May 27, 1999
University Gazette


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Radcliffe Hosts Royalty of Restaurant Reviewers

Food critics reveal the secrets of food journalism at the Radcliffe Culinary Friends event

By Heather Macferran '98-99
Special to the Gazette

Radcliffe Culinary Friends panel members Corby Kummer (from left), Boston Magazine restaurant reviewer; Alan Richman of GQ magazine; Ruth Reichl, former New York Times restaurant reviewer, now editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine; Andrew Dornenburg, chef and co-author of Dining Out; and Karen Page, co-author of Dining Out. Photo by Marc Halevi.

"Imagine the sensation one feels when watching a stage curtain rise during opening night at the theater. My job is to be a member of the audience and describe for the reader the entire scene," said Corby Kummer, Boston Magazine restaurant reviewer. "As a food critic, I am responsible for educating and informing the reader by marvelously observing."

Kummer was one of five internationally recognized food critics who recently led the panel discussion titled "Restaurant Reviewers Reveal Their Secrets," a spring culinary event sponsored by the Radcliffe Culinary Friends on Sunday, May 16.

Chefs, restaurateurs, dietitians, and authors were among 250 in attendance for this savory event. Barbara Haber, curator of printed books at the Schlesinger Library and noted food historian, opened by allowing each of the five presenters a five-minute or less perspective of food critiquing, followed by the panel discussion, allotting plenty of time for questions from the hungry audience.

Karen Page, MBA '89, co-author of Dining Out: Secrets from America's Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs and recipient of the James Beard Award for two previous books, Becoming a Chef and Culinary Artistry, initiated the discussion using the words her publisher uttered when she proposed the book: "Who on earth would want to read that?" "Americans eat more outside the home today than ever before," Page responded, "and we are turning more and more to food critics for guidance."

The importance of food and restaurant reviewers is hardly a secret to busy chefs and restaurateurs. "When I worked as a chef in New York, the restaurant had a picture of Ruth Reichl in the kitchen with the words, '$50 reward if you can spot this critic,' " Andrew Dornenburg, former chef and co-author with Page of Dining Out, said. "One of our servers actually spotted her and won."

Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant reviewer who has recently become editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, promises the audience that her critiquing is far from a crime. "Food critics must be totally subjective," she assured. "I happen to like my meat rare. Is that right? No, that's just how I like it."

Alan Richman, the GQ restaurant reviewer known for his controversial reviews, assures the audience even further, "nothing is objective, food critics don't have a field of reference for anything because food is constantly changing. Americans just don't eat Beef Wellington anymore. Now there are techniques like 'fusion,' " says Richman, describing a new culinary style. In addition, Richman acknowledges the influence of the reader: "The critic has the power to say whether or not the restaurant is good or bad, but can the reader trust that critic?" Then Richman added a little controversy for good measure: "For example, Ruth loves anchovies, therefore, I could never trust her!" A tide of laughter washed over the audience. Reichl countered by stating her belief that the critic's responsibility is to the public. "I don't care about restaurants," she said, "I care about readers." When one is an accomplished food critic, Richman explained, "you can do almost anything you want to do as long as you tell the readers what you're doing." One audience member responded by asking, "Do any of you realize how big an impact your words have on the restaurants you review?" Quite a few restaurants even depend on food critics simply because they don't have the funds to advertise. Taking this question very seriously, Reichl responded, "I never make fewer than four visits when reviewing a restaurant. And sometimes I make as many as nine visits."

Richman added, "Ruth writes about the food better than anyone else. I am a critic, not a 'foodie.' I am a pure journalist who is passionate about food, but Ruth truly knows her food." However, because the food critic doesn't want to be recognized and therefore catered to, frequenting restaurants can be a hazard. For the restaurant, Dornenburg explained, "when reviewers are spotted, time stands still. The cook usually makes two versions of each dish for the chef to inspect before it goes out." Perhaps this is why Reichl owns 12 wigs. "A food critic wants to replicate the experience someone will have when they go to a restaurant," said Richman. "And it is difficult to do that once you're recognized." Recognized or not, the fact remains, writes Leonard A. Schlesinger, Harvard's George Fisher Baker Jr. Professor of Business Administration, that "restaurants have been made or destroyed by the words of a critic." Therefore, the critic must know their peas and onions. After all, an unhappy customer will tell 10 people. An unhappy food critic will tell tens of thousands. All food critics owe it to their readers "to know how to taste . . . to express themselves with passion . . . and to understand how difficult it is to run a restaurant," Richman said solemnly, as he sat among the panel of restaurant reviewer royalty. "And only female critics like sardines." The panel discussion was followed by a reception in the Schlesinger Library, where more than 15,000 cookbooks and various other items related to food are preserved. Money from events such as Restaurant Reviewers Reveal Their Secrets go toward buying books, restoring them, and to executing events for the Radcliffe Culinary Friends and the Schlesinger Library.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College