The exchange goes something like this. I’m chitchatting with people I’ve met at a party, and the subject of jobs comes up. My new acquaintances turn out to be artists, computer geeks, hippo trainers, whatever. I confess that I’m a restaurant reviewer. There’s a short pause while they look me up and down as if I were a two-headed poodle at the Westminster dog show. Then someone says, with more than a touch of resentment, “Soooo, if you eat out for a living, how come you’re so thin?” And right off the bat, they’re mad at me. It’s not just strangers, either. Two of my dear friends have taken to calling me “that skinny bitch.” To which I say, “Guilty as charged.”
Last December 1 I celebrated thirty years at this magazine. That’s a lot of crème brûlée under the bridge, folks. During that time, food fads have risen (fajitas and Southwestern cuisine) and fallen (blackened redfish), and once-fabled Texas restaurants have vanished like a snow cone on the Fourth of July (how many of you remember Mr. Peppe, in Dallas, or the original Naples on Broadway, in San Antonio, or Che, in Houston?). Texas has changed from a state that eats at home to one that eats out, and Dallas and Houston have taken their places on the national culinary stage. Since it was founded, in 1973, this magazine has published more than 28,000 restaurant reviews. If that indicates anything, it’s that people are endlessly fascinated with food and dining. And judging by the queries I get, they’re also curious about the arcane practice of restaurant reviewing. So I thought this might be as good a time as any to answer a question or two, including the inevitable . . .
How do you stay so thin?
The answer is really, really simple: I’m neurotic. I eat only half of what I’m served, and if I do gain a pound, I freak out and take it off immediately. (For the record, I am five feet seven inches tall and weigh 117 pounds.) My weight-loss system is a slightly twisted version of the South Beach Diet: I don’t eat anything white. All right, that’s an exaggeration, but I do eat very little sugar, bread, pasta, potatoes, or rice (including, alas, risotto). And I watch the butter and cheese. Occasionally, I have to admit, I overdo this regimen and end up famished at odd times, so I always carry stashes of almonds and Southwest Airlines peanuts in my briefcase. As for the next inevitable question—“Do you exercise?”—the answer is not a lot; I walk a mile and a half a day. Does sticking to a diet make it hard to evaluate a meal? Absolutely not. All you do is pay attention and savor each bite.
What is the reaction when your plate goes back to the kitchen half-full?
Uneaten food terrifies restaurants, because most people in our society, especially men, clean their plates. Their mothers have guilt-tripped them with stories of starving orphans in far-flung lands. This is one reason among many that ours is a nation of fatties, but I digress. Frequently, waiters ask me if something was wrong. I just say I wasn’t very hungry. Sometimes they persist—“Are you sure?”—which is really, really annoying. If I don’t want a hassle or if I worry about hurting the cook’s feelings at a small place, I ask for a doggie bag. And I always get a doggie bag when I’m eating five or six meals a day for a story like “Pit Stops,” our last barbecue roundup (May 2003). If I can find a homeless person to give the food to, I do; if I’m on the road, the leftovers end up at my motel. More than once I’ve left half a dozen to-go boxes stacked beside the bed. God knows what the maids thought.
Did your family love to cook?
No, just the opposite. When I was growing up in the fifties, Texas was a vast Middle American wasteland of overcooked hamburger steaks, waterlogged peas and carrots, Jell-O salads, and TV dinners, the latter of which we ate—I swear to God—on folding metal tables while sitting in front of the television set watching Your Hit Parade and Gunsmoke. On top of this, my mother was a protofeminist who embraced the liberating notion that a woman’s place was not in the kitchen. Thus, she never used a fresh vegetable if she could get her hands on a canned or frozen one, and she had an absolute love affair with instant mashed potatoes. Oh, Mother could cook if she wanted to: Her lemon chiffon pie was divine, and I loved her vegetable soup. But she preferred to spend her time reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel rather than slaving over a hot stove. Her weekly canned-salmon croquettes were one reason I adored eating in restaurants. They served gorgeous food that I never saw at home, plus they were exciting and grown-up. The fact that we couldn’t afford to eat out much made them even more alluring. Restaurants were like movies to me, an escape from humdrum real life and, shudder, real food.
Have you always been interested in food?
If you had told my parents I would one day be a restaurant critic, they would have fallen on the floor laughing. My childhood food quirks were a major pain in the posterior. I was the kid who had to be removed from nursery school because I refused to consume the vile lunches they served (asphaltlike fried liver and slimy okra with tomatoes). I was the one who pitched a fit if a sandwich had been cut into squares instead of triangles. I hardly ate during the first grade except for drinking gallons of milk. I remember one little boy saying to me, in a thick Southern drawl, “Pa-tree-sha, why are you so skinnn-ny?” The answer is that there wasn’t a lot of food to like back then. The turning point, for me, was marrying a man who loved to cook. My husband was only 22, but he wowed our circle of friends by using real butter, not margarine, and making chocolate cake and icing from scratch, not a mix. One time we gave a dinner party, and he rolled veal around homemade stuffing to make “veal birds.” He knew how to make Danish pastries filled with marzipan. This was the true beginning of my infatuation with food.
How did you get to be a restaurant reviewer?
Honestly, I fell into this job like it was a tub of butter. I started out proofreading the magazine’s restaurant reviews and calendar of events, plus answering the phones and running errands. I could have continued being a gofer for years, but fortunately, then–senior editor Griffin Smith decided he wanted to write features full-time. As a result, I inherited his job of editing the restaurant guide. What I knew about food in 1975 could have been put in a demitasse spoon, but I did love to eat. Bill Broyles, the magazine’s founding editor, said, “Learn everything you can, take cooking lessons, go to the best places—we’ll pay for it.” So I did. One memorable summer, a friend and I went to five Michelin two- and three-star restaurants in France in one week, including the legendary Le Pyramide. Foie gras and truffles were our crack cocaine. Looking back, I was in the right place at the right time. Texas was awakening to the joys of fine food, and we all rode that wave into shore together. Lucky me, I’m still riding it today.
How do you review a restaurant?
When I put a bite of food in my mouth, I unconsciously give it a grade: A through F. The A’s are the easiest—those are pure, intense pleasure, like Dallas restaurant Aurora’s famous amuse-bouche, a dab of warm vanilla custard shot through with the earthy flavor of black truffles and topped with maple whipped cream. The F’s are easy too—they are off, discordant, like fingernails on a blackboard; imagine foie gras blended with white chocolate, a dish I’ve actually had. The hardest are the C’s, because nothing stands out—they’re just there, neither wonderful nor awful. While the sensation is still fresh, I open my little spiral-bound notebook and jot down words to jog my memory: “The risotto would have made excellent library paste.” Not every restaurant critic takes notes, but I taste so much food it’s easy to forget the details. Over the years, I’ve tried everything from using a tiny hand-held recorder to calling the office on my cell phone and leaving whispered messages (“The profiteroles were like golf balls”). But I always come back to paper. Sometimes the waiters notice the notebook, but by the time the food is on the table, it’s too late to change it. When I get home, or back to the hotel, I type up my thoughts on everything: food, service, decor. If a dish has a lot of ingredients or is just hard to get a handle on, I’ll get a doggie bag and examine it later (but I don’t retaste anything that’s not fresh).
Do you eat alone?
I almost always ask one to three people to eat with me, occasionally more. And I always eat off their plates (or have them pass me samples). My favorite eaters are the ones who’ll deconstruct the details with me—“Do you think that’s anise or tarragon?”—and offer their own insights. The ones who drive me crazy never go beyond “That’s fabulous” or “That sucks” and yammer nonstop about their daughter’s trailer-trash boyfriend or their mother’s bile duct operation while I’m trying to take notes, not to mention enjoy the food.
How do you decide what to order?
If I’m doing a review of a familiar restaurant, I might sample as few as two entrées, with sides, plus an appetizer or a dessert. If the place is new to me and has a complex menu, I go several times and try at least five entrées. The first thing I turn to is the list of specialties of the house; I want to see what the chef considers his signature dishes and strong points. After that, I look for anything creative or slightly unusual, say, duck breast with truffled pears and a juniper-port reduction. Sirloin with Roquefort butter may be delicious, but it’s hardly the latest thing. On the other hand, a dish doesn’t have to be creative to impress me, especially at places serving a traditional and moderately priced cuisine, like Mexican or Middle Eastern. But the higher the prices, the more I want something that sends me somewhere I’ve never been before.
Who pays for the food?
The magazine pays for the food, of course. That’s the way all legitimate publications operate; no freebies allowed.
Do you wear disguises?
Sorry to disappoint you, but I have no Carol Channing wigs, Grand Ole Opry hats, or Anna Wintour sunglasses in my closet. I don’t wear a disguise, nor do any of the dozen restaurant reviewers I know at other publications. Disguises are mainly a New York Times and Washington Post phenomenon, because mug shots of those singularly powerful critics are tacked up in restaurant kitchens all over the two cities. On the other hand, I (and all professional reviewers) prefer to be anonymous, so I generally make reservations under an assumed name to keep the staff from making a fuss over me. (Occasionally I forget which nom de cuisine I used, which elicits some peculiar stares as I flounder around: “Um, see if you have a ‘Swartz.’ No? Well, what about ‘Smulyan’?”)
Of course, sometimes I’m recognized, and that can be tricky. Once, Tony’s, in Houston, sent out a bottle of very expensive wine. We solved that problem by not drinking any. But the worst episode was the time, many years ago, when the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Austin appeared with a fine teapot and announced that he wanted to give it to me. I tried to explain that I couldn’t accept gifts. He cajoled. I insisted. He kept handing me the teapot. I kept handing it back. Finally, at the end of the meal, I left it on the table and my guest and I sneaked out the door. Just as we drove away, he came running out with the teapot, looking baffled and hurt. We could never bear to go back.
Do you have to train to become a restaurant critic?
No. It’s just like being a movie, theater, or book reviewer; anybody can do it if she (or he) can persuade somebody to hire her. Predictably, this drives chefs and restaurateurs up the wall; they rant about unqualified reviewers—but only when they get bad reviews. To them I say, with all due respect, “Fine. The day you decide that someone should pass a culinary exam before he can open a restaurant and charge money, then we’ll discuss qualifying tests for reviewers.” My own feeling is that in the end, journalistic Darwinism sorts it all out. On-target reviewers last and off-base ones don’t, just as good restaurants thrive and bad ones close. The public is the final arbiter of taste.
Do you write the reviews in Texas Monthly‘s Dining Guide every month?
Yes, and at Christmas, eight tiny reindeer and I deliver presents to all the good little boys and girls in the entire world. Wait, I think I blacked out for a minute. In fact, the magazine has twenty freelance reviewers around the state, plus four staff people in Austin, who do the visits and write the copy. We stay busy: More than two hundred reviews a month are written, edited, and fact-checked for the eleven cities and six regions covered in the Dining Guide. I write at least a couple of reviews a month, and of course, when I do a feature story like last month’s “Where to Eat Now 2005,” I visit all those restaurants myself.
Have you or your reviewers had any run-ins with chefs or restaurateurs?
I’ve never been tossed out of a restaurant, but in the eighties our Austin reviewer (let’s call the poor dear Jane Doe) came close. She was standing in the vestibule of a very nice restaurant when she was spotted by the owner, who had somehow found out who she was. In a voice so loud that the wineglasses rattled, he said, “Well, well, well, if it isn’t Mrs. Doe. Are you the person who reviews for Texas Monthly?” She stammered that she wasn’t, but he had made his point. “I’m so glad you aren’t,” he said, “because if you were, I would ask you to leave.” She was a wreck the rest of the evening. The funniest incident happened in the seventies, when Emil Vogely, then the chef at Jeffrey’s, in Austin, wrote me a scathing letter in which he demanded to know “whose ass you have to kiss or kick” to get a star from Texas Monthly. My reply, which I no longer remember, just fanned the flames, because he then stormed up to the office, where we proceeded to harangue each other for thirty minutes. When he said the magazine was being disrespectful by referring to him as Emil, not Chef Emil, I told him I would gladly call him Chef Emil if he addressed me as Editor Pat. (Afterward, everybody in the office took to calling me Editor Pat.) Later, Emil and I became friends, and we have laughed about that incident more than once. Thank God most chefs these days have PR agents, who trip them when they charge out the door to do battle with restaurant critics.
What is the best thing you’ve eaten?
Fraises des bois (“strawberries of the woods”). The first—and, sadly, only—time I had them was about twenty years ago, at Alain Chapel, a Michelin three-star restaurant near Lyon. My friend Chris Durden and I had eaten the most amazing meal, accompanied by many different wines, and when we finished, the waiter brought out a plate of fraises des bois as an after-dinner treat. They were bright red, fragrant, and so small I popped three in my mouth at once. Omigod. The flavor was like all of summer concentrated in one bite—strawberries from heaven. I’m sure my cheeks flushed; I think my brain waves changed. During those weeks in France, fraises des bois were one of many epiphanies about the sensual pleasures and possibilities of eating. I’m not sure that food is ever better than sex, but it can be pretty darn close.
What is the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?
Ant eggs with a pulque chaser. Actually, the ant eggs weren’t bad. I had them at a charming, rustic hotel in the Mexican countryside near Puebla, where my friend Gini Garcia and I had gone to forage for mushrooms with two eccentric Canadians. At lunch, ant eggs were on the menu, an indigenous dish that has achieved some notoriety as part of the so-called Aztec cuisine. They looked like small grains of rice and were just about as bland. With enough pico de gallo, you could hardly taste them. The pulque, which is the viscous fermented sap of agave plants, was a different story. Our Canadian guides tested it first and pronounced it “the best we’ve ever had.” All I can say is this: If you can imagine curdled milk that has been boiled for hours with old gym socks and stink bugs, you can imagine pulque. The texture was a cross between saliva and mucus. And this pulque, mind you, was the good stuff.
What’s the worst service you’ve ever had?
In “the customer is always wrong” category, the worst was at the dining room of the long-gone Hotel Meridien, in Houston. Our meal had been fantastic, and I ordered gâteau au chocolat for dessert. On a whim, I decided I wanted raspberry purée with it instead of the listed vanilla-bean crème anglaise. I had seen raspberry sauce on the menu, so I knew it was available. Our waiter, a gray-haired Frenchman who obviously considered being in Texas equivalent to being in the Australian outback, did not approve. “No, madame,” he said, “raspberry sauce is not correct.” I told him, “But I like raspberry sauce and chocolate.” He looked at me like I had been raised by wolves, so I added, “I’ve had chocolate and raspberry at other places.” He shook his finger at me like I was a naughty schoolgirl and said, “No, no, no!” And that was that. I ate crème anglaise, and he got a 5 percent tip.