Friday, September 7, 2012
How to Critique a Restaurant... (in the eyes of a CIA student)
What does it take to critique a restaurant?
I have always been interested in reviewing eateries since I was a teenager. It may sound a bit hypocritical, taken that I was an uneducated, inspired cook at age fifteen, but I thought I knew the basics of what a good restaurant should entail. Perhaps it was because my parents raised me to treat others with warm hospitality whenever people entered our house. Or it could’ve been for the fact that full menus alone seemed overwhelming and confusing to me at times. No matter the reason, I was excited to attend The Culinary Institute of America to learn about food writing as a profession and not just a hobby.
I always told people that I wanted to become a journalist before a culinarian. Then, when I was about to graduate high school, I was determined to morph these two concepts into one job- a restaurant critic. What an ideal occupation. Yet, I was convinced that in order to review a restaurant, I had to know the kitchen like the back of my hand and the efforts put into fine dining service. Otherwise, who would I be to judge a restaurant when I myself had not been through the industry for a period of
time? If an amateur ever critiqued my restaurant, I wouldn’t take it seriously and neither should owners who are evaluated by uneducated writers.
Here are some tips for those of you interested in assessing restaurants. First, keep in mind that a finished product tells a lot about the kitchen. The way it is plated, was it just thrown together last minute? This could indicate how organized the kitchen is. The colors of the ingredients, does this dish look fresh or merely heated up? The aroma of the food- is the smell comforting or off? Is your meat hot or cold and should it be that way? Can you tell if it was sitting under a heat lamp or plated right from the pan? These minor details are the foundation for any good review. First impressions are key, which leads into the service aspect.
When you first walk into a restaurant, we had been taught at the CIA that a server or host should greet you at the door and the table within a matter of seconds. If you find yourself waiting for more than three to five minutes to communicate with a staff member upon your entry, the restaurant is failing at hospitality. There is a difference between “miss, we will be with you in just a moment” than nobody showing up at all. Are the chairs comfortable at the table and is it in an appropriate area of the dining room? Check the silverware for smudges and see how fast the waiter or waitress greets the table for drink orders. This should be as soon as possible, yet leaving some time to review the list. Customers are guaranteed to be happier waiting with drinks in their hand rather than empty glasses. Are refills consistent and is the table properly organized course after course? It’s all about mise-en-place. Also consider lighting, clarity of the menu, length of the menu, temperature of the room and décor.
I hope that these tips aid anyone who is interested in writing. The number one helpful hint I tell people is to bring a camera (flash off) and notepad, but don’t make it too disturbing. If you can remember how the meal went in your head, write it as soon as you get out of the restaurant so that the ideas are fresh. Record quotes or adjectives as soon as they pop into your mind to describe the atmosphere and food. Dining at a restaurant is as if one is hitting the “pause” button during the evening. Relax, enjoy and remember that no one meal is ever the same as another.