admit it. I have one of the best jobs in the world.
I actually get paid to go out to eat. Of course, there's a catch. I have to write about my experiences and that can prove to be challenging at times. Yet as a restaurant reviewer for a weekly newspaper in Tucson, Arizona I've had some amazing meals (and some not so amazing ones), met a countless number of wonderful people, and I've learned plenty about the world of food. That I get a paycheck for doing all this is just icing on the cake.
One reaction that I always get from people when they find out what I do is “Gee, what a cool job! I'd like to do that. How did you get the job?”
My answer: “A lot of hard work, a love for food, and a little bit of luck.”
The real story goes something like this…
Just a little over three years ago I answered an ad that ran in the local alternative newspaper, the Tucson Weekly. They were looking for someone who knew the local restaurant scene, had some published works and could produce clean, interesting copy in a timely manner. They also wanted a sample review.
“A lot of hard work, a love for food,
and a little bit of luck.”
Well, I'd lived in Tucson for many years and was very familiar with the comings and goings of restaurants. Going out to eat was a pretty regular occurrence at my house since we — my husband and I — both worked outside the home.
Also by that time, I'd had some modest experience with being published, most notably a guidebook on Tucson that I had co-authored. Some of my published pieces were about food, so that part wasn't a problem. I also knew I could write well and that deadlines had never a problem for me.
The last bit — writing a sample review — was a bit daunting. But then one day as I was eating lunch at one of my favorite little Mexican joints, I knew exactly what to do. This was the place to write about. The food was great, especially the tortilla soup which attracted a crowd everyday. Plus, there was a vibe here, something to hold on to. Writing the review might be easy.
That being said it took a couple of days to get the necessary items together. I mailed off the package and waited anxiously for a call — or at least a rejection letter.
Well, I waited and waited. One month passed, then two. By time I was into the third month, I had almost forgotten about the whole thing or at least I had dismissed the idea. The only thing going for me though was that no new writers had appeared in the review column. The best that I could hope for was that they had changed their minds, as publishing entities do so often.
Imagine my surprise, then when the editor called and asked it I could meet him for an interview at a local coffee house.
The interview was pretty thorough and the editor told me there were over twenty-five other people in the “short” list. But somehow I must've convinced him because I walked out of that coffee house with the job.
The rest as they say is history and along the way I've had some interesting experiences.
“The review must be done anonymously;
in other words, they don't know I'm coming
or if I'm there.”
How It Works
I'm fortunate in that I have a lot of leeway in which restaurants I write about. Every couple of months or so, I make up a list of possibilities, send them to my editor and 90% of the time they get approved.
The guidelines we use at the paper are:
- A restaurant must be open at least three months in order to give them time to figure things out.
- If a restaurant has been reviewed previously, we just don't do it. There are exceptions to that rule, but I think I've only re-reviewed one restaurant in the three plus years I've been at the paper.
- I can never, never, never accept any meals or drinks for free. This is to avoid any undue influence. Under that ruling, if I have any connection to the restaurant, I can't review it. One of the other writers will review it.
- The review must be done anonymously; in other words, they don't know I'm coming or if I'm there. I don't think I've ever been discovered, even after I use my credit card with my name on it.
The process is pretty simple. I am allowed four meals at each restaurant. This usually means two visits by two people. This is done to give the place a fair shake; after all, anyone can have a bad night. Depending on what and when the restaurant serves, I'll mix up the meals — breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, dinner only. I usually bring my husband but often enough I'll ask my friend who writes the other food column for the paper and sometimes other friends. I am reimbursed for the meals — so that means paying up front - and I'm paid $100 per article. I pay taxes on all of it.
I know that other publications work differently. The New York Times reviewers have an expense account so the can eat at a restaurant any number of times. Smaller papers can only afford one visit by the reviewer and sometimes have a limit to how much the writer can spend. And sometimes, due to advertising issues, all a writer does is report on the experience without any opinions offered. I am lucky not to have such constraints, although I'd love to have that expense account.
The other topics I write on for the twice yearly special food issue are again pretty much of own choosing. When the call for pitches goes out, I give my editor several ideas and he picks out one or two he likes and we come to an agreement.
So far, I've written on nearby wineries, romantic restaurants, a group of independent restaurants in Tucson called the Tucson Originals, a sommelier and local cooking schools. I've made great contacts through this work and have learned so much.
“Food writers don't know everything there is to know about food. That would be impossible.”
So You Want To Be a Food Critic and/or Food Writer
People are always curious about what it takes to be a restaurant critic/food writer. I was fortunate; there was an opening for a job. That may not always be the case and so as is so often true in this profession; you may have to create your own job. What follows are some of the basics you'll need and a few ways to hone your talent.
Know Your Stuff - Have a Passion for Food
I grew up in an Italian family where food was the way we communicated with one another and the way we connected with our past. Some of my most vibrant memories are of the meals I shared with my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and shirttail relatives at my nana's house. There was always plenty of home-cooked food and not just one or two dishes. The table would be packed with chicken and beef, pasta and polenta, salads, side dishes and desserts.
Often, because she knew I had an interest, Nana allowed me to sit in her tiny kitchen and “help” her cook. My passion for food was born. This passion continues to this day.
“While being a good cook isn't required, it helps.”
Have Some Knowledge of Food
(and maybe a little know how about the restaurant business)
Food writers don't know everything there is to know about food. That would be impossible. But they usually bring a strong knowledge of their subject to the table.
Much of my knowledge came from working in the restaurant industry. In my youth I waited tables in everything from down home diners to very nice restaurants. I worked in kitchens being a dishwasher, doing food prep and other such duties. I even worked in the office helping with the paperwork.
While this isn't a prerequisite it does go a long way to understanding the workings of a restaurant as well as how food works.
I also love to cook. While being a good cook isn't required, it helps. And it is a whole lot easier to do than getting a job at a restaurant.
You also will want to read about the national restaurant scene and about food in general. A subscription to Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine
or any of the other major food magazines will give you a education in the this regard. The web sites for these magazines have a wealth of information that can help.
Several books — perhaps authors — are “must reads” for anyone who wants to write about food in any way. One is MFK Fisher. Fisher is considered the first modern food writer and you can be sure that any food writer worth his or her salt, so to speak, has been influenced by Fisher's writings. They are great insights into, the history of modern food as well as the way we think and feel about food. Her prose is unmatchable and you will find yourself craving anything she writes about. Titles include: Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook A Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet for Gourmets.
Other writers you must read include old schoolers such as Calvin Trillan, James Beard, and Craig Claiborne. Contemporary food writers that should be on you list are Anthony Bourdain, Michael Ruhlman, Ruth Reichel and Geoffrey Steingarten.
These books don't outline how to write about food but rather, by example, they give you the best examples of how food writing should be done. And they are highly entertaining.
There are also many food reference books that will answer questions you might have and make sure you are correct when you write about certain topics. These include some oldies like Food by Waverly Root and LaRousse Gastronomique and The Food Lovers Companion. These books are heavy tomes and include a world of important food related information. They are indispensable to a food writer. Other books you might want to have at you disposal are The Encyclopedia of Italian Food by John Mariani and A Dictionary of Japanese Food by Richard Hoskins.
Just as important is getting to know what is happening in your community. By reading the local papers you will get a feel for the paper's style and point of view. This is most important when it comes to pitching an idea to the editor. After all, you don't want to query on a topic they recently featured nor would you want to write on a topic the paper considers taboo. For example, one of the local daily papers does not cover the liquor part of a meal, so to pitch an article about a new wine bar in town would result in a sound “No thanks”.
Also you should attend local foodie events, and eat at local — not chain — restaurants.
Having all this information at my fingertips helps when I write an article but when I'm unsure of a certain ingredient or can't quite remember details, I call and ask the restaurant. I don't identify myself as the reviewer, but most folks are more than happy to answer any questions you might pose.
“You cannot be a timid eater and be a
Experiment. Be adventurous.
As I said just above, food writers don't know absolutely every thing, but they are open to learning about unfamiliar foods, food trends and the like. Believe me when I say, my knowledge of sushi was limited when I wrote my first Japanese restaurant review. But I've learned a lot over time by following a few short “rules”.
Tip: “Try This”
- Dine at a restaurant you've never eaten and order something different.
- Take a notebook along. Jot down notes (not while you're eating). Go home and write about it.
- Write about:
Ingredients, the plating, the flavors, the colors of the food.
- Include information about the décor and the service.
- Do it once. Do it twice. Just do it.
A great example is Jeffery Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue magazine. Steingarten was a lawyer by profession but he had a reputation for being a “foodie” long before the term came about. That's how he got his job. But many of his articles center on his experiments with food. For example, he learned about bread by spending weeks baking bread, all kinds of bread, in all kinds of ways. And then he wrote about those experiments.
You cannot be a timid eater and be a food writer. When you dine out, order something you might not ordinarily eat. Steingarten made a list of his least favorite foods when he first got his Vogue job. He then proceeded to eat and learn everything he could about them. To his credit, he found that most of them were quite good.
Try this: Dine at a restaurant you've never eaten at or order something different than your “usual” at a fave restaurant. Take a notebook along. Jot down notes. (As an aside, I never do that when I'm eating. It could give me away and it is most important that the restaurant doesn't know who I am. Then go home a write about it. Write about the ingredients, the plating, the flavors, the colors of the food. Also, include information about the décor and the service. Do it once. Do it twice. Just do it.
“I wouldn't start with a review...
instead try a history of a long time restaurant...”
Make contacts. Blog.
If there is one thing food people like to do besides eating food, it's talking about food. Get to know other “foodies” in your area. This includes other writers, restaurant owners, public relations people and the editors of local publications. Write letters or email. Call and see if you can meet with them to ask questions. For example, by to getting to know a local public relations person in town, I've been invited to many local events where I got to know other food people. These people are great resources for my articles.
Just about every local paper has a weekly food issue. Don't hesitate to query an idea to the editor (know and use their name and be sure you spell it correctly in your letter).
I wouldn't start with a review — someone else probably has the coveted job - but instead try a history of a long time restaurant or an overview of an award-winning wine program, a feature on a chef or even an overview about a particular food item like pasta or lemons (Keep in mind the season. You don't want to pitch an idea about Christmas cookies in July). Also, avoid a the idea of “My fondest food memory was when my grannie….”. It's been done to death.
And if the idea is rejected, try another one and another one and another one. Persistence is the most important skill a writer must develop.
You may not get paid a hefty sum; in fact you might not get any pay check at all. But what is important is that you are developing a body of work; a most essential step.
In fact, that's how I built my early portfolio. At that time, there was a small local free publication that covered the food scene in town. I called the editor and asked if she needed writers. She did. She told me to write a short piece on spec. I ended up writing several articles on such topics as pasta and fruit. I was paid nothing.
Sadly, the paper folded before long due to lack of advertising, but because I'd been published I was given assignments at a local fitness publication where I eventually became the food columnist.
Some ways to get practice (that weren't really available when I began) are blogging and reader/diner reviews on travel web sites. These are usually very short reviews, but by writing them you will get a feel for what is needed. And maybe even a little credibility, if you're good.
“Persistence is the most important skill
a writer must develop.”
Develop a thick skin.
This quality is a must for any aspiring writer. Getting rejection letters is par for the course. They usually arrive without much explanation as to why they aren't hiring you, but each one can serve as a lesson on how to do it better next time.
As a restaurant reviewer there will be times when people — usually the owners of the restaurant - will vehemently disagree with your assessment. Sometimes this comes in the form of a gentle email or letter. Most of the time it does not. Once, after a negative review I was bombarded with emails accusing me of malice and incompetence. One even suggested that I had no business being a writer and should get a job cleaning out horse stalls. Of course, he wasn't so polite with the words he used.
They demanded a rewrite and wanted my editor to fire me. My editor backed me up all the way; refusing to rewrite, apologize or fire me. But that experience toughened me up, and any criticism I've had since then just rolls off my back or gives me a good laugh.
Rita Connelly grew up in a large Italian family, where food was a way of life. It was only natural that when she began her professional writing career that she would write about food. Today she is a restaurant critic and food writer living in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, John. Rita has written about the life of a sommelier, Arizona wineries, cooking schools, hospitality and numerous other food related topics. Her other work includes some travel writing, personality profiles and business features. Rita is a graduate of the University of Arizona where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education with a major in English Literature.