Must be nice to eat for free everywhere!
Being a food writer or food critic sure sounds like a great gig, and I’m not going to lie, it’s awesome. I wouldn’t keep doing it for so many years if I didn’t enjoy it. But there are many misconceptions about how this works. So here we go:
That would be great! I think many might have this misconception— Cody Benedict (@CodyBenedict1) April 21, 2023
Food critics don’t eat everywhere for free
Any restaurant I review (like x, y, and z) I pay for it, and Minnesota Monthly reimburses me. I have a budget, most critics do, but if I’m reviewing I pay. Sometimes I do eat a free meal. Different publications have different standards and ethics on this. If there’s a media preview of a menu, I’ll at times attend. If a restaurant invites me to try something new or come to a special event, I will at times attend for free. If I write about it or post it on my Instagram, I always will note that I was “invited” and/or the meal was free or comped. If you see “Thanks for having me” – that means I was invited. Not everyone does that, but I want to be transparent about it.
I spend a lot of my own money eating out
I’m not complaining! I love visiting new restaurants, just like you do. I don’t call places and say, “hey I’ll write about you or post about you if you give me a free meal.” There are influencers who do that, and I have no problem with it. I also have no problem with restaurants saying no! They’re publicizing restaurants in some cases, and there’s a benefit to that, so it’s all good by me. As I only review about 12 restaurants a year, a lot of dining out is building a catalog of places I can recommend in my print articles which now focus on lists of options.
Critics are no longer anonymous
With the internet, it’s so difficult to be anonymous. For me, as I’ve been on TV so long and now on the radio, it would be comical. I used to make reservations under my wife’s maiden name so people wouldn’t know I was coming, but it didn’t take long for most places that would be potential review subjects to figure out I was there. That said, I’m not as famous as you think I am, and I can also tell when I’m being treated differently than the tables around me. I watch for that, and I don’t like it when it happens! I’m writing to tell you what you might experience when you eat out.
There aren’t many full-time critics around anymore
I’m a freelancer for Minnesota Monthly, the Star Tribune critic is part-time too. Dara reviews monthly at MSP Mag, Jess occasionally writes a review for the Pioneer Press, but most of food writing is food writing. Reporting on new stuff, maybe a little bit of experiential commentary – but not the old school review. It’s expensive to have a budget for this! Paying someone a full-time salary plus consider what it would cost to review weekly or bi-weekly. I’d guess back when Rick Nelson was the full-time Strib critic, he spent upwards of $30,000/year on food. And he never took a freebie.
I don’t go 3 times to write a review
I wish! As a freelancer I don’t have that kind of time, nor do I have the budget for that. Typically if I go to a place to review it and I straight up don’t like it – I won’t write about it. It’s unfair to rip a place big time if I don’t go a couple times. This has happened (once recently). I will critique things I don’t like, however.
Getting The Tone Right Is the Hardest Part of a Review
I write for you: I don’t want you to drive to St. Paul from Lakeville for a place that is just fine. There are many restaurants that would be amazing if you lived near them, but disappointing if you drove there as a destination. It’s difficult to get that tone right – to not be necessarily harsh about a place that serves its purpose well. I’ve toyed with the idea of a rating scale that would say how many miles I would drive to go to a place. It’s hard – I live in Maple Grove and drive everywhere. If you live in South Minneapolis, is there a new restaurant that’s worth driving past Broder’s, Lola, Red Wagon, Terzo, Mr. Paul’s, Martina, Colita, etc. to get to? Maybe not.
What Questions do you Have!?
Post them in the comments!