Accosting the Critic 101

So we’re at a restaurant for lunch yesterday.

It wasn’t a location of our choosing, but at the behest of a regular lunchtime companion.

The name of the place isn’t important, but let’s just say we spent plenty of time and typing last year telling people how mediocre (or worse) it is.

We did not, however, ever call it “The Worst Restaurant In Town.” (The importance of this will be made clear below.)

Ever the open-minded fellow, ELV thought perhaps things might have improved in the kitchen. And by “improved in the kitchen,” ELV means some of the recipes might no longer be gawd-awful.

On the way in, we casually mentioned to our companion: “This might not be such a good idea. I’ve slammed this place in the past and these big-money, “concept” restaurants hate hearing that the emperor has no clothes.”

“It’s Tuesday,” he responded, “maybe the B Team won’t recognize you.”

Perhaps he’s right, we thought to ourselves, and by the time we ordered a number of apps and three main courses, it hardly seemed to matter.

About that time, a¬† maitre ‘d who had recognized us stopped by the table and was friendly and cordial.

Then the food arrived: some crispy cauliflower that disappeared¬† quickly, a tangy octopus salad that won raves from 2 of the 3 at the table (by this time, our companion’s wife had joined – and she let it be known that she’ll start liking octopi when ELV starts ordering beet milkshakes), some so-so shrimp and something called “burnt peas” that were even less appetizing than their name.

No matter, since the conversation was lively and the sandwiches (an under-seasoned burger and an odd, unappealing hangar steak) seemed beside the point and that point.

No more than a few bites and minutes into this repast, we looked up and a fellow wearing monogrammed chef whites was standing at the table. The conversation went something like this:

“Hello Mr. Curtas.”

“Hello, we smiled, “how are you?”

“Fine, I was wondering why you came in since you have been so critical of my restaurant in the past?” (This was said calmly and politely, with even a slight smile on his face).

We responded in kind, saying: “I came here with an open mind, hoping things might have improved.”(At this point we were smiling and still considering it a cordial, if slightly awkward exchange.)

Not satisfied with our answer, he then became visibly agitated, raised his voice and demanded:

“If you don’t like my food why are you here?” (To his credit, he didn’t pull a Full Andre, so we were, even at this juncture, slightly impressed with his forbearance.)

This not being ELV’s first rodeo, we tried to remain polite and said: “Look (pointing to our food), we just got served. If you want to discuss this, why don’t we do it outside after I’m finished?”

Still not content, he then pretty much shouted: “You’ve written three fucking articles calling this the worst restaurant in town, so I want to know if you came in just to slam me again?” (To be clear, we didn’t call the restaurant the worst in town, but did single out one particular dish as our most atrocious of 2013.)

By now, we were no longer caught off guard, and could see future embarrassment for all concerned (including three innocent gals at an adjoining table) if he continued.

“Look,” we said with eyes narrowing, in our best annoyed-yet-menacing timbre, “if you want to take this outside, I’ll talk to you after I finish eating.”

With that he left.

At the conclusion of our meal, we sought out the manager who had spotted us in the first place and said: “Tell your chef he’s a dick….and his food isn’t worth reviewing.”

The point of all of this isn’t to single out the chef or the restaurant, but to point out there’s a right way and a wrong way to accost a critic. If he’s back after panning the place, perhaps he or she is trying to see if things have changed. If things have, the critic is there to make amends. If they haven’t, he or she will probably just let their prior opinions stand. (Repeatedly slamming a place is tiresome for all concerned.)

Regardless of the critic’s motives, the staff has two options: deny the critic service (aka the Full Andre), or ask to speak with him (out of the presence of other diners) after he’s finished. Then, behind closed doors or on the sidewalk, anything short of fisticuffs is okay. Any critic who can’t take an irate chef or owner screaming at him ought to find another line of work.

The better approach is what we call the Complete Kalt — named after Stephen Kalt, the original chef at Corsa Cucina in the Wynn when it opened in 2005. ELV reviewed the restaurant shortly after it opened and shortly after a trip to Italy. Needless to say, he wasn’t kind. Falling victim to the young critic’s syndrome of “I just got back from (Italy, France, Mozambique, wherever) and the food is so much better over there, blah blah blah,” we pretty much slammed the joint for its in-authenticity.

But do you know what Kalt did? He called us up and took us to lunch. We discussed the review, his career, our mutual likes and dislikes, food philosophies, the whole nine yards over a couple of tasty steaks at Capital Grille. We didn’t back away from our review and he didn’t back away from thinking we were full of shit, but by the time he left the Wynn a couple of years later, Corsa Cucina was one of our favorite restaurants in town.

Message to chefs: Grow up. Talk it out. You both might learn something.

9 thoughts on “Accosting the Critic 101

  1. LOL.

    I’ve always wondered why you have your photo, full name, and OCCUPATION plastered over your blog? It makes me cringe.

    Never underestimate the power of anonymity. It also makes for a more authentic dining experience.

    Sorry about the chef being a jerk. I work in the industry too and, by far, the cooks are the hardest people to work with. Such low class to have this conversation in front of the rest of your party. Your dining companions could’ve loved this place (for whatever reason) and been faithful regulars and you have been dragged along for the ride.


  2. ELV responds: As much as we appreciate what an unknown critic can accomplish, our anonymity flew out the window ten years ago (after nine years on KNPR), and at this point, we just calls ’em as we sees ’em….and rarely comment on service as a result.

    We appreciate your observations, Kathy, and think anyone who has pretensions of grandeur in the food world (critics included) needs to develop a thick skin….and a sense of humor.

  3. No surprise that Echo & Rig disappointed yet again. Is anything in Tivoli Village truly worth visiting?

  4. This is a situation where my new favorite word, (a mismatch of terms used by Uncle Si and a bodily function), are an appropriate description of the person who made a fool of themselves when they set on you–

  5. I would have become annoyed, too, especially once he started with the raised voice and f-bombs. Decades ago, as an undergraduate, I got ripped pretty good in a column by the sports editor of our school newspaper. I was pissed and wanted to seek him out. A very wise coach told me to grow up, saying that I shouldn’t worry if he was writing good things or bad things about me. It was when he *stopped* writing about me that I should worry. Someone should tell Chef Stickuphisass this.

    Keep on keeping on, JC!

  6. funny coincidence, I was a sports editor and ripped a team pretty good and the team attacked me one night at a bar. My next article was even tougher.
    I think you keep going to the restaurant and keep writing about the encounters without ever mentioning the food. That’ll hurt. Maybe tell them to “Say hi to the chef!”

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