Confessions of a Food Writer

- May 2, 2012

"I've written rave reviews of restaurants that didn't have the chops to make it in Santa Fe, and panned even the best restaurants for serving brown, wilted salad ..."

Most people think that being a food writer is one of the best jobs in the world. You get to eat out a lot, usually at fine restaurants, and get paid for it. You meet the top chefs, receive invitations to special culinary events and maybe even gain a following in your own right.

But in reality, writing about food can be a tough job. Not only do you have to learn to eat a lot and be willing to try unfamiliar, often downright strange foods, you also have to cultivate diplomacy, tactfulness and the ability to just say no when faced with one more spectacular dish. And you have to be able to stomach food poisoning, angry chefs who don't agree with your reviews and the overexpectation that all food served in restaurants should be of five-star quality.

I've been covering the Santa Fe culinary scene for some years now, and while it has been fascinating, fun and never dull, there have been a few instances that belie the notion that food writing is a cushy job.

Take the night my husband Kyle and I went to a new restaurant specializing in barbecue. I had been sent to review it for a local paper and we were excited to have a barbecue joint in the neighborhood. I ordered an entrée of pork ribs, and eagerly cut into them when they arrived at our table in a dimly lit dining room. It took a few bites before I realized the meat I was eating was raw. I sent it back immediately, hoping that I hadn't ingested enough raw pork to become seriously ill.  No such luck…I became violently ill in the middle of the night. But the trick of it was I wasn't allowed to mention this illness in my review, unless I underwent lab tests that proved the reason I got sick was directly linked to the raw pork. Needless to say, that restaurant didn't last long.

Then there was the research weekend I spent at a local inn while writing a travel guide about Santa Fe. Kyle and I were in the middle of dinner in the hotel restaurant when I broke my tooth on a pebble that was embedded in a green bean. The hotel was kind enough to pay for my dental bill, and the entire weekend wasn't ruined, but  I've never bitten into a green bean  since without first ensuring that it's rock free.

And then there was the time I ordered an Italian pork dish in a very popular restaurant, only to send it back because it was mostly fat. The very kind and accommodating manager approached my table with concern, wondering why I was sending back prized pork. Gulp…what kind of food writer mistakes pork belly for pork fat?

Food writers often become friends with the chefs they write about because they dine in their restaurants, interview them and and get to know them personally. Often I'd call up a chef with a request for a recipe and photos to include in an article, which made it extremely awkward when I had to pan a bad meal at their restaurant.

I've written rave reviews of restaurants that didn't have the chops to make it in Santa Fe, and panned even the best restaurants for serving brown, wilted salad, burned steak or dry cake. I've even called restaurants after having a bad experience to give the chef or owner a chance to explain an off night, a bad egg or a rotten tomato.

I've watched chefs literally dissolve into meltdowns or throw pots around the kitchen out of frustration. I've heard customers insult servers, servers insult customers and chefs insult both servers and customers. I've seen diners moved to tears by exquisitely prepared meals, and I've seen diners break out in curses over bad meals. I've even watched chefs storm out of the kitchen on nights when the dining room was booked, and I've been amazed by chefs who stick out even in the toughest circumstances.

Santa Fe is not an easy town in which to run a successful restaurant. The stakes are high, the field competitive and diners don't suffer mistakes lightly. But we're lucky to have an incredible choice of dining experiences in our wonderful city, representing cuisines from around the world prepared by some of the best chefs in the country. Not every meal will be perfect, but it's doubtful you'll have to contend with raw meat, stone-studded vegetables or tantrum-throwing chefs in the middle of your dinner. That's the kind of stuff that's better left to us food writers.