Reviewing Reviews

I’ve been thinking a lot about restaurant reviews lately, what they mean, and about the writer’s role and responsibility. When I tell people I recently graduated with a degree in food culture and communication, and that I’m interested in writing, the common response is “so, you want to be a critic.” But I don’t. Or at least not in the way that we tend to think about food critics. The honest answer is that I don’t know what I want to do, and I’m doing a bunch of different things right now in the hope that I’ll figure it out while I’m still employable. I might want to be a food writer – I’m not totally sure yet – but that doesn’t have to mean reviewing restaurants.

In the course of the quarter-life career crisis I’ve been experiencing lately, Eater National posted a job looking for a restaurant reviewer. Having literally zero professional writing experience, I figured I should probably apply for it. The wonderful thing about applying for a job for which you are eminently capable, yet severely, and objectively, underqualified, is it gives you quite a delightful freedom in composing a cover letter. The chances of anyone’s eyes landing on it were slim to basically nil (an assumption more or less confirmed three weeks later when Eater announced the hiring of three nationally-renowned critics to fill the position – writers who I assume were recruited and did not fill out the same application asking them to identify something “unique about themselves” as I did), so instead of doing my best to prop up an irrelevant professional history into something that sounded like true writing experience, I just philosophized. I talked about how the time is right to develop a new type of restaurant criticism, one that focuses not on the dryness of the pork chops but on the experience of consuming them. This is not to say that the quality of the food is not important when reviewing a restaurant, as it absolutely is. But, the food itself is only one aspect of the dining experience, and when we fail to think of an evening at a restaurant as an holistic experience, and only focus on the technical execution of the food presented, then we are no better than those who consider food to be a collection of calories and fuel to power your day. Anyone who has ever found a sandwich made of white bread and cold cuts to be transformative because it was eaten on a warm sandy beach in the company of good friends, or sat outside of a roadside bar that overlooks the hills and vineyards of Slovenia and feasted on a microwaved pizza and a flytrap beer and been utterly, supremely, sun-drenchingly happy (that might just be me, but you get the point),  knows that it is not just the food that makes the food. It is the atmosphere and the memories and the particular moment in time in which you are consuming it.

Not long after submitting this philosophical cover letter, my friend Katie wrote a piece about Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn. Di Fara is one of those names that always hung out somewhere near the back of my pizza consciousness when I lived in New York. I had read rave after rave about the quintessential and ethereal New York pies they turned out, but its inconvenient location meant that it rarely came to mind when the pizza craving struck, and so I never made it out there. The story of Di Fara is the stuff of New York lore – Italian immigrant spends 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year for 60+ years churning out hundreds of the most cravable, unctuous, soul-satisfying pizzas you will ever encounter, or so the story goes. Like I said, I’ve never been there.

So, back to this article. It basically tore Di Fara’s pizza apart, calling out everything from the sourcing to the assembly to the baking technique to, inevitably, the final, inedible product. The description struck me as a little harsh, though not unfair by any means, especially considering the author. I both trust her taste, having benefited greatly from many recommendations, and know that her familiarity with high-quality Italian products exceeds that of almost anyone else I know. As one might expect, the piece set off a firestorm of comments, which has fascinated me for the better part of the last week (I should probably find a full-time job…). The comments are overwhelmingly negative, both defending Di Fara and hurling insults and obscenities back at the author. There are a few defenders of her critique, a few reasonable arguments on both sides, and a deserved rebuttal from the daughter of Di Fara’s patriarch which both claims that some of the low-quality product sources identified in the article are inaccurate, and calls out the author on not having done comprehensive research before publishing.

But that’s not the part that interest me. What interests me are the parts where people post not-anonymous comments (the comment section is literally synced to Facebook) insulting the author with some incredibly patronizing and objectively offensive comments (I say objectively offensive, because I have a feeling that she knew what she was getting into with this article, and is not actually offended by what anyone has said), all because someone made a fairly well-reasoned argument about the quality of a pizza that they happen to like. And this is what is so fascinating about food. That the die-hard Di Fara aficionados (Di Faristi) saw this article not as the work of someone who had a difference of opinion, or who was applying a different set of standards to her evaluation of the pizza, or who maybe made some credible points that they were willing to overlook in favor of the lore and their memories of Di Fara. Because that is exactly the point. We don’t always realize how much the environment and the experience affects our enjoyment of eating. They are one and the same. You cannot separate the quality from the experience because one informs the other. Just as a picturesque setting can transform a bland meal into a culinary delight, an unexpected find can make a tiny, dark cafe in the middle of nowhere feel like a three star restaurant. And a lifetime of eating one man’s pizza, of passing him on your way to work, going to school with his kids, or even stumbling upon it at the recommendation of a trusted friend? That can all be part of the experience every time someone takes a bite of Di Fara. But if you’re a writer, seeking out what his been called some of the world’s best pizza, you don’t arrive there with all that history as part of your experience. And you have a palate trained to detect levels of quality in many ingredients. This is a very difficult point to make without people taking offense, but it is a scientific fact that you can condition your palate to discern attributes of food, and I would guess that very few patrons of Di Fara have undergone this training, because there is no reason to do so unless your profession requires it. Essentially, a writer experiences a restaurant very differently than the average patron, and is equipped with a set of skills to make observations about the food that might go unnoticed by many.

So back to the original question – what is the role of the restaurant reviewer? To relay the experience or to break down the quality of the food? Granted, no two people will have the same experience or feel the same emotions or form the same thoughts while dining at any given restaurant. Yet, almost any chef or restaurateur you talk to will tell you about the experience that they are hoping to convey. And they know as well as any of us do that they will only succeed when their food matches the environment. But the environment is not just the color of the walls or the fold of the napkins or how many times the servers check on you throughout your meal. It is the world that the restaurant inhabits, from its sourcing to its location to its staff to its inspiration to, yes, the taste of its food.  I have found that truly exceptional dining experiences – both in restaurants and not – display either a perfect, intangible harmony or a delightfully obvious contrast.

Like I said, I’ve never been to Di Fara, but now feel I must head out there in May in the name of research if nothing else. Does their pizza match the experience? Does the experience elevate the pizza? Do I even agree with Katie’s assessment? But even if I do agree with her assessment, does it really matter?

The food world is in an interesting moment. As we continue to push for better sourcing, higher quality, and more sustainable practices, we will inevitably find ourselves let down by foods we have long loved. But if we are going to continue to write, read, and care about food, I think that it is just as important to take the magnifying glass to prominent, influential restaurants and purveyors, as it is to consider their cultural influence beyond (but certainly encompassing) what they put on the plate. Yes, in an ideal world the cooks, chefs and other foodmakers we adore and hold up as bastions of quality should, in fact, live up to it. I’m just not convinced that the deliciousness of food is the only thing a restaurant contributes to the experience of its patrons, and, therefore, is the only thing that should be reviewed.

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