Exit interview with City Paper restaurant critic David Snyder
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Exit interview with City Paper restaurant critic David Snyder
|Photo l Albert Yee|
|David under his cloak of anonymity|
It is with major regret we bid a fond adios to David Snyder, one of our two restaurant critics here at City Paper and writer of local food and drinks blog PhilaFoodie. David has been lending his laser palate and piercing prose to the Food & Restaurants section since August of 2008, ingesting everything from the exotic (duck tongues) to sheer corruptions of nature (gnocchi "heavy enough to bend space-time").
In his exit interview, he filled us in on what it means to be a consumer advocate, what aspiring critics have to know and why he's leaving what is surely one of the most-envied gigs in town.
Read our Q&A with David after the jump.
Meal Ticket: What were your most and least favorite reviews to write? Why?
David Snyder: My favorites lie at the extremes. It was fun and effortless to write about brilliant restaurants such as Bibou, Marigold Kitchen, MÃ©mÃ© and Talula's Table, for example. Their strengths are so mature and well-defined that the reviews virtually wrote themselves, like I was merely channeling good juju from the meals I had eaten. Plus, it felt good to let folks know that if they decided to spend their hard-earned cash at those places, it would be money well-spent.
Negative reviews were often easy to write, too, if the restaurants' weaknesses were loud and pronounced. On occasion, having a sour experience afforded me the playful luxury of torturing my readers with puns (DaVinci) or using a quirky format (Aladeen). Some critics say that they don't like to write negative reviews, but that never made sense to me. It's like a criminal judge saying he doesn't like to sentence convicted felons. Being a consumer advocate is what you sign up for as a critic, and sometimes that means writing a negative review. It's important to take that responsibility seriously.
The restaurants that were the most challenging to write about were the ones in the middleâspots that were neither spectacular nor terrible. Finding a place in the spectrum for these restaurants and putting the experiences into context was not an easy task sometimes.
My favorite review to write though, by far, was Wokano. When you've eaten duck tongue and fried pig intestines with friends, you've bonded for life. To be able to write about that experience was pure joy.
MT: What did you learn from your reviewing gig?
DS: For one, dining out as much as I have for this job has fundamentally altered the way I view the dining landscape. I don't see the dining scene in terms of ârestaurantsâ anymore. I view it more in terms of plates or meals. Most restaurants have a mix of dishes, some good and some not-so-good; it's rare for every menu item to perform at the same level. When people would ask me for recommendations, I found myself talking about what they should eat across the dining scene instead of where they should eat.
Another thing I learned was just how much you can derive about a chef's psyche just from eating his or her food. After eating at terra, for example, it seemed obvious that the duck dish was a reconceptualization of the less successful acorn squash hot pot I had tried earlier, even though the two dishes did not look or taste anything alike. Based on that, I suspected that Chef Paraskevas had a healthy and constructive attitude about failure. When I interviewed him later, I was surprised at just how accurate my hunches were. Every confidence and every insecurity is right there on the plate if you just look carefully.
MT: How can a reader spot a poorly-done restaurant review?
DS: A restaurant review is well-done if it's engaging, either by weaving a tale or providing some context or metric to gauge whether the restaurant is successful in what it's trying to do. Reciting a list of dishes you ate isn't enough; you have to tell a story.
MT: What should people take away from a well-done review?
DS: It's up to the reader to determine what he or she takes away from a particular review or reviewer. A review is merely a guide. As a consumer, the key is to be making informed decisions. With so many resources now available (including food blogs, Yelp, eGullet), consumers seem to be as hungry for information and perspective as they are for a worthwhile meal. That's a beautiful thing.
MT: Do you have any crucial advice for aspiring critics?
DS: The most important thing is to develop solid writing and interview skills. At its core, food writing is journalism. If you are not a strong writer or if you do not have the skill to pull information from a chef who's unwilling to talk about his or her craft during a post-meal interview, it won't matter how well you know your way around a kitchen.
You also need to develop your palate, a database of flavors in your mind against which to measure the food you'll be eating. In other words, you have to eat a lot. The goal is to forge a palate that's both broad and deepâyou need to know what food is supposed to taste like across a wide spectrum of cuisines. Part of developing your database also entails understanding the chemistry of how flavors and textures work together; Harold McGee's âOn Food and Cookingâ should be required reading.
This should go without saying, but it's important to be an adventurous eater. I understand it can be challenging to cope with foreign textures and flavors. But in this job, being a picky eater is not an asset. The more boundaries you create, the more your database will suffer, and the less effective you'll be at reviewing.
And don't be afraid to be provocative.
MT: Why would anyone leave this awesome job?
DS: Reviewing restaurants for the City Paper has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. It's been a privilege to review restaurants for City Paper during what continues to be an amazingly vibrant time in the Philadelphia restaurant scene. And, believe me, it pains me deeply to give it up. But a fresh and exciting opportunity has opened at my day job that I simply could not resist. In order to fully exploit it the way I want to, I'll need to spend more time in the office, which unfortunately will leave little time for a full schedule of restaurant reviewing.
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