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Want to be a food critic? Here’s everything you need to know



We eat out a lot more than we used to, and we also share our lives on social media a lot more. This has turned nearly everyone into a food critic, mostly on social media, with profound impact on how menus are planned and dishes are presented. Nobody wants to serve a dish that doesn’t look terrific on Instagram. But if you are an aspiring food blogger or like to write reviews on Zomato or other platforms, it’s probably useful to be thoughtful about it.

Awareness and knowledge of food is now greater than ever. Many in your audience are well-travelled and will be able to tell a faux pas. We have put a handy guide together to help.

Before we begin, however, know that there are many bad reasons to become a food critic. Some of these can be actively harmful to you. Are you doing it for the lure of the many free meals? If so, remember that gluttony is a vice for a reason — you don’t want indiscriminate eating out to wreak havoc. Besides, restaurants and chefs are slowly wisening up to the uselessness of publicity by ignorant free loaders and may not be as generous in times to come. Is it because you treat food as a competitive sport? You not only pay for your meals but make the effort to check into the world’s best restaurants in a determined pursuit of gastronomy? You consider yourself a gourmand and want to make your opinion known? That may be an ambition but there has to be a better reason than personal vanity. Ask yourself in all humility and with an open mind whether you really have a fine palate and, more importantly, if you are ready to study various culinary cultures and trajectories of chefs that you meet? In short, are you interested in food as a discipline beyond its consumption? If yes, here’s how to go about it.

How to taste and judge dishes

Skillful cooking
This is the first thing you should examine going beyond the presentations: the skill with which something has been cooked. Is the pasta al dente? Is the masala
bhunoed properly? Is the steak medium-rare? Are the yolks runny, the whites firm but creamy, if it is ostensibly a “63-degree egg” you are served? Is the cake dry? Needless to say, to determine this, the reviewer needs to possess sufficient experience to recognise whether a dish is technically sound.

God is in the detail

What separates great cooking from mediocre is the attention to detail. In Indian culinary traditions, for instance, detailing becomes apparent in how flavours are artfully layered. Instead of indiscriminately tossing in spices that many restaurants surviving on generic masalas and tomato-onion gravies do, there are specific spice combinations used at different stages of cooking an ingredient: okra with fennel and aubergines with onion seeds are classic combinations. Even a simple sweet and sour pumpkin preparation is not just sweet and sour but has an underlying bitter element that comes with the use of fenugreek seeds at the beginning of the cooking. Most evolved culinary cultures have similar nuances and if you are thinking of critiquing food that claims to be pegged in any such culture, it is important to understand and recognise these nuances rather than just claim something to be “awesome” or “delish” or “food porn”!


Inventiveness and the thinking chef

An important criterion on which I judge food is not only how inventive it is but on its conceptual clarity. If the chef has merely done something to change form and dazzle diners, it is less impressive if there is an underlying thought or narrative that comes through on the plate, it becomes elevated. For instance, I recently tried a new dish by chef Manish Mehrotra at Indian Accent–lamb chops with
baigan bharta (made into a pate that was smoked) and bits of roasted
papad. It worked wonderfully not just because of the contrasting textures and the unusual aubergines-with-meat combination, but because the smokiness of various elements on the plate united them and accented the meat.


Some chefs may not know kitchen secrets like sprinkling some milk on biryani before cooking it on dum.

Too much or too little
Sometimes chefs try too hard to be chef-like. You must be able to call that out. Why is dim sum served on a piece of astroturf that you obviously cannot eat? Does that speck of olive “soil” add to the flavours? On the other hand, some dishes may not taste sublime because the chef does not know the small kitchen secrets that accomplished cooks do — like a biryani benefitting from a sprinkling of milk before being cooked on dum. Then, there are conceptually interesting dishes that sometimes don’t taste right because a “link” is missing. For instance, I ate an avocado and chocolate dessert recently which was obviously relying on the fattiness of the avocado for a rich, silky feel. However, the avocado used in the dish was neither optimally ripe nor fatty enough. The chef may have got the idea from an international trend (avocado and chocolate is fashionable) but he needed to balance the ingredients at hand with the addition of another fatty ingredient.

Ingredients, ingredients, Ingredients
It is obvious that the best ingredients give you the best taste. So do take into account how the chef is sourcing his greens, meats and fish. Is there alternative grain being used, are the sauces and seasoning made from scratch in the kitchen and are there local and seasonal ingredients on the plate or horrific carbon miles being notched up? Finally, what you need to assess is whether ingredients are being used in a mere faddish or superficial way or as intrinsic to the restaurant’s cooking. I am still appalled at the guchi kofta that was once served to me — an astonishing waste of a prized ingredient.

How to judge a restaurant

Is it copying someone or something?
The first thing you may like to consider as a reviewer is how unique is a restaurant. In fact, given how many copycat restaurants tend to come up by borrowing themes and concepts that are already successful, it may be a wise decision to only review places that attempt something original. You would of course need to keep track of what is happening in the restaurant business not just in your local market or even within the country but globally, to be able to make comparisons.


Do take into account how the chef is sourcing his greens, meats and fish.

Is the food, service and experience in sync with what it claims to be?

If it is a dhaba, do not crib about a limited menu with a handful of dishes. If it is a tapas or small plates restaurant, do not complain that portion sizes are small and your family went hungry even though you ordered four dishes. If it is a casual diner, expect less bowing and scraping than at a more formal restaurant, and the plates to not be changed with every “course”. If, however, it is an expensive “fine dine” (though in India, we do not have fine dining by and large, only more expensive restaurants), call it out on incongruities. Is the sashimi not sliced thinly enough? Is there basa on the menu? Are most of the expensive champagnes on the wine list not available? If it is a speciality restaurant, who is the chef and what are their credentials — or has the menu been “researched” online? For a restaurant to be authentic, it must be what it promises to be.

What is the chef’s story?
Has he evolved? In the days of Insta celebrities, it is easy to get carried away by a chef’s glamour and popularity and gush over them and everything they attempt. While food is subjective and you may be fond of some chefs and their cooking, a reviewer cannot be a fan. A chef is a subject and must be studied as much as his work. How is he evolving? Is the new restaurant better than his last? Do the dishes bear his stamp? If so, how? Analyse this.


A chef is a subject and must be studied as much as his work.

Relatively speaking

Any review must give some context of the space in which the restaurant is functioning. You must also be able to draw comparisons and assess how good it is within a particular category, whether others are doing something better or different or whether this particular one is breaking new ground in its category.

Spot the new and little-known

The joy of writing about restaurants is in their discovery. Try to keep track of newer and unique places that no one knows about yet — small, offbeat restaurants that have no budgets for PR or launch parties. Be the one who spotted their genius and brought it to light for the benefit of a larger community. Good food must always be about sharing, after all.

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