A spate of pictures on the big and little screens have been lauded for their realistic depictions of restaurant life. Most recently, “The Menu,” a dark satire of fine dining, is set in a remote temple of modernist cuisine run with military precision by a famous chef, while “The Bear” captures the chaos of a scruffy Chicago sandwich joint down to the last backed-up grease trap, Sharpie that doesn’t work and tight-quarters command. (“Behind you!”)
Those and many past movies about restaurant culture involve a food critic, a job I’ve performed around the country for three newspapers and Microsoft.
How accurately is my profession depicted? To find out, I opened a bottle of wine, fired up YouTube and cable, and reviewed the fictional reviewers.
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The Menu (2022)
Dinner in hard-to-access places for way too much money? Check and check. (Think Noma, in its home in Copenhagen, or its Yucatán pop-up.) Exclusivity is the selling point for the 12 diners in this horror movie starring Ralph Fiennes. He plays Julian Slowik, a talented and mercurial chef who’s invited some restaurant stereotypes – a trio of obnoxious tech guys, a rich White guy and his bored wife, a young sybarite who lets nothing get in the way of a grand meal, an arrogant critic- for an unforgettable dinner on an unnamed island.
The meal, at the fictional Hawthorne, is over the top in every way, including a bread course without bread. What rings especially true for me is the torture that can accompany a high-end, hours-long tasting menu.
I did not recognize myself in the aloof character of critic Lillian Bloom, played by Janet McTeer, who boasts of having put Hawthorne on the map. (Even if true, who says that?) I also decline invitations from restaurants, since my preference is to book a table like an unknown. In all my years of reviewing restaurants, I don’t recall pointing out a mistake to a chef in real time, as Bloom does when she’s served a broken emulsion. The chef’s immediate response is to bring her a correction, in a laughably big bowl. Slowik later exacts further revenge by . . . I won’t spoil the middle or the end of the tasting menu, but suffice it to say, I’ll never look at a tortilla or s’more the same way.
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One Delicious Christmas (2022)
I was set to scoff at Bobby Flay as a food critic in this Hallmark-sweet story by the Food Network about a young city chef trying to transform an old country inn into something trendier, just in time for Christmas (and a potential ownership merger).
Time to eat my hat. While more dashing than most of us who chew and type for a living, the real-life TV chef and cookbook author does a pretty good job delivering lines that sound true to my working life. “I guess I’ve been spotted,” he tells a staff member at the fictional Haven. As Flay prepares to exit the dining room, he says, “Lovely meal. Give my regards to the chef.” (My farewell would be less revealing, along the lines of “Thanks for a nice evening” – thanking people for their time and attention, period.)
Reality is suspended at times. As food critic Tom Kingsley, Flay makes the mistake of telling the restaurant when he’s coming back, and with whom. Worse, he is seen advising young chefs on their careers. Both would be the height of presumption, if not completely far-fetched. Over the years, industry types have reached out to me with questions about a host of topics, including what to name a place, where to build and whom to hire. I demure, because I’m not their management consultant, just any reader’s stand-in. Plus, I don’t want to affect the outcome of a place I might review.
An early scene made me laugh in recognition at a waiter walking past a collection of critics’ mug shots – photographs I rarely see in person, but know to exist. Midway in the show, the owner of Haven sits with Kingsley in the dining room, a scenario I avoid at all costs. Critics and subjects shouldn’t be too cozy, or if they are, the writer needs to make that known.
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The Bear (2022)
Episode 6 of the FX hit, in which sous-chef Sydney randomly gifts a dish she’s working on, illustrates why some critics try to eat as unknowns. Unsuspecting staff say or do things they otherwise wouldn’t. The short ribs with risotto land on the table of a reviewer, a bearded dude in a White Sox shirt under flannel.
His subsequent review, read aloud in the restaurant kitchen in episode 7, finds the signature sandwiches “delicious as ever” and the beefy special, elevated by “a ribbon of brine” in the sauce, “the standout.”
The praise for a dish that hadn’t passed muster with chef-owner Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto is hard for him and his brother Ritchie to hear. “The guy’s a (frigging) hack,” Carmy says.
Critics don’t always know who made what, but in the process of fact-checking, we appreciate bosses who credit their underlings for jobs well done. They exist.
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Boiling Point (2021)
No serious critic wants to put a chef on the spot, particularly in his own establishment. So my jaw dropped watching the workplace drama starring Stephen Graham as hard-drinking British chef Andy Jones.
He’s shocked to see a celebrity TV chef, Alastair Skye, drop by his busy London restaurant with a well-known critic, Sara Southworth. On Christmas. Bloody painful!
Jones can’t believe he’s sitting next to someone who could make or break him (“I had no idea you were coming”), a point Southworth acknowledges with an awkward “I know that look!” – fear – and an attempt at reassure him. “I’m off duty,” she says, “off duty.” Maybe so. But when your life revolves around thinking about everything that passes your lips, there’s no pause button that stops you from mentally recording a meal.
Though I’ve never found myself in quite as sticky a situation, I can relate to the critic’s attempts to reassure a chef who drops by a table. My rule is, never lie. Distraction is fair, though. Looking around and no doubt trying to lighten the mood, Southworth says, “Such a buzz in this place” – a dash of flattery that neatly sidesteps any mention of the chef’s output.
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When the staff of a London restaurant surmises a Michelin inspector is in the house, chef Adam Jones orders that two of every dish be made and reminds colleagues that reviewers aren’t focused solely on their own table. “Their eyes are on everything!” says the character played by Bradley Cooper. Oui, chef.
That scramble of staff when a known critic strolls through the front door? Trust me, I don’t like it any better than they do. And yes, I can see the head chef, if it’s his day off, rushing through the back door with his white jacket in tow, sometimes pushing aside cooks to personally cook for the critic. (They call them open kitchens for a reason.)
In another scene, when Jones is told there’s a food critic at Table 5, the chef tells his crew, “We have an enemy in our midst. We have two choices. We can poison him. Kill him. I say, we actually make him enjoy his meal despite himself.” (The chef has a reason to despise the reviewer, who once called him a “junkie dinosaur.”) Jones suggests slipping marijuana in a dish, an idea shot down by a colleague because pot imparts a bitter taste – but also, why waste a good buzz on the enemy?
If anyone has ever messed with my food, I’m unaware of it. My bigger concern is the chef who gives me more or prettier food – anything different from what regular diners receive. If I get a dollop of caviar on a dish, everyone gets it, or should. The garnish will be there, for all to see, in my review.
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I can imagine it’s most chefs’ fantasy to tell a critic what they really, truly think. In a scene that should be required viewing for my peers and me, chef Carl Casper, played by Jon Favreau, blasts off at a reviewer in the middle of service in his Los Angeles restaurant.
“I’ve been waiting to talk to this prick for a long time,” Casper says as his boss, Riva, played by Dustin Hoffman, tries to calm him down. The chef turns to the critic and screams, “I’m not cloying, I’m not needy, I don’t care what you think! You’re not getting to me!”
The chef goes into a tirade about the complexities of making chocolate lava cake. “You take a frozen cylinder of ganache and set it in a ramekin, so that as the outside cooks fully, the inside becomes molten.” As the critic, played by Oliver Platt, sits in reserved silence (my tact, I’d hope) the chef crumbles the cake in front of him and rants on. “You sit and you eat and you vomit words back. To make people laugh. You know how hard I work for this s—?”
There’s a kernel of truth there: Being cruel isn’t my MO, but negative reviews need a little spice here and there to avoid sounding like a funeral dirge. At the same time, major restaurant rants are typically reserved for big targets, not neighborhood joints.
Fair-minded critics understand that people with feelings work in restaurants. Sweat, blood and tears go into the business – mine, too, I should note. Critics don’t routinely get yelled at in person, but plenty of us get to hear what strangers think of our work at the village square – you know, the comments section.
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Anton Ego, the initially loathsome critic in this animated film, shows up at a media event for Gusteau’s, a once-haute Paris restaurant, to intimidate its new young chef. Ego lets him know, “I’m returning tomorrow night, and you better pray you don’t disappointment me.”
Cut! Working critics with regular columns tend to shy away from industry events, partly to retain their anonymity but also to keep professional distance from their subjects. But my bigger objection is about Ego revealing when he’s coming to dinner. In my world, the element of surprise – reserving under a pseudonym and making multiple unannounced visits – is key, since critics aspire to get the experience civilians do: same menu, same service, a bill at the end. I notice Ego walked away from his last meal at Gusteau’s without signing a check. Not cool.
Near the end of the film, his kitchen colleagues are surprised when Remy makes ratatouille (“a peasant dish,” one of them sniffs) for Ego. But the rat’s artful swirl of roasted vegetables and sauce evokes a sunny childhood memory for the critic.
Like the Grinch whose heart grows at the sound of singing, Ego’s eyes widen and he drops his pen when he tastes the dish, whose sauce he mops with his fingers. The scene demonstrates the tug of simple good cooking. Here and there in my dining rounds, I, too, have paused to appreciate the work of chefs who have produced crusty pork chops like my mom’s or finely minced coleslaw a la my grandmother.
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My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
Julia Roberts – the outsize smile on People’s “Most Beautiful Woman” covers five times – as a food critic?
Most unbelievable of all is the scene where she’s working in a fancy restaurant and informs her friend, played by Rupert Everett, what she’s going to tell readers: “I’m writing this up as inventive and . . . confident.” Not only does the pronouncement ring hokey, it’s delivered in the presence of their waiter, eager to transmit any news to his back-of-the house colleagues, some of whom are anxiously gathered behind a kitchen window. (Fun detail: The late Charlie Trotter makes a cameo.)
The rule at my table is, companions and I start talking about the weather, the week ahead – anything other than the food before us – when in earshot of restaurant staff. Also, only a newbie to a critic’s table ever refers to them by (real) name.
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Mystic Pizza (1988)
Aiming for anonymity, I try to blend in with fellow diners. No ties at Five Guys, in other words. But Hector Freshette (that preposterous name!), known as TV’s “Fireside Gourmet,” sticks out like a Blackberry in a crowd of iPhones. Come on, the character is wearing a fedora, bow tie and tweed coat, for goodness sake! In a pizza joint! It doesn’t help a critic’s cause that he speaks in nasal tones with an air of superiority.
Just as out of character, Freshette orders the signature pizza, samples less than a slice and declines to get the rest of the pie wrapped to go. Any critic with an ounce of consciousness would ask neighboring customers if they want the untouched food (been there, done that, strangers have thanked me) or take the leftovers to test how well the dish travels, butter up the SO at home or avoid waste. More than once I’ve left presentable, easy-to-eat food near places where I think homeless people might find it.
Later, on his TV show, Freshette opens his review by telling viewers “I’m not a pizza person. I’m not particularly fond of cheesy-queasy.” I can count on zero fingers the number of reviewers who don’t appreciate a (well-made) pie. Ultimately, the fictional critic, who bravely notes there are spices he can’t discern, offers a rave.
“This pizza is, in a word, superb,” Freshette says. For some of us, his sign-off dates the film, however slightly: “I’m giving it my highest rating: four stars.” Stars? How quaint.