Could we be looking at the last generation of food critics?


Could we be looking at the last generation of food critics?

A food critic chews over the sweet and sour of eating out for a living

By Antoine Lewis  November 26th, 2015

The first time I got sick on the job was while working on a city restaurant guide (at some point that night, I fell asleep on the pot). The last time I got sick, it was thanks to an uncooked kebab. What made it worse was that I had to take an early morning flight the next day. By the time I landed in Mumbai, I was so dehydrated and weak that I had to be wheeled out of the airport.  

Food critics today, however, face a far more serious threat than irritable bowel syndrome and the occasional death threat from an unhappy restaurant owner. What is killing off the critic is something more prosaic: plain vanilla indifference from their readers. 

In India, I don’t think there ever has been a community of readers who looked out for reviews. They wanted information, and at one point, critics were the only source; their opinion was secondary. But with so many sources of information at their fingertips today, they don’t need to read reviews. Quite likely because they’re now too busy writing them. Think about the last time you tweeted, Instagrammed, Facebook-ed or blogged about a restaurant you visited. Boom, instant critic. 

A good critic, writing an impartial review, recreates the experience of the meal by giving the reader a taste of what to expect, and offering them sound reasons for criticism and praise. Both the critic and the average diner may like or dislike certain dishes on a menu; the difference is that the former provides a justification for their opinion, while the latter stops at expressing pleasure or unhappiness. But in an age when everyone has access to a soapbox, no compunctions about sharing their opinions and no interest in differentiating between a visceral and a reasoned one, what chance does the informed critic have? 

There are a couple of factors that have hastened the end. Apps like Zomato and Yelp that have restaurants listed as well as rated by users, give people the basic information they’re after: Is the place expensive, is it good for a first date, is it good for a party? Secondly, editors have long treated food reviews as an unimportant part of their publications, and would allow just about any journalist to write them. So readers figured, “Hey, this critic knows as little as I do, so why can’t I do reviews as well?” And you know what they say about opinions.

I believe I’m part of the last generation of restaurant critics. We’re almost a vestigial organ that editors retain for sentimental reasons. Reviews are still conducted anonymously and publications do still foot the bill, but in the (not so distant) future, perhaps bloggers (whom one should consider independent entrepreneurs) may take on this non-function.

I recently gave a popular new restaurant in suburban Mumbai a poor review. One of the partners of the restaurant, a friend of mine, messaged me later in the day to thank me for pointing out the flaws and promised to fix them. A few weeks later, I met him at the launch of his next restaurant and asked him whether the review made any difference to his business. None whatsoever, he replied. 

So why do we still do what we do? I think it’s because reviewing restaurants is not just about stating whether the food is good, bad or ugly. It’s about understanding people’s tastes in food and finding in it a reflection of how society thinks about itself. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” the 18th-century gastronome and essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said. Through our food reviews, we’re trying to explore who we are. But it might be time to ask for the check.  

The first time I got sick on the job was while working on a city restaurant guide (at some point that night, I fell asleep on the pot). The last time I got sick, it was thanks to an uncooked kebab. What made it worse was that I had to take an early morning flight the next day. By the time I landed in Mumbai, I was so dehydrated and weak that I had to be wheeled out of the airport.  

Food critics today, however, face a far more serious threat than irritable bowel syndrome and the occasional death threat from an unhappy restaurant owner. What is killing off the critic is something more prosaic: plain vanilla indifference from their readers. 

In India, I don’t think there ever has been a community of readers who looked out for reviews. They wanted information, and at one point, critics were the only source; their opinion was secondary. But with so many sources of information at their fingertips today, they don’t need to read reviews. Quite likely because they’re now too busy writing them. Think about the last time you tweeted, Instagrammed, Facebook-ed or blogged about a restaurant you visited. Boom, instant critic. 

A good critic, writing an impartial review, recreates the experience of the meal by giving the reader a taste of what to expect, and offering them sound reasons for criticism and praise. Both the critic and the average diner may like or dislike certain dishes on a menu; the difference is that the former provides a justification for their opinion, while the latter stops at expressing pleasure or unhappiness. But in an age when everyone has access to a soapbox, no compunctions about sharing their opinions and no interest in differentiating between a visceral and a reasoned one, what chance does the informed critic have? 

There are a couple of factors that have hastened the end. Apps like Zomato and Yelp that have restaurants listed as well as rated by users, give people the basic information they’re after: Is the place expensive, is it good for a first date, is it good for a party? Secondly, editors have long treated food reviews as an unimportant part of their publications, and would allow just about any journalist to write them. So readers figured, “Hey, this critic knows as little as I do, so why can’t I do reviews as well?” And you know what they say about opinions.

I believe I’m part of the last generation of restaurant critics. We’re almost a vestigial organ that editors retain for sentimental reasons. Reviews are still conducted anonymously and publications do still foot the bill, but in the (not so distant) future, perhaps bloggers (whom one should consider independent entrepreneurs) may take on this non-function.

I recently gave a popular new restaurant in suburban Mumbai a poor review. One of the partners of the restaurant, a friend of mine, messaged me later in the day to thank me for pointing out the flaws and promised to fix them. A few weeks later, I met him at the launch of his next restaurant and asked him whether the review made any difference to his business. None whatsoever, he replied. 

So why do we still do what we do? I think it’s because reviewing restaurants is not just about stating whether the food is good, bad or ugly. It’s about understanding people’s tastes in food and finding in it a reflection of how society thinks about itself. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” the 18th-century gastronome and essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said. Through our food reviews, we’re trying to explore who we are. But it might be time to ask for the check.