I read a great article today about the history of restaurant reviews and how they have evolved from a journalistic strive for accuracy and integrity to the freestyle world of blogs and yelpers available today. Since starting this blog a couple of months ago, I have published a few restaurant reviews and believe it might be helpful to my readers to state my approach to restaurant reviews as well as my perspective and standards.
Three of the main standards of traditional restaurant reviews are anonymity including paying for meals, repeat visits covering the full spectrum of the menu, and giving a new restaurant a couple of months after opening to work on kinks in the system before reviewing. With the explosion of food blogs as well as websites like Yelp and Chowhounds, reviews are just as likely now to be posted on the web by smart phones before the check has come. This blog is my opinion, like any review, traditional or otherwise. My purpose in reviewing restaurants here is to share my views in a manner that is as fair and unbiased as possible while still taking advantage of the wonderful world of technology available to us now.
My story as a foodie began with a mother, Vera, that worked full time as a teacher of both preschool kids and piano as well as the pianist for our church. Her mother was an excellent cook but my mom had a pretty full schedule with work and three children including my oldest brother Charles who has special needs. Our family meals consisted of lots of Hamburger Helper and casseroles involving Campbells soup. I admit to occasional indulgences of pork chops baked on a bed of rice and mushroom soup which I affectionately refer to as Redneck Risotto when I am craving the comfort food of my childhood. But I also remember thinking one of the steps to making toast was scraping off the black bits with the back of a spoon.
My grandmother, Thelma but known to her grandkids as MeeMaw, in contrast was a much more passionate cook. I remember fondly waking up to the smell of bacon and coffee when we visited. There was usually bacon AND sausage for breakfast as well as homemade biscuits, eggs, toast, cereal- hot and cold, milk, juice, and gravy to pour over it all. OK, maybe not the cereal but definitely over the biscuits. I consider my mastery of the art of gravy taught to me by my grandmother as one of my first culinary stepping stones.
My passion is pastry. Christmas in Graham, TX at Meemaw’s house was a grand affair with all the usual turkey and cornbread stuffing. But what I loved most was the wide assortment of pies, cakes, cookies, and candies that she had spent days lovingly creating for her family. I refined my love of desserts in the mid 1990’s with my bff Ethan and his Tuesday night dinner parties, as described in my “About” post. The short version is that I spent almost two years providing the dessert course to my friend’s hedonistic shindigs serving anywhere from 4 to 40. I am proud to say that I never repeated a dessert. The challenge to my creativity along with the gratification of hearing my friends make erotic noises while eating my Almond Truffle Squares and Toffee Banana Spring Rolls with Mango Chutney inspired me to attend the Le Cordon Bleu school here in Austin, which I graduated from summa cum laude in 2006.
I worked as pastry chef at several local restaurants but my most diverse and exciting experience has been as a volunteer at the Central Market Cooking School. I promise to do a full post on this subject but suffice it to say it has allowed me to work with such culinary luminaries as Martin Yan, Damian Mandola, Nick Malgieri, and David Lebovitz as well as develop new skills under the guidance of the STELLAR staff of the school. I have also met and worked with a number of local chefs. This leads me to my first controversy with traditional reviews.
I cannot promise nor do I seek complete anonymity. My relationship with chefs as well as others involved in the Austin food scene reinforce my experience and understanding of the pulse of the constantly evolving world of the foodies. But I also do not want to be some media whore that reviews for comps or criticizes without a fair and balanced review.
Like most people, I eat my share of fast food and consider a fine meal at an upscale restaurant to be a treat. I look for other opinions about an expensive restaurant before I make an investment of my time and limited restaurant budget, so the purpose of my reviews is to share my experience with other foodies who, like myself, love nothing better than discovering a new favorite chef. But I also love small mom and pop places, Austin’s wide variety of ethnic restaurants, as well as the bursting trailer food scene. I prefer locally owned restaurants that use locally sourced ingredients but I also will let you know about great specials at some chains.
There is no food budget to allow a full tasting of a menu shared with several other diners all paid for by an expense account. I pay for my own meals and try to do so as economically as possible. Happy hours, dinners with fellow foodies, and volunteering at festivals such as La Dolce Vita and the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival are a huge part of my experience with many local restaurants.
Making a living working in a restaurant is an entirely different experience to dining in one. You understand the chaos of opening weeks, integrating new staff, and compensating for the volatility of a profession that demands both creativity and viciously stringent work ethics. I find the world behind the kitchen doors equally if not more fascinating than the dining itself. Viewing a restaurant from only one side of the doors does a disservice to both the restaurant and the reader. If I have the opportunity to share this insider view, I will.
If a restaurant is reviewed within the first few weeks, it is only fair to follow up after the three month mark. If food is comped, I’ll tell you. If I know a chef which might influence the level of service I receive, I’ll make that clear. If I do not like a restaurant, I will return for a separate visit before I publish anything negative. I will strive to bring you the opinion of an experienced but economically limited palate that seeks the new and exciting. Whether you agree or disagree, I promise a stimulating culinary journey.