Who Wants to Be a Career Food Critic Anyway?

There may be fewer full-time critic gigs, but they aren't the dream jobs they once were

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On Wednesday, we suggested that the career food critic may be an endangered journalistic species, as fewer outlets seem interested in (or can afford) keeping a critic in place for decades. The counterpoint to that is that the job of full-time critic, which has always had its hidden drawbacks, has gotten harder of late. It's not the bucolic, eat-write-repeat process it once was, but has expanded to include blogging, tweeting, and general hobnobbing online, in addition to what's often an exhaustive dining schedule. There may be fewer full-time critic gigs available, but they're the not the dream jobs they once were.

On Thursday evening Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema pointed out on the Fork in the Road blog that departing New York Times critic Sam Sifton's 40-hour week of simply eating was just the start of the rest of the work a critic's now expected to do.

Back in the Age of [former Times critic] Ruth [Reichl], it was merely a matter of going out to eat all the time at high-end restaurants, where a meal usually took three or four hours. You do that, say, 11 or 12 times a week, lunch and dinner plus travel time, and you've used up 40 or more hours per week already just eating, weekdays and weekends included. Goodbye family. To then have to sit down and write a long prose masterpiece of 1100 or 1200 words week after week required stamina, even back then. Times reviews are significantly longer than those at other papers, and crammed with details that the critic himself must initially fact-check.

Nowadays, in addition, the critic must blog extensively, answer reader questions, write best-of lists, tweet, and see to other social media concerns, as well as write extensive features that require him to travel quite literally around the globe. Plus spending time with editors, fact checkers, copyeditors, etc., as all this prose is processed into print.

Burnout, Sietsema contended, was inevitable. In our own commenting section, SF Weekly critic Jonathan Kauffman pointed out that he and his fellow New Times critics are tasked not just with blogging and general reporting, but also with the long-form reviews his predecessor, Meredith Brody, once did as her sole job.

As the critic's workload increases to the point of burnout, however, it's worth remembering the job has always had its downsides, purely because it takes a normal human function, something many of us associate deeply with pleasure and comfort, and turns it into work. Back in January, Ari LeVaux took on that conundrum on TheAtlantic.com: "If I listened to my gut I wouldn't eat half of what I swallow in the line of duty, and if I listened to my heart, I'd eat even less. I'm much closer to being a militant locavore than most readers of my restaurant reviews would ever suspect, but as a critic I have to judge the dishes on their own terms, evaluating them according to criteria that a majority of readers can relate to."

Rendering those judgments has always been hazardous. In a wonderful essay about the end of his own job as food critic at "a glossy San Francisco magazine" in the 1980s, Steve Silberman related the story of Grimod de La Reynière, who declared himself the first food critic and made the case for dining out as art.

L’almanach caused a sensation, selling out all seven editions. To generate updates for subscribers, de La Reynière convened a jury of master tasters who struck fear into the hearts of chefs all over the city. Then, however, rumors circulated that the jury’s opinion could be swayed with un pot de vin (“a pot of wine,” the generic French term for bribery), and an angry mob of chefs and restaurateurs chased de La Reynière out of town. His typically grandiose response was to send out invitations to his own wake, inviting mourners to a banquet amid coffins and skulls, as a band played funeral marches. But de La Reynière’s 15 minutes de gloire were over, and few people showed up.

The modern equivalent, alas not nearly as dramatic, is the online rant, whether in a forum like Yelp, Chowhound, Facebook, or a straight-up hate blog. It's now easier than ever to disagree with your local critic, and not necessarily politely. Of course, that discourse, when done civilly, can actually help the critic by giving him or her some insight into the community's leaning. But slogging through it only adds to the already strained workload.
"Today, we [critics] serve perhaps not as much to judge on matters of taste, but we serve as a barometer by which consumers can make better informed decisions in an information era," Lauren Shockey, another Voice critic, wrote on Friday. But providing an informed opinion in a world where so much more raw data is available than ever before means doing a lot more work than has ever been required of a staff critic. And doing it on a stomach that may be full, upset, or simply exhausted.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.