Young and Hungry

Laid-Off Restaurant Critic Turns to Restaurant Kitchen for Work

For two years, Leslie Kelly used to walk into restaurants as the feared critic of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (OK, Y&H is taking creative license here; I have no idea whether Kelly was feared or not, but as a general rule, restaurateurs tremble at the thought of a negative review from major daily newspapers, particularly in this economy.) But Kelly's reign of terror ended in March when the P-I went poof—and transformed overnight into an online only paper.

Kelly, like so many unfortunate souls in our moribund industry, lost her job as a result.

As a friend of Y&H's said a long time ago when we both lost jobs as critics at the Houston Post, there's not much calling for door-to-door criticism in the real world. In other words, good luck finding a job as a critic once you've lost it. Canned critics often go from full-time gigs to the tenuous, exploitative, free-for-all world of freelancing. Let me tell you, it sucks.

Kelly can no doubt sympathize. She took her laid-off mouth to one of her favorite restaurants in Seattle, Tom Douglas' artisan pizzeria Serious Pie, and asked for a job, despite having no experience in a professional kitchen. Douglas, who must be one helluva guy, agreed to take Kelly on. The former critic is now chronicling her days as a cook for Serious Eats.

This promises to be a fascinating series, but only if Kelly can write honestly about her experiences. She's in an awkward position: She's working for a chef whose kitchen she will now write about; her readers, including me, will expect journalistic integrity. What will Douglas expect? And will Kelly have to hit the bricks again if she doesn't conform to those expectations?

Kelly's first missive from the kitchen makes me worry. In it, she complains about sore feet and wonders what kind of quality footwear she should buy. Sympathetic readers give her plenty of advice, but here is Y&H's unsolicited feedback: At this post-newspaper intersection where you now find yourself, you have to decide what direction you will head next. Do you want to take a left turn and move into the restaurant biz or do you want to continue down the path of journalism?

Until you decide, readers like me will wonder where you allegiances lie. No one—well, certainly not Y&H—will begrudge you a thing if you tell journalism to kiss off for now. But should you decide to continue this hybrid restaurant-journalism career, your readers will need to know exactly how much freedom you have as a writer. Otherwise, I'll continue to wonder if you're pulling your punches in order to please your new boss, who is, after all, not an editor.

Photo courtesy of Serious Pie

Comments

  1. #1

    You are right to be suspicious of a restaurant that hires someone with no experience, someone they know to be a journalist. I guess they want the publicity, and she wants to write a book...so who's thinking of the customer experience?

  2. #2

    Hey Tim....
    I just found this post and wanted to weigh in.
    It's certainly a slippery slope I jumped onto, but despite using my connections to get my foot in the door -- who doesn't need every advantage these days? -- Tom Douglas told everyone to treat me as a typical new employee. I worked as hard as my limited abilities allowed and was paid minimum wage. My checks amounted to what I'd pay for one dinner out. I got some new shoes and am feeling more comfortable in the kitchen, while chronicling my adventures. I have yet to see anyone scream or through a fit, a la Gordon R., but this experience has been an eye-opener.
    I start my new job -- which I found through a Facebook friend -- as a "Brat Jockey" at a college pub tomorrow. Still not sure I can cut it in the kitchen, but I'm trying.

  3. #3

    Leslie,

    Thanks for weighing in, and I tip my hat at your willingness to submit to the hot, hard struggles of the kitchen.

    Cheers,
    -Tim

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