As writers, we draw on our personal experiences, darkest nightmares, most curious thoughts and deepest passions to write meaningful stories. What secret desires do I tantalize my readers with? Tiramisu, roasted red pepper and sesame sauce, creamy gorgonzola dressings and pheasant stuffed with cherries and cream cheese.
I write a weekly restaurant review column.
If your search for the perfect meal interferes with your work, it's time to change jobs. As a restaurant reviewer you'll be paid to search for the perfect pan-seared scallops, crackling duck confit, bread pudding.
Restaurant reviewers are a combination of consumer advocate, culinary educator and entertainer. The market for food critics is opening wider with the proliferation of foodie magazines, newsletters and websites. The good news continues: non-food related magazines also need food critics. Newspapers and tourist-destination websites crave talented food writers.
Writers living in major cities around the world can place reviews in national and international magazines and websites. The rest of us need local markets for our reviews.
Contact the managing or features editor at the newspaper. If there is already a food critic, keep in mind that these critics tend to do three things - leave after 12 months, move up to a higher paying market and job, or stay forever. It will never hurt you to make the contact and express your interest. Write to website administrators and pitch the idea of a food critic's regular column. Send your article ideas of reviewing an historic inn or summertime seashore meals to a local or regional magazine.
Qualifications for restaurant reviewing varies from publication to publication; however, when researching my book on food writing, I spoke with editors who stated that writing skills are primary, food experience is secondary. The prevailing wisdom is that writers who love food will be able to learn about and follow food trends, but professional chefs or gourmet cooks cannot always communicate that talent through the written word. The higher paying the job, i.e., the bigger the market, the more you, as a writer, will need specific food writing experience.
For example, a freelance writer who dreams not of jelly donuts, but of grilling cherrystone clams and dipping them in a cilantro butter sauce, followed by a glass of Louis Jadot Pouilly Fuisse 1994, can start locally by researching articles on local food trends. Story ideas include reporting on the local farmer's market, a new chef, the history of your favorite dish or a local tradition, reporting on the nearest cluster of vineyards, seasonal dining or the food at the state fair.
Contact the local daily or weekly newspapers. Don't forget the alternative weeklies that tend to list what's happening in town. Once you've sold them that story on the dusty wine store at the corner of Sixth and Mulberry, they may be ready for your pitch for a weekly or monthly round-up of local restaurants.
Congratulations! You've built up your writing clips, your food writing samples and you've been given a green light by the Tourist Association to write restaurant reviews for their website. Now what?
Listen to their needs. If your new employer gives you specific directions - 500 words, focus on food and list prices of everything you eat - do it. In a near-perfect world your editor will know your audience-to-be and what they are looking for. While reviewers are often compelled to proffer negative reviews, at least start with a positive review. Ask around or follow your editor's leads.
Come prepared to your first dinner. Bring a small notepad, pens, micro-cassette recorder - whatever you need to record your meal. Don't assume you can memorize everything the first time; leave that for a future goal. Keep the pad and pen on your lap, covered with your napkin for surreptitious note-taking. Do not introduce yourself to anyone. Take at least one trip to the restroom (a safe place to quickly write notes) to capture your impressions while you are still in the restaurant. If at all possible swipe a copy of the menu. Don't be shy; use your guests to help you grill the waiters, chef and owners.
Study the menu. Do the appetizers fall in the category of bar food or will they whet the appetite? Ask about drink specials and the chef's best dishes. Look over the list of specials. Does this restaurant list low-priced meals or seasonal dishes as specials? While you are reviewing the menu, note the general price range. Keep track of lower priced entrees, children's menu selections, vegetarian choices and combination meals.
Once the food is delivered, your role as a critical thinker and writer kicks in. Detach and look at the food. Is it garnished, does it look appetizing, did it arrive with unasked-for substitutions? Drop your inhibitions and food phobias. Look at each dish with a certain objectivity. You may not like rack of lamb, but you need to know how it looks and tastes when prepared properly. Your job is not to write up your personal preferences; your role is to communicate how each dish is prepared and offer a judgment on whether the preparation was appropriate or a failure.
Aside from food, keep track of the service: is it adequate, friendly, formal or non-existent? Was the decor comfortable, exquisite, eclectic? Is the bar for pre-dinner cocktails or hanging out with your posse? Was the meal worth the cost?
Each restaurant, either implicitly or explicitly, makes promises to its diners. The ambiance will set up expectations: candles, upholstered seats and tuxedoed waiters promise an upscale dining experience. Ads boasting the best customer service, menus proclaiming homestyle dinners, and the name ?Ed's Diner? also categorize your dining expectations. Let your readers know what they will find at each place you review.
Restaurant reviewing is a growing and exciting field. Following food trends, traveling abroad to taste other cuisines, studying wines and continuing culinary adventures at home will keep you busy and satisfied both as a writer and a lover of food.
About the Author: Pamela White is the publisher of two free ezines: Food Writing at http://www.food-writing.com and The Writing Parent at http://www.thewritingparent.net. She developed the first food writing online class, and updates it annually to keep up with trends. Registration for all her food writing and writing classes is available on the above websites.