Imagine a cocktail party. In the room are a scientist, a surgeon, a teacher, a priest, and a restaurant critic. Around whom do you suppose the other guests will cluster, eager to ask questions about their profession?
From personal, and somewhat embarrassed, experience I can tell you that it is the restaurant critic upon whom the spotlight shines. A new book, Dining Out Secrets From America’s Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs capitalizes on America’s national obsession with food, on chefs’ increased celebrity cache, and on the fascination harbored for how food critics do what they do.
Dining Out is Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s third volume in the trilogy that also includes Becoming A Chef and Culinary Artistry. Their new book is a fast-paced and fascinating study of the dining industry, with a primary focus on those who critique itpeople who, in some cases, have become nearly as famous as those who cook it. Within foodie circles, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl is so well-known and avidly followed that people who live in Boise, Idaho, pick up the Times every Wednesday to read her verdict on New York City’s newest restaurants, places most of her devoted readers will never have the opportunity to sample.
The book piles quote upon quote, observation upon observation, opinion upon opinion and anecdote upon anectdote from some of the nation’s most authoritative food critics, among them Queen Reichl; Gael Green of New York magazine; David Rosengarten of Gourmet; John Mariani of Esquire; Jonathan Gold of L.A.Weekly; Corby Kummer of Boston; and Phyllis Richman, The Washington Post’s restaurant critic for more than 20 years, who has been cited as one of the 100 most influential people in the capital city.
In chapter one, the book offers a timeline of restaurants and guides. The first restaurant as we know it todayone with regular hours and a set menuwas opened in Paris, of course, in 1782. In 1803, the Almanach des Gourmands, the first restaurant guide, was published, also in France. By then, there were 500 restaurants in Paris alone (196 years later, Nashville is still woefully behind).
Craig Claiborne began The New York Times tradition of weekly reviews in 1963; today, there is hardly a daily, alternative weekly, or city magazine that does not have a food writer on its staff. The book reveals tricks of the trade and confessions of the profession, such as how critics maintainor at least attempt to maintainanonymity; taking notes; the weirdest food ever eaten; what a review is based upon; how stars are assigned; and personal favorite restaurants. I was green with envy to find that most of these critics visit a restaurant three to five times before offering their assessment; Ruth Reichl ate at Jeans George seven times before finally writing her four-star review.
I am often asked what takes me “so long” to review a new restaurantmy policy is to wait at least six weeksso I felt vindicated that not one of the above named critics would dream of beginning the review process until a restaurant is open at least two months. Doing so before then is not only unfair to the restaurant, but irresponsible to your readers. And I was sympathetic to their acknowledged demands of the job: the logistical headaches of arranging large parties of people to go out dining a few times a week; eating lots of bad food in between the good; never having the time to go back to a favorite experience; becoming a public figure who elicits very heated response; and the reluctance one feels to write a bad review (though readers seem to enjoy reading them more, critics do not enjoy publishing a negative review).
And I found myself agreeing with their assessment that, in spite of its drawbacks, being paid to eat food and write about it is probably one of the greatest jobs in the world.
Another book I added to my library over the holidays that will be of interest to foodies is Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, a more carnal look at food and eating. A lot more carnal. This is not the book to take on a plane, as I discovered flying from Nashville to Dallas. You will either make your seatmate very nervous, or end up a member of the Mile High Club. I suggest keeping Isabel Allende’s gorgeouslyand eroticallyillustrated book on your bedside table, or in the kitchen, where it may provoke an exploration of alternative uses for the kitchen table. Among the topics she explores are aphrodisiacs, forbidden fruits, aromas, sauces, and sins of the flesh. There are also a good number of fairly simple recipes. To whet your appetite, I offer this 12th-century poem from the book:
Her breath is like honey spiced with cloves,/Her mouth delicious as a ripened mango./To press kisses on her skin is to taste the lotus,/The deep cave of her navel hides a store of spices/What pleasure lies beyond, the tongue knows,/But cannot speak of it. Pretty hot stuff.
Moving On Up
People who live, work or travel through the newly-named 12 South neighborhood are easily identified by the layer of chalky dust that covers their cars, clothing and unprotected skin. For months the big trucks have been digging up large holes on 12th Avenue between Sweetbriar and Paris, filling them in, covering them, then inexplicably digging them up again. One bright spot through the mayhem has been the glowing facade of a bright yellow building on the east side of 12th undergoing renovation. With a sign in place that conjures one of those moving Elvis clocks, The Clean Plate Club is a week away from moving into its new location, just in time for Monica Holmes to celebrate the 12th anniversary of her popular catering business.
The 1,500 square-foot building, which dates back to the ’50s, was a laundromat, then a bar, and, most recently, a junk store. Now painted in bright colors with sheet-metal cutouts attached to the front, the Clean Plate Club is an eye-catching addition to the business district which stretches from Ashwood Avenue on the north to Sevier Park on the south. Other 12 South pioneers include Laurell’s Central Market, Trim, Cattails Florist, and Third Coast Clay in the Paris Building, where Holmes will maintain her office. The Clean Plate Club building will serve strictly as a catering kitchen, though Holmes pondersin moments of complete irrationalityopening the front of the store for take-out and retail.