Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trust Issues


I’m definitely a fan of well thought-out and well executed restaurant criticism.  To me, it doesn’t have to grab every indefinable word for every dinner experience and it definitely does not need to be verbose.  Sometimes the best criticism has been written in a very elegant storyboard form that is more experience driven than technical.  And great critical writing, when fairly and thoughtfully leveled (even at myself), should be appreciated.  Poor critical writing and utter nonsense is however cancerous and spreading. 

I have no interest in restaurant critique, but I can be absolutely ruthless at times when it comes to a bad or lukewarm experience.  I’m not going to name names publicly (outside of hushed conversations amongst friends) because in this industry, that’s disrespectful and professional suicide.  More importantly, I don’t like to talk about bad restaurant experiences.  A poor dining experience from a cook’s perspective is typically one that is met with empathy and not immediate hatred.  Sometimes I find myself making more excuses for the food and service than most people – I tend to think that people working in hospitality are always more understanding of the struggles of their peers.  So, if a restaurant ever manages to piss me off completely, it’s going to end up being something that is monumentally egregious.  On a side note, I will only ever mention a restaurant’s name (via twitter and whatnot) to thank them for an unbelievable meal.

Much like anyone else, I have high expectations when a place is recommended and when those expectations are not met, a strong empty feeling of disappointment washes over me.  This happened with Xiao Long Bao the other day.  Some affectionately call it XLB for short and many know them classically as Shanghai Soup Dumplings.  I made the offhand comment to a friend and trusted food confidant about this disappointment and he then began rattling off a bunch of other names and places that he preferred.     2012-09-14 13.37.44

I also made a comment on twitter about how hyped or highly recommended xlb’s always seem to end up in disappointment – more likely than most enthusiast dishes recommended for some reason.  To this my friend asked, “well, what is it you’re looking for that ended up wrong?”  This is the the quintessential question that often gets ignored when we pass opinions or ask for recommendations.  I notice that I (and many others) don’t seem to take the time out to justify or technically explain a recommendation based on our own specific preferences. 

I understand that sometimes we don’t ask for specifics because it ends up being too long winded of a conversation.  Also, if you’ve established a brand of “food or recommendation trust” with someone, you typically don’t need to ask endless questions as to why they like a place.  This is where ignorance serves up both hell and heaven.  To care and know food as a cook, professional or even the savvy culinary enthusiast (not using the F word) – you understand basic truths, preferences, ingredients and flavors better than those who are not.  This is not an elitist statement and it is not a secret club; all I am saying is that if you are surrounded by the experience and enthusiasm of a subject matter, you are more prone to be capable of judging the experience in an authoritative way.  In other words, I may like the work of a certain guitarist named Joe Blow from a fan perspective, but if Jimmy Page tells me that Joe Blow is the best guitarist alive, he probably might have a little more insight on that reasoning than I would.

Where does that leave us?  I take blind recommendations from my cooking friends and only them.  I listen to everyone else, but we really need to be on a similar wavelength with some built past history for me to blindly go to a place without any research.  I do listen, write-down and acknowledge all recommendations/reviews, but research typically means a good deciphering of the menu, circumstance and mood I’m in.  If you don’t know yet, I obsess about all aspects of food and restaurants ceaselessly (gross understatement).  Some wonderful examples of “recommendation trust” at their pinnacle can be taken from my time in New York.  Bien Cuit and Gwynnett Street were separate recommendations from friends who cook in the city.  Both of which, I went to blindly; both of which, I continue to miss and mumble under my breath when someone one reminds me eating in Brooklyn.  The mumble is pretty quiet and you can make out the words “olive loaf” and “whiskey bread” when my eyes roll back.

I can’t help but think that the one misplaced aspect of this whole situation is continually disputed and redefined role of the actual professional critic.  It’s a tough, sometimes unenviable job, having to navigate the definition and redefinition of a position constantly evolving with the introduction of the tidal waves and poopshoots of new media outlets and voices.  I’ve heard many years ago that the role of the critic should serve as an ultimate resource – that people have personal favorites with which they feel the tingly warmth of “recommendation trust.”  But over the last few years, I have heard otherwise from critics themselves – that they are not always the ones that people should establish bonds with – they are meant to simply analyze – possibly aiming to extricate themselves from the emotional end of the writing.  (For the sake of appearing impartial?)  I have also heard that the writing itself is at times more important and necessary than subject written about.  The most frustrating byproduct of all this is the ambiguous review: a thousands of words of no conviction that result in a indecisive wink or cop-out nod for me to “see for myself.”  While that may be the most sensible course of action (and fine by me), it certainly doesn’t build momentum and trust between a dining reader and the critic.  So where does the reader go from there?  (Yes, the cliff dive answer is the Yelp community.)           

So after the poor XLB incident, I thought about how I could have circumvented the situation or possibly help others circumvent the situation.  And, so I came up with some sort of idea to technically profile some of the foods I enjoy and possibly identify some of the my specific preferences for them.  This idea comes in part from deciphering lines and lines of Japan’s Supleks ramen database where some people just go for broke with the analysis and over analysis of the minutia of ramen.  You can’t discover perfection unless you understand the details that make something perfect [to you anyways].  I figure this will give me some sort of direction for the next entry at least – seeing as to how my attention recently has been focused on slightly more serious projects for Dux.  More soon.