I've gotten plenty of letters over the past few months with suggestions on how I could fix my writing. Most of them, of course, have suggested that I quit, step in front of a bus, or sit down to a nice tomato-leaf salad -- but we have a policy here at Bite Me HQ that says no letter written in crayon on the back of a cocktail napkin will be taken seriously, so those I can safely ignore. Others have arrived complete with immature stick-figure drawings of me being killed in a variety of gruesome ways, but that's just my wife's way of telling me she misses me during the approximately eleven minutes a week I actually spend sitting at my desk trying to think of amusing new ways to make fun of chain restaurants or fresh and interesting words to describe yet another crème brûlée or plate of strangled baby field greens with Styrofoam vinaigrette.
But now and then, I do get letters that offer sensible, well-reasoned criticism of the work I'm doing. Like this one from Leonardo Bortolotto, who writes, in part (and you think I'm wordy):
"I am a restaurant refugee, much like you. I worked in the Denver restaurant business for about seven years, sweating it out on the line and consuming all of my 'staff meals' on my feet in the direct vicinity of a really stinky dumpster. Now I'm out of the kitchen, but I continue to interact on a daily basis with the same bunch of guys, but in a different light. I'd like to give you a bit of direct feedback straight from the same guys who sit around on Wednesdays, waiting to see who's going to get reviewed next. It seems that there is a general consensus on the street that you spend a little too much time describing your own personal trials and tribulations as a fledgling cook, rather than reviewing restaurants. Don't get me wrong, if humor is what you're looking to accomplish, you're doing it. But come on...seven paragraphs about you, Hans, and pommes frites!? An equal amount of space and time devoted to Sean Kelly and his calloused fingers?! Your first article was a great introduction. It was humorous, entertaining and made us all chuckle and thank God Kyle was finally gone. But let's talk about food now. Let's talk about individual plates and the food being served. Let's talk about decor, service and ambience. Does the coffee suck? Would I want to eat there? Is it too loud? Too stuffy? How's the lighting? Do they play too much Dean Martin in the dining room? Would I take a first date there or my grandmother visiting from Minnesota? Anyway, I know your job must be tough. I know it must be hard to please even a fraction of the people who read you, let alone them all. I know it has to be tough to be liked as a critic. All I'm saying is this: I am around kitchens and restaurants every day, talking to chefs, owners, grunts and dishwashers. They all seem to share the same sentiment. We don't need to hear more personal stories from the trenches, we need to hear unbiased, objective criticism."
Really? That reminds me of this time I was working at...
Just kidding, Leonardo. I hear what you're saying and understand that I have a tendency to go off on extremely personal tangents about my time on the other side of the swinging doors -- but that's because I feel as though food and restaurants are very personal things. The restaurant business has been my life since I was fifteen years old, and I bring a lot of that experience with me to the table when I sit down and have to make a critical judgment of the work another chef is doing. I firmly believe that this is not a job that can be done well without bias, and I take care to always make my bias known. Much of the time -- as with the pommes frites story I told in my December 5 review of Bistro Adde Brewster (now just Adde's) -- this comes through in the form of personal stories, because I want people to know where I'm coming from when I tell them something is very good or abysmally awful.