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New St. Petersburg Times food critic Jim Webster explains his role

I've been a food critic all my life, if only in the way everyone is.

I remember sitting in the cafeteria in middle school, picking at the lunch-line scalloped potatoes, thinking that they weren't really "scalloped" potatoes, because they were cut all wrong. I didn't think that wax was a legitimate ingredient in anything proclaiming to be edible, really, and particularly as a substitute for cheese. And as best I could tell, that was what they were using.

In more practical terms, I've been a food critic for six years. I have blogged about restaurant visits around the country. That's a hobby, and it was the rare instance in which I was negative, largely because I was often writing about landmark restaurants. Most of them were really good. That makes it easier.

But I didn't love them all. Sometimes I talked about it — like the mealy skate wing with a burned butter sauce in Boston at a restaurant I wanted to love — and sometimes I just kept it to myself.

The majority of my posts were about high-end joints around the country, but that's not to imply a narrow focus. I was as excited about finally going to Central Grocery in New Orleans for a muffuletta as I was about going to the French Laundry in California. And Central Grocery wasn't all that much easier to get into.

Another part of this hobby has been re-creating things I liked. Although I have no formal culinary training, and have never worked in food service, I can taste a dish and develop a pretty good plan for making it at home. Often successfully, sometimes in a way that I like more than the original. And I dabble as an amateur caterer, feeding as many as 100 people at a time. It isn't the same thing restaurants face, but it helps me understand the pressure that kitchens encounter every night. So I'm sympathetic. But I determine my success or failure based on whether the guests enjoy themselves. That's the same standard I would have for any restaurant.

Now, in professional terms, I am a food critic. In many ways, it is an extension of what I have been doing for years. I'm going to go out to eat, and then I'm going to tell you about it. Often you will read about places I liked. Sometimes you'll read about places I didn't. There are no guarantees that you'll like the places that I liked, and I'm sure that any place I don't like will have a legion of fans. That's okay. Ultimately, my job is to tell readers about my experience. After I have done that a few times, you'll know how my opinion jibes with yours. And if that gets some conversations started along the way, all the better.

Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746. Read his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.

New St. Petersburg Times food critic Jim Webster explains his role 06/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 28, 2010 5:23pm]
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