In advance of Gretchen Kurtz's debut next week as the new Cafe critic, we asked some of our previous restaurant reviewers to weigh in -- and given their jobs, we do mean weigh in -- with advice for our new newest critic. Kyle Wagner, our reviewer for close to a decade who's now the travel editor at the Denver Post, served up her thoughts first.
To: Gretchen Kurtz From: Kyle Wagner
Congratulations on landing what most people consider one of the top dream jobs in the world. Here's what to expect:
1) From now on, every conversation you have will involve the question, "What's your favorite restaurant?" A longtime dining companion once pointed out that lawyers always argue with your answer, and doctors always skip the question and just tell you theirs. No matter who's asking, it's a no-win situation. Come up with a clever reply now, or eventually you'll find yourself telling people you're a pet sitter.
2) Get ready for weird things to start happening. You can't make this stuff up, because truth in restaurant reviewing is always stranger, more hilarious and sometimes more ghastly than fiction could ever be. For instance, the aforementioned dining companion once had an enormous serving tray full of food set down on his head as the server answered another table's question, thinking there was a shelf there). Another friend yelled as I went to take a bite of cake we were sharing; he had spotted the rings of mold just as I dug in. And if the staff is going to stage a mass walk-out, or a server is going to fabricate the meanings of French cooking terms, or the kitchen is going to catch on fire, it's going to happen on the night you're reviewing. But those aren't meal-breakers for restaurant critics like they are for the dining public, because...
3) The devastatingly bad reviews are easier to write than the drop-dead deliciously good ones, and both are far more preferable to the ones that are just so-so. They are excruciating. How to say, "The meal was mediocre" in an entertaining way? That's like trying to deep-fry a turkey in lukewarm oil. Maybe the fact that there's a pot reviewer on staff now will help.
The good news is, being a restaurant critic is indeed one of the dream jobs. Sure, you'll blarp out like a cornered blowfish if you don't start living on bran muffins and celery when you're not reviewing, and sometimes restaurant people forget to wash after they go potty and oops, next thing you know, you're on the floor for eight to sixteen hours wishing you were dead while your intestines try to come out your ears.
On the other hand, you get to eat out for free, and get paid to do it, and if you love food, and I mean truly LOVE food because it's how we communicate and comfort, celebrate and mourn, create and seduce, show off and show each other up, well, then, this is the show, and welcome to it. Since my hired-belly days, the Denver dining scene has leapt from tried-and-true and still trying to taking a permanent seat at the table with the big boys. Eating out here is even more fun than it used to be.
I have a tiny piece of printout taped to the corner of my computer that says, "Is it true? Is it fair? Is it necessary?" It has followed me from computer to computer since I first started reviewing restaurants in 1993. I no longer remember who gave me that advice, but I thought it made sense. Still do.
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So good luck.