Interview with a Restaurant/Food Critic and the importance of a good Roasted Chicken

This past week I had the chance to interview a  Food Critic. Mostly you just hear about chefs and restaurants but did you know that there are hundreds of other culinary related careers out there. Food critics, food stylists, photographers, food writers, taste testers, and the list goes on. I thought it would be really interesting to see how a Food Critic performs his job. Below is my Q & A with Food Critic Bill Ciatra who writes for multiple papers, magazines and web sites including Florida Table magazine which I now blog for.

Where you always a writer?

I’ve always enjoyed writing. I majored in journalism at San Francisco State and I worked for wire services (reporting on city council, state senate, etc.)

Where you always interested in food and culinary?

I really started getting into food and wine in the late 70’s and 80’s when Sonoma County (California) was going through a “wine revolution”. I used to tour the wineries and that’s when I really started to develop a liking for food and wine.

At what point in your life did you become a food critic?

I started working at wineries such as Sebastian Vineyard. I also got a job as a line cook because it was hard to find a journalism job, so I gained a lot of experience working in the kitchen. I also went to various restaurants with my wife. All this led to my job in the mid 80’s when I edited Wine & Spirits Magazine. In 1987 I became a freelancer and wrote for anybody that wanted me. Since then I’ve written for Bon Appetite as well as Broward (Broward County Florida) and Miami newspapers. I am now also the Miami-Keys editor of the Zagat Guide, I’ve written over 600 reviews

Do you remember your first critique?

Yes, it was August 9, 1987 and I was pretty jazzed about it.

Do you let the restaurant know your coming? Do you stay anonymous?

I usually make reservations under a different name. Being a food critic limits your social time because if restaurants start to realize who you are you could be exposed.

Do you take notes when you’re tasting?

I keep a tape recorder in my pocket

What makes a good restaurant? What’s your favorite restaurant?

80% good food, 19% good service. There’s so many restaurants I enjoy. I like Café Boulud, Nobu (good sushi), Key Fisheries, Mustards Grill, Backstreet. Also the French Laundry (Thomas Kellers restaurant in Napa) is an unbelievable, one time experience.

How do you decide what to order from the menu?

You should order what the restaurant is known for, its specialty, if it’s a steak house order the steak. You should also order a range of things, fish, poultry, and items with different prices. If a restaurant can produce a good Roast Chicken, Tarte Tatin (a type of apple tart), or Caesar Salad its likely to have good everything. It’s a good test of the kitchen

Do you have a favorite dish?

When you’re a Food critic you have to like everything

How do you evaluate the food? Is there a system or scale? 

There’s no scale, but you have to look at what the restaurant is trying to do. If the food costs more money you’re going to expect a good experience. I judge the freshness and quality of the ingredients, if the dish is prepared and seasoned properly. Ask yourself “ does it make sense in your mouth. Some chefs think they’re creative and put ice cream with ham, I just label it as stupid. If a chef can produce 3 dozen perfect roast chickens then you can say you’re a good chef. The mark of good food is if the chef can crate a complex dish and it makes sense.

What advice would you  give to someone who would be interested in becoming a food critic?

You have to love it, and you’ve got to want to do it. Its not a lot of money starting out and people get tired of it, it can be a hard way to make a living. It helps to have hands on experience like I did in the past working in a kitchen.

This was a really interesting interview and I definitely learned a lot, thanks Bill. By reading this you can now go to a restaurant and give it a try, apply what you’ve learned and who knows maybe you’ll be the next big food critic. Remember if a restaurant can produce a good roast chicken your in for a treat.

...............Keep on cooking!

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