Do We Need Professional Food Critics? Ask Portland

A revealing Seattle Weekly comment over a cops reporter-turned food critic

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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.

It's hard to say whether Russel is as good as Sifton, Bruni, or Bauer. He is certainly as prolific as any of his peers, producing about two articles per day, according to his author page at The Oregonian. And his interest seems wide-ranging, from a dining roundup of Portland's "Little Korea" to a review of a locally sourced ice cream parlor. But as we don't live or dine in Portland, we can't say whether he's accurate. The point is, he's not necessarily unqualified for the job just because he comes from a non-foodie background.

The discussion on the necessity of food critics frequently comes down not to whether one professional critic is worth his salt, but rather whether the role is even necessary in the age of ubiquitous Yelp reviews and amateur food blogs. On that topic, Bauer told the Christian Science Monitor's Chuck Cohen earlier this month that "any review has validity," and that "the general public is much more critical than I am," but that on Yelp, people tend to complain more about the service, which "color[s] how they view the food." Of course, as Cohen points out, the most important part about being a good reviewer isn't knowing a lot about food or being hyper-critical about restaurants. It's writing well and descriptively.

While most of Bauer's reviews are at least two stars (if a restaurant is terrible on his first visit he often doesn't return or write about it), his barbs can be sharper than any serpent's incisor. While I would have chosen "bland" to describe the weak onion soup, he went with the far more descriptive "tasted as if the kitchen had added water to stretch the broth." For me the pizza was just not worth taking home, while he thought it was "a limp margherita ... with a crust that had the spongy characteristic of a Boboli with a too-sweet tomato sauce." And while my Petrale sole was, to me, incredibly dry, he found it "two minutes away from becoming jerky." Ouch. But accurate.

As for Portland as a city without a proper critic, it looks like disproving that assertion will be up to Michael Russell.

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