Getting Schooled

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How to Eat Like a Restaurant Critic

Getting Schooled with Amy Pataki, The Toronto Star's Restaurant Critic

The staff at ThingsToEatandDo.com is obsessed with research. We want to choose and recommend the right hotels, activities and restaurants. There are already so many online reviews, guide books, and sources of information out there, how do you know which ones to trust? Blogs and review sites are inundated with self-professed “foodies” — everyone is a critic, even armchair travellers! Our very own Toronto-based Food Tourist (she hates the term “foodie”!), Genevieve Anderson, successfully pinned down the elusive, mysterious Amy Pataki, restaurant critic for The Toronto Star.  Given Toronto’s steady supply of celebrity chefs and award-winning restaurants, Ms. Pataki is in an ideal position to share her approach and some advice with our gastronomically-inclined readers.

  • Gen Anderson: There is so much information out there about restaurants. It’s hard to discern good from bad reviews when our readers are trying to make decisions on where to dine. When you review a restaurant, how many times do you visit and how thoroughly do you conduct your research before publishing? What is your professional approach to bad food or service?

Amy Pataki: Be fair. I visit restaurants at least twice for a full review. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, given budgets. But even without a lot of money, it’s still possible to catch a restaurant on an off-day. Interview the principals by phone, giving them a chance to explain any slip-ups, and quote them. Check ingredients, cooking methods and prices. Getting the facts right boosts the writer’s credibility.

  • Gen: How do you draw less attention to yourself when in critic mode? Do you wear wigs or disguises and in which specific situations?

Amy: Be discreet. I wear disguises so I get treated like everyone else. Anyone who identifies themselves as a blogger or critic is looking for special attention (and possibly free food). That’s never cool.

  • Gen: Are you chef-trained or a “supertaster”? How do you stay relevant as a food critic?

Amy: Be informed. I am hungry for knowledge. I have a cooking diploma as well as a journalism degree. I read widely about food and cooking, be it recipes, memoirs or magazines. I watch food documentaries. (Jiro Dreams of Sushi is excellent.) I buy unfamiliar produce in the market and figure out how to cook it. It’s a constant education.

  • Gen: Like you, I prefer Japanese food and hate green peppers (and cilantro, and goat cheese). Given personal preferences, aversions, and dietary restrictions, how do you objectively and accurately assess food taste, smell, texture, presentation, and overall effect?

Amy: Be as objective as possible. Taste is a very subjective experience; not everyone likes cilantro or black licorice. But criticism isn’t about what you like. It’s about assessing whether the work meets a certain standard, as in medium-rare steak. I don’t have to like green peppers to notice if they’re raw when they should be cooked. I order certain dishes repeatedly not because I love them but because they reveal the kitchen’s skill. Are the salads overdressed? Is the fried food crispy? Does the molten lava cake gooey in the centre? I don’t eat for my tastes.

  • Gen: Do you have any restaurant or food service industry pet peeves? What mistakes do you witness repeatedly at restaurants?

Amy: Be consistent. I’ve always hated bad service: no greeting or goodbye, disdain, unqualified recommendations. (It’s meaningless for the waiter to say the lamb is his “favourite.” He could like burnt toast for all we know.) So if I suddenly accept bad service in a review, it would be confusing. Stick to your guns and readers will respect that.

 

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