Critic-Turned-Cook Reflects on Past Reviews


The idea of a critic or anyone involved in the food and wine industry working in a restaurant position is alien to the people working in the trade. I personally have worked in restaurants extensively but my experience has been limited mostly to the Front of the House. When I finished studying variuos cuisines and wanted to get some hands on experience in the Back of the House, I realized how hard it is to communicate the idea when it comes to high end restaurants. I think one factor is that people have own way of doing things and would not want someone who may question their way to be around observing. But the basic idea remains the same that skilled positions are 100% different when seen from inside versus outside and a person has to be more than competent in both before one is qualified to comment in criticism.


from F Serious Eats by Leslie Kelly

Critic Turned Cook follows former Seattle Post-Intelligencer food critic Leslie Kelly on her journey away from the keyboard and into the kitchen. Take it away, Leslie!


At a recent family cookout, my Uncle Hugh asked how work in the kitchen was going. “It’s hard—exhausting, really,” I said. “I have a new understanding for what goes in to feeding a bunch of demanding diners.”

“Well, maybe you owe some of those restaurants you reviewed an apology,” he teased. Uncle Hugh loved yanking my chain, but weeks later, I was still thinking about what he said.

From the other side of the counter, I can certainly see how a critic would drive a cook crazy. Myself, I wasn’t the kind of reviewer who relished sticking a fork in a place. I tried my best to be tough, but fair as a consumer watchdog.

When I had to write something critical, I agonized about it. I’d get the sticky ones in before deadline and then consult with my impeccable editor. He never shied from a pointed write-up of a disappointing experience, an evaluation based on three anonymous visits.
After these difficult reviews appeared, I steeled myself for the backlash. Last summer, I gave two and a half stars to the food a landmark four-star destination dining venue. I spent more than $1,500 over the course of three meals, each of which lasted nine courses and five hours. I admired and respected the effort of the earnest staff, but the pretty bites on the plates did not live up to the heightened expectations. Seasonings were off, or missing.

I was sure I would be skewered in the often-caustic comments that appeared as a post-script to the reviews. Instead, many readers wrote, “Right on!”

As an aspiring cook, I’ve so far only worked with chefs and cooks who I’ve written about in a positive light. Would a kitchen on the receiving end of a slam be as willing to let me stage?

Maybe. When I was at a wine-tasting at a restaurant I had panned, the chef was chilly when we chatted but thawed a bit when I told him about my journey from the pen to the pan. “You should work at a four-star hotel,” he said.

“Are you offering me a job?” I asked. We’ll see if that pans out.

I have no doubt working in the kitchen would make me a better critic. Not sure I’ll get the chance to prove it, though. Of course, I have applied for Frank Bruni’s job. Why not? I can just picture my resume on the Mt. Everest-size pile of applications.

It’s got to be the only one that includes time spent in eight restaurant kitchens.

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