The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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Everyone’s A Food Critic. But Not Captain Nachos. [To Catch A Food Predator]
Posted Jun 29, 2011 by Jeff Houck
Updated Jun 29, 2011 at 12:36 PM
A couple of times a year, I get a phone call. They’re all roughly the same.
The conversation usually goes like this:
“Some guy was in here claiming to be a food critic for the Trib,” a restaurant owner will say.
Ah. The infamous “Some Guy” again. Sure does get around.
“Do you have anyone working for you by that name?”
No, I’ll say.
The restaurateur realizes he’s been duped. The call ends quickly.
A few weeks back, there was a variation on the theme.
Paul VanSickle phoned to say someone claiming to be a food critic visited his family sports restaurant The End Zone in Lakeland.
It’s a spot that has a strong local following. Lots of snowbird customers come for the flat-screen TVs, Big Mouth Double Burgers and two-for-one draft beers. The all-you-can-eat chicken wing and fish fry nights really pack them in.
This isn’t a pinkie-in-the-air kind of restaurant. It’s a “sweet tea to go” kind of place. There’s a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey stick on the wall not far from some Dale Earnhardt memorabilia. A sign on the wall behind the bar reads, “IF YOU’RE DRINKIN’ TO FORGET, PLEASE PAY IN ADVANCE.”
One day recently, a gentleman who appeared to be in his 40s showed up and identified himself as a food critic.
“He made a big deal about it,” VanSickle says. “He said, ‘I work for the Trib!’”
VanSickle is no food rube. He spent 38 years as an operations manager for McDonald’s. He and his wife Doris later bought The End Zone as a retirement business. They own another one in Davenport. They’ve been operating long enough to know how the game works.
“Usually food critics order a bunch of food so they can try everything,” he says. “This guy ordered nachos.”
“He was bragging about how Bern’s Steak House tried to comp his meal recently,” VanSickle said. “Then he asked to see my kitchen. I was too busy at the time serving food.”
Usually when restaurant owners call, they don’t get the name of the imposter. This time, Captain Nachos swiped a card at The End Zone with the name Joey Cooney.
“He said he’d be back Monday at 3 p.m.,” VanSickle said.
I asked if he’d mind if I dropped by to join the reunion. “Not at all,” he said.
So I went to The End Zone on a Monday afternoon.
I ordered my chicken wings and my sweet tea. And I waited. I’d never confronted an imposter before. I felt a little like Chris Hansen on Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.”
Wouldn’t you know it? Captain Nachos was a no-show.
Appetizer con artists—never can depend on a thing they say.
What I told the staff at The End Zone is what I’ll tell you: You probably won’t know an authentic, ink-stained food critic has been in your restaurant until you get a call saying that he or she has been there.
They’ll want to verify a few things about the menu and the restaurant. They’ll want to schedule a photo. It’s how we and most other newspapers and magazines do things.
What most jokers like Captain Nachos don’t know is that the Association of Food Journalists has a code of conduct that critics should follow. We pay for all meals. We go back for a second and a third time if the meals are bad in an effort to be fair. We also refrain from reviewing during the first few months. What a restaurant does on Day 1 has almost no resemblance to what it does on Day 90.
Anonymity is crucial. Critics should aim to have the same meal as any other customer. The unnatural gymnastics restaurants go to when they know a food writer is in the house are staggering.
I debated the value of this point with a blogger last year who unmasked a new local food critic by publishing his photo. “It’s not a game,” I said.
Food criticism done correctly is a public service we take seriously. Your money is precious. Where you spend it is an important decision. You don’t want to waste it on a place with lousy, prepackaged grub and a teenage server with a lousy attitude.
Yes, the review is a matter of the writer’s opinion, but a professional restaurant critic can be your North Star for navigating the perilous straits of boring, bland, lackluster meals that waste your time and cash.
Say all you want about UrbanSpoon and Yelp and the other online sites where anyone with a smarty-pants phone and an open mouth can hurl adjective grenades with no repercussions. I’ll take the trained taster and writer any day.
Unless it’s all-you-can-eat wing night. Then all bets are off.