These critics will use anything to keep up their disguise -- even the bathroom.
Story by RISA POLANSKY
Photo by ALEXANDER KOYLER
Food critic David Carlson discusses the craft.
At first glance, Victoria Pesce Elliot appears to be an average person out to eat -- but that's what she wants you to think.
Open her purse: she often uses it for smuggling stolen mementos. Check her seemingly humdrum wallet: It holds five credit cards, each bearing a different alias.
Pull her hair: Elliot is known to don wigs and disguises when dining. And watch closely: She tends to make sneaky trips to the restroom.
Elliot may seem like a spy, a fugitive or possibly an undercover cop, but she’s none of these. She is the restaurant critic for The Miami Herald.
“Staying anonymous is part of the job,” says Elliot, 39, chuckling at her various attempts to remain inconspicuous. “I was out with my husband in a blonde wig, and we ran into friends who recognized him and not me. They thought he was out with someone else.”
People might envision a dining critic’s life as a glamorous blur of delectable food consumed for free at elegant restaurants — and sometimes it is.
Believing this job description, however, is as foolish as thinking Elliot and her fellow disguise-wearing, restroom-note-jotting critics are innocent restaurant patrons with bad hair and weak bladders. Restaurant criticism involves much more than simply eating and writing; working hard to ensure normal treatment from restaurateurs is only one of many little-acknowledged aspects of the profession.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” says Elliot, who has been critiquing for The Herald for four years and has been in the industry for 12. “There’s keeping track of the city, trend-wise. There’s knowing not just about food, but about service —knowing a lot about all of the elements that go into running a restaurant.”
While you don’t need a degree in restaurant management or official culinary schooling to become a restaurant critic — Elliot is simply a journalist with an affinity for food — you must make several visits to an establishment to evaluate the many attributes that you must address to write a well-rounded review.
For critics, each meal becomes a carefully orchestrated operation.
“It starts with making a reservation under someone else’s name and finding the right people to go with you to a dining experience,” Elliot says. “My husband’s great, because he’ll eat anything and he doesn’t talk too much. You can’t have a regular conversation and chat, and you don’t take vegetarians or people on the South Beach Diet.”
Critics dine with inconspicuous yet culinarily adventurous guests to create the appearance of an ordinary group meal — for the sake of blending in — to get more input about the atmosphere of the restaurant, and to sample a wider variety of food.
“Passing plates is required, and if they like their steak well done, they can’t order steak,” says Scott Joseph, critic for the Orlando Sentinel. “I take someone who doesn’t need a lot of attention, because I’m there to work.”
Going out to eat is a critic’s job, but they can’t do that job if the restaurant knows it. Because taking notes at the table is akin to wearing a shirt proclaiming. “I am a restaurant critic, please serve me the best cut of meat and send the chef to wish me a good meal,” careful observation is the key. Critics employ their own finely honed methods to remember every detail of a dining experience. Having a menu in front of them when writing is essential, say the critics, so menus are often slipped into purses or underneath suit jackets if the restaurant doesn’t offer the information online.
“I try to remember everything, and it’s tricky sometimes,” says Elliot. “I once did five restaurants in one night. It was insane. I sometimes take an index card with me into the bathroom and take notes.”
David Carlson, restaurant critic for The Gainesville Sun, occasionally uses the bathroom tactic for remembering details, though he has his own variations.
“I often go to the car and write furiously for 10 minutes,” he says. “I sometimes call my answering machine and dictate things to it.”
Some critics don’t feel comfortable leaving the table to jot down thoughts, so they rely solely on memory.
“I once tried to sneak into a bathroom and take notes, but I felt really stupid and never did that again,” says Chris Sherman of the St. Petersburg Times. “I pay attention to the food, look at each dish and remember what I thought. I file these things away mentally.”
Sherman also remains low-key when it comes to disguises. He carries Florida maps or guidebooks, which subtly suggest he is a tourist, not the area dining critic.
Sometimes this kind of simplicity can be the best route. Elliot’s sneaky moves not only made her husband look like an adulterer in the aforementioned “blonde wig” incident, but they also almost landed her in jail.
“I was once caught stealing a wine list and was threatened they would call the police,” she says, only half laughing. “They scared us so much, we left before dessert.”
Making an exit can prove tricky for critics, even without angry management on their tail, because not everyone plays the multiple-personality game. Elliot does. Paying with a personal credit card could blow a carefully created cover. Some, like Carlson, rely on cash as a cloak of anonymity, and others have a guest pay for the meal up front and later reimburse him or her from an expense account.
But when restaurateurs discover critics despite their attempts at anonymity, it does not mean “Game over,” and it can often be humorous.
“I once had someone who thought he knew who I was, but he wasn’t quite sure, so he kept coming up to the table asking questions and trying to get me to admit it: ‘Do you work at The Sun?’ and ‘You seem to be knowledgeable about food.’ My wife and I were chuckling to ourselves,” Carlson says, still smiling at the memory. “But even if you are discovered, there’s a limited amount a restaurant can do. They can only adjust their service and portions.”
To overcome such possibilities, Carlson positions himself with his back to the wall so he can observe the service and portion sizes provided to ordinary diners.
Critics put all of this hard work toward one ultimate goal: to serve the public.
“I try to review places with integrity,” Elliot says. “Or, if there’s a place that’s gotten a lot of hype and it’s not as good as people say, I feel like it’s my public duty to warn people.”
This concept has driven the 18-year-long career of Orlando Sentinel critic Scott Joseph. He says it is not a critic’s duty to boost the business of a restaurant but simply to give an honest report.
Joseph takes mental notes about the food, the restaurant’s décor and employees’ interactions with patrons.
A veteran of the old “menu in the jacket” trick and the “wine list in the purse of my guest” maneuver, Joseph, like Elliot, acknowledges the little-known logistical challenges of restaurant criticism, as well as the perceptions that surround it.
“What’s not to like about the job?” Joseph said. “I get to go out and eat and taste wonderful food and good wines and experience restaurants regularly that for other people might be a once-a-year splurge. Now, ask me what my least favorite part of the job is.”
He answers wryly, “I have to go out to eat, and sometimes eat bad food at bad restaurants, then tell people about my bad experience and affect someone’s life — I know people have lost their jobs because of what I’ve written.”
Joseph has reviewed Vincent Gagliano’s French restaurant, Chez Vincent, in Winter Park, three times in the restaurant’s nine years of existence.
“They were all good reviews so far, but you never know when a critic will come, so you always do your best and offer your best,” says Gagliano, restaurant owner and chef. “I treat everybody equally, and hopefully everybody likes what I’m doing. A food critic is not what’s on my mind when I’m cooking.”
Gagliano has never caught Joseph in the act, but he realized he’d been critiqued after receiving phone calls about scheduling photos.
“From the time he called until the day I read it in the paper, I was stressed,” Gagliano says.
Despite the fact that a critique could improve or destroy his life’s work, Gagliano says he feels no animosity toward critics.
“He made a few criticisms about my décor, so I fixed it,” Gagliano says of Joseph’s last review. “That’s the purpose of a critic, I think. They’ll make your place better, so I am always open to critics.”
Critics risk a lot in giving a negative review, and much thought goes into whether it should be done.
Carlson once had a cockroach drop into the lap of a dining companion. This did not, however, mean an automatic bashing.
“We were stunned,” he says, shaking his head at the memory. “But the restaurant was brand new, so there was no way it was their fault — it must have been because of construction. I visited the place more than once and never saw anything of the sort again, and the couple with me agreed I shouldn’t mention it.”
Carlson says he has had whole bowls of soup dumped in his lap. He has had wine spilled on him. When you dine out several times a week, these things happen. A critic must determine why they did and whether the public deserves to know about it.
While he believes it’s important, Chris Sherman of the St. Petersburg Times finds pleasure in his job outside of the “public duty” aspect.
“I don’t think the greatest fun is being the mystery lone ranger fighting to save yuppies from bad quiche,” Sherman says. “It’s in getting to explore all parts of your community and participating in a very real, everyday part of people’s lives.”
He recalls a 25-year-long career full of experiences such as hunching over counters for breakfast and sampling food at an Indian wedding and says, “You get to see everybody in your community doing something they enjoy.”
But despite the fond memories, of course, food criticism requires more than gorging oneself on delicious eats. Sharing one’s opinion with the community can have repercussions.
“When people get a good review, they want to send you flowers,” says Elliot. “If you write a bad review, they want to kill you. It can be thankless, but I love food, and I love my job.”