I have never had problems relating to chefs and cooks, nor have I ever run into a single one who was uncooperative when I was working on a story. Sure, if you walk in in the middle of service, looking for an interview, you'll be lucky if he/she doesn't physically show you the door. But that doesn't mean the chef has negative feelings about writers; just with the a..hole who didn't know the time and place.

I suggest that instead of treating this as an academic research project, if you really want to be a food writer get out in the trenches and see what it's really like. Until then, don't bore us with generalities and unsupported claims.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #10 of 26
For those of you that are old enough, remember the Gourmet Magazines from the 1970's....if you look back through you'll discover stories that will transport you to another world. Time-Life series turned me on to cooking when I was 11 years old....first serious attempt at fancy cooking solo was a lemon souffle....oh man, flatter than a pancake. Great food lit.
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post #11 of 26
Thread Starter 
Well, that was quite the professional dressing down.

I make no bones about it, I am not an established food writer. I'm just trying to learn.

Jim, I think you made an important distinction between subjective and objective writing, especially when it comes to food. It seems a simple thing, but I agree, sometimes people miss the boat with that and it leaves the readers with little to work with.
post #12 of 26
Nobody here is looking to put you down. Some of us have found in the past that some writers come on here , pick our brains then write it and claim they researched the subject etc.
Over 20 years ago I did work for W.R. Grace re. a new food process called souvide. A New York writer who I believe was a transfer from the sports department took all my info and research and published it as his own. I could not do anything about it at that time. People wrote back to him and asked him questions about the process, he did not have the answers and called me. I told him to research it , and proceeded to hang up on him. Another point , he was not with the newspaper for long. :cool:
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post #13 of 26
Mushroom Girl
You graduaded from HKU(hard knocks university) Have been there, put in your time and done your homework. Unlike some food writers who put their names on something and do not have the slightest idea what they are writing about. I can show you examples of recipes like cookies forgetting sugar, cake without eggs misinformation etc.. Gotta do the research and proof read, Dont blame the type setter.
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post #14 of 26
I can also show you the same thing by writers that have proven themselves to be very good, knowledgeable writers. Oftentimes that is as much the editors fault as the writers. Example, in Mark Miller's "Red Sage" which I reviewed for Cheftalk a number of years ago, I found 2 recipes where an item was used in the directions that didn't show up in the ingredient list. I don't know anyone who will question Miller's talents or experience, but we all make mistakes. If not editors would be out of a job.
post #15 of 26
Not to disagree with you, Pete, because I don't---the level of copy editing done at publishing houses nowadays is pitiful. There is one book, just published under the imprinteur of a major housewares company, that has at least one typo and one syntactical error in every column of text. I shudder to think what the recipes must be like.

However, the author of a cookbook is equally at fault for any errors. (S)He was given a set of final proofs. The idea is that (s)he'd go over them precisely to catch such errors. Once (s)he signs off on those proofs (s)he is just as responsible as the editor and anyone else in the process.

It makes my teeth ache everytime I hear an author bemoan how bad a job the publisher did. The fact is, the author had more than one chance to fix any problems. If they couldn't be bothered to do so, they shouldn't ***** about it after the fact.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #16 of 26
KY, you can tell sksoze is just starting out.....he's finding his voice and appears to have good intentions. Let's humor him and learn from other members about their thoughts on food writing, this has not been covered much throughout the years and really peaks my interest (apparently some others too).

Journalists have specific codes of conduct.

What does it take to be a good food writer?
What does it take to write a recipe?
What does it take to review a restaurant?
What does it take to edit?
Green Briar in VA has a food writers symposium each year, there are some courses at CIA in continuing ed., Wash U in stl has food lit classes, food history, food writing courses......but it's difficult to find a culinary program with strong writing classes, which is a shame since it's used so much in real life.


Restaurant Reviewing. A few of my friends review restaurants, I've gone on review meals with them, given input and had them talk to classes I've taught....and vis versa.
There are publications in town that will not give a bad review but in essence promote their restaurant advertisers by writing about their establishment.....these generally out number the others, and if you are paying attention at all are noticeably puff pieces.
Reviewers that give serious reviews have respect when they treat everyone to the same rules. There are so many new establishments in STL each year that they don't need to visit total dogs.....If you set yourself up to be fine dining with high price points you will have set a higher expectation bar.
Many restaurants don't spend the energy to seriously train prior to opening, they muddle around for with the "we just opened excuse".....which is viable to a point. FOH can destroy a restaurant quicker than anything else.

Food writers, one of my dear friends is a Harvard grad teaching food lit/history at Wash U.....her research is DEEP....
Joan Dye Gussow just spoke at Wash U as did Michael Pollan, each teaches at Universities and writes for many publications as well as food books that change the culture of America thus the world. They each belong to organizations that are resources for them.

Editors, man I could not write without an good editor.....she cleans up my work and asks questions that I'd overlooked. Not altering my voice but trimming the excess.

Recipes....it is rare to find a chef that has well written recipes for a homemaker to follow. I've spent over 10 years working with MANY chefs that I've had to pull recipes from.....many many times I've threatened to show up at their kitchen doors and write out the recipe as they prep.....some I've actually done that.....publication deadlines were passing and they just didn't want to take the time to do what is not a strong suit. It helps that I cook, that way I know what questions to ask.....technique/amounts/ timing etc.
Someone without a base of cooking knowledge would not be able to do what I do easily. One of the main things to remember when writing a recipe is knowing who your target audience is.....a professional recipe is very very different than a home recipe. When I wrote recipes for Clayton Farmer's Market I had to put basic info down....one woman stood and watched me make apple sauce, peel, core and cut apples, put into a pot over medium low heat, cover pot. cook.....she wanted a written recipe. No poop. unreal. But it brought back home how some people really need a written recipe even for very basic dishes. Sizes, temps, descriptions of what it looks like all through the process, equipment used, timing, amounts of ingredients, etc...

One of the best articles I've read in an awfully long time was in the STL River Front Times a couple of weeks ago, Pig Heaven by Kristen Hinman, she did her homework and wrote a beautiful article with great resources backing up the premise that humanely raised pigs are a viable option in today's world.
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post #17 of 26
I'm guessing that by "food writers" Skoze meant restaurant critics, since the OP was addressed to the kitchen.

My time in the kitchen was a long time ago. I worked in two very good restaurants. One was, I thought, a little stuffy and stale and too predictable. Local papers (before the era of local magazines) reviewed us about once every two years, and national papers (including the NY Times) did some reviews as well. Which meant that in my time -- also two years -- we had a fair amount of reviews. None of them picked up on the restaurant's obvious weakness -- lack of originalkity.

The other was very experimental (for the time), in fact too experimental in both menu and personnel to be consistent, and frankly a little too rich hippy. Our typical review from the Bay Area press reflected some of the lack of discipline and spottiness, and the small portions, while praising the originality, ingenuity and freshness of the food. In other words, they were fair. In the middle of my two years there we were reviewed by a national magazine which called us one of the best restaurants in the country. The praise stuck, and for years, decades even, the place never heard a discouraging word. Same place mind you.

I suppose part of the improvement in reviews can be attributed to the maturation of the head chef (and his successors); but not entirely.

Often restaurant critics can't get beyond their expectations; and seem most comfortable when those expectations are set by others.

BDL

"The key to breing a writer is to take all the sadness and turmoil deep in the center of your being and channel it into a diet cookbook." Kanin, New Yorker cartoon, 2008.
post #18 of 26
KY, I have to agree with you. While I was in culinary school I worked for a publisher who hired me to test every recipe written in 4 cook books that he was going to print, and do it in his kitchen at his house. Before he published though he insisted that they be correct. In one of the books, which was wrtitten by a very well known chef, there were more incorrect recipes than correct. We were maybe half way thru the book when my boss called the chef and said pickup the book, redo all the recipes and then bring it back. Being a writer is more than just pen to paper and takes skill, patience, knowledge and it is an art. I happen to like the writers/critics I have encountered. As long as they realize they are writers/critics for a reason and not chefs then you will never hear a peep out of me.
Taste: The sensation derived from food, as interpreted thru the tongue to brain sensory system.
Flavor: The overall impression combining taste, odor, mouthfeel and trigeminal perception.
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Taste: The sensation derived from food, as interpreted thru the tongue to brain sensory system.
Flavor: The overall impression combining taste, odor, mouthfeel and trigeminal perception.
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post #19 of 26
I love to read food articles and reviews to see what other places are doing. I don't know any food writers or critics, so I can only base my opinion on what I read. When I read a review that pans one dish but praises another, I figure that amounts to a fair review. What bothers me are the on-line consumers who think they're food critics. There's a "review" out there right now about us by someone who was unhappy because they had to wait a considerable time before being seated. They are saying the place has terrible service. I only hope anyone reading it notes the date- Dec. 31 and that the person doesn't mention having a reservation. We have very limited seating and if you walk in on New Year's eve, you're not going to get a table any time soon. Even with a reservation, when the place is packed and people dawdle at "your" table, there's not much we can do about it. I wouldn't mind a pro review at all. It's the on-line wannabes that scare me. These are the same people who show up at a small place with a party of 20 (do you think we would have scheduled extra staff had you made a reservation so we knew you were coming?) and then say they're going to tell everybody how slow our service is.
post #20 of 26
Thread Starter 
I can relate to what you're saying.

I’ve talked with too many people that claim they are writers just because they write. These same people can't tell you who Francis Christensen was or the difference between a subordinative or adjectival approach. Not that technical know-how is the only thing that distinguishes writers, but it's a good start to finding out just how much they really know their craft; if they are indeed writers, or if they just write.

This idea of everyone being a writer is more prevalent now that everyone has access to a computer and the internet. Now, everyone has something to say, in writing.

I think there's a huge difference in those that say they write and those that say they are writers.

Picking up a pen makes these people no more a writer than picking up a knife would make them a chef. And in either case, I think most people can distinguish between the two.
post #21 of 26
I wrote articles for 2 newspapers in New York on a weekly basis for 5 years. I will be the first to admit I am not a writer. I am simply relating information re. food that I have acumulated over 45 years of cooking, baking .catering and restaurant PRACTICAL experience.I have a teachers license yet I am not a teacher. I had to take courses to teach me how to relate my experiences in the restaurant business to others.
I never use cook books but I give recipes based on what I have found to work.
I believe the magic words here between myself and most writers is the words Practical Experience. I learned it on the job and in the trenches most of them did not. Same things go with the Food Channel there are some of them that if you put in a commercial kitchen with 200 A La Carte, 2 parties of 100 patrons each and an outside gig of 100 would most likely have a stroke. Yet you have Emiril, Mario, and a few others who could do it. If it were not for spell check I would be lost.
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post #22 of 26
spell check????? who needs stinkin' spel chick>.....
cooking with all your senses.....
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post #23 of 26
C u t e !!!!!!
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post #24 of 26
It's because the recipe is always changing. How can you delineate how much of an herb or spice to use when you never know, specimen to specimen, how intense the herb or spice will be? And, truthfully, in a fast paced restaurant, how often does a chef even look at a recipe?
post #25 of 26
I've worked with chefs that follow recipes.....serious measuring, the whole shibang.
I've also worked with many that have no recipes for any dishes.

Most are a combo of both......
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post #26 of 26
who is Francis Christenson......never heard of him....?
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