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X-Planations: Yonkers' Chef Peter X. Kelly Critiques The Critics

Taking orders in the dining room at X20 in Yonkers.
Taking orders in the dining room at X20 in Yonkers. Photo Credit: Submitted

YONKERS, N.Y. -- Most restaurant owners dream about being reviewed from their local newspaper, website or regional magazine.

Many chefs and owners go to great lengths, in fact, to research the quirks, likes and dislikes of the critics. I even know of restaurant owners who have created menus around what they think the critics like to eat and drink.

Waiters and managers look for telltale signs -- guests scribbling notes, customers asking pointed questions, the guest whispering into his sleeve, trying to keep the recorder hidden.

The cat and mouse game of “find the critic” goes on night after night at many a table. Yet after all this sleuthing, the results of this one critic's experience is rarely any different than the experience of the guests sitting on the other side of the room.

At least that's how it's supposed to be.

Critics are smart: They recognize when they are “recognized."  They are always eagle-eyed, observing other diners to make sure they are receiving the same treatment, the same food presentations, and the same size portions.

They also understand that a restaurant can not reinvent itself on any given night. A bad restaurant does not suddenly become a good one just because a critic is in the house. A chef cannot fake it: He either buys quality or not, he either cooks with passion or not, he either loves what he does or not.

So why is the critic so important? Because thousands of diners depend on his or her opinion, often putting the restaurant in the precarious position between success and failure.

This is why the critic and the publication/website he or she works for must take this assignment very seriously. This issue is even more significant when a publication “grades” an experience by indicating a numeric or letter award.

It is important that both the restaurant owner and the reader understand that the nature of criticism is subjective -- it is one person’s opinion, albeit a professional one. There also needs to be an editorial board behind these ratings with specific criteria for what "Good," "Fair" or "Excellent" truly mean.

Obviously there are dangers associated with poor reviews but there are dangers with great reviews as well. The critic that lavishes praise on a wonderful new bistro and gets carried away with his star ranking may be setting the stage for guests' “over expectation."

Similarly, the critic that holds a celebrated restaurant to an inflated standard and dismissively penalizes it may do a disservice to the reader.

Ultimately, it's the relationship between the reader and the critic that has the most impact. Does the reader trust the critic, does the reader respect the critic, and most importantly, does the critic have the best interest of the reader in mind when he or she bestows their rating? These are all critical questions to keep in mind.

For the restaurateur, the lesson is to treat every guest as if he was a critic. Never behave in a manner that suggests you are entitled to a favorable critique and always take a negative criticism to heart and look for ways to improve.

Next Week: "Pondering The 'Chef' Title'"

This column is a continuing series by Chef Peter X. Kelly of Xaviars Restaurant Group which runs every Thursday. Go here for last week's story.

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