A post on the Seattle Weekly's dining blog on Thursday makes an odd case for dispensing with professional food critics. According to the Weekly's own critic Hanna Raskin, Portland, Oregon is a town without a critic. Or at least "without an Anton Ego type issuing culinary decrees." And its food scene hasn't suffered, as Raskin thinks her colleagues would have feared. "I suspect many professional critics think eaters would have to subsist on bacon explosions, cupcakes, and upscale food-truck cupcakes if they weren't around to challenge and contextualize food trends." The Oregonian, Portland's daily paper of record, laid off its critics Karen Brooks and Roger Porter last year, leaving what Eater called "a gaping hole in local dining coverage." It replaced them with Michael Russel, who Raskin calls "a cops reporter who had washed dishes in a restaurant kitchen."
But Raskin's surprise that Portland's food scene is thriving with Russel as its daily arbiter of taste is pretty harsh. In fact, many famous critics started in other areas of their respective publications. The New York Times, in particular, has made a habit in recent years of appointing non-foodies to what is arguably one of the most powerful restaurant critic jobs in the nation. Its current critic, Sam Sifton, dabbled in food journalism as a previous dining section editor, but worked as a culture editor for the five years before he became critic. His predecessor, Frank Bruni, ran The Times' Rome bureau before moving to the food section, and covered George W. Bush's presidential campaign before that. When he was taken off the food desk, The Times' executive editor Bill Keller wrote that "he was not the obvious choice" for the job of critic, but that after five years, "the choice seems not only obvious, but inspired." Even Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle's food editor and critic, and a past president of the Association of Food Journalists, started as a "feature writer specializing in behavioral sciences at the Kansas City Star," according to his Chronicle biography.