You’ve got a dream: to go to the very best restaurants, eat the tastiest meals and drink the finest wines for free, and then get paid to write a few hundred words about your dining experience. As a restaurant critic, you’d be a member of an old (although maybe not so noble) profession, one that began in Paris in 1803 with the publication of a restaurant guide book that soared to popularity overnight and then just as quickly faded into obscurity when French chefs discovered the good opinion of the book’s author could be, uh… bought.
The gig is pretty straightforward. You go to a restaurant. You take some friends along. Your group orders a variety of foods and beverages and you try everything, recording your impressions of your dining experience along the way. You charge the meal to a credit card. You rinse, wash, and repeat at the same restaurant a few days later, sampling different foods and beverages this time. You go home and write up a review. Then, you get paid for your piece and reimbursed for your hideously expensive meal.
Are you really excited about this career? Does it sound like the perfect fit for your food-loving self? Well, there’s one teeny, tiny problem: the job of restaurant critic doesn’t truly exist anymore. See, many of the newspapers and magazines that restaurant critics traditionally worked for are defunct or dying, so there’s no one to pay you for your reviews or comp your meals. Also, in the age of the Internet, anyone can get online and post their opinion of a restaurant, just for kicks, no compensation required.
In other words, restaurant critics are obsolete, and you’re never going to be one. Them’s the breaks.
“But,” you think, “I really, really, really want this job. Really. Really. What can I do?”
Like a dog with a bone, aren’t you? Your best bet is to either wear the mantle of restaurant critic strictly as a hobby, or to accept that the only paid work you’re going to get will be piecemeal and freelance. Whether you take the hobby route or the freelance route, there are certain qualifications that you’ll need to have in order to write restaurant reviews that are worth reading (assuming you care about being read).
First, adoring food is not the primary qualification you need for this job. You have to be a great communicator first, and a gourmand second. In olden days, restaurant critics earned undergraduate degrees in English or journalism, and then spent years working as journalists, and not necessarily as fine arts or food journalists, either, although it’s important to try and write about restaurants and food when that’s your desired area of expertise.
Once you’ve got the whole communications thing down, it’s time to acquire some knowledge about food, wine, and the restaurant industry. Not only do you need to have an excellent understanding of the cuisine on your plate, which you can pick up by taking cooking classes, reading cookbooks, and going to food and wine festivals, but you also have to know how restaurants operate as businesses. If you’re looking for a job to subsidize your freelance writing that will also help you fulfill your quest to become a restaurant critic, you should consider waiting tables or working as a line cook, so you can get an up-close-and-personal perspective on how eateries are run.
If you want to call yourself a restaurant critic, you have to like going on adventures with your palate. You’re going to sample some seriously weird food in this line of work, and you need to be knowledgeable and mature enough to objectively evaluate what you eat. Additionally, you can’t be snobby about food: you’ve got to be just as happy sampling deep-fried Twinkies at the state fair as you are dining on escargot at the finest French restaurant.
The way to acquire readers of your work is to be authentically excited about restaurants and food, and to convey your passion and your sensory experiences through your writing. Be honest in your reviews, understand that you have a duty to accurately evaluate the restaurants where you eat, and then report your opinions to the public. Uphold your journalistic standards by eating anonymously, so chefs and restaurant owners aren’t predisposed to treat you differently from other diners.
If writing restaurant reviews is your hobby, then, congratulations! You won’t get paid for anything you post on Yelp, but you also won’t have to deal with any of the problems associated with freelance food writing, like:
Getting enough assignments to make rent
Getting paid fairly for your work
Getting bored with eating out all the time
Finding the time and energy to exercise away all the calories you consume as part of your job
Handling criticism from readers, chefs, and others in the fine dining industry about what and how you write about restaurants
Hmm. Being a restaurant critic, at least as a paying career, doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? So, here are some alternatives you could pursue that would satisfy your love of writing and/or food. You could always find a gig in communications or marketing, either in a food-related industry or in a field that has nothing to do with eating. You could become a restaurant manager, a chef or a cook, a sommelier or a bartender, or a host/hostess or waiter/waitress. You could work in something horrifically boring (like accounting) for a couple of decades, and then take your savings and open up a restaurant of your very own. Use your imagination; there are lots of different ways to get the foodie experiences you crave, without your having to submit to a lifetime of penury as a restaurant critic.