Critiquing the food critic

Lara Bhakdi takes a look at the outdated values and lack of representation in the industry

“Any complaints?” reads the last part of the review. This is where it could all go wrong, where the critic could really tear into the food they’ve just eaten and possibly leave an indelible mark on the reputation of the restaurant. Perhaps, though rightfully so, they might target the taste, presentation, or timing of the food; they might talk about the friendliness of the servers or the atmosphere of the place.

Instead, a restaurant critic writing for All The Food found it appropriate to comment on the French accents of the servers in their review — accents that can’t exactly be altered within a few months (nor should they have to be). The idea that the lack of an Irish accent is acceptable to complain about is concerning. Perhaps this is why the complaint has since been edited to convey a less condescending tone than the original. Still, the sentiment remains, and so does the upset it caused the restaurant staff who call Ireland their home.

“Whether food is considered good or not can often (literally) be up to an individual’s taste”

Occasionally, the remarks that food critics make decidedly cross the line. John Lethlean, a restaurant critic, made inappropriate, misogynistic remarks about how revealing the clothing of a female worker at the restaurant he reviewed was — and caused a public outcry. These comments were clearly a product of his own prejudiced viewpoint rather than relevant, fair criticism. From insensitive remarks to outright sexism in reviews, the treatment of hospitality workers by food critics, whether in person or in writing, has ignited a debate over why we even listen to these critics in the first place. After all, it seems there are myriad reasons not to.

Whether food is considered good or not can often (literally) be up to an individual’s taste. While critics can arguably make near-objective statements (primarily regarding the sourcing of products or how well everything has been cooked), even these comments are inevitably subject to existing biases these critics have — a conservative mindset that leads to a rejection of certain dishes and customs, eventually stifling creative pursuits. This, in turn, aids the preservation of a certain status quo. Hosts of the Washington-based WAMU podcast point out that this is only exacerbated by the lack of diversity in the upper echelons of the food critic industry: majority white, male-dominated, and not at all representative of actual restaurant-goers.

“When done well, criticism can enrich the food and drink scene by holding restaurants to a higher standard.”

Not only is the industry not diverse enough, but it also actively contributes to the gentrification of neighbourhoods. Soleil Ho, an American food critic, has discussed how critics have caused restaurants in low-income areas to become inaccessible for residents. When a renowned critic lauds a restaurant, that establishment might quite quickly become too expensive to serve the customers it was originally created for. Outstanding reviews or even awards like Michelin stars draw customers from higher-income areas, which allows the restaurant to set exorbitant prices that are unaffordable for residents of the area. So, if food critics and the industry as a whole have issues as far-reaching as these, why do we still care about what they have to say?

Perhaps the answer is simple. Before I go to a restaurant, I want to be sure that it’s worth my money, especially as a student. Having authority on a certain subject has long been a method of persuasion, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t apply to food as well. It’s useful when there’s a guide to help us discern which places are and are not good, and professional food critics are expected to adhere to certain rules to eliminate bias and erratic, short-sighted judgement. With the proliferation of more vegetarian and environmentally aware restaurants, reviews can also provide information on how varied the cuisine is and how ingredients are sourced. Essentially, when done well, criticism can enrich the food and drink scene by holding restaurants to a higher standard.

So, taking all of this into consideration: should we listen to food critics? Yes and no. Beyond its more obvious advantages for the industry, criticism can also be of use to women and minorities, for whom it might be important to know what the service is like and whether the restaurant and location are safe and comfortable. For us to actually reap these benefits, the industry would have to be much more diverse than it is now.

“Food critics aren’t a relic of the past, but we need to become aware of the problems within the industry and make changes that will allow food criticism to stay relevant.”

It’s also important to note that if a restaurant identifies a critic as such, the treatment they receive might not be the same as the average person, which eliminates some of the benefits of criticism. I didn’t need to search for very long to find an actual article on the do’s and don’ts that restaurants should follow if they spot a food critic. It’s full of advice on how to get a good review — but that’s not useful for anyone trying to gauge what the restaurant is really like, because that’s not how they would be treated if they walked in to dine.

The industry has a lot of work to do, but ultimately it still serves a purpose. As an audience, we should be aware of the fact that (both professional and amateur) food critics do retain underlying prejudices, whether this be in favour or to the detriment of the place they’re reviewing. That said, we can still respect and acknowledge their experience and — when we need to — use these reviews to support our own choice of where to eat. It’s just important that we evaluate them critically, too; we can look at the experience of regular customers, which in the age of social media, is much more easily accessible than before. Food critics aren’t a relic of the past, but we need to become aware of the problems within the industry and make changes that will allow food criticism to stay relevant.

Lara Bhakdi

Lara Bhakdi is a second-year European Studies student and one of the Deputy Food & Drink Editors.