By Robin Garr
While I was power-walking a mile the other morning, I plugged in The Daily podcast from The New York Times and realized to my delight that they were interviewing one of my favorite food critics: The Times’ Pete Wells.
All right! That put a little more bounce in my step. I really like Pete Wells, and if I don’t exactly model my writing chops on Pete, I do like his work. I enjoyed hearing him chatting with The Daily’s host, Michael Barbaro, about his craft as a food writer, his love of food, and how everything changed when the pandemic hit New York City.
I thought about this, and I thought, “Hmmm.” I’m no Pete Wells. I don’t have Pete’s budget, and I’m arguably not as funny. Still, in the context of that interview, I had a thought: Why not share a few things you might not know about my approach to restaurant writing in Louisville?
Is it a full-time job? Nope.
One doesn’t get rich at this game, or at least I don’t. When I became restaurant critic at The Louisville Times in 1984, my weekly fee was near the lower end of the two-figures range. They did pay my dining expenses, though, for which I was more than grateful, and that continued, somewhat to my surprise, even after Gannett Corp. took over the newspaper.
Nevertheless, I left the building and restaurant column behind in 1990, blasting off for New York City and a job with a national non-profit. I free-lanced on the side; and when I returned to Louisville in 1994, I started LouisvilleHotBytes.com.
As a self-employed food writer I still fall well short of making a full-time living from this part-time gig. I pay my own expenses now, so considering inflation, I probably don’t make much more than I did at The Times in the ‘80s. But I love this job, and I hope it shows.
Pete Wells obviously loves his job too, but he’s doing a bit better in Gotham. “By the end of a week I will have signed off on some check that’s shocking, $600 or $700 or $800 or $900,” he told interviewer Barbaro. “It’s a very large sum … and that’s just how it’s going to be.”
It must be nice, Pete!
How do you decide where to eat?
Good question! People used to assume that publisher Barry Bingham Jr. sent down specific instructions, because people thought he told us how to cover the news, too. Nope. I make the picks. I listen to your suggestions. I keep an eye on interesting new places, so if I hear a buzz, I get over there ASAP and let you know what I found.
Thanks to a limited budget – even more so since the pandemic – I most often focus on good cheap eats. Fancy, high-end spots are harder to fit into my spending plan. Anyway, I’d usually rather explore a new taqueria or Indian spot or maybe something from a cuisine I haven’t sampled before. But every now and then I’ll find my way to a fancy new spot or pricey old favorite.
Do you dine anonymously?
Like most food critics, as much so as I can. I don’t wear disguises, or at least I’m not going to tell you if I do. I don’t reserve in my own name. I don’t use my photo on most social media. I don’t take notes or talk to a hidden recorder, and I’m grateful that I’m no longer the only person taking photos of my food in this age of Instagram.
I know that after all these years some of the city’s longtime chefs – and more than a few servers – recognize me. If I see someone I’ve met hovering nervously, I’ll gently advise them, “treat me like a normal customer. One sign of special treatment, and the review gets canned.” This usually seems to work.
Where did you learn how to do this stuff?
Like most restaurant critics – Pete Wells included – I’ve had no formal training. As a reporter at The Times, I came to the job as a reporter covering a story, and experience was the best teacher.
Having come of age in the era of Julia Child and James Beard, I liked to eat and I enjoyed cooking. I studied food, food policy, food history and more. And I pushed for local, organic, and healthy fare before those things were cool.
How often do you eat out?
Unlike Pete Wells, I don’t have the budget to dine several times before writing my review. But I dine with at least one companion, often more. We’ll sample main dishes, apps, a salad or side dish, maybe a dessert. If something seems really off, I’ll make a judgment call and either bag the review, come back another time, and, if the problem appears to be systemic and intractable, warn you off.
How much do you weigh?
Ha! I came to the job years ago as a skinny young reporter. That didn’t last! It didn’t take long to learn that I couldn’t eat all those restaurant meals without consequences. I’ve endured the familiar gain, diet, lose, gain, with a closet full of clothes in various sizes. During the last decade, though no longer either young or skinny, I think I’ve finally got that battle under control. My weight fits my height again with a body-mass index around 22. But it’s not easy.
I eat frugally at home and practice strict portion control while dining out. In my reviews I choose one vegetarian or vegan entree along for every carnivorous main dish, recognizing the growing audience for plant-based lifestyles. And I power-walk a mile every day before breakfast, on my way to getting 8,000 steps or more by day’s end.
Still think you’d like to be a food writer? Are you sure?