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What I Learned Being Paid to Eat

Want a good writerly side job?

You’re going to eat anyway. You’re going to write anyway. Get paid to do both!

In the early 1990s, my wife showed me an advertisement in the largest newspaper in Maine. The newspaper was searching for a new anonymous restaurant critic, the old one having lasted just a short time. About five years later, having published 258 restaurant reviews and eaten 790 professional meals, I could understand why the previous critic dropped out.

It’s no picnic being paid to eat.

The features editor and the publisher liked my writing samples and they liked the fact I had spent two years as one of two chefs in an upscale restaurant in Camden, Maine, on the seashore. But they gave me a test, first.

What’s Maine’s most famous food? Everyone knows. When cooked, it’s bright red and has scrawny legs on each side and two big claws in front. Yes! Lobstas.

Here was my test. A new chain restaurant had just opened in the mall located by Maine’s largest city, Portland. It was the chain’s single location in our state. Red Lobster.

Most Mainers turned up their noses. We Mainers know lobstas. Who are these people to come from away and suggest that they know lobstas, too?

My test was – write a 2,500-word piece about Red Lobster and make it persuasive. If the piece was persuasive, I’d get the job.

My companion and I ate twice at Red Lobster (BTW, when a critic refers to the “companion,” it’s generally his or her spouse.) No, the place wasn’t really very good. I already knew what real chefs can do with lobsta.

Puzzle, puzzle, puzzle. The food, service, and atmosphere were distinctly …well, ordinary. Best I could do, score-wise, was a 2 out of 4. (This was before I invented the 5-star scale we used through most of my time.)

So, what was my writing angle? The question in my mind and heart was, why would anyone (from Maine) eat here?

Is it where you take your best girl for date night? No. Is it where you take your kids for the children’s menu? No. Is it where college rowdies go for beer and bar munchies? No. Do retirees come here for the early bird? No; there isn’t one.

But then I suddenly realized when you do go to Red Lobster.

It’s when your uncle is flying to Portand for a corporate sales weekend by the shore, and you haven’t seen him since that one Christmas six years ago, and you can’t really remember how that time had gone socially – but you think he might have talked too much about his politics which if you remember differ from yours – and you assume he wants a lobsta since he’s in Maine after all -- that’s when you go.

You’re saying nothing by choosing this place, just getting him a lobsta, and after that you’ll drop him at his hotel. All done.

I got the job. Soon the other thing the newspaper found that it liked about me was that I was salesman covering all of Maine (so they didn’t need to subsidize my travel), that I really liked the restaurant biz as a biz (so I had insights into how that particular business ran well or didn’t, and why), and that I refused to be a prostitute.

They discovered that last peculiarity of mine when I wrote my fifth review. They didn’t yet know me well. A new high-end boutique Italian restaurant was opening in a prominent spot in Portland. It advertised heavily in our paper. A standard rule for my column was that we did not review a place until it had been open for 3 months.

I was excited to review this place. My companion’s and my first meal were just not good. Our second was just not good either. Our third continued to disappoint. I wrote the review, truthfully, describing each disappointment and why, and gave the food a 1.

Next day, my editor called me in. We sat with the publisher. They went through every sentence of the review, closely questioning me about what I had experienced and why I had written it this particular way. When we were done, the publisher turned to my editor and said, “Run it just the way Dikkon wrote it. This is not prostitution.”

The restaurant tried hard to get me fired; they failed.

After the experience just described, my editor advised me that, if I was going to give a 1 for food, I should call the restaurant in advance of the review’s appearance (every Sunday) and warn them. Among my 258 reviews, I gave a 1 three times.

But there’s the other side of that. The second time I gave a restaurant a 5, I realized I had better call about that in advance just as well.

I gave 7 fives in my almost five years. My second 5 was to a very, very good, but very small haute-bistro in a small coastal town. I had eaten there twice, just to be sure I hadn’t been over enthusiastic the first time. I hadn’t; this guy truly knew how to cook artistically. But my 5 stars blew him out of the water.

Before the review, he’d been accustomed to doing about 20 or 25 covers (plates in restaurant jargon). That Sunday night, he did about 70. During the week, he was frantic to get through about a hundred and a half each night. It was a great review, but it almost killed his business.

That’s what I had been too dumb to realize might happen.

If you’re going to take my advice and get paid to eat, take pity on the poor restaurateurs whom you have complimented highly.

You are the power of the press.

That restaurant you hope will thrive may not have the staff, the food stocks, even the equipment to cope with the diners who will suddenly drive miles to come to their door!

Warn them!

© 2022 Dikkon Eberhart


Dikkon Eberhart is the author of the Percy Black series, Egg Island and Downeast. The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told, Paradise, and On the Verge. Dikkon is a Maine native transplanted recently to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He is a retired salesman, former actor and food critic, and always a writer.


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