About the Lack of Legit Food Critics in the Philippines
I’ll just go and say it: Our local restaurant scene has grown to ginormous proportions over the last few years. And while there are those who scratch their heads at why this is so, it's also no surprise, really, seeing that we’re a nation of voracious eaters. While we are deeply in love with mom’s cooking, restaurants are where the game is at these days, and for many reasons. It transports us to another continent, and we can pretend our passport accumulates stamps as we munch on chili-flecked Asian street food, or rich, hand-cranked pasta from Roma. It gives us opportunity to try what the new breed of chefs are up to—stuff we can’t or won’t make at home. Or it simply fills our belly with food we crave. Like graphic design was back in the day, the food scene is where all the buzz is. It’s both a skill AND an art, practiced by many.
The art, theater, and music scenes all have their legitimate critics—people who can face a piece of work and dissect and analyze it, put in their thoughts about it, and maybe, in the process, also help us understand it. Funnily enough our kinetic food scene doesn't seem to have one. Like Waldo, where exactly is our local food critic?
Even if there are those who are given the title of such, I’m not quite sure one actually exists here.
First of all, we do have a lot of comments from the peanut gallery. That’s just the way of the world, circa-2017. Every one has a say, even those who’re not quite well-versed in their subject matter, but for some reason insist on joining the fray. Well and good for free speech, but often it’s really just noise. Filtering through that is another story altogether.
While it really is impossible to please everyone, can you imagine the pressure a restaurant has nowadays to do so anyway?
In the midst of it all, haters abound as well. Because the Internet is the digital free world, it’s easy to tear a place down with choice words that have zero substance and yet will still sway opinion. And while it really is impossible to please everyone, can you imagine the pressure a restaurant has nowadays to do so anyway? Because sometimes these voices can stop the cash register from singing. Silence can kill a restaurant.
What constitutes a “food critic” anyway? This creature has to know their stuff, at the very least. Know how a dish is pulled off and have an approximation of what it’s trying to do, and if they don’t, have the gumption to actually do some research. I always say there’s a way to criticize—be more knowledgeable about what exactly it is you’re criticizing. Often that’s just not the case. There's credibility in having a flavor benchmark as well.
This person has hopefully tried the restaurant at least three times—a fair rule, I think, because you really get to the meat of what the joint is trying to offer. Three times a charm, three times to get a hit or you’re out. On this point alone, we lose. Usually writers are sent to a place ONCE, and more often than not to write a feature, not a review, upon invitation of the restaurant. If a scribe is sent to do a review, they are sent with a modest budget that can probably get some gourmet donuts. What are the chances a salaried writer will pay for a meal out of their own pocket to write about it? For that matter, how many employers are willing to send someone to an establishment three times and pay for it?
Lastly, the writer has to hopefully work incognito. Once you become known for writing about restaurants, that’s going to be tricky. Conversely, freebies abound in this industry, and while there's nothing wrong with a token, accepting it already loses the meaning of being a critic.
The other roadblock is more cultural. Generally, we like to keep it light, polite, and stress-free. No one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, because who knows who will read the review: Your uncle’s best friend who owns the Chinese dessert place with rock-hard buchi? Your beloved cousin who worked in a Michelin joint for two weeks and wants to replicate their food but really is better off DJing at the local bar? Your classmate’s wife whose cakes her friends say are fantastic but are actually dense bricks of flour and sugar? We don’t want to offend any sensibilities, nor burn bridges, because it’s such a small town.
Doreen Fernandez once said that if you have nothing good to say, don’t write about it, but silence can kill a restaurant, too.
Doreen Fernandez, God bless her soul, once said that if you have nothing good to say, don’t write about it. While I do see her point—mind you, silence is something I’m often guilty of too—I think healthy criticism is good. It keeps you on your toes. After all, every restaurant is chasing to be the best they can be. (Though admittedly, not everyone responds well to being on the receiving end of a not-so-favorable comment.)
So do you have all this? You have to have a channel for your review, the budget to pay for at least three meals, a fake mustache and cap to keep your identity a secret, a basic well of cooking and restaurant information in your noggin, and of course, hopefully, sharp writing skills to accurately get across what you're trying to say.
I don’t know anyone here who does, really. The closest we may get is the guy who shares the same surname as the local writing award, but I’m not even sure he goes to a place three times before letting words go. He sure can write, though.
At the end of the day I have to ask: Are we actually ready for this? For someone to really speak their knowledgeable mind in a newspaper or magazine, or even on some online portal?
I say if we’re going to become that cool dining destination we all kind of secretly wished we were—with people flying in on a jet plane just to eat—we better be ready for it, because then our kitchens will be on the ball for anything that comes their way. And for us, the eaters, that just means good eating.