Inside the Turbulent Life of a Famous Restaurant Critic
Attempted bribery, chefs with anger management issues, and difficulty staying anonymous.
Illustration by Manuel de Jong
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Netherlands.
Earlier this month, Mac van Dinther celebrated his 20-year anniversary as a critic. He's been around the restaurant industry for such a long time that he's not only the most experienced and well-known food critic in the Netherlands—he's also the most feared. Every week for the past two decades, he's traveled around the country looking for innovative dishes, surprising ingredients, and unique dining experiences. After he eats, he writes, and then he shares his honest observations with the readers of Dutch national newspaper de Volkskrant.
Getting paid to go out to dinner sounds like a dream job, but there's a lot more to it than you might expect while reading van Dinther's colorful reviews in the paper's weekly magazine. MUNCHIES talked to him about chefs with anger management issues, all the ways people have attempted to bribe him to write favorable reviews of their restaurant, and his tricks when it comes to staying anonymous.
MUNCHIES: How did you become a restaurant critic?
Mac van Dinther: Twenty-five years ago, I started out at the paper writing about socio-economic issues, covering topics like the job market and [the Dutch disability coverage law] WAO. Whenever I had some free time, I could do whatever I wanted. I would take a discarded invitation for a wine tasting or a restaurant opening out of the trash can—nobody ever went to those—and then write a short piece about the event. At first my colleagues looked at me funny; at the time, there were were very few stories about food in the media. Ultimately, both the staff at de Volkskrant and the public became more interested in restaurant reviews. More and more often, the invitations were passed onto me, and eventually I was able to turn it into my career.
Last week, you celebrated your 20-year anniversary as a restaurant critic. Did you expect to stick around this long?
I intended to. From the start, I told my Editor-in-Chief that not only would I be the thinnest restaurant critic, but also the one who sticks around the longest. The latter actually worked out, but I'm not so sure about the former.
Do you think you're also the most feared critic?
You're better off asking a chef. Look, a restaurant in (the city of) Arnhem is probably more worried about a review from (local newspaper) de Gelderlander, while a restaurant who serves people who read de Volkskrant is maybe more afraid of me. And a restaurant of the (Dutch hotel and restaurant chain) Van der Valk doesn't care at all, I think.
Your face is relatively unknown to the public. How have you managed to keep it that way all these years?
I try hard to stay anonymous, and I never have my picture taken like the other critics do. I also don't go to many events, although some chefs may have seen me at the Michelin guide presentation a few times. But still, I fly under the radar and never share my name.
How do you make sure you aren't recognized when you visit a restaurant?
I'll make a reservation under a false name, take someone out to dinner with me, and try to be as unobtrusive as I can, but that's about it. I put my notepad next to my plate. When waiters ask me what I'm writing about, I answer, "I always write down everything I eat." And of course, literally speaking, that's true. When they keep asking, I tell them it's none of their business. Sometimes they get mad because they think I'm trying to steal their recipes.
Have you ever disguised yourself?
No. I don't work for the secret service; I'm a restaurant critic. I refuse to disguise myself.
"If I know for a fact that I've been recognized by the staff, it has an effect on my rating. My expectations will be slightly higher."
Some critics lie about their work when they meet new people. What do you say?
I say that I'm a journalist, and if they continue to ask, I tell them I'm a critic for de Volkskrant. Sometimes, their response will be "Ooh, you're the Mac van Dinther," so that means they know my reviews. But it's not a secret by any means; my friends and family know what I do.
Do people ever recognize you while you're working?
Absolutely. One time, I was greeted at a restaurant with "Hello Mr. van Dinther, under what name have you made a reservation this evening?" That's probably the best way I've been welcomed. Of course I prefer to be anonymous because I want to experience the restaurant the way other guests do. I don't want any special treatment. If I know for a fact that I've been recognized by the staff, it has an effect on my rating. My expectations will be slightly higher.
How much effort do restaurants put into learning the faces of restaurant critics?
I've heard that big restaurants keep pictures of well-known critics in their kitchens. But if you ask me, that's something that mostly happens abroad. I don't really hear much about that.
How do restaurants go the extra mile to make sure you're happy?
Usually they give me extra wine or constantly refill my glass with very expensive wines I haven't asked for. One time, I was served some wine and I immediately realized it was extraordinary. I looked at the wine list later and realized the bottle cost €150. A bottle like that would normally not be included in the wine pairings. These tricks are so transparent that you notice immediately.
I've also encountered a chef who insisted on taking all of the drinks off the final bill, which was ludicrous. I said, "Listen, the paper pays for all of this. I don't foot the bill myself." But he insisted on taking the items off. So, what am I supposed to do? It's not like I will insist on paying by putting a knife to his throat.
"Once, a chef wrote an angry letter to the newspaper's Editor-in-Chief after an unfavorable review, and pretty much demanded my immediate termination."
What was the most memorable response you've received after a review?
I don't really get many responses—sometimes a nice e-mail after I write a positive review. But once, a chef wrote an angry letter to the paper's Editor-in-Chief after an unfavorable review, and pretty much demanded my immediate termination. His argument was along the lines of, "Who does this reviewer think he is? He doesn't know what he's talking about." I sent him a friendly reply, saying, "Listen, I've been doing this job for twenty years; I'm pretty sure I know what I'm talking about. Instead of trying to resist [me] by sending angry letters, put that energy towards improving your restaurants. You guests will actually benefit from that."
What lessons have you learned in the past twenty years?
The more I know about food and cooking, the more nuanced I get. I've been a bit more harsh and definitive [in my judgements] in the past. Now I often think: Who am I to say things this way?
Do you ever go out to dinner for fun?
Yes, I do. Sometimes it gets a bit weird. For instance, my wife and I once had plans to go to a friend's restaurant. Because the place was fully booked, he got us a table at a different restaurant. He explicitly told them that I wasn't there to review anything, but when we got there the staff was very nervous—glasses were filled to the brim and they talked our ears off and were jittery all around. Which wasn't fun, of course.
Do you have any advice for aspiring critics?
No. You have to experience it for yourself. That's the best way to learn.