What does a restaurant critic do with a year of no restaurant reviews? She cooks, evidently. The opportunity to join my husband on a sabbatical year in Maastricht in the Netherlands allowed me to address one of the central ironies of this career: Most critics come to the job as passionate cooks, only to spend evenings seated sedately as guests in other people's dining rooms. Forget the fork, let me at the big knives. • Four seasons of daily marketing and cooking in Europe over the past year allowed me to scratch the cooking itch, and provided ample time for introspection. In the absence of a job dictating where and what I eat, what exactly did I want to eat? • The answer was: some of everything. In a tiny apartment kitchen overlooking the Maas River, I made Indonesian and French, breads and curries and a salted caramel cake I couldn't get enough of. My landlady tsk-tsked in the elevator at wafts of kimchee and choucroute and mustardy braised rabbit. I deep-fried and flambeed.
In my year of cooking dangerously, I chose to spend very little time in restaurants. (Our family's temporarily reduced income, combined with the weakness of the dollar, made my renewed enthusiasm for cooking serendipitous.) But in our travels in Western and Eastern Europe, I also had time to think about what I hold dear about dining out and about dining in. I realized there are some things that ring true equally for home cooks and restaurant chefs.
• More isn't more: A great deal of science has been devoted to the law of diminishing returns as it applies to food. As in, five bites of sinfully rich brownie are fantastic and 10 will leave you queasy. But it's more than that. Taste buds fatigue after a few bites; the brain makes something more precious if it is perceived as scarce. Tampa Bay area restaurants can suffer from a bloated sense of portion size.
This applies to the efforts of the home cook as well, although there's another way that home cooks fall into the "more is more" trap. A Cold War baby, I've always taken a peculiar pleasure from having the larder filled to capacity with a lifetime supply of canned tomatoes and industrial-sized boxes of couscous. Armageddon? I'm sitting pretty. Move somewhere where the refrigerator is roughly the size of a high-top-sneaker box, though, and your values change. Keeping less on hand allows you to see what you have, to waste less and to eat with the seasons.
• Whether you're quoting Ecclesiastes or the Byrds, it's true, to every thing there is a season. To witness one of the great outdoor markets of Europe on a beautiful spring weekend, to watch the frenzied enthusiasm over the season's first stalks of fat white asparagus or people rapturously fondling the lunar-landscaped flesh of March's morel mushrooms is to understand the joys of eating seasonally. Tampa Bay area restaurants might be ahead of home cooks in this regard. More and more menus are devoted to following the ebbs and flows of the local growing year. Restaurants should be commended for this, and diners owe it to the places they patronize to understand what grows when.
• Indeed, real change and forward momentum in what we eat has to come from consumers; otherwise it's like pushing on a string. Demand has to be here for good bread, boutique cheese or pastries that soar high above pedestrian. Just since my return to the United States two weeks ago, I've been heartened to see locals embracing new artisanal coffeehouses, sophisticated potions from savvy area bartenders, and the imaginative visions of Tampa Bay's new fleet of food trucks. Knowledge is what transforms an eater into a gourmet, and it's the high expectations of gourmets that make restaurants and chefs try hard every day.
• Praise is important: If you're the cook at your house, it's inevitable that sometimes you feel underappreciated. It's okay to make demands of your diners. In my household, the first person to utter something positive — but truthful, it can't be blowing smoke — about the meal wins a metaphorical Kewpie doll.
The same holds true for restaurants. In this era of Yelp and Chowhound and Trip Advisor, public grousing is a diner's inalienable right. Everyone's a critic, but by being an educated diner, and by doling out measured words of admiration as often as constructive criticism, restaurants can learn from customers in these new public forums.
As I enthusiastically re-enter my role as food critic at the St. Petersburg Times, I aim to follow suit, employing the stick as well as the carrot, preferably one that's local and in season.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.