Restaurant News & Reviews

A food writer is born

I didn't set out to be a food writer. True, I've wanted to be a writer since I was in elementary school and had a poem published in the local paper. And I've always been an adventurous eater. One of my earliest food memories is eating oyster stew, an act that yielded a trifecta of happy results: It impressed my father, made my squeamish brother jealous, and -- boy, did those oysters ever taste good. Still, it didn't occur to me -- at least not until many years later -- that I could combine these two consuming passions.

Gourmet magazine gave me the first nudge, though I was unaware of it at the time. The year was 1972, and I was a senior in high school. I was dating a girl who was never ready when I arrived to pick her up. I was usually left alone in the parlor (yes, that's what they called it), often for a half-hour or more, while I waited for her. To pass the time, I began thumbing through her mother's back issues of Gourmet magazine on the coffee table. I wasn't really interested in the recipes, but I got hooked on the restaurant reviews.

As a small-town Southern boy who had never dined in a restaurant with "Chez" in its name, I found the descriptions of fancy and exotic meals in faraway New York, California and Paris to be as enthralling as any mystery novel. I never imagined that I'd actually dine in any of those restaurants. And I certainly had no idea that the seeds were being planted for a career as a restaurant critic.

By the time I graduated from college and returned home from a postgraduate year in Europe, my culinary horizons had broadened considerably. To my delight, I had managed to dine in a few of the restaurants I'd read about in Gourmet. And my interest in eating good food had grown to include preparing it as well. I signed up for cooking classes, and I began acquiring a cookbook collection. Meanwhile, I continued working on drafts of the Next Great American Novel.

My first culinary mentor was Julia Child, in the form of her books and television series. Under her tutelage, I wasn't exactly Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but I was getting a pretty solid foundation of culinary technique. What's more, because Julia (I came to think of her on a first-name basis) was such a nurturing guide, I began to develop a confidence that I wasn't strictly bound to a written recipe. I could play with ingredients, much as I liked to play with words, to create a dish with my own signature. Still, I didn't make the connection to my writing.

Over the next 15 years or so, my cookbook collection continued to grow. Most of the cooking I did from these books was done not at the stove but in an armchair. A few cookbooks did get well-spattered with actual use. "Joy of Cooking," Escoffier's "Le Guide Culinaire" and Jacques Pepin's "La Technique" were my sacred trinity of reference works. Bill Neal's "Southern Cooking" taught me how to apply the techniques I'd learned to the food of my childhood.

Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible" was, indeed, my bible when it came to all things sweet and leavened. Beranbaum's style, at once authoritative and friendly, provided just the hand holding I needed when it came to the precise requirements of baking. I was more comfortable with the freewheeling creativity of cooking, which I was beginning to realize gave me the same sense of satisfaction as the creativity of writing.

I became an avid reader of food-related essays, too, developing a particular fondness for authors who wrote with such immediacy that I could practically smell and taste what they were describing. When I learned How to Cook a Wolf - figuratively speaking, of course - at the elbow of M.F.K. Fisher, I could have sworn I heard her stomach growling from the food shortages of World War II. When I traipsed across the hills of Piedmont Italy with Waverley Root in search of white truffles, I didn't just inhale the rich, earthy smell of the rare fungus -- I saw the steam rising off the back of the truffle-hunting pig in the November night air.

I also traveled a lot during this period. In each new city, the first order of business was to seek out the local restaurant reviews. You might even say I became a critic of restaurant critics, judging them not just by their accuracy but also by their writing. I became an ardent fan of Jonathan Gold, who at the time was reviewing ethnic restaurants for L.A. Weekly (and who would later go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism). I was as impressed by Gold's sparkling wit as by his laser-precise descriptions, qualities I had been striving for in my own writing. In fact, it was as I was reading one of Gold's reviews, admiring a particularly smart turn of phrase, that it first dawned on me: I wish I could do that.

My wish came true in 1994, when The N&O signed me on as restaurant critic. My first review took me three full days to write as I struggled to get every word right. But I knew I had found my calling. I found writing about food to be as rewarding as cooking it, and on occasion even as much fun as eating it. Twelve years and more than a million words later, I still get excited at the prospect of visiting a new restaurant and telling people about it in way that is both informative and entertaining.

Whether you're a well-traveled gourmet or a novice foodie, I want you to share the experience - taste the words, you might say - just as I did when I was a young man getting my first taste of the wide world. When I describe a particularly well-executed crème brûlée, I want you to hear the crack as your fork breaks the brûlée crust into jagged shards of burnt sugar. I want you to feel the voluptuous custard against your tongue, to smell and taste the vanilla bean.

Sometimes the writing goes smoothly, and sometimes it's as challenging as making meringue on a humid day. I haven't mastered either craft -- writing or cooking -- but I'm still an eager student of both. My cookbook collection now numbers in the hundreds, and I'm always on the lookout for worthy additions. I look forward to telling you about what I find in future columns.