So You Want My Job: Restaurant Critic

Sometimes I can’t help but feel a little sad that there is no more real life restaurants around. When you’re done with your day, all the food has been cooked and eaten so why worry about what’s for supper? And now, on top of it, people are starting to make money from writing restaurant reviews. Whatever happened to just going out and eating at the place next door or across town? You know-the one that nobody talks about because there isn’t any press outside of Yelp?

The “pros and cons of being a food critic” is a job that many people want to get into. Some pros are that you get free meals and travel, while some cons are that it’s not always easy to find work.

We’re back with another installment of our So You Want My Job series, in which we speak with guys who work in coveted positions and ask them about the realities of their employment as well as tips on how men might achieve their goals.

What else do I need to say about being paid to eat? Jesse Hirsch, a food reviewer, lives such a life. He offers us a funny glimpse at this delectable job today. Follow Hirsch on Twitter to find out what he’s been thinking about.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself (e.g., where do you come from?). What is your age? Describe your job, including how long you’ve been doing it, and so on.)

I’m 34 years old and from rural New England. I was recruited as a food reviewer for the East Bay Express in Oakland last year. I was snatched to become the critic for the San Francisco Examiner after six months.

2. What inspired you to pursue a career as a restaurant critic? When did you realize you wanted to do it?

Honestly? It was never my intention. I would have said movie director as a sixteen-year-old. I would’ve said war reporter when I was 20. I would have responded “not broke” five years ago.

3. How does one go about getting this one-of-a-kind job? What type of skills and abilities does a prospective restaurant reviewer need in order to get employed and succeed?

After graduating from college, I went to work for a rural Wisconsin newspaper as a general assignment reporter/photographer. I’d only been to Wisconsin once, in LaCrosse for a Greyhound snack stop. (I think I had a vanilla soft-serve at McDonald’s, but my taste notes are missing.)

I spent two years writing dull pieces on property taxes and church fundraisers, punctuated by a magnificently sad crime blotter. Like the woman who dug up her boyfriend’s coffin in order to take the smokes and alcohol he was buried with (someone told me it was Michelob). For example, the Little Debbie’s delivery man who enticed ladies inside his vehicle by promising “special goodies.” In the woods, things become strange.

I ended myself in Queens, NY, working a comfortable desk job after moving about for a bit. Then, late one night, I discovered an error on the website of Edible Queens, a local food magazine (not a gay cooking mag). “Hey, I noticed an error on your site,” I said in an email to the publisher, a little excited. By the way, if you need any assistance at the magazine…” I was recruited as the editor a few months later. That s**t does work on occasion!

My whole professional path was altered as a result of that. I began dining out often, interviewing chefs and farmers, and reading food blogs compulsively. This one item got hyper-focused in my life. I had two freelance food essays published in the Village Voice and one in the Wall Street Journal. It just sort of grew out of control.

Some reviewers have a culinary background. This is helpful, but it isn’t required. It’s more crucial that you can articulate a strong point of view in an engaging and informative manner. Frank Bruni, a former New York Times food critic, has no formal culinary training. He is, nevertheless, a master of the English language and a fiery orator. He became one of their most well-liked critics.

 

Prior to Edible Queens, I would have labeled food as one of several interests (biking, indie films, etc.) I sometimes wonder whether I would be reviewing movies today if I had discovered a mistake in a cinema journal.

4. Describe a normal day in your life. How many restaurants do you go to on a weekly basis?

Because reviews are due at noon on Fridays, the timetable for Thursdays and Fridays is approximately the same each week. On Thursdays, I spend the whole day on my laptop, either at home or at a coffee shop. That night, I only go out if it’s an emergency (emergency = recent event in the woods where cooks served Ramen and Japanese whisky). I send in the review on Friday morning and then attempt to rest.

Depending on my freelancing tasks, the rest of my days are fairly different. I’ve worked on pieces on wine counterfeiting, Furries, and gluten-free kitchens in the last month. Some days, I’m out and about, doing interviews, conducting research, and attending events. On other days, I’m a strange shut-in (i.e., spying on neighbors and inventing their sinister back stories). I attempt to get out of my pjs before my girlfriend arrives at 6 p.m.

I dine out often, yet restaurant evaluations account for just approximately three meals each week for me.

Vintage man holding a pen and writing on the paper.

5. Do you have to keep your identity hidden so that eateries don’t treat you differently? How successful have you been thus far?

When I originally received the job, I had to remove every image off the Internet. My strategy is simple: I dress like a normal schmo and change up my look on a regular basis (beard, hats, etc.) I also dine with a diverse group of folks, some of whom are strange enough to catch people off guard.

My scraggly rocker pal lost the lock on his fold-up bike on my first review in Oakland. So he hauled it inside the restaurant and demanded a storage space from the proprietor. I shuddered, but no one would think he was dining with a critic.

I’m sometimes obliged to lie about my identity. I recently shook hands with the proprietor of a neighborhood café, but he has no clue who I am (shhhh). I try to stay away from industry functions and avoid meeting cooks.

6. What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?

I am compensated to eat.

7. What is the most difficult aspect of your job?

Knowing what I say might have an impact on someone’s compensation. As an example, if I were an art critic, a negative review may hurt the pride of a painter. Chefs may be the new rock stars (laugh), but they’re still trying to make a life. To meddle with that seems harsh.

Of course, I’m inflating my significance. These days, one poor review won’t make or break you. We’ve long passed the point when KrazyKitty1962 on Yelp can have the same influence as a professional critic: “The walls were blue, which I really don’t like for.” Also, the waiters were of a different ethnicity.”

 

8. How do you strike a work-family-life balance?

My girlfriend Sarah and I share a home with our two very gifted cats, Bean and Grayskull. I’m at home with the kitties all day, but I have to set aside time for Sarah.

I immediately discovered that a restaurant review does not qualify as a dinner date. When I’m studying a location, I become really attentive, examining every aspect and taking notes on my phone. It’s a job situation, not a love one. Some reviewers I know refuse to go on reviews with their spouses.

So, to keep things interesting, I try to plan non-food adventures. We went on a bike tour of backyard chicken coops on a recent Sunday (yes, this city is precious). We had gone to a pinball museum the weekend before.

9. What is the most common misunderstanding about your job?

That it is simple.

10. Do you have any other advice, recommendations, observations, or anecdotes to share?

People, it’s only food! Everything we eat is a big deal in our nation (and especially in San Francisco). I like being a member of the culinary business, but I’m tired of the fetishization. Not every meal is a work of art or a significant event.

I’m starting to sound like a jaded old crank. I’ll have to adjust my concentration at some time or I’ll burn out.

 

 

The “famous food critic” is a person who reviews restaurants and publishes their opinions online. They are often paid for their work, but not always.

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