When people hear you work at Eater, the first question is often, “Are you a restaurant critic?” Criticism constitutes a rather small corner of the world of food journalism, but it’s still the industry’s presiding cultural touchstone and the job that invites the most curiosity — and envy.
Yes, at its most basic definition, food criticism is about getting paid to eat food and write about it. But though it might sound dreamy, the critic’s life isn’t as glamorous as it’s often made out to be. From greedy relatives clamoring for a free meal to frequent mediocre but overpriced dinners and punishing dining schedules, the life of a restaurant critic is often an uncomfortable one.
Bon Appétit deputy editor Julia Kramer, who’s responsible for the magazine’s annual Hot 10 List, and Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton recently joined Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen on Eater’s Digest to discuss what it’s really like being a critic.
Anonymity is key
Though it’s been challenged in recent years by the rise of social media, maintaining a low profile is still essential for critics trying to offer untarnished views on a restaurant. Kramer wrote her first review as an intern at Time Out Chicago. The publication’s critics were both known by the restaurant’s management, she says, “and they asked me to review it because they really wanted someone anonymous to do it... even if I was just an intern.”
Both she and Sutton reserve tables using pseudonyms and fake phone numbers when they can, as booking systems like Resy and OpenTable recall previous visits connected to each phone numbers. “I would say the way I approach anonymity is not giving restaurants a head-start,” Sutton explained. “I never make a reservation under my own name. That’s not just common sense, but it’s part of my requirements here at my job. By going through these steps and jumping through these hoops, you’re also letting your readers know that you take your job seriously. And when you’re making a reservation, you’re not calling in favors.”
Picking restaurants is a process
While local critics like Sutton are more responsible for covering new openings than their national counterparts, the fact that a restaurant is new is not reason enough to dedicate a review to it. “I often like to say that Michelin is in the job of inspecting. They go to as many restaurants as they can and they’d give them a rating, Sutton said, “We’re not inspectors, we’re storytellers. And we find interesting stories that we then can connect to people. And we like to place a restaurant within the cultural framework of the city. And the restaurants we choose to review again isn’t just about, I like this place. There’s a lot more to it than that. There have been occasions where we’ve gone to a restaurant twice and have decided it’s lousy and we simply didn’t publish. There are other times where we’ve gone four times, sometimes more and say, this is a story we need to tell.”
The tab isn’t limitless
Contrary to popular belief, critics have to stick to a budget. “I’m lucky to have a budget that allows me to eat the number of times I need to eat,” Sutton says. For Eater, that’s three reviews a month. “But I’m sure as heck not going to order the $10,000 bottle of wine.” Sutton only orders what he thinks is essential to understanding the average diner’s potential experience at that restaurant, but the cost of a dish is just one factor. “I would say that the chief factor in me deciding what to order given restaurant is not, oh my God, I need to stay within budget,” Sutton explained. Instead, he asks himself, “Are other people ordering this? And can this help me tell my story better?”
The schedule is punishing
When she’s on the road scouting new places, Kramer eats at least two lunches and two dinners every day, and often visits bars, coffee shops and bakeries between those stops to maximize her time in each city. “The back-to-back tasting menu is rough,” she explained. “I did it multiple times this year, and I do not recommend. It’s hard to enjoy the first meal because you’re so anxious about how much you’re going to have to eat at the second meal. And then it’s hard to enjoy the second because you’re so full from the first.”
Sutton says his job has impacted his health. “I used to have a pretty athletic body in high school,” he said. “Athletics are still a huge part of my life. I love skiing and cycling and what have you, but I’m not going to be a pure climber as a cyclist because I have a little bit of a gut and that’s simply the fact of the job impacting me.”
For more on the weird underbelly of restaurant criticism, check out this week’s episode of Eater’s Digest, our podcast covering the biggest stories in the world of food each week.
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Below, a lightly edited transcript of our interviews with Julia Kramer and Ryan Sutton.
Amanda Kludt: The vast majority of food writers and media pros aren’t restaurant critics, but there’s an overwhelming fascination with this small corner of our world. So we called in two critics, Bon Appétit deputy editor Julia Kramer, who’s been at it for 11 years, and Eater’s own Ryan Sutton, our New York critic, to pull back the curtain on this wild world for us.
Daniel: After graduation, Julia joined Time Out Chicago as an intern.
Amanda: Then she spent five years as a city critic, hitting every single new restaurant she could, and reviewing them all: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Julia: We literally were exhaustive. Like if a place opened and we knew about it, we went there. And you can’t replicate that on a national scale.
Daniel: Now as an editor at Bon Appétit, her job as a national critic is vastly different.
Julia: The main difference between my old job and my current job is that I wrote a lot of negative reviews.
Amanda: Right as a national critic, you’re not writing negative reviews.
Julia: Yeah, we just write about things that we love. For our annual list of the best new restaurants in America, the Hot 10, I visit hundreds of restaurants and I don’t say anything about the 175 that were mediocre. So that’s very different than at Time Out, when I was reviewing one to two restaurants and bars a week. I don’t know... I’m glad to just be highlighting the good stuff at this point.
Amanda: That’s a little different for Ryan at the local New York level. He publishes more reviews, but that doesn’t mean he’s hitting every opening just for the sake of hitting it…
Ryan Sutton: I often like to say that Michelin is in the job of inspecting. They go to as many restaurants as they can and they’d give them a rating. We’re not inspectors, we’re storytellers. And we find interesting stories that we then can connect to people. And we like to place a restaurant within the cultural framework of the city. And the restaurants we choose to review again isn’t just about, I like this place. It’s, you know, there’s a lot more to it than that. There have been occasions where we’ve, you know, went to a restaurant twice, uh, have decided it’s lousy and we simply didn’t publish. There are other times where we’ve gone four times, sometimes more and say, this is a story we need to tell.
Amanda: Ryan and his editors collaborate to find the restaurants that have something to say, and have a story behind them worth telling...
Ryan: I say, okay, well what’s important these days? You know, what’s doing something that’s underrepresented? What’s doing something that’s maybe overrepresented and we can maybe take them down if they’re serving bad food? Who’s overcharging and who’s undercharging? And we just try to tell good stories within the context of, you know, what’s interesting? What’s a good value?
Daniel: Julia relies heavily on locals in the cities she visits each year, and for her, it’s all about her network.
Julia: Something nice happens when you go back to the same cities year after year, you sort of build contacts in those cities who then you can trust going forward. And like word of mouth is by far the best way of getting recommendations. And I really like to eat out with people who live in that city because I find it really helpful to get their insight into how this restaurant kind of fits into the context of the city. And if they’re like, well, this place is good, but you should really go to this other place that does the same food but better.
Daniel: Just because Ryan has a bad meal some place doesn’t mean he’s going to write a review about it. What’s more important for him is contextualizing a restaurant.
Ryan: It would be imprudent for us to find a little mom-and-pop shop, say somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, perhaps a restaurant that’s not charging a lot of money. There’s a lot of great Latino restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen; maybe they’re serving Colombian food and maybe they’re serving the community. It’s serving really nourishing food at a pretty decent price... but it’s kind of inconsistent in execution. But if it’s a vital neighborhood spot that feeds people and that serves it with love, you know, who are we to take that restaurant down? You know, there’s this line — I could be misquoting Anton Ego, the famous food critic from the movie Ratatouille, but I believe there was something to the effect of, “Negative reviews can be fun to write.” Or if he didn’t say it, I’m sure someone else did. I don’t think negative reviews are fun to write. There’s a real sick, sinking feeling in your stomach when you write a tough review, whether it be a neighborhood place and sometimes we do that or whether it be a super fancy, expensive place. Because all these places employ hardworking people who believe in what they do.
Amanda: And while Julia and Ryan’s jobs look super different on the national and local levels, there’s one very important commonality: anonymity.
Julia: Back in the timeout days, I had no pictures of myself online. No one knew what I looked like. It was funny. There were so many instances where I’d be sitting next to or near Phil Vitale who’s a long-time critic for the Chicago Tribune. And I would see the way that he was being treated and dishes that were being brought out to him and just, like, laugh from my table next to the bathroom, you know?
Amanda: Critics do their best to stay anonymous because they don’t want to receive preferential treatment from chefs when they go to review a restaurant.
Ryan: I would say the way I approach anonymity is not giving restaurants a head-start. And a lot of people have probably heard this before. You go to a restaurant and if I have a reservation, I’ve probably made it under a phone number. Hopefully a new phone number. Same thing goes with a pseudonym. I never make a reservation under my own name. That’s not just common sense, but it’s part of my requirements here at my job. I have to use a different name. When I use a different name, I tried to make it a normal name, a name that would probably look like someone like me. But the key is not to give them a 10-minute head-start. That’s point A, and point B is that by going through these steps and jumping through these hoops, you’re also letting your readers know that you take your job seriously. And when you’re making a reservation, you’re not calling in favors.
Daniel: One of the misconceptions we get all the time is that, as writers in food media, we must be eating lavishly all the time. But the logistical reality behind getting paid to eat is less than glamorous.
Julia: It’s pretty grueling, not to complain. But the way we do our list is we’re only looking for restaurants that have opened within a year span. And so I really pack all the travel into February, March, April, and the first half of May. And in previous years before I had a child, I would leave the office and be like, “I’ll be gone for seventeen days.” Going to Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City; after two years ago [and] having a kid, I adjusted so now I do more three to four day trips, home on the weekends. But in both scenarios, I’m trying to maximize time in each city.
Amanda: Which means you’re eating a lot. More than you’d ever want to.
Julia: So the bare minimum I would be doing on a given day is two lunches and two dinners, and sometimes it’s more than that. The back-to-back tasting menu is rough.
Amanda: Oh my God, do you ever do that?
Julia: Yeah, I did it multiple times this year. Do not recommend. It’s hard to enjoy the first meal because you’re so anxious about how much you’re going to have to eat at the second meal…. and then it’s hard to enjoy the second because you’re so full from the first.
Amanda: Ryan says his job has had a real impact on his health.
Ryan: We have jobs that literally are earning our paycheck results in our bodies looking a little bit differently. I remember when the New Yorker wrote a profile on Pete Wells’ New York Times reviews. They said something to the effect of, “His job is what stands in between him and being thin” or something to that effect. Oh, one could make the same argument about me. I used to have a pretty athletic body in high school. Athletics are still a huge part of my life. I love skiing and cycling and what have you, but I’m not going to be a pure climber as a cyclist because I have a little bit of a gut and that’s simply the fact of the job impacting me. And I guess that’s okay.