“Eat, Then Write!” Notes From Over a Decade of Restaurant Criticism
Michelle Huneven on Bringing Lessons in Food Writing to Fiction
I’d been writing features for the long defunct California Magazine when the restaurant critic ignited my envy. He came into the office one afternoon with a doggie bag reeking of truffles and sat down to write. Here I was spending weeks, even months, reporting each article while his process was alluringly quick: Eat, then write!
Hey—I loved to eat. And starting with my first job in college (grilling steaks in the dining hall), through my Iowa MFA, and for years after, I’d worked in food service. I’d been a waitress, a banquet manager, a bartender, a baker; I even briefly had my own catering company. To go from working in restaurants to writing about them seemed a logical progression.
When the restaurant critic moved on, I convinced my editor to let me try my hand. After I’d covered a handful of restaurants, the Los Angeles Times offered me a weekly column, and for the next 15 years, until my second novel was published, I wrote at least one review a week. No vacations. No hiatuses.
Reviewing restaurants was, in fact, the perfect job for a struggling novelist: It kept me fed, it got me dressed and out of the house, and it insured I had a social life. And it didn’t steal too much psychic juice from my fiction writing.The job does come with lovely perks, and it also comes with unique pressures, such as the constant, low grade imperative to find new places to write about.
Dana Potowski is the narrator of my fifth novel, Search, and she’s a younger version of me. Oh, I made her a better dresser, gave her a pair of mini-donkeys and a staff job at the newspaper (I always freelanced). She writes a review every Tuesday, as I did, and like me, she also writes books: not novels, but memoirs with recipes. With the hope of getting her next book out of it, she joins the search committee at her church to find their next minister. The yearlong process gives her a tidy structure; her seven co-members, she hopes, will generate the drama, and their weekly potluck dinner meetings will provide the recipes.
Plus, everyone’s eager to go on a review with her, and she always needs dining companions.
People have a romantic vision of the reviewer’s job; some imagine her at fine restaurants where trembling waiters bow and scrape as the chef throws sweaty tantrums in the kitchen. Others picture a reviewer sneaking about in wigs and ridiculous get-ups to avoid being recognized.
I went to restaurants as myself, an average, anonymous customer in line for the usual treatment. Then, I’d write about it. (I used to joke that reviewing restaurants was the perfect job for the passive aggressive: Mistreat me tonight, read about it on Friday.)
The job does come with lovely perks, and it also comes with unique pressures, such as the constant, low grade imperative to find new places to write about. And to eat. You must keep up with your eating. Who but a restaurant critic wails, “I’m behind on my eating!”
There’s also the never-ending search for dining companions. One develops a cadre of stalwart standbys but eating out three to six times a week can exhaust the supply. One of Dana’s most reliable companions is her church’s retiring minister. Dana enjoys his company, but crucially, “It’s not so easy to find people free midday in the middle of the workweek to drive to Venice or Covina for lunch.”
Dana can’t take all seven other committee members at once; she must watch her expenses. She does take them one, two, or four at a time, and it’s in these casual, more intimate meetings that guards go down, plots are hatched, and secrets leak out.
(I never fretted about expenses; I don’t drink, nor did many of my friends. My editor once instructed me to either take more people on reviews or order a lot more food, because my expense reports were making the other reviewers look profligate!)
Dana delivers my standard instructions to her dining companions: “Order whatever you want, and as much as you want, but no two people can order the same thing.” I always let my friends order first, which too often left me the skinless chicken breast. Never mind. I’d taste everything.
To many a guest’s dismay, the reviewer’s fork strays onto every plate. Dana takes a few swift bites of everyone’s meal, enough to absorb the flavors and composition of each plate. My editor, however, let her guests order what they wanted, then had them pass their plates to the right, allowing each person a minute per dish—that is, until the editor found something she liked. Then, the rotation paused until she ate her fill. I once watched a beautiful lambchop I’d ordered vanish while I poked at an overcooked trout.
Dana tries the rotation with friends one night, but the lovely lamb still eludes her fork.The food writer works with a short deck: of all the senses, taste has the fewest descriptors.
Some dining companions are problematic, like the one who’s so happy to be on a restaurant review, she broadcasts her gratitude loudly, invariably within earshot of the waiter. “I can’t believe I’m on a restaurant review!” “Thank you, LA Times!”
Some guests assume that they’ve been invited to do the reviewing. When Jennie, the search committee’s youngest member, joins Dana for a meal, she gets right down to work: “These colors!” she says as they’re seated in a dining room. “They remind me of a bleeding mouse… use that in your write-up,” she instructs Dana. “Say ‘the color scheme is bleeding mouse.’”
Eating is the easy part of the job. Then you must write it up. This never got easier.
The food writer works with a short deck: of all the senses, taste has the fewest descriptors. (The great late restaurant critic Jonathan Gold used to tease me for calling too many salads “juicy,” and I teased him for overusing his iconic phrase, “shatteringly crisp.”) But one does eternally seek a juicy new angle, a [shatteringly] crisp new lede. Thus, Dana is so thrilled to learn her dinner companions are polyamorous—not because she’s personally titillated, but because she the term will enliven her write up: “The word polyamorist, with all its frisson, was like a jewel plopped in my lap,” she says, and starts composing first sentences: “I was at dinner with the polyamorists when… .”
For all the bad food I ate—venison and blueberry fettucine, anyone? Ammonia-scented lobster?—there were hours spent with friends, eating and talking and laughing. I had a fair share, too, of life-shifting, near religious dining experiences: a veal brain schnitzel at Spago. Cha gio at Golden Deli in a San Gabriel strip mall. My first pistachio gelato.
Reviewing restaurants kept me fed, made me socialize, and paid the bills. But after 15 food-intensive years it was, as Dana says, “high time to hand that baton to a younger person, someone who can eat pork belly without thinking of artery blockage.”
All those years of eating out has made me, to this day, inordinately grateful for a good, simple, homecooked meal.
Search by Michelle Huneven is available via Penguin Press.