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Who Gets to Be a Restaurant Critic?

The Chicken Connoisseur and the merits of authentic populism

When the prim news anchor asked Elijah Quashie, who was casually leaning back in his chair, if he ever imagined that he’d become a food critic, he responded without hesitation. “Well, that was the plan from the beginning really,” he said. “If I start being a critic, then I’m a critic.” The ITV host was only able to weakly stammer in response, “Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

Perhaps it isn’t terribly surprising that a mainstream TV presenter wouldn’t know what to do with Quashie. Late last year, he rose to sudden, viral fame for Chicken Connoisseur, his YouTube channel in which he reviews affordable, fast-food fried chicken shops around London while dressed in a shirt and tie. From the start, he has found himself at the intersection of a set of assumptions: of who is and is not a food critic, of what food is and isn’t worth critiquing, and who the audience for food criticism even is. Appropriately, Quashie closed out his national interview by making gun gestures at the camera.

Quashie’s food reviewing is unabashedly his own. Each episode of his YouTube series features the affable, funny host travelling to a shop in London in search of “The Pengest Munch,” (i.e., the best food). Chicken shops are ubiquitous in London, popular for their ultra-cheap, high-calorie, deep-fried meals — but since they don’t focus on pork or beef (which are religious taboos to the many Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Sikhs in the city) they are also something of a neutral ground in the city’s sprawling cultural kaleidoscope. Each Chicken Connoisseur video opens with a “crep check” — a spot in which Quashie describes and shows off a new pair of sneakers — then follows the script that most of us use when talking about restaurants: He talks about the menu and the prices, the space, how it compares to other places, and then concludes with a judgement about what he just ate, all in the dense slang that has come to define London youth. It’s very clearly food criticism, but of chicken strips and wings kept warm under heat lamps — that is, the food that the majority of people eat — but also the kind of food many critics wouldn’t bother to consume themselves, let alone talk about.

For that alone, Quashie’s series is a delight. But we also live an era in which populist appeal has begun to carry along with it a menacing threat. There is, in Quashie’s winning smile and restaurant reviewing for the common person, reason for hope, too.

Most food criticism is defined by a single word: should. It is almost impossible to encounter a review that doesn’t either explicitly or implicitly judge what is on a plate by a standard of what should be: whether cacio e pepe is sufficiently al dente, tonkotsu ramen broth unctuous enough, or a late-night bistro appropriately lit. This is of course true of all kinds of criticism. But food in particular tends to locate its “should” in generally absolutist calls to authority, whether that is authenticity (is this how they make it?), tradition (is this how they used to make it?), or, more generously, the coherence of a chef’s vision (is this what she truly wants to make?).

But while film critics can talk excitedly about Star Wars in the same breath they speak with reverence about Oliver Assayas, dining critics generally seem less willing to spread their critical eye quite so wide. In the actual back and forth that defines a craft and its criticism, food criticism is almost exclusively focused on either the high end, or at least the artisanal — if not the kind of restaurants that grow their own food on the roof, then the kind that celebrate simple foods, from burgers to bagels, and apply the same fastidiousness in their creation (which is often reflected in the price, too).

The obvious tension between competing versions of what should be thus emerge as questions of taste and class. When New York Times critic Pete Wells recently reviewed community-focused Locol, a storm of outrage followed — the emphasis on the quality of the food seemed misplaced in the face of the restaurant’s broader social mission. Conversely, Wells’ now famously brutal pan of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen was cheered by similarly progressive food-watchers for that establishment’s conspicuous failure to meet standards of authenticity or quality. Wells was likely playing to his audience who, at least in their tastes, aspire to the conspicuous consumption of the well-heeled, white, chattering classes. In fact, it is precisely the aspirational nature of food media and its links to race and class that allow it to both condemn Guy Fieri’s food but also “discover” the chopped cheese: The latter is authentically populist, while the former is not. But it’s also possible to detect in such reviews a kind of sneering classism; a condemnation of a restaurant is also a condemnation of its patrons, after all.

In that sense, much contemporary culinary critique is implicitly modeled after F. R. Leavis, the 20th-century literary critic who defined the best four authors in English as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad, and then went on at great length to justify his stance with “because I’ve read a lot, I know stuff, and I said so.” While cooking itself seems to have moved firmly into its modernist phase — what is a multi-course meal at Alinea if not a Woolfian self-reflection on the craft? — professional food criticism is, barring the occasional ode to the chicken nugget, still stuck in its “because I said so” mode.

Some better-than-average chips, rated in an episode of The Pengest Munch

For his part, The Chicken Connoisseur is no Leavisite, but Quashie is nonetheless rigid about his criteria. Following his reviews, a series of strict standards emerge. Chips should be soft, in the English chippy style, not simply because that’s the way they ought to be, but both because salt and pepper adhere more easily to soft chips, and that same softness means they’re moist enough to eat without resorting to sauce — about which Quashie is of course correct. Wings should be served piping hot, come easily off the bone, have a crisp batter that remains attached, and maybe most importantly, be aggressively spicy. Value is important, but relative: The Chicken Connoisseur’s standard order of a drink, chips, wings, and a strip burger (a chicken fillet sandwich) might be forgiven some flaws at four pounds, but not at six fifty.

On one hand, what is refreshing about Quashie is the way in which these standards skirt the usual debate between a big newspaper review and those on Yelp. His reviews aren’t predicated upon arbitrary notions of sophistication, like those that tell us a pale, French omelet sprinkled with fleur de sel is the height of class while a browned Indian one loaded with chillies is crass; nor are they solely based on price or portion size. Instead, they do exactly what criticism is supposed to do: Lay out a series of well-defended but admittedly subjective criteria, and then go about judging the food based on them.

On the other hand, though, the criteria that Quashie does apply are intensely familiar to anyone who has grown up in a big, Western city to immigrant parents of modest means. When you don’t have much money, value is paramount, but like anyone, you’re always searching for the perfect expression of that value: the £2 strip burger or dollar slice of pizza that leaves you completely satisfied. In the pastiche communities in suburbs around North America or Europe, a similar vocabulary is used both to evaluate noodle houses and curry joints, and to send back Big Macs or fries that have gone lukewarm. It’s a language of critique that speaks to whether a meal makes you feel good — not just about what you ate but the fact that you splurged by eating out of the house.

Interviewed by The Guardian about his newfound fame, Quashie had this to say about becoming inspired to start reviewing food by watching a judge on the UK version of MasterChef: “I wondered to myself, what makes his opinion more valued than anyone else’s? Is it because he’s been eating more food, so he has an experienced palate? I’m not sure. I thought, no one is doing this for the type of people who eat at chicken shops.”

That, however, is just the trouble with standards: They don’t translate well across types of people, or the group divisions that help define those standards in the first place. The tension between haute cuisine and populism, a Times review and Yelp, is about competing ways of deciding what’s good — of whether chips should be fat and soft like in a chippy, or thin and crisp like bistro frites. But when the public discourse around food is so overwhelmingly dominated not just by highfalutin critics, but those who are often white, middle-income, and left-leaning, the assumed standards by which food is judged tend to reflect and replicate exactly those values. If critics these days seem to most value food which presents a vision, highlights the ingredients, or inventively mixes influences, it’s because those are the values of upwardly mobile, culturally omnivorous eaters who believe in conscious capitalism.

This is why the Chicken Connoisseur feels so pleasantly unusual. It checks off all the boxes for what modern food criticism looks like, self-reflexively paying attention to its own status as criticism, but instead of taking you to places with small plates, or omakase, takes you to chicken shops in Hackney or Tottenham or any number of other London areas that haven’t been entirely subsumed by gentrification. Those shops are, in a simple empirical sense, the kinds of places where millions of people eat, but that people concerned with food as signifier of cultural capital would rather ignore — perhaps because such places don’t represent change or novelty, the necessary fuel of the media, but also perhaps because the change they might stand for isn’t considered relevant. In putting a critical vocabulary people were already using into a polished, appealing YouTube show, however, Quashie ends up providing a model for what a food criticism that speaks to a broader, browner, less-wealthy audience might look like. It’s fast food, framed as a product of its place and time, by someone who is winning and funny in front of a camera, and who happens to be young and black. But Quashie also stands as a challenge to all kinds of institutional critics, urging them to grapple with — and take seriously — the things that a majority of people hold dear.

This is, I think, exactly as it should be. When literary criticism moved away from Leavis or the New Critics and started to dabble in feminism or postcolonialism, its emphasis wasn’t simply on the politics of how literature got created or the representation therein. It was also on aesthetics, so Woolf’s feminism wasn’t just in her message, but her prose. Cuisine’s import and relevance isn’t just in “what story a plating tells,” but our culturally loaded expectations about what food should be. Say what you will about four wings for around two dollars, but the demand that they be crispy and spicy is a standard, and one that people care about. At root, it’s a question of what the object and nature of criticism should be: a narrow slice of food that represents the bleeding edge and demands the language of a specialist, or a shifting set of criteria that tackle both the highbrow and the everyday without insisting one is more culturally significant than the other.

There is, at the dawn of 2017 — what feels like a decidedly new phase of history — something like a lesson there. In the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, there was a gnashing of teeth over the rise of populism as a transatlantic, if not global, phenomenon. But the attention paid to the gaping distance between the media and great swaths of the country was framed as either a problem to be solved using the same tools people have always deployed, or a thing to be dismissed because of ignorance or racism. When one also considers the boggling number of people who didn’t vote at all, perhaps this new era demands some sort of reckoning with what is popular, common, and reflects how the majority of people actually talk about food.

It is of course true that part of criticism’s function it to both engage in a dialectic with a craft, challenging it to do better, while also calling attention to broader, systemic issues. A food reviewer who only ever judged fried chicken joints without ever calling attention to factory farming or the environment would be in dereliction of their duty. And Quashie does at one point mention that a less-than-stellar wing from a chicken which “did not live a good life” tasted of sadness and suffering. But perhaps the first step is making room for a food criticism that speaks to people where they are, and like all criticism, through standards that they too value and understand.

At the end of Quashie’s first post-fame video, he acknowledges his sudden success — and then squints as an off-camera voice says “Chinese!” It turns out this fave, like any, is problematic. Still, it’s troubling to see talk of ethnic food that has been “elevated” by removing it from its context or, conversely, to see the food that most people eat derisively dismissed, and the Chicken Connoisseur is a rejoinder to both.

In episode 6 of The Pengest Munch — the one that first went viral and now has over 3.5 million views — Elijah Quashie mentions he chewed on a bone in a strip burger, then looks at the camera and says with a smirk, “Bossman: I don’t know wha gwan, but that can’t run. That can’t run fam.” You might also say the same of a food culture that ignores so much of the population, pretending that its own standards are somehow objective, while those of critics like Quashie are not simply arbitrary, but just wrong. If food criticism is to grapple with the populist present, that situation, it seems fair to say, fam, can’t run either.

Navneet Alang is a writer based in Toronto.
Edited by Matt Buchanan
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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