i only just read earlier today the bio & FAQs section on insidescoop.com for one of the people i admire, part inspiration for this food blog, and who’s job i would love to steal–Mr Michael Bauer. i’m a bit dumbfounded that i’ve never read it before..i have, however, tried to find out what he looks like online in case i spot him one day 😛 so far..no luck on positively id-ing a photo of him.
Anyhow, today I’d like to share the FAQs section.
BTW..Mr Bauer, if you ever should happen to stumble upon this blog, i’d love to dine with you any day 🙂 you name the time and place and i’ll be there! pronto.
Here’s a list of frequently asked questions readers have sent me over the the years both about me and my job.
Q: So do you weigh 300 pounds?
A: Actually I carry about 220 pounds on my 5’7″ frame and have a thick dark beard. Honestly, one of the three is correct.
I do work to try to keep my weight down so I don’t weigh 300 pounds. By exercising every day, I can eat out every night.
Q: Do you announce when you’re coming to a restaurant?
A: No. I never use my name when booking a reservation, and I have credit cards in other names.
Q: Are you really anonymous?
A: I try to be, but when you’ve been in a city as long as I have, it’s hard to keep from being outed. However, I play cat and mouse with the best of them, sometimes sneaking into the restaurant after the rest of my party is seated. In case I’m recognized, I always follow service at a table or two across the room to see if the portions are the same and service is consistent.
One sure way to recognize me: I’m the one who’s always looking around the room rather than staring into the eyes of my dining partner.
One sure way to know it’s not me: If you see someone taking notes. If you’re a critic, you should be able to remember what you ate without resorting to covert note-taking under the table (which any astute waiter can identify).
Q: Can a restaurant really change what they do if someone recognizes you?
A: A chef can’t suddenly become more talented, but the kitchen can make sure everything is the best it can be. On the service side, poorly trained servers aren’t going to suddenly understand the finer points of their craft. In many cases when I’m recognized, the experience deteriorates because everyone tries too hard.
Q: How many times do you visit a restaurant?
A: The Chronicle begins the review process after the restaurant is open at least a month, and we visit a minimum of three times. Previously reviewed restaurants that appear in 96 Hours are often revisited only once. The thinking is that these places have already had a full review, so we’re already familiar with what they offer. We’ll go back two or three times if the situation warrants it.
Q: What makes you decide to revisit?
A: Often a revisit is warranted when there’s a chef or ownership change. Other times we’ve heard that a restaurant has declined or improved. Sometimes we revisit because it’s been a long time since the initial review.
Q: Why do you wait a month?
A: We realize that reviews affect people’s livelihoods and frankly, you generally won’t get the best experience if you go in the first month. In many cases, it takes a restaurant three to six months to work out all the kinks. A month is a good compromise. Just so we aren’t behind the news, we go to restaurants the week they open and do a preview in the What’s New column page of the Food section.
Q: Why do negative reviews?
A: If we go to a corner mom-and-pop place and find that it’s not very good, we won’t write a review. In most cases, the place is inexpensive and will live or die by neighborhood traffic. However, any restaurant with a well-known chef, a big-budget interior, public relations support and high-profile name is fair game.
Dining out is getting more expensive each year, and it’s now difficult to get out of even a “moderately” priced restaurant for less than $100. My job is to tell you what you’ll get. There’s no such thing as a “money-back guarantee.” In most cases when you sit, you pay. We try to let people know what they can expect, both good and bad.
Q: Can’t you close a restaurant with a bad review?
A: I’m not sure a bad review will close a place; it might just hasten its demise. The dining public makes up its own mind. I realize that the owners often sink their life savings into the place and employ people who are trying to support families. I try to be fair, but in the end, my allegiance has to lie with the diner. It’s kind of survival of the fittest; not every place that opens will survive, and I’d rather throw my support to a place that’s serving great food.
Q: Do you dine alone or take people with you?
A: I always take others, from one to three people, depending on the menu. After all, I have to order the food, so I need the mouths to consume it.
Q: Do you ask their opinion?
A: I’m always happy to hear what my dining companions have to say, but in the end I can only defend my own palate. In the end, the opinions are mine.
Q: Who pays for your meals?
A: All meals are paid for by The Chronicle.
Q: How many times do you eat out during the week?
A: I’m out virtually every night. Aside from the weekly Chronicle Magazine review and 96 Hours updates, I’m also working on the Top 100 restaurants, Bargain Bites or other related restaurant coverage.
Q: Do you ever get tired of eating out?
A: Almost never. Dining is theater, and each restaurant is like going to a new play. How can you get tired of excellent food and being waited on? Even if the food isn’t that great, the experience usually is.
Q: What’s your favorite restaurant?
A: That’s one of the most difficult questions to answer because it depends on my mood and the occasion. I return most often on my own dime to places such as Foreign Cinema, Yank Sing and Delfina in San Francisco; and Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa.
Q: If you had one last meal, what would it be?
A: Caesar salad (with anchovy, raw egg and nutty Parmesan), roast chicken with preserved lemon; french fries, grilled asparagus and for dessert, coconut cream pie. At least that’s what it is this week; ask me next week and it might be different.
Q: What was your most memorable meal?
A: For years, my benchmark meals were both at Freddy Girardet near Lausanne, Switzerland, which was taken over by his protege, Philippe Rochat, about six years ago. However, that meal was rivaled in December 2003 by a lunch I had at the French Laundry. The soft-boiled egg with truffles and a truffle sandwich; the quail stuffed with foie gras (and more truffles); and the hand-cut pasta with white Italian truffles are forever branded in my memory. And I’m not even normally that wild about truffles.
Q: Is there anything you won’t eat?
A: Like everyone, I have my preferences but being a critic, you have to be game for just about anything. However, I might draw the line at live monkey brains.
Q: How do you evaluate something you don’t like?
A: Being a critic is like being a psychiatrist; you have to open yourself up, acknowledge your personal preferences, bring them out into the open and compensate. Just because I don’t like roasted peppers, for example, I won’t criticize a dish that uses them if all other elements are balanced and work in harmony with one another. I will criticize the preparation if the peppers are acrid or poorly cooked. Subjective analysis is the starting point of any review; it’s not just personal preference. In fact when I look at a menu, I generally have no personal preferences. Through 25 years of reviewing, I’ve learned that you can’t crave beef if you have to order fish.
Q: But what if you’re tired and don’t feel like going out that night? Won’t that affect the review?
A: The goal is to be professional. Again, a reviewer has to know how he’s feeling – whether he’s had a bad day at the office, for example – and then let it go.
Q: What makes you qualified to be a restaurant reviewer?
A: My friend, cookbook author and home cooking expert Marion Cunningham claims I have the best qualifications of anyone. From the time I was 5 or 6, I ate in restaurants almost every night. My father owned a meat market in Chanute, Kansas, and sold meat to most restaurants in town. He believed you should support people who support you, and that meant eating in their restaurants. I loved being out so much that it seemed like punishment to eat at home.
I also worked summers as a meat cutter and made the sausage, rotisserie chickens, ham salad, cheese spread and chile con queso that we packaged and sold in the market.
In college, I went into journalism at the University of Kansas and then to graduate school at Kansas State University in Mental Health Mass Communications, a program that trained journalists to be behavioral science reporters.
My first full-time job was at the Kansas City Star, where I wrote behavioral science features. After five years of writing about how a person copes with a dying spouse, divorce and destruction, I switched to food. I became food editor of the paper – my background in meat cutting and in side-line catering helped – where I wrote the stories and tested the recipes that appeared in the section.
After three years, I got a call from the editor of the Dallas Times Herald, and soon I was running a section called Gourmet, as well as being the restaurant critic and wine editor. In 1986, after five years in Dallas, I left for San Francisco.
I learn every day on the job, building up a “taste memory” of what I’ve eaten, learning about new ingredients and observing the scene. My biggest qualification at this point is experience. If I do my job well, I’ll be a better critic tomorrow than I am today.
Q: Would you ever like to own a restaurant?
A: No, because then I’d have to put up with critics like me. When my father retired from the meat market, he offered to turn it over to me. When I told him no, he grinned and said, “Good. Don’t ever go into the food business, because the hours are long, the markups are low and the meat you leave on the bone is your profit.”
It’s truly one of the toughest businesses around. I’m lucky to be on the fun side of it.
Q: What are your dining pet peeves?
A: I’m not going to make it easy for you – read the blog, shoot me an e-mail, and we’ll have some great discussions about all of that.