What are Chefs? Simply put, once a chef opens a restaurant, they bare their soul night in and night out for it. On bad days, it’s Murphy’s law: shipped ingredients aren’t up to restaurant standards, jammed appliances, crew no-shows, broken down elevators during Christmas and staff suffering at the hands of rude drunk customers. In a restaurant, anything that can go wrong has happened and chefs are constantly adjusting and navigating these operations. It’s my job as a Chef-owner to rise above and deal with these challenges, even when things get out of control.
Amid the rise of foodies, it seems like our drive as chefs has become more and more about providing the utmost satisfaction to customers who are virtually our food critics of modern times. Voicing our thoughts and opinions seems to be frowned upon in the face of the “customer who is always right”. It’s somewhat understandable from the point of view of the restaurant as a business of the service and hospitality industry. But from the perspective of gastronomia, this refrain does more harm than good for chefs and their craft.
From years of delving deep into this world, being a chef and restaurant owner in a city like Jakarta where food journalism is newly emerging, should there be an ethical framework or basic food understanding in food criticism? Whilst a suggestion, this ideological framework of “The Ideal Food Critic” is inspired by Artistotle’s “The Ideal Man” and “Übermensch” by Nietzsche—both offering ideal guiding principles and moral frameworks on what an ideal human could or should be. This article hopes to manifest and inspire “The Ideal Food Critic” for all foodies alike, with the hopes to elevate the local gastronomy scene.
The ideal food critic understands…
Personal biases & preferences
“Mas Tambah Sambal Dong!” (Can I have more chilli sauce?) Most chefs are familiar with renditions of such demands. Do we form judgments of such requests? Absolutely. However, the longer I simmer in this industry, it became clear to me that food is a subjective experience and objectivity is a difficult virtue to come by. And while everyone is very much entitled to their own bias and preferences, will a preference truly make a certain dish objectively more delicious?
The ideal food critic would distinguish the fine difference between the two. Not only that ability separates the happy customer from the critic, but it also demonstrates a commitment to the dish as an oeuvre. Chefs pour thoughts and deliberations into creating the right nuance and flavour profiles, so when dishes are requested to be ‘spicier’ or ‘sweeter’ according to personal preferences, it completely disregards the chef’s intention and thought process.
Understanding your bias and personal preference will help you have better objectivity when judging a dish and awareness on why a dish is good or bad, or whether it can be improved for the sake of the dish rather than personal satisfaction.
When deliveries became the food industry’s only saving grace this past year, it was a double-edged sword. Not all restaurants were conceptualised to serve delivery-proof food, yet they must oblige for their survival. So when a review reads poorly about an overcooked protein (like fish), it’s disheartening to even defend.
Understanding cooking techniques (such as boiling, steaming, sous-vide, baking, searing, sautéing, curing, pickling) and their implications are fundamental to food criticism. It answers why a pan-seared fish fillet will almost certainly arrive at your door overcooked, while braised dishes, stews and baked goods will retain their flavours and textures even after a long journey.
Feedback should underline knowledge of techniques and understanding that certain dishes will never be as good as freshly served ones in a restaurant. Under the context of “The Ideal Food Critic/Foodie”, understanding why certain dishes are not optimal for takeaway should be a basic consideration.
Mechanics of flavours
Understanding the basic mechanics of flavours seems deceivingly simple. This understanding covers the function of umami, sweetness, astringent, bitterness, acidity, tartness, saltiness, and all other tastes our buds can identify. While most people can pass a dish as bad, can they define why something is or isn’t delicious?
How sourness and tartness balance out the sweetness, or how bitterness evens a dish’s savouriness. A sprinkle of sugar can help draw out hidden flavours, the same way squeezing a touch of lime can lighten and brighten a whole dish.
There are mechanics of flavours, and a sound understanding of their medley is vital to formulating well-informed critiques that objectively point to the strengths and weaknesses of a dish. Luckily, many resources exist such as the Flavor Bible (2008), The Flavor Thesaurus (2010) and On Food and Cooking (1984) to get anyone started on this path of knowledge.
Culture & heritage
Quoting a review by Uncle Roger on Jamie Oliver’s Fried Rice: “One tablespoon of olive oil on fried rice? Chilli jam in fried rice? No MSG?! You hear sizzling, I hear my ancestors crying.”
Uncle Roger is a culinary comedian on YouTube, and while he exaggerates his humour, as a professional chef, I do think his comments ring an important truth: food is a society’s cultural heritage in which cultural identity is retained and presented to the world.
Understanding the anthropology of food and people allows a foodie/ food critic to understand why certain things taste and are prepared in a certain way. Why a dish like soto is eaten or cooked in a certain way and how gulai, kalio and rendang differ from each other. How a place, its surroundings and circumstances shape the food culture in a particular place.
Food, culture, human, ingredients and heritage all come back in a full circle. It’s not one or the other, it’s all deeply intertwined.
Lastly, the soul of a true foodie is inquisitive, empathetic and truthful. It’s safe to say, every critic is a food lover, but it takes so much more than love to criticise the thing we love. But even when someone isn’t a critic or has theoretical knowledge of food and cooking, chefs know when we meet a true lover of food, and sometimes their feedback weighs more than any critic. Though they may not be able to describe the technical details, their intention is always set in the right place: to see you succeed.
The ideal food critic is never afraid to share their honest feedback yet not in a condescending tone, but in a constructive, respectful and truthful manner.