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

Peter Jackson pjackson@thetelegram.com
Published on March 20, 2013

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.