At a recent family cookout, my Uncle Hugh asked how work in the kitchen was going. "It's hard—exhausting, really," I said. "I have a new understanding for what goes in to feeding a bunch of demanding diners."
"Well, maybe you owe some of those restaurants you reviewed an apology," he teased. Uncle Hugh loved yanking my chain, but weeks later, I was still thinking about what he said.
From the other side of the counter, I can certainly see how a critic would drive a cook crazy. Myself, I wasn't the kind of reviewer who relished sticking a fork in a place. I tried my best to be tough, but fair as a consumer watchdog.
When I had to write something critical, I agonized about it. I'd get the sticky ones in before deadline and then consult with my impeccable editor. He never shied from a pointed write-up of a disappointing experience, an evaluation based on three anonymous visits.
After these difficult reviews appeared, I steeled myself for the backlash. Last summer, I gave two and a half stars to the food a landmark four-star destination dining venue. I spent more than $1,500 over the course of three meals, each of which lasted nine courses and five hours. I admired and respected the effort of the earnest staff, but the pretty bites on the plates did not live up to the heightened expectations. Seasonings were off, or missing.
I was sure I would be skewered in the often-caustic comments that appeared as a post-script to the reviews. Instead, many readers wrote, "Right on!"
As an aspiring cook, I've so far only worked with chefs and cooks who I've written about in a positive light. Would a kitchen on the receiving end of a slam be as willing to let me stage?
Maybe. When I was at a wine-tasting at a restaurant I had panned, the chef was chilly when we chatted but thawed a bit when I told him about my journey from the pen to the pan. "You should work at a four-star hotel," he said.
"Are you offering me a job?" I asked. We'll see if that pans out.
I have no doubt working in the kitchen would make me a better critic. Not sure I'll get the chance to prove it, though. Of course, I have applied for Frank Bruni's job. Why not? I can just picture my resume on the Mt. Everest-size pile of applications.
It's got to be the only one that includes time spent in eight restaurant kitchens.
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been working in kitchens around the city for the past several months. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com.