Contrary to popular belief, not all food critics are chefs or have culinary backgrounds. In fact, the first food critic ever to be documented was neither a writer or a cook; he was a lawyer.
Born in the mid-1700s, Alexandre Grimod de La Reynière wrote the first comprehensive food review through a series he called L’Almanach des gourmands (The Gourmet Almanac). It was France’s first annual restaurant guidebook that grew extremely popular among the aristocrats.
But it was only until the 1900s that the popularity of food reviews resurfaced when the tyre company Michelin began handing out their most coveted stars. Soon after, more food critics emerged, not only in Europe but all over the US, too.
Nowadays, however, food critics can be found everywhere – from blogs to newspapers to magazines and YouTube. Culinary pundits have seemingly multiplied overnight. And while some of them are exceptionally good, most of them are also very bad.
But if this sounds like a career path that’s right up your alley, then be sure to read this article because it was made just for you.
Here’s how to become a food critic.
1. Research the Profession
In order for you (and your taste buds) to be taken seriously, it’s important to know what exactly the job entails. Below is a snapshot of what a typical day on the job is like, as well as how much you can potentially earn.
In essence, a food critic’s main responsibility is to give an unbiased review of a restaurant or meal based on their knowledge of the industry. They usually use a set of criteria which typically includes taste, value, service and ambience.
Of course, when it comes to critiquing food, it’s never one-size-fits-all. Depending on your level of experience, some critics will have other parameters such as theme, which refers to the central idea behind the dish. But if you’ve spent most of your time reviewing fast food restaurants, then you wouldn’t necessarily have to go beyond the usual criterions.
General duties include:
- evaluating restaurant standards and food quality
- writing original copy to effectively represent a restaurant for publication in newspapers, magazines, websites, travel guides, etc
- supplying original photography if necessary or securing publication rights of restaurant photos
- working flexibly and meeting publishing deadlines
- keeping up to date with restaurant processes and practices
- interviewing industry leaders and venue representatives
- attending launches and promotional events.
Essential Skills and Qualities
In the early 90s, food critics would often wear disguises to keep their identities hidden from restaurant owners, and chefs who would do anything to spot their presence, especially since their review could make or break their business. To avoid being bribed or, worse, threatened, it was essential that they kept their identities anonymous.
But today most food critics prefer to be out in the open. And while this has its own advantages (hurray, no more wigs and fake noses!), building your presence and credibility has also become a lot more challenging.
To get ahead of the game, you’ll need to.
- have integrity: A food critic’s entire career is founded on their credibility. To have a stake in the industry, you must be able to resist bribes and temptation from restaurant owners.
- be curious: Food critics are driven by a desire to learn more about new cultures through food. They are always open to trying new flavours and aren’t afraid to explore exotic tastes.
- be highly observant: Writing about food goes beyond just the meal; you must also be able to observe how you and other people react when they enter a restaurant. Do they feel at home? Does it make them happy? These minor reactions are always visible to the food critic’s observant eye.
- have a good memory: Oftentimes, food critics are only able to write a review hours after their visit. It is, therefore, essential that they have a good memory to best recreate and rate the experience.
- have excellent time management skills: Even when they don’t have regular hours, food journalists must still be able to meet their editors’ deadlines while attending restaurant openings and other pending press invitations.
- have superb creative writing skills: Food critics are some of the greatest writers in the world; they have the unique ability to transport their readers to the restaurant they’re reviewing while vicariously tasting the food through their words.
- be outstanding communicators: In order to be a prolific food writer, you should have an extensive network that you can get tips or leads from. Building relationships within the culinary industry is key to having a sustainable career as a food critic.
Working Hours and Conditions
Food critics don’t have a regular 9-to-5 schedule, and they generally have to deal with a busy social calendar and numerous press invitations. Their work also requires them to travel from time to time, but very few get their jobs done on the road. Most prefer to work at home, far away from the pressures of an office setting and safe from the peering eyes of people in cafés.
It’s a career that doesn’t involve a lot of risks unless you count the occasional food poisoning and number of hours of sitting in front of a computer. Also, most food critics have the freedom to work however and whenever they please, provided that they’re able to meet the editors’ deadlines.
Some critics work full time for a magazine or a newspaper, while others are food bloggers who manage and maintain their own sites. There are also freelance writers who are commissioned to write online reviews.
Salaries will largely depend on your level of experience and how often you write. Howevere, full-time food writers can earn between $45,000 and $50,000 (£33,915 and £37,685) per year.
2. Get the Qualifications
While there are no strict qualifications for being a food critic, having an English or journalism degree can be very useful to help you get ahead. It will expose you to the basic rules of creative writing and help you find your own voice.
It would also help to have some basic knowledge about how food is prepared, so you may want to consider taking a few short courses on cooking, depending again on what kind of food you want to review. For example, if you’re looking to concentrate on desserts, then maybe you can take a baking class.
You can also intern in a restaurant to get a behind-the-scenes look at how food is made, which can add an in-depth and unique perspective to your writing.
3. Land Your First Job
Typically, most food writers get their start by interning in food publications such as the Great British Food Magazine or BBC Good Food. But if you want to stand out, you can consider creating your own blog or website and connecting with other food bloggers online.
If you don’t have the resources to do that, you can start by creating an Instagram account that’s devoted entirely to food. Start by creating a strong portfolio online and work on your writing daily. An editor is most likely to hire you if you have experience, and in such a competitive environment, it’s up to you create that experience.
4. Develop Your Career
To be a great food critic, you should constantly expose your taste palate to new flavours, even if they’re outside your comfort zone. As unconventional as this may sound, the key to developing a career in food writing is to eat in as many exotic places as you can and constantly write about them.
To quote the great late Anthony Bourdain, one of the most respected chefs and food writers in the world: ‘If I'm an advocate for anything, it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food. It's a plus for everybody’.
Have your own tips on how to become a food critic? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by XE.com on 11 July 2018.