Chefs and food critics have always had a rather contentious relationship. The latter party, depending on the writer’s status and publication, can make or break a restaurant, and as a result, some chefs have a certain disdain for these culinary writers. Just how deep can that mistrust and animosity run? As the Los Angeles Times reported, “Top Chef” star John Tesar once went as far as to ban a food critic from his two Dallas restaurants following a three-star review.
“One chef banned a critic from his restaurants following a 3-star review.”
Yet it doesn’t have to be so dramatic. Sometimes, chefs and critics can be friends, working together to bring people new and exciting meals. Even if a critic hands down a bad review, there are ways that chefs can build positively on the feedback/experiencwithout harming themselves or their businesses. If you’re still enrolled in culinary academy, here are a few things to consider before you go head-to-head with your first food critic:
1. Recognize quality criticism
In a blog post on Eater, celebrity chef Mario Batali noted that he hated food bloggers, finding these individuals capable of making only anonymous personal attacks on chefs and restaurants. In this day and age, anyone with an Internet connection and an appreciation of food can write reviews. However, legit food critics operate much differently than their nonprofessional counterparts. These days, as Chowhound pointed out, many critics have dropped the veil of anonymity that was popular from the 1960s through the early 2000s. Now these people attend restaurants and work right out in the open, giving a face to their name. Plus, the Association of Food Journalists, a professional group for these writers, has outlined a clear set of operating guidelines. That includes being direct and honest, avoiding personal attacks and making the food itself the centerpiece. Only those critics who act professionally and without personal malice are worthy of your attention.
2. Don’t take anything personally
According to Simply Hired, there are seven factors that make for a successful career in the culinary arts. Chief among those is the ability to not take things personally. On the one hand, it’s easy to feel as if you’re being attacked directly by a critic. You’ve put so much time and energy into your craft that it’s hard to separate yourself from any reviews. However, it’s important to recognize that legitimate critics aren’t interested in assaulting you personally. Ths is their job, and they don’t have it out for you or your restaurant. The best critics are simply serving an audience, much like yourself, and they must always be direct and honest with their readers. According to Chef’s Resources, more chefs must learn to not take themselves or their craft so seriously. Instead, learn to handle mistakes, like a bad night leading to a worse review, as an unavoidable part of any job.
“Never comp meals or interrupt a critic’s dinner service.”
3. Handle them like customers
Despite their level of power, critics are, in many ways, just like any other customer. They may eventually write about their risotto, but they want to see what you’re capable of in terms setting a specific ambiance and creating a dining experience. That’s why it’s important to treat critics as you would an unruly customer. When the criticism is negative, don’t blow it off right away; this is a chance for you to really evaluate what you’re doing in the kitchen. Even if you think they’re wrong, it might be worth honestly exploring their criticism anyway. Just as you should avoid responding to a bad patron review, the same goes for critics. It might feel good, but ultimately it will make you and your staff look unprofessional. Finally, you always want to be prepared for a critic’s arrival. As the Houston Press explained, the best preparation is often avoiding a few pitfalls. That includes things like comping meals, asking about their experience or interrupting their meal.
4. Recognize a critic’s value
English playwright Joseph Addison once said, “Their is no defense against criticism except obscurity.” He may have been talking about other matters, but that quote rings extra true for chefs and critics. If no one is willing to talk about your restaurant, it’s less likely you’ll drum up the support needed to stay in business. And, as Irish poet Brendan Behan proclaimed, “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”