Restaurant Critics Are Terrible Dinner Dates
We ask one of Canada's most revered restaurant critics what he does on his day off, and whether eating out as a profession has ruined his social life.
Photo via Flickr user Jean-Christophe Jacques
The old-school, anonymous restaurant critic is going the way of the dodo as crowdsourced review sites are becoming the authority in telling people where to eat. Nevertheless, the name Chris Nuttall-Smith still sends chills (or rage, depending on whom you ask) down the spines of many Canadian chefs as his weekly restaurant reviews in Canada's national newspaper The Globe and Mail can launch unknown places into buzzworthy names. The latter is best exemplified by his November review of America restaurant in downtown Toronto's Trump Tower, which is considered to be like the Canadian version of Pete Wells' now-legendary takedown of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar.
But what does a man whose job it is to eat out do on his day off? I spoke with the critic about where he goes (or doesn't go) on his off-days, what he cooks at home, and what you should do when a food writer comes over for dinner.
MUNCHIES: On a typical week, how often are you eating out for work? Chris Nuttall-Smith: Anywhere between three and ten restaurants, three nights a week on average. But that can get ramped up if I'm working on something like a dessert story where you go to six dessert places in a week, and then a few savoury places since you're in a neighbourhood.
Do you ever check out a new place for fun? I really try to separate work-eating from leisure-eating but the test is if I'm spending my own money, when I want it to be fun, tasty, and not loaded with stress. Going into a restaurant as a critic is always stressful. You worry that they'll know who you are, you're under the pressure to eat as much and as widely as possible, and remember everything you eat. When I'm working, I don't pay attention to the people I'm with. I actually tell them beforehand, "I'm not here to see you. I'm be happy to see you, but to be honest, I'm probably going to ignore you." I even tell people not to talk to me too much because I have a lot of thinking to do.
This is the part of me that's so Canadian and uptight, but I'm always worried about whether I'm ruining their night by being at the restaurant.
Do you still find eating out a fun experience? I've been a critic for nine years, so if I didn't get any pleasure out of it, believe me I would have gotten out a long time ago. I've got nothing to complain about, but it gets tiring: you eat too much, you go to bed on a full stomach or get sick. The great part is when you go to a spot that's really exciting and doing something great, you feel like you can champion a place. When you go to mediocre restaurants day after day—and the reality is that most restaurants are mediocre—it gets frustrating, but it definitely evens out. My bottom line criteria when it comes to giving a restaurant one star or no stars is whether I'd send friends there or spend my own money—since I'm spending company money.
You've been sent to places like Hong Kong, Tokyo, and to a lesser extent, the Toronto suburbs like Scarborough. Does it feel like a mini-vacation when you're working outside the city in places where you're a complete stranger? It does. There are some critics who don't get fussed when they're recognized. Jonathan Gold in LA has been doing it long enough that people know who he is. I don't have that kind of fortitude. I'm always self-conscious about it and aware if people are treating me differently. This is the part of me that's so Canadian and uptight, but I'm always worried about whether I'm ruining their night by being at the restaurant.
So what do you do on your day off? Some critics—like Ruth Reichl—would make it a point to go out on Saturdays because she wanted to know what restaurants are like at their busiest. I'm not quite that dedicated in going out on the weekends. I have no interest in tying up five Sunday mornings eating shitty, overpriced eggs just so I can say that the eggs are shitty and overpriced. I'm recovering from overeating and getting my act back together.
Has eating out changed the way you cook at home? I make a lot of soup. I make huge batches of pressure-cooker stock. At the restaurants that I'm covering, dinner is 90 percent protein: meat, fish, cheese, dairy products, maybe tofu. Vegetables are, unfortunately, still background noise in a lot of places. God, I wish that would change.
Have you ever mixed your false identity with your real identity? When I go out to restaurants for leisure, there's exactly one restaurant in the city where I'll book under my own name. I won't say which restaurant it is, but if I book under a fake name and showed up, they'll be like, "Chris, what the fuck are you doing?" and it would completely freak them out. I've known these people since I first started writing about food ten years ago. There's no fooling them.
Does it get lonely? A lot of social events revolve around bars and restaurants. Bars I have no problem with. There are a few here that know who I am and couldn't care less. The effect it has on your social life is that people don't generally ask me to go out because I'll ask them out. But people don't generally ask me to do stuff, and when they do it gets hard explaining why I keep saying no.
What happens when you are invited over to friend's house for dinner? I'm so grateful when I'm going to someone's house for dinner and they just make their own food and don't make a fuss. It's so nice to sit around, hang out, and have the evening be more about the great company rather than food. I think most people are nervous about inviting a restaurant critic or food writer over to their house. I have this core group of friends who invite each other over, but for the most part people don't invite me.
If there were one thing you could change as being an anonymous restaurant critic, what would it be? I do 100 percent of my interviews over the telephone. The thing you miss is going out and meeting people. There are chefs and restaurateurs that I really respect. Honestly, I'd love to have a glass of wine with some of them and just talk about what they do and get to know them on a level that I'm not allowed to right now. That's always something you fantasize about.
Thanks for speaking with me, Chris.