Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Book Notes: I always get a laugh when people tell me I've got a glamorous job. Maybe 5 percent of my time is spent at the trough. And maybe 5 percent of that is really good eating.

Believe me, the other 95 percent of my work--sitting in front of a blank computer screen, little pools of sweat forming on my forehead, trying to figure out lively new ways to describe ahi tuna, mashed potatoes or creme brulee--isn't very glamorous.

Still, most folks imagine the critic's life as one of endless high living, with status and power on the side. After all, we have expense accounts. We get to broadcast our opinions. As arbiters of public taste, we're experts whose judgment can't be appealed. Who else can make experienced chefs quake under their toques simply by pointing out an underseasoned sauce or an overcooked pork chop?

This silly myth--the food critic as intellectual bon vivant--gets reinforced by an entertainingly misleading new book, Dining Out: Secrets From America's Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page (John Wiley & Sons, $29.95).

I guess it was inevitable: In a society of celebrity chefs, it was only a matter of time before restaurant critics clamored to get their share of the spotlight.

Sometimes they get caught in the glare. Some big-time critics argue that it doesn't matter if restaurants know who they are when they come in. After all, they say, the chef can't magically improve the ingredients.

Do you believe your restaurant experience is ever going to be anything like an unmasked critic's? The New York Times' Ruth Reichl was once recognized at a ritzy restaurant. The owner himself escorted her to her seat, and said: "The King of Spain is waiting at the bar, but your table is ready."

Some reviewers also believe they're critiquing "art," making the chef into some sort of artist. I don't think so. (Neither, incidentally, do the courts--you can't copyright a dish.) Sure, food can be artfully prepared. But a chef who masterfully puts together a wonderful meal is no different from a skilled carpenter or tailor. Cooking is a craft, not an art. It requires knowledge, diligence, originality and pride in one's work. But it's not a soul-wrenching statement on the human condition. There are no starving chefs, plotting meals in garrets.

You want art? Go to a museum. You want artsy musings on the art of restaurant criticism? Read Dining Out.

If you're looking to stuff a book into a stocking, try The Great Ranch Cookbook, by Gwen Ashley Walters (Guest Ranch Link, $19.95).

Walters has picked out 30 of the West's premier ranch houses and lodges, the kind of places you find pictured in travel magazines, set amid aspen forests and craggy peaks. Each, she tells us, is noted for its cuisine. There are more than a hundred recipes here, including Smoked Pheasant and Corn Bisque, Blackened Buffalo Quesadillas and Western-Style Derby Pie.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel