So You Want My Job: Restaurant Critic

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 29, 2012 · 15 comments

in So You Want My Job

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Getting paid to eat, what more do I need to say? Such is the life of restaurant critic, Jesse Hirsch. Today he gives us a hilarious look at this tasty job. Be sure to follow Hirsch on Twitter to see what he’s been chewing on.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

I’m from rural New England, 34 years old. Last year I got hired as restaurant critic for the East Bay Express in Oakland. After six months I got poached to become the critic for the San Francisco Examiner.

2. Why did you want to become a restaurant critic? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

Honestly? It was never my plan. Sixteen-year-old me would have said movie director. At 20, I would’ve said war correspondent. Five years ago I would have said “not broke.”

3. How does someone find their way into this unique job? What kinds of skills and talents does a potential restaurant critic need to get hired and be successful?

Straight out of college I took a gig as a general assignment reporter/photographer for a rural Wisconsin paper. I had only been to Wisconsin once, on a Greyhound food stop in LaCrosse. (I believe I ate a vanilla soft-serve at McDonalds, but I’ve misplaced my tasting notes.)

For two years I wrote tedious articles on property taxes and church raffles, spiced up with a beautifully tragic crime blotter. Like the lady who dug up her boyfriend’s coffin to steal the cigarettes and beer he was buried with (someone told me it was Michelob). Or the Little Debbie’s delivery guy who lured women into his truck with promises of “special snacks.” Things get weird in the backwoods.

After bouncing around for awhile, I ended up in Queens, NY, working a cushy desk job. Then late one night I found a typo on the website of this local food magazine called Edible Queens (not a gay cooking mag). I was a little buzzed and decided to shoot an email to the publisher: “Hey, I found a typo on your site. By the way, if you ever need any help at the magazine…” A few months later, I was hired as the editor. Sometimes that s**t really works!

It changed my whole career trajectory. I started eating out all the time, interviewing chefs and farmers, obsessively reading food blogs. My life became hyper-focused on this one thing. I landed a couple of freelance food pieces in the Village Voice, then one in the Wall Street Journal. It just kind of snowballed.

Some critics have a background in cooking. This helps, but isn’t necessary. It’s more important that you can express a cogent opinion in a way that engages and informs. Frank Bruni, former New York Times food critic, had no professional food background. But he’s a wizard with the English language, and is fiercely opinionated. He ended up being one of their most popular critics.

Before Edible Queens, I would’ve listed food as one interest among many (biking, indie films, etc.) Sometimes I wonder: if I had found a typo in a film journal, would I be reviewing movies now?

4. What’s a typical day like for you? How many restaurants do you visit a week?

Reviews are due noon Friday, so Thursdays and Fridays are roughly the same schedule each week. Thursday I spend all day on the laptop, either on my couch or at a coffee shop. I only go out that night if it’s an emergency (emergency = recent event where chefs served Ramen and Japanese whiskey in the woods). Friday morning I send off the review, then try to do something relaxing.

Other days are quite varied, depending on my freelance projects. In the past month, I’ve worked on stories about wine forgery, Furries, and gluten-free kitchens. Some days I’m out and about, interviewing people, doing research, going to events. Other days I’m like a weird shut-in (i.e., spying on neighbors and inventing their sinister back stories). I try to change out of my pajamas before the girlfriend gets home at 6.

I eat out a lot, but restaurant reviews only account for about 3 meals per week.

5. Do you have to keep your identity anonymous so restaurants don’t give you special treatment? How successful are you in this?

Yep, I had to take every picture off the Internet when I first got the job. My approach is simple: I dress like a regular schmo, and I switch up my appearance regularly (beard, hats, etc.) I also eat with a random mix of people, some of whom are weird enough to throw people off the scent.

On my first review in Oakland, my scraggly rocker buddy forgot the lock for his fold-up bike. So he brought it into the restaurant and loudly asked the owner for a place to store it. I cringed, but I’m sure no one would guess this dude was eating with a critic.

Occasionally I’m forced to lie about who I am. Recently I shook hands with a local bistro owner but he has no idea it was me (shhhh). I try to avoid meeting chefs, and I stay away from industry parties.

6. What is the best part of your job?

I get paid to eat.

7. What is the worst part of your job?

Knowing my words could affect someone’s paycheck. Like if I was an art critic, I might wound some painter’s pride with a bad review. Chefs may be the new rock stars (gag), but at the end of the day they’re trying to earn a living. It feels cruel to mess with that.

Of course, I’m probably exaggerating my importance. One bad write-up won’t make or break you these days. We long ago entered a crowd-sourced age, where KrazyKitty1962 on Yelp can have the same impact as a trained critic: “The walls were blue, which I really don’t care for. Also the waiters were too ethnic.”

8. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?

I live with my girlfriend Sarah, and our immensely talented cats Bean and Grayskull. I’m home all day with the cats, but I have to consciously set aside time for Sarah.

I learned quickly that a restaurant review doesn’t count as a dinner date. When I’m reviewing a place, I get very focused, scrutinizing every detail and taking notes on my smartphone. It’s work – not very romantic. I know some critics whose partners refuse to join them on reviews.

So I try to schedule non-food excursions to mix things up. On a recent Sunday we took a bike tour of backyard chicken coops (yes, this city is precious). The weekend before that we went to a pinball museum.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

That it’s easy.

10. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?

It’s just food, people! This country (and San Francisco in particular) is fanatically obsessed with everything we eat. I love being part of the food world, but I grow weary of the constant fetishizing. Not every meal is art, or important.

Man, I already sound like a jaded old crank. At some point I’ll need to shift my focus or I will totally burn out.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 A6 June 29, 2012 at 3:40 pm

What would be your advice on how to “break” into the food critic world?

2 UncleBuck June 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm

I am probably getting ready to step in it, but what is a Furrie? I can’t seem to find anything about it on the internet.

3 Andy June 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Uncle Buck, if your search had been successful, you probably would have. Furrys are people who dress up as animals. Anthropromorphized animals. Think wolves on two legs. These people range from mentally sound to bottom of the barrel deviants.

4 Matt June 29, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Uncle Buck, think “The Banana Splits”. If you’re too young to have seen it first run, you can find lots of clips on YouTube.

And for those who do rememeber the show: “One Banana, Two Banana, Three Banana, Four…..”

5 Jonathan Blake Heely jr. June 30, 2012 at 12:08 am

“Not every meal is art, or important” is quite a good quote for a food critic. i’m sure if you reviewed Bear Grylls’ improvised survival food he’d say the same.

6 Danny Zawacki June 30, 2012 at 1:14 am

I’m with @A6 on this one. How exactly do we start a career as a food critic? There aren’t always typos to find and editors willing to hire based on an email.

If you know how any other critics got into the game, I’d love to hear it.

7 Sof June 30, 2012 at 11:29 am

I guess all you need is to be an expert in food, love writing about food and spend a lot of time sending article queries to related magazines. This I believe is the first step towards starting a food critic career.

8 Hugh June 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm

@ Matt…great, now that bloody jingle is going to be stuck in my head all weekend! You owe me a beer, buster!

9 Brad June 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm

That would be an interesting and fun job, I am sure a journalism degree is needed. As well as a vast knowledge of food and beverage and writing skills.

10 kirk June 30, 2012 at 10:30 pm

This is one of the first “so you want my job” that I actually do want the job.

Id always assumed you needed someone in a newspaper or magazine to quit and free up the position. Ive been in too many fields where I had to wait for someone to die before I could apply.

11 JBarros July 2, 2012 at 7:28 am

Not the type of work I would I enjoy doing. Though, I used to be a chef and it’s interesting to see how critics secretly review your food.

12 Jesse July 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm

@A6 and @Danny Zawacki The most important thing is that I found a reason to talk to the publisher. Once she responded to my initial email, I pushed for an in-person coffee meeting, where I brought a bunch of story ideas and tried to bowl her over with my enthusiasm. I sensed this was a rare opportunity, and I hit it full-throttle.

I guess the most important takeaway is that you’ll need to know some editors if you want to make it in food writing (or any type of writing). Feel free to be pushy, and to use any connections you have. If you have a friend who knows an editor, ask for an introduction. When I first moved to San Francisco, I had zero local connections but a girl I used to work with (scooping ice cream) knew an assistant food editor here. I took that editor out for sushi and gave her the hard sell. She later assigned me my first San Francisco food story, about a chicken farm.

A lot of it is about confidence, creativity, and selling yourself, similar to many professions.

Also, not to be a downer, but here are a couple of gloomy pieces about the state of food criticism and general food writing today:

13 A6 July 8, 2012 at 6:22 pm

@Jesse, thanks for the heads up. Ironically enough, my Journalism professor gave me the same advice about 5 years ago and I never looked back. I ended up doing something totally unrelated; started my own business and I’m now the Editor-at-large for an up and coming logo design company.

14 Gemma D Lou July 8, 2012 at 11:44 pm

KrazyKitty1962 lol. It’s so true that internet has made it easier for anyone to make a review, but not everyone can write for a town paper, so I think people have more trust for Jesse.

I always imagined food critics as miserable so-and-so’s, but Jesse seems very level headed, and notes how her reviews may affect the restaurants. Though, if a restaurant is lack-lustre, not just in a matter of opinion, but in objectionable ways, such as poor service, slow service, hiding prices and stuff, people have a right to know.

Thanks for the post.

15 Ariel November 16, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Hi! I loved reading about your job! My dream job is to become a food critic. I know this is a long shot, but is there anything that I should know about becoming one? I know that I just read your article on it, but I’m talking about actually getting out there and being about to write an article on it.

Thank you so much!!

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