If you don’t like fancy food, don’t eat it

Peter
Peter Jackson
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Some stereotypes die hard, and one of them is that of the food snob who turns up his or her nose at common victuals in favour of pretentious, overpriced fare.

In the past couple of weeks, a couple of culinary iconoclasts have decided they’ve had enough of puffed-up chefs and critics talking down to them.

Among them is St. John’s resident Robert Rowe, who wrote a lengthy screed in The Telegram (“Food and food critics,” March 9) ridiculing the culture of celebrity chefs and their admirers. The letter was actually a clumsily veiled assault on The Telegram’s food critic, Karl Wells, as it cites elements specific to his credentials.

Wells can fight his own battles — if he feels so inclined — but I can’t help wondering what state of mind spurred this reader to attack a harmless phenomenon he has every right to simply ignore.

Rowe begins with a simple premise: a railway cook he recalls from years ago could have cooked circles around our celebrated chefs of today.

It’s true that any experienced cook can produce a succulent meal, and there is no reason not to hail such efforts.

But Rowe seems to suggest our top chefs have nothing on any Tom, Dick or Harriet who happens to be handy in a kitchen.

Really?

Head chefs do more than grill a good pork chop. They explore myriad possibilities beyond the familiar. And the chefs they hire to fill out the roster are instructed how to reproduce the menu as closely as possible.

In the restaurant business, some kitchen staff can and do move quickly up the ranks by virtue of innate talent, rather than any piece of paper they’ve earned.

If Rowe’s railway cook had landed a prominent post in one of today’s downtown establishments, would that make him a target of ridicule?

If you don’t have the palate or pocketbook to partake of pricey restaurants, nothing is forcing you to go. I’m not all that fond of ballet, but I have no inclination to publicly berate dancers and their critics, portraying them as fakes and frauds. What kind of insecure crank would I be to do so?

Rowe tries to erect a wall between elitist foodies and the regular crowd at Ches’s. There is no such wall. Yes, there are a few latent snobs who use food as a tool to feign superiority. But a real foodie loves food — period.

Proper food critics — including The Telegram’s — appreciate all food in its own right. The fish-and-chip shop on the corner earns a stamp of excellence by doing what it does best. Same with the pizza joint. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

There are many misconceptions about the art of criticism. In my career, I’ve been both a critic (music), and a recruiter thereof. Let me dispel one notion right off the bat — that critics must have a professional background in the field. Not true. In fact, this is one of the least important qualifications.

Knowledge and perspective is essential, but critics must also be able to write well and relate to a broad readership. A food critic doesn’t need to be a trained chef any more than a theatre critic has to be a professional actor. Must a business reporter be a CEO? A health reporter, a doctor?

Some feel food critics are bad for business. That’s true if a business is not living up to its claims. In fact, critics are good for business. They help raise the profile of local restaurants and encourage them to strive for excellence.

Most of the backlash critics get is from proprietors who feel no duty to provide a quality product or good customer service. Worse, it comes from people like Rowe who seem bent on tearing a strip off anything that dares to venture beyond good old-fashioned mediocrity.

Rowe ends his piece with some curious innuendo about how a small population with only one critic could lead to favouritism and mutual back-scratching. It’s not clear whose reputation he’s trying to smear. In any event, I say, bring on the other critics!

There are other venues here for food critics, but few seem to hold onto them for long. Given the petty mud-slinging from readers like Rowe, is it any wonder?

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

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  • david
    March 20, 2013 - 17:59

    Food is like anything else in this A.D.D. society....if you can figure out a way to make a buck at it, good on you. Whether it's inventing special pants for doing Yoga in, or touting yourself as a "judge" on a reality show, or you figure out a way to make people pay you to read your blogs....it's all just pop culture mania & minutia BS anyway. So if you can call yourself a chef without any training whatseover, and not get laughed at, so be it....in this world at this time, you're a chef. Pass the ketchup.

  • Grumpy George
    March 20, 2013 - 10:15

    Mr. Rowe did say that this is "his" opinion. Same as Mr. Wells saying that his opinion is that a chef should put a bit of this or a smidgeon of that on his creation. I don't think there is any profession that likes critics of their profession. People outside that profession seem to lap it up. And as for there being no favoritism? Oh come on! Also, critiquing and reporting are two different things, btw. Grumpy George

  • Ken Collis
    March 20, 2013 - 07:30

    I remember an editoral on Munroe's Take Out. Essencially the editor was writing as a food critic. Nothing fancy there. Just good food. I get a feed from Monroe's just about every time I'm in town just because of that article. Does Russell know good inexpensive food? You bet. Maybe Karl can compile a list of the less expensive but high quality eateries for Chinese, Fish & Chips, Jigs Dinner, etc... and let us have at them. I live out of town and don't have a lot of time looking around at mealtime. If he already has such a list please publish it again. I'm not a cook, but I like good food.

  • april
    March 20, 2013 - 06:48

    I love this article. Very well done. I don't get people who think they have the right to everyone's attention. Especially to spread negativity. Its toxic. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago at hundredthousand.blogspot.ca :)

    • donna
      March 21, 2013 - 10:17

      The subject of eating out, service , and tipping, comes up often with me so I was interested in Mr.Rowe's letter, also Mr.Barry's in today's Telegram, and Mr. Jackson's comments. All have vaild points. My own opinion is more along the lines of Mr.Barry and Mr.Rowe, who essentially say that prices are too high, service is deplorable, but the expectation of the tip is a given. Just this past weekend, my family and I visited a "family-style" restaurant in St.John's. There were 6 of us. We were wedged into a booth that is better suited for 4. When the food came, there was scarcely room to lay it down. The food, while plentiful, was mediocre , with the exception of the steak and burger. I tipped small, but felt I should not have at all.