PROPOSAL: A NEW DIRECTION FOR FOOD CRITICISM AT THE GAZETTE

my name is Jonathan Randell Smith. I’m thirty-eight years old and work as a freelance translator and writer. That’s me above. (I do smile a lot in person.)

This proposal comprises two sections: my ideas for restaurant criticism at the Gazette and why I am THE ideal candidate. -jrs

Section one: a new direction.

I. Food is huge.

Bigger than ever, in fact: restaurants sell shirts; chefs are pop-culture icons; social media swarms with images of brunch, lunch and dinner. Food writing and restaurant criticism has the potential to attract more readers, including a younger audience.

Of course, you could argue that conventional criticism is done, and has drowned in a sea of Yelp reviews, Instagram “influencers”, and food bloggers. Fair point.

Or, you could look at it another way: Old-school critics have been outdone by young people with smartphones and social media accounts who, in many cases, know very little about food, cooking or restaurants.

II. Face the competition.

To be relevant nowadays, the critic needs to get in the game, and attract attention by virtue of their authoritative knowledge and ability to write well. Amidst all the noise, superior content does stand out.

Adapting also involves widening the scope. Imagine, for example, if the Gazette’s automotive section covered only luxury cars—wouldn’t exactly appeal to the common person. Same goes for restaurants.

Not to mention, in recent years, some of the most exciting and interesting food in the city has come from the lower price ranges (see my review of Pumpui for an example).This trend will continue.

III. Food critics without borders.

I suggest replacing the fine dining column with reviews of restaurants in all price ranges. Still cover the high end, but do so less frequently (e.g. 75/25 casual to fine). Approach all establishments with the same level of integrity and respect. (This is what Jonathan Gold did in L.A., for example.)

In addition, the column can actively seek out unfamiliar restaurants outside of the usual suspects, i.e. “investigative” food criticism. Be ahead of the curve, not behind the times.

IV. The fault in our stars.

But what about stars? Problem is, they require multiple visits. (Lesley Chesterman’s final review, “Toqué! can’t be summed up by a single meal”, makes that much pretty clear.)

Of course, more visits mean more money. My suggestions:

Drop the star system and adopt a review style that can accommodate single visits (e.g. Jay Rayner in the Guardian UK, or see my review of Speceriet in Stockholm).

Or, do star reviews less frequently–the paper could combine them in a monthly food issue with “Beyond the Plate”, for example. Multiple visits might be an option, if the paper is saving a lot of money overall.

V. What’s in it for the Gazette?

Oh, plenty. For example:

  • More content for less money.
    Obviously.
  • More relevance to more readers.
    People participate and engage, because they can try more of the restaurants themselves.
  • More interest and excitement.
    Readers have no idea where the Gazette is going next.
  • More respect.
    Fine dining reviews, being less frequent, carry more weight.

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Section two: why i’m THE ideal candidate.

I. Extensive food knowledge.

I love food: I’ve eaten it, cooked it, studied it, read about it, thought about it and talked about it almost obsessively for decades. As a result, I know far more than the average person–even the average “foodie”.

II. Extensive restaurant knowledge.

I know a great deal about the industry, both in terms of how restaurants function as well as contemporary and historical context. Thanks to experience in professional cooking, I’m not naive to the realities of restaurant work.

III. Excellent writing skills.

I am a capable and confident writer, which comes from a lifelong passion for the written word.

Ten years of translating a wide variety of topics have also made me flexible: I can tailor to the format and audience with ease.

I am not, however, a complacent writer: I long to work with a professional publication and grow in my craft.

IV. Social media savvy.

I’m very familiar with social media tools and exploit them to gain exposure and build my “brand” with a little effort, but no cost.

V. Portfolio

What follows is a selection of some of my work. I think it demonstrates range as well as my competence and potential as a writer.

 “I Maestri della Pasta: Impasto”
(Fine dining. Positive.)
My most recent review.

“Restaurant Parody: Pastaga”
(Fine dining. Negative.)
This review shows how I approach negative criticism, i.e. as fairly and honestly as possible, by building a case.

“Shophouse Montréalais: Épicerie Pumpui”
(Casual dining. Positive.)
One of my most popular articles and an example of how I approach casual restaurants.

“Pizza Quest: Margherita-ville”
(Casual dining. Comprehensive.)
People love this article: I wrote about margherita pizzas from a dozen different pizzerias in the city. It’s my Montreal pizza epic and a great read.

“Fork, Witless Bay, Newfoundland”
(Fine dining. Positive.)
An example both of writing reviews from a single visit and based on travel.

“Parasol Bar à Vin: A Promising Summer Pop-up”
(Fine dining. Positive.)
I include this, my first review, because I wrote about it in 2017, well ahead of La Presse and Le Devoir, who reviewed it a year later. To my knowledge, the Gazette did not review it.

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