My avocation as a restaurant critic generates more interest from my audience than anything else I do. It’s natural I suppose. The idea of dining in different restaurants every week and telling others about it in print must seem curious to many. Almost every other day I’m answering questions on Facebook, Twitter, email or in person about my restaurant criticisms or about being a restaurant reviewer. I thought it might be useful to answer many of the FAQs, or frequently asked questions, in this column.
1. What qualifications are needed to be a restaurant critic?
Being able to write well and deliver a column or review on deadline is absolutely the most important qualification. Also, you must enjoy food and dining out, otherwise what you write won’t be very interesting. Having some knowledge about food, various cuisines and cooking is also important. But being a chef is not required, any more than being a movie director is required to be a film critic. Very few restaurant critics are chefs.
2. Should a food critic be anonymous?
Frankly, it is impossible for a restaurant critic to be anonymous today. Even when a critic tries his or her best to be anonymous, as with former “Globe and Mail” critic, Joanne Kates, a photo always ends up on the internet. Most Toronto chefs and restaurateurs made it their business to know Kates’s face long before she was outed online. (Former Toronto chef, Greg Couillard, once told me he even knew what her frequent dining companion husband looked like.) The best you can do is to make sure the restaurant doesn’t know you’re coming. I frequently walk in without a reservation. If I make a reservation, someone makes the call for me, giving a different name. You must also be utterly vigilant in observing differences (if any) between the way you are being treated compared with how other diners are being treated, and be prepared to use that information in creating a balanced review.
3. Does The Telegram pay for your meals?
No. I pay for my meals and I am not reimbursed. I am paid for the review itself. As a result I feel totally unencumbered and free to write exactly what I want to write about my experiences. Being a restaurant reviewer is fun if you love restaurants and like to write. I also hoped, when I began this column (over ten years ago), that I might be able to make a positive difference in the local dining scene.
4. Do restaurants ever comp your meal?
No, because I won’t allow it. It’s important to have independence when you’re writing critically about a restaurant. Occasionally restaurateurs try to cover the cost of my meal but I find a way of paying, even if I have to give the server a tip covering the cost of the entire meal. Once or twice restaurants sent me gift certificates but I sent them right back. On very rare occasions I accept a media pass to food and wine events on behalf of The Telegram or Rogers TV, but not from restaurants.
5. Who dines with you when you review?
Mostly friends and relatives. Dining for a review is less fun for my companions than people might think. I will insist that we all order something different, even when everyone wants that delicious sounding “special”. I also ask guests to give me their take on what they’re eating. They quickly realize that it’s all about the review and that I’m working.
6. Who decides which restaurants get reviewed?
That’s solely my decision. I try to mix things up so that I’m not reviewing similar restaurants back-to-back. Unless a restaurant has changed dramatically (i.e. hired a new chef, overhauled the menu or made major renovations) I won’t review it again for at least two years. Some reviewers are adamant about not reviewing chain restaurants. I review everything because, let’s face it, chains are popular and people want to hear about them.
7. How can you give the same number of stars to a fine dining restaurant and a cheap family restaurant?
Easily. The star system merely tells you whether I think a restaurant (in whatever category) is fair, good, excellent, et cetera. That’s all. For example, I wouldn’t compare Joe’s fish and chip restaurant to Raymonds. But, compared with other fish and chip restaurants, Joe’s might be worth four stars.
8. Have you ever had chefs or restaurants get really upset with you?
Several times, but it’s to be expected. Restaurateurs and chefs want to read positive things about their restaurants. That’s human nature and the vast majority of chefs and restaurateurs work very, very hard to make everything as good as it can possibly be. Then, to be honest, you have some who just don’t get what I do. They believe my role is to be a cheer leader for restaurants. Well, sorry, that’s not restaurant criticism. My job is to write for my readers, period. And to let them know whether a restaurant is worth visiting, how much it will cost, and what I think is good about the restaurant or not so good about it.
9. What’s the best restaurant in St. John’s?
I usually ask people to tell me what kind of food they like and what kind of dining experience they’re after. Then I’ll suggest three or four different places that might suit. It is really up to the individual and his or her likes and dislikes. I have friends who dislike formal dining intensely. They prefer casual, funky places with uncomplicated food and no white cloths. Others absolutely live for the old world charm of white table dining. And for some it’s what they are in the mood for on a particular night.
10. Are your friends afraid to cook for you?
I think some may be, but all my friends are fabulous cooks. A few tell me, jokingly, that they fear I will critique their food. I reassure them that I only review restaurants. Thankfully, I still receive lots of dinner invitations. Besides, it’s more about spending time with friends. There’s nothing better than being invited into a friend’s home for something to eat, maybe a glass of wine, and the enjoyment of one another’s company. Especially at this time of the year.
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Contact him through his website,
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells