To be lucky enough to score a reservation at El Bulli was one thing. To be furnished not only with one of the world’s hottest dining experiences, but also an insider’s list of where else to go while in Spain was something else.
The year was 2004 and British food writer Joe Warwick was interviewing Ferran Adrià. With his work out of the way, Warwick thanked Adrià and followed the Spanish chef’s recommendations to Barcelonian lunch counters and seafood joints and insider hangouts he would not have found on his own.
The writer was inspired. His earlier experience working on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants had always left him with a problem. “You book your trip around one of those big restaurants,” he says. “But what about the rest of the time?”
The result of this little revelation is a big book, Where Chefs Eat. Collecting the opinions of more than 400 chefs via written questionnaires, Warwick has compiled a set of restaurant mini-reviews to see you through meals from Singapore to San Francisco to Stockholm. “Over the years, I’ve asked a lot of great chefs where I should go. They rarely let you down.”
The appeal of such a volume is obvious. Everyone loves an insider tip, and the stock we now place in a chef’s opinion is greater than ever. Whether it’s Anthony Bourdain’s raunchy layovers or David Chang’s cleverly marketed bites of late-night kitchen culture, we all want to see the world through chef-coloured glasses. But are chefs the total tastemakers our culture – and this book – build them up to be? After all, where a guy loves to eat after 14 hours at the grill station might not be where you want to have dinner. And as chefs play a bigger role in guiding our palates, what’s left for the restaurant critics?
“I don’t think there’s a critic that will know more about food than a chef,” Where Chefs Eat contributor Claudio Aprile says. The Toronto owner of Colborne Lane and the Origin group of restaurants feels that journalists do a good job of spreading the word, but it’s chefs who are on the front lines of discovery. “I think it’s appropriate to have chefs really be the barometer of what is relevant,” he says. From the high-end (Aprile says he heard about El Bulli from fellow chefs long before anyone else had caught on) to the low (Crif dogs and crack pie, anyone?), the inside track can be an obsessive, strange and delicious journey into culinary nirvana.
Still, there can be a certain narrowing of taste that happens as a result. “I think chefs do have expertise,” says Deborah Reid, who spent a combined 15 years as a chef-instructor at the Stratford and George Brown chef schools. “But a chef’s knowledge is not the be-all and end-all.”
On the other hand, we have the professional restaurant critic, whose full-time gig is to eat out. Ruth Reichl, who reviewed restaurants for The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, says the role is a lot more complex than it used to be. “Craig Claiborne– who pretty much invented restaurant criticism in America – all he had to do was say, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like,’” she says during a telephone interview.
Now, with so many other voices talking food, both online and off, the critic needs to go much further. “When a restaurant opens, he needs to understand not just what’s on the plate, but also the sounds, the colours, the design,” Reichl explains. “The role of the legitimate critic is to put the restaurant in context and give you the tools to experience it fully.”
The other factor to consider, she says, is bias. “For me, one of the great things about not being a critic is that I could have chefs as friends, which was not possible before.” A chef, meanwhile, is free to recommend the restaurant of a friend or protégé without facing an ethical dilemma. “Chefs run in posses and they can be biased,” Reid agrees.
Of course, one person’s bias is another’s inside info. Where Chefs Eat is just like Adrià’s list on a big scale. And it is fun to see where Marcus Samuelsson wants you to eat breakfast, or René Redzepi likes to go for a bargain glass of wine. But unlike a single critic, who has a voice you get to know and trust over time, the book brings you a blend of opinions and, most likely, a range of standards. In our food-crazed times, there’s room for both the chef’s anecdotal take and the critic’s more impartial one. (The jury’s still out on whether anonymous online reviews have any use at all.)
Thumbing through Where Chefs Eat is voyeuristic and lively, but before you drive across town or fly across the globe for a meal, a little cross-checking might be in order.
Editor's note: Craig Claiborne's name was incorrectly spelled in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.