Five Commandments of Food Writing

Categories: Five Great...
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Flickr user 11629603@N04
It's 2012, people; the number of people writing about food is still growing, and the signal-to-noise ratio is getting worse and worse. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but not all of those opinions are worth reading. It's not just bad writing, unedited regurgitation of badly written press releases, or an inconsistent publication schedule, though: many people simply don't know the basics of writing about food, whether for a blog or for a professional publication.

5. Thou shalt make judgments.
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Flickr user 60588258@N00

It's unbelievable how many food blogs out there are simply long strings of photos of food strung together with two-sentence descriptions of the food. Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times calls these "caption blogs," which is an apt description. Make judgments about the food; talk about what didn't work in quantifiable, visible terms. If the steak fries were underdone, say so; don't just say you didn't like the fries. Conversely, don't get carried away: very, very few restaurants are 100 percent great or 100 percent awful.

4. Thou shalt know thy stuff.

Of course, making judgments is predicated on knowing the food. That doesn't mean food writers have to be experts in every single thing, but research is a must, and an open mind is too. It's excruciating to read reviews of an ethnic restaurant that were written by someone who thinks foreign food is scary. Don't laugh--hatchet-job reviews are written every day of authentic Mexican restaurants for not having beans and rice on every plate, and of authentic Chinese restaurants for not having General Tso's chicken or beef and broccoli.

3. Thou shalt not make special orders or off-menu creations.

Readers of your restaurant reviews want to know what to expect when they go into the restaurant. If you're continually tweaking your order--no tomatoes, please no chicken, can you substitute double beans instead of rice--then you're not reviewing the chef's skill; you're reviewing the kitchen's ability to cook a dish you designed. If a restaurant's menu changes daily, visit a few times, talk about specific dishes, but talk in general terms about the kitchen's ability to design and create their offerings.


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16 comments
wallbangr
wallbangr

This is really a criticism of food-blogging-lite (AKA,food-blogging-for-wannabes) such as the much maligned Yelp reviews, but spareme the 2 stars because parking was a hassle, you had to wait for a table or the hostess had a nose ring. Of courseI appreciate knowing about ambiance, when a likely dinner rush is good reason for a reservation or details like parking. But ultimately,I'm there to eat.  Therefore, I am mostly concerned with how the food is. Many food blogs run into the same problem (the food captioning) with lack of actual food descriptions.  Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but it does little to convey actual taste.  Yelp still hasits uses (mostly as a quick go-to iPhone app when I'm in a new place and wantto find something approaching consensus-good), but you just have to take itwith a grain of salt. 1500 raving reviews of a place that 20 somethings frothat the mouth over because they meet their pals there every Friday night forbeers doesn't necessarily a good restaurant make.  It's kind of like the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives phenomenon.  Marginally decent greasy spoon goes viral in popularity and Yelp reviews by Dude-Bro-types everywhere, resulting in lines and crowds no self-respecting diner should ever have to endure.  Which is not a bad thing, since you aren't actually missing out on a great dining experience at any of them.

agliopiccante
agliopiccante

New commandment: don't use the word "authentic". It's a relative term.

qdpsteve
qdpsteve

Not bad. Here's what I would add:

- Don't be a snob. Even if McDonald's comes out with something new and interesting, be willing to review it in an open-minded and honest fashion. Don't "diss" a meal just because of where it came from.

- On top of the reviews of new cuisines and daring food combinations, be willing to occasionally review even some of the most well-known (or even mundane) entrees. Whose 'deluxe' burger is better: Five Guys or In-N-Out's? Whose chili fries are better, Del Taco's or Carl's? Sure, some folks are married to some certain items at certain places no matter what, and go ahead and tell us if the hole-in-the-wall in Costa Mesa has better stuff... but it's frustrating IMHO that nobody outside of Consumer Reports ever seems willing anymore to actually review everyday fast food.

- It doesn't have to be expensive or exclusive to be great. Too many restaurant reviewers IMHO are all too happy to check out the new high-ticket French or Persian place... but are deathly afraid of losing all their street cred if their friends catch them anywhere near the new chili-dog joint at the mall. Also, be willing to admit it if Hot Dog On A Stick happens to serve a better-tasting falafel dish than the Indian-influenced pub/club at South Coast Plaza with the snotty bouncer.

909Jeff
909Jeff

can we add... Thou shalt not be cliche? 

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Can I use it if I translate it and put it in snobby italics? ("As I finished the pâté de snail gras, I smiled with the knowledge that finally, here in Aliso Viejo, is the authentique French restaurant I've been looking for.")

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Are you from OC? Because we really don't have very many big-ticket restaurants here, and we're just as likely to pan an expensive place (ahem, Javier's) as to fawn over one.

Orange County has its own fast food restaurant blog, over at our competition. It's called the Fast Food Maven. Mostly openings and closings (and good, but occasional, guest writing about wine and beer), but sometimes we get to see what Nancy thinks of the food she's writing about. Her quote about the Carl's Jr. burger is STILL printed on the drink cups there, about a million years after she wrote it.

As for us, we've done all sorts of reviews of fast food. That's why we have the Chain Reactions column in this very blog. And I'll freely admit to liking McDonald's fries better than, well, 98 percent of the fries in Orange County. And of course it doesn't have to be expensive to be great; that's why Gustavo writes This Hole-In-the-Wall Life every week.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

"The meat was succulent and the sauce was unctuous. The dish as a whole had a nice mouthfeel."

qdpsteve
qdpsteve

Dave: I wasn't criticizing OCWeekly or its food writers in particular. The stuff I mentioned relates to my overall impressions of a lot of food review sites.

Will definitely check out Fast Food Maven, thanks for the link. IMHO more effort should be going into reviewing fast food-- not just by OCW, but by everybody. NOT because I have an ulterior motive (thank you very much algiopiccante), but because let's face it: fast food has become such a large staple of (too?) many Americans' diets. Besides educating the consumer about quality, a la the recent "pink slime" exposes-- which has its own personal rewards-- it's nice to know what's easy to get that's also easy on the calories, fat and cholesterol.

Claudia Koerner
Claudia Koerner

 If I ever use "mouthfeel" in a sentence, please shoot me.

qdpsteve
qdpsteve

Dave: some fast food is "easy", some of it isn't. ;-)

Also just FYI: your Fast Food Maven link above is dead.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Wait, what? Since when is fast food easy on any of those things? Carl's Jr. has made their bones lately on the whole "men don't cook, they eat disgusting 1500-calorie burgers" thing; KFC had the whole Double Down thing.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

You're a better writer than that... also, you never call things "nice".

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