Laura Shunk dishes out some tips for the new Cafe critic
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 (read them here.)
Laura Shunk, who's now in New York City working with Baltz & Company, a public relations firm that works with restaurants, offered a list of the Denver spots she'll miss most on her way out of town in June. And now she has some advice for her successor:
Greetings, Gretchen! Best advice? Gird your loins...
1. I saw a reader already gave you this advice, but it bears repeating: Don't take the comments personally. You probably did a lot of work on your first review. You likely went three times, dutifully noting a deluge of insightful details, which you carefully crafted into a narrative that you are proud of. That is awesome. Here's the thing: Your review is going to run, and a lot of people aren't going to care about your nuanced observations or awe-inspiring prose. They're going to care that you are apparently the new restaurant reviewer, which means that you are a new target. And like maggots to a dead carcass, the haters will take to the comments section to suck all form of life out of you. You have landed a much-read column that allows anonymous Internet commenters. You are about to learn where your confidence comes from. "You're the most boring person that has ever walked the planet earth," they'll write, under fake names like poopy5 or, better yet, yousuck. "You're a horrible writer, and you're most likely fat and ugly." "We miss your predecessor. Westword sucks for hiring you." If you're extra lucky, they might even start a Yelp or Reddit thread about just how bad you are. And so after your first review runs, when you should be celebrating your accomplishments over a few too many beers, you may, instead, be sitting by your computer with anxiety in your heart wondering, am I boring? Horrible? Fat and ugly? Does Westword suck for hiring me? And why on earth did I do this? Do not fret: Gradually, your fans will come out of the woodwork and bat down your detractors like cats pawing dusty, fluttering moths. And weirdly, some of those dusty, fluttering moths will undergo a metamorphosis to become fan-cats ready to defend you as if you were their own sister.
2. You're going to realize quickly that people have incredibly romantic misconceptions of what it means to be a professional restaurant critic in Denver. In reality, being a food critic isn't that much different from being a professional binge-eater, except for the fact that most real binge-eaters get to blessedly shroud their habits in secrecy. Food critics are frequently forced to order five entrees for two people and endure a waiter's smirk. Or order a giant round of dessert after polishing off enough food to make the people at the next table stare in unashamed, wide-eyed wonderment. I've eaten five hot dogs in two hours for research purposes before. And I can't even count the number of times I've had two lunches and two dinners in one day in the name of the job. A lot of those second dinners took place on the side of the road while I was seatbelted into my car, shoving my face full of take-out entrees after a full meal. Because of efficiency, obviously. Sometime, perhaps while you're mid-bite of a doughnut saddled with a bacon cheeseburger that you're consuming after you've polished off a monstrous meal and milkshake, you're going to look at yourself in the rearview mirror and wonder seriously whether you need an intervention. You don't, but you might want to think about picking up a hiking hobby. And some heartburn medication.
3. As a side note to my last point, "I'm writing about Denver's restaurants" is an unbelievably convenient excuse to justify having nine cocktails on a Tuesday. But remember that former Times critic Frank Bruni paid the price for that surely universal mentality with a diagnosis of gout, and the only thing worse than trying to write drunk is trying to write hungover.
4. It's okay that you don't know everything there is to know about food, and it's definitely okay to ask experts for education. Before I had any inkling that I'd ever hold this job, I imagined food critics as the type of people who worked hard in journalism courses before flitting off to Paris or Italy to get a culinary education while they wore sundresses and meandered through farmers' markets sniffing fruit in the sunshine. They were the children who said their favorite food was foie gras, who knew that Chardonnay pairs well with lobster by the time they were eight, who've known which piece of silverware to use since they popped out of the womb and pulled themselves up to the white linen-ed table, unable to gum so much as a Cheerio, but, by god, instilled with the knowledge of just the moment to pick up the salad fork. In my imagination, they'd had mothers in the kitchen stirring big bubbling pots and engraining the secrets of cooking deep inside of their souls. They'd later use those tips and tricks against a chef who let the butter brown too long or -- gasp -- couldn't make a proper hollandaise. Food critic-ing, I thought, was a fancy profession for fancy people, the type of people who could name oyster varieties or rattle off every spice in a traditional Ethiopian wot with a comfort level most of us don't even have when we're reciting our own addresses. That was not me. I'll spare you the details, but the greatest culinary wisdom imparted from my childhood surrounded the incredible creativity my mother and grandmother employed in using the microwave and the crockpot in order to avoid ever turning on the stove. Sure, I had received a decent culinary education before I started writing. But being voraciously obsessed with food and acquiring food knowledge, I learned quickly that half the fun of writing about food is doing the research on food -- and then bringing others into what you've learned.
5. As soon as you say publicly "good [Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, Moroccan] food doesn't exist in Denver," you will find good [Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, Moroccan] food, probably because one of the commenters you've become accustomed to ignoring will dismissively point out that you are wrong, and you will be forced to acknowledge that they are, annoyingly, right. If you are fine with eating your words in the most irritating way possible, this is a remarkably effective way to find material.
6. Weird things will happen that will make you feel like you're having an all-encompassing identity crisis. You will overhear people in restaurants talking about something you just wrote. People you barely know will send you photos of their dinners and stories about terrible service. And sometimes, when you are using an alias, people will tell you exactly what they don't like about the new Westword critic, and you will have to stand there and not let them know that your insides feel like they're about to melt out because a) you're being insulted to your face and b) you suddenly feel like you're having an out-of-body experience.
7. I'm not suggesting you plaster your photo all over everything, introduce yourself to the chef when you're out to eat or even make reservations in your own name. But do realize that a restaurateur who recognizes you is simply a restaurateur doing his or her job, and try not to fret too much. Maybe buy a wig, though.
8. If you eat out with your mother and she is anything like my mother, she will want to tell the waiter what you do for a living because she thinks it will get your party better service. She is wrong, and you're going to spend a lot of time "coaching" her to keep this information to herself. This goes for friends who will suddenly start losing their minds when in restaurants in your presence, critiquing everything they put in their mouths and banging glasses on the table while saying, "DON'T YOU KNOW WHO SHE IS?"
9. If you don't have an opinion on green chile, get one. Fast. Or take mine: All roads lead to Chubby's.
10. Did I mention you should gird your loins?
Westword's a wild and excellent ride -- enjoy yourself!
Laura An excerpt from this story appeared earlier in Cafe Bites, our weekly e-mail newsletter on the Denver food and drink scene. Find out how to sign up for Cafe Bites here.
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