Most people don’t set out to become food critics the way that most people set out to cook. Of the critics I’ve met, the good ones, the backgrounds are uniformly that of being writers: Having a sensibility that implies respect for what is observed, a capacity for observation, and an ability to document the observations. The food? That came later.
Mind, many of the food critics have a preoccupation with food: A unique relationship grounded in childhood or family lore or a history of having been from countries other than this one where food has cultural imperatives.
Certainly, speaking for myself, having a German father who spoke of the tastes of his childhood had its impact. Not approving of the home kitchen, this led, too, to early experiences dining out at places where service and ambience were as key to his experience as what was on the plate.
In sum, it was never just about the food.
Certain critics (in Boston) set a low bar, which contributes, as one Boston chef put it last week, “To a dumbing down of food.” Customers glom onto the same misinformed viewpoints as these critics and fail to understand the aims of chefs.
Here’s a recent example: High praise for taro gnocchi. For goodness sakes, it’s hard enough to get potato gnocchi right, why bother with taro?
In contrast, a NY chef I spoke with was critical of a certain former critic there whom he likened to, “The professor who never gave an ‘A.’” The bar, the chef felt, was too high, too much a reflection of the critic’s sensibility than it was of an ability to embrace the chef’s aims.
The overarching oddity is this: Few other professions outside of the arts have critics nosing around their work and giving out stars for their assessments. Even in the arts, theatre and music and dance and art and architecture don’t typically get stars.
Rothko’s “Untitled, Mural for End Wall,” ***.