As a British journalist living in the US, I’m well aware of the benefits of each country’s approach to journalism. British reporting is scrappier and has less respect for authority, while US journalism tends to be more high-minded, with insightful and nuanced analysis. Though I’m from the UK, I prefer the US approach (partly because British scrappiness has a tendency to get dirty), with one very clear exception: Restaurant reviews.
US journalism falls flat in this area precisely because of the intellectualism that works so well for it elsewhere. In the UK, journalism is seen as a trade rather than a profession, and many great reporters start their career straight out of high school. By contrast, American journalists are all but required to have an undergraduate degree and many hold a graduate degree. Though I don’t truly believe that those six years of higher education are necessary to become a skilled reporter, the scholarly emphasis translates to more erudite copy. US political analysis, for example, is far closer to academia than its UK equivalent, and can often be more carefully reasoned and thoughtful.
But intellectualism has no place in restaurants, and I don’t mean that as an insult to chefs. Cooking requires talent and creativity but, most importantly, it’s delicious. Though there are a few rough objective standards (Jean-Georges is a higher quality spot than McDonald’s, for example), taste preferences are highly subjective. For me, no food is better than my mother’s roast chicken, and I’m sure you have some equivalent. Spending 1000 words parsing the differences between michelin-starred restaurants is, by its nature, an overly earnest task.
The pomposity of the American approach to restaurant reviews was clear in last week’s New Yorker profile of the New York Times food critic Pete Wells. The article describes lavish restaurants going into panicked action at the sight of Wells. Staff keep a photo of the critic pinned to back stairwells, ensure adjacent tables of diners are especially cheery, call in restaurant heads to rush across town (or the country) to manage the kitchen, and make doubles of each dish to taste before the meal is sent out.
It’s good business, of course, as the number of stars on a New York Times food review dictates where moneyed diners go for their next four-course meal. But why does this power and self-importance go so un-punctured?
It can’t be because of the writing. American restaurant reviews are uniformly pedantic, pretentious, and dull. I’m not blaming the individual writers (they all do it, so it can’t be their fault). It must be the national style.
Take a Wells quote highlighted in the New Yorker article, which, surely, is meant to exemplify some of the best writing by one of the best US food critics:
“The crab tasted of mayonnaise and Tabasco and had been browned and warmed inside a heavy foil dish in the shape of a crab shell. I spread it on saltines from a crinkly cellophane wrapper and ate it with the sensation of having found something I’d lost such a long time ago that I’d forgotten about it.”
It is like a Yelp reviewer’s take on Proust. The crab tasted like mayonnaise and Tabasco? Send it back! And the second sentence evokes absolutely nothing. Have you ever eaten anything with the “sensation of having found something I’d lost such a long time ago that I’d forgotten about it”? I didn’t think so.
Admittedly, the descriptions get a little livelier when Wells steps away from serious restaurants and reviews Señor Frogs, but this review was considered an audacious deviation from the gravity the job supposedly demands. The actor Jason Biggs, who ate with Wells, was awed that he could enjoy such an establishment. “Here I am with the New York Times food critic, who can make or break a restaurant, and here he is dancing a conga line, doing sugary shots, while a house band is singing the shittiest music in the world,” he told the New Yorker. Astonishing.
When it comes to proper (expensive) restaurants, US reviewers tend to take on a pious tone, filled with bland descriptions of food. In the Washington Post, fruit “broadcasts” summer and mousse “reveals” the “texture of a cloud.” “Heaven? Close,” gushes critic Tom Sietsema. The same reference comes up in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Cold cod? No. It’s a cool taste of heaven” marvels Michael Bauer, who’s pleased that a tomato and basil tart “with its scent of summer enhanced with the buttery yeasty aroma of the crust” tastes the same as one he ate in 1981.
In the UK, food descriptions tend to be shorter, sharper, and a hell of a lot funnier.
Giles Coren in The Times on scallops: “As round and plump and fresh from the sea as a mermaid’s breast implants.”
Grace Dent in The Evening Standard on a health shot with flaxseed oil, cannabis oil and grapefruit: “It tasted like Satan’s armpit, but I’m pretty sure these things should.”
AA Gill in The Times on the trend for heavy, meaty food: “The flavours just make your mouth a big, warm sleepover. This is cud Valium, mood-altering, head-numbing, feelgood food. It’s medication three times a day with meals.”
Coren once described his fury when a barrister who recognized him pointed out that he’d used the word “correct” to describe food too often. Coren checked his records and found it did crop up a couple of times a year, which is “simply unacceptable.” He added:
“When I got into this game in the late 1990s, I set my stall out against the flabby old guard with its arsenal of ghastly food clichés and bogus terminology that calls seasoning ‘accurate’ and a bisque ‘well judged,’ and seeks to confer some spurious intellectual respectability on a daft, fun job that is simply not to be compared to the serious business of, say, literary criticism.”
And that’s the point US food critics have missed. Restaurant reviews are taken far too seriously. In his Señor Frogs review, Wells complained that “too many restaurants have become church without the singing and costumes.” True. And he’s the pastor.