Top chefs review America's toughest food critics


Published October 08, 2013

| The Daily Meal

Top chefs review America's toughest food critics

Top chefs review America's toughest food critics

Revenge is a dish best served… by chefs.

Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles Times, 3.44 Stars

For the second year running, the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold took the top spot on the list of critics and food writers surveyed by dozens of chefs, and he did that while garnering almost a half star more than he did in 2012, and even fewer dissenting comments. Consider what chefs said about Gold:

"Always a pleasure."

"One of a kind."

"Super curious and imaginative."

"Has the most common sense of any critic."

"An individual in every sense of the word. Awesome palate and curiosity."

"Definitely keeps current with dining trends."

"One of the best."  

"Love Jonathan and his writing; he is down to earth, smart, and real."

"I think Jonathan is a cool dude."

Comments about Gold’s prose style included a chef who said, "He cracks me up. He is so passionate, even-keeled, informative, and that dude can write! He makes me want to eat at whatever joint he writes about tomorrow." Described by one chef as "honest as the day is long," Gold’s integrity was heralded as "uncompromising (he’s totally his own person)." And sharing a meal? "That would be so fun," said one chef. So there you have it: according to chefs, Jonathan Gold is America’s smartest, most talented, and most likeable critic or food writer. Fourth place in perceived integrity, Jonathan? Slacker.

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 3.47 stars, 1st place (2012: 3.12, 1st)

PROSE STYLE: 3.5 stars, 1st place (2012: 3.064, 2nd)

INTEGRITY: 3.36 stars, 4th place (2012: 2.97, 1st)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.43 stars, 1st place (2012: 2.7, 1st)

Tom Sietsema, Washington Post, 3.2875 Stars

Last year, criticism about The Washington Post’s restaurant critic Tom Sietsema spilled over onto the food scene over which the critic has purview. "Too much drama," noted one chef. "A very formidable palate stuck in a town that should have better food," said another. But overall, Sietsema rated very high and chefs’ comments were fairly positive. This year, none of the chefs commenting this year took to D.C.-baiting and beyond a few comments that "everyone can recognize him" and that he is part of the "D.C. 'club,'" they were overwhelmingly positive. Called a "good man," a "great old-school gentleman," "adventurous and broad in scope," and "one of the best," Sietsema climbed two spots with chefs overall in 2013. "I like Tom's sensibility," explained one chef, "He is an intelligent writer in a genre that can be difficult to make exciting (rutabagas, anyone?)"

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 3.13 stars, 3rd place (2012: 2.92, 2nd)

PROSE STYLE: 3.09 stars, 3rd place (2012: 2.7, 7th)

INTEGRITY: 3.6 stars, 3rd place (2012: 2.9, 2nd)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.33 stars, tied at 2nd place (2012: 2.34, 8th)

Brett Anderson, The Times-Picayune, 3.2825 Stars

There are few more respected food writers or critics in America than The Times-Picayune’s Brett Anderson (he was even a heavy favorite for The New York Times’ restaurant critic position before Pete Wells was appointed). So it was surprising last year (though less so than The Times-Picayune firing and then rehiring him) that Anderson only rated 12th place in the survey. Chefs fixed that this year, sending him up nine spots, with not a gripe among them. "Very knowledgeable about wide variety of cuisines — adventurous and curious," offered one chef. "He has a good sense of humor," said another. Anderson was also described as both a "wonderful" and "great writer" who was "sensitive and open to a wide variety of culinary experiences," a critic with "high integrity, well-regarded by everyone in the field," "straightforward but poetic," and "a joy." Tied for third for the critic chefs would most like to eat with, apparently, he’s a great dining companion, too. Said one chef, "I had dinner with him once. He’s very knowledgeable and passionate about food."

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 3.3 stars, 2nd place (2012: 2.26, 15th)

PROSE STYLE: 3 stars, 4th place (2012: 2.26, 14th)

INTEGRITY: 3.63 stars, 2nd place (2012: 2.47, 8th)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.2 stars, tied at 3rd place (2012: 2.26, 10th)

Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle, 3.16 Stars

Another critic whose stars increased considerably, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer endured just one negative comment from a chef: "In an ever-growing culinary city, Michael certainly has his favorites. It’s pretty clear who they are." "Thoughtful," "one of the best," "the eternal critic," said others. As for his prose style, one chef reflected, "Michael has evolved as a writer. I find his style to be very accessible and clear." And integrity? "I understand Michael hates payola. I sense he loves his gig."

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.94 stars, 4th place (2012: 2.78, 4th)

PROSE STYLE: 2.92 stars, 5th place (2012: 2.4, tied at 12th)

INTEGRITY: 3.64 stars, 1st place (2012: 2.65, 7th)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.14 stars, 4th place (2012: 2.29, 9th)

Corby Kummer, The Atlantic, 3.12 Stars

Last year’s mixed bag of chef comments included a couple of doozies, with Corby Kummer being called "persnickety," "inclusive," and "too intellectual for restaurant reviewing." (He was even accused by one chef for not eating meat at restaurants he writes about, a claim Kummer said for the record is most certainly not true.) There were a few catcalls from the chef gallery this year, too. "Doesn't understand the ins and outs of the restaurant industry," said one. "Doesn't seem to actually enjoy food," offered another. But even several chefs who found criticism in Kummer praised him. "He’s a curmudgeon, but a fabulous, intelligent writer, and one with integrity."

And negative comments were far outweighed by a chorus of praise that buoyed him two spots higher than last year. "An intelligent writer," said one, "Perfect for The Atlantic," agreed another. "He likes food!" Noted others: "Trust!" "Erudite and warm," and "Corby is a writer who brings a wonderful sense of information to the page." "I think Corby is the quintessential New Englander, cutting right to the chase always," said one chef, "I like that. And Kummer even inspired at least one chef’s inner writer, "Like a dry martini, cold enough to freeze your upper teeth, Corby is an interesting wordsmith. He has his prejudices, but isn't that the point. I find him very readable."

The most puzzling comment? "He is a Yankee after all."

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.94 stars, tied at 4th place (2012: 2.72, 7th)

PROSE STYLE: 3.2 stars, 2nd place (2012: 2.8, 5th)

INTEGRITY: 3.14 stars, 5th place (2012: 2.4, 9th)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.2 stars, tied at 3rd place (2012: 2.24, 11th)

Pete Wells, The New York Times, 2.99 Stars

Pete Wells fared… well, pretty well last year, placing third in the list of writers and critics that chefs surveyed. It’s interesting to note that last year’s survey took place before his lashing out at Guy Fieri. He didn’t place as high this year, falling three spots overall, but once again, critics couldn’t resist analyzing his development or just weighing in on the state of restaurant reviewing at The New York Times.

"He has expanded the horizons of The New York Times reviews during his tenure, but not always favorably," offered one chef. Others described him as "fairly knowledgeable," "sharp, incisive, not afraid to mix it up," a "lovely writer who is somewhat erratic in his stances," and "Meh… smart, but too eager to demonstrate it." Some chefs were more verbose in their comments. "Wells reviews too soon," said one. "I don't understand him. Restaurants have to have some bizarre food wow factor... I just don't think he knows food that well. He does know his wine, though." And another: "Somehow, The Times' food ratings don't carry the same weight that they used to. But at least they visit three times, which is so much more respectable and potentially accurate than most magazines who only visit once (are they kidding?)"

Others were a bit more… blue in their comments. "Knowledgeable about food and says what nobody else has the @#$% to say!" said one. "A @#$%&*@ #$%& who needs to get off his soapbox and bandwagon," said another. "Try having an actual opinion of your own without being a lemming."

As for his prose style, chef comments were mixed. One said "I love his style," another found him "confusing and often off topic." Offered one: "Pete obviously can produce a fast, thought-provoking review. Does he zero in on the things that I think are important? Not really, but to each his own. I just wish he would get more excited. He seems too involved with the minutiae. I could use some passion and some more of his obvious sense of humor."

On his perceived integrity:

"I think he is moody. Just don't trust him and why he reviews the way he does."

"Tricky to pin this down with him."

"Lacks integrity if he has an agenda."

Also interesting to note? While Wells fell several places in the culinary knowledge, prose style, and integrity categories, he was tied for second when it came to chefs wanting to share a meal with the critic. "So I can tell him how much he doesn’t know over and over again," said one.

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.79 stars, 8th place (2012: 2.74, 7th)

PROSE STYLE: 2.84 stars, 7th place (2012: 2.88, 3rd)

INTEGRITY: 3 stars, tied at 6th place (2012: 2.88, 3rd)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.33 stars, tied at 2nd place (2012: 2.58, 5th)

Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appétit, 2.82 Stars

Last year’s opinions about Bon Appétit's restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton came quick and curtly. "Sharp and young," quipped one chef. "Style over substance," added another. Chefs were much more generous this year, both with stars and compliments. "Andrew’s culinary travels are well documented and he’s always seeking different story angles around the globe," said one chef. "Respectful of chefs and the work involved in running a restaurant," vouched another. Others called him a "nice food writer" with his "finger on the pulse," a few going so far as to call him an "up and comer," and the "wave of the future." Still, it wasn’t all rose-petal cocktails and rainbow cookies. While he was generally approved of for having "fairly wide-ranging interests," being "knowledgeable about food," "a good writer," and trusted, he was accused by one chef of being "a bit of a sheep," and a little too on-trend. "Doesn’t review New York City," added one chef, "only Brooklyn."

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.65 stars, 11th place (2012: 2.24, 17th)

PROSE STYLE: 2.69 stars, 9th place (2012: 2.46, 9th)

INTEGRITY: 2.85 stars, 8th place (2012: 2.06, 17th)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 3.07 stars, 5th place (2012: 1.86, 16th)

Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly, 2.81 Stars

Texas Monthly made history by hiring Daniel Vaughn to be the only full-time barbecue critic on the staff of a major newspaper or magazine in America, and the newcomer made a good first showing overall with an eighth place debut, just one spot below Bon Appétit’s Andrew Knowlton. Vaughn made impressive debuts in culinary knowledge and prose style in sixth and eighth place respectively, was tied with Pete Wells at three stars for perceived integrity, and ranked ninth just below Adam Platt on likeability.

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.86 stars, 6th place

PROSE STYLE: 2.71 stars, 8th place

INTEGRITY: 3 stars, tied at 6th place

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.67 stars, tied at 7th place

Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue, 2.62 Stars

Along with John Mariani, Steve Cuozzo, Pete Wells, and Alan Richman, The Man Who Ate Everything was one of the critics or writers who were most commented on by chefs in this survey. And like last year, the comments were overwhelmingly positive. "Knows his food." "An actual writer who communicates through food — in a league of his own." "Phenomenal. Love, love, love his writing. I would like to spend time on a remote island just talking about food with him. His approach to the subject is so in-depth and multi-sensory. Steingarten is in a class by himself." "Jeffrey just makes me laugh — he is a walking encyclopedia with an elephant's memory for details." "The best pure writer in the business. Much better on the page than in person." "Love his style," "great writer," "knowledgeable," "wonderful," "snarky, but good," and from another admirer, "I laughed my a** off reading The Man Who Ate Everything. You can’t be at Vogue for years and not be a good writer." The compliments poured on, falling in line with the culinary knowledge and prose style categories that he dropped in but remained among the leaders of. But there was plenty of griping to match Steingarten falling seven spots on the list. "One of the greatest food writers out there," said one chef who didn’t give any examples, but concluded, "unfortunately he's getting very old and he's always been so sexist." Asked another chef, "With or without a drink in his hand? That makes a world of difference once he’s lubricated." The two categories he fell most in were perceived integrity ("gets upset if he doesn’t get free" ahem, stuff), and likeability, of which two chefs noted, "I’ve seen food falling from his mouth regularly — he forgets to swallow before he talks."

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.88 stars, 5th place (2012: 2.8, 3rd)

PROSE STYLE: 2.89 stars, 6th place (2012: 3.15, 1st)

INTEGRITY: 2.25 stars, 14th place (2012: 2.73, 4th)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.47 stars, 9th place (2012: 2.63, 3rd)

Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times, 2.61 Stars

Falling a spot from 2012, Virbila may have lost ground, but her star rating actually climbed higher. And comments were far more positive, especially impressive considering that two chefs commenting acknowledged that Virbila’s take on them hadn’t been particularly effusive. "She was tough on us, but I still think she's a good writer," said one chef adding, "We would love to have her back." "She was really tough on us, and our chef in particular, but I still think she's a good writer," added another. The overall goodwill continued: "I like Sherry [as her friends call her]. She has always been low-key around me, and she seems to be very serious about her job."  Even one tougher chef-critic was more philosophical than critical: "The Los Angeles Times was my usual for years. I think it must be hard to do this week in and week out for as long as Sherry has done it. Is she perfect, not really. But then who is?"

CULINARY KNOWLEDGE: 2.64 stars, 12th place (2012: 2.72, 7th)

PROSE STYLE: 2.5 stars, 13th place (2012: 2.46, 10th)

INTEGRITY: 2.86 stars, tied at 7th place (2012: 2.70, 5th)

LIKE TO SHARE A MEAL?: 2.44 stars, 10th place (2012: 2.11, 12th)

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