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Ruth Reichl: "What is a Critic?"

The legendary critic differentiates between her role and the soap opera challenge diners'.

Walking back onto the set of Top Chef Masters was like coming to a huge family reunion: big smiles, hugs all around, so great to see everyone. A fast hour of catching up: how’s you’re kid?, what’s been happening?, can you believe this weather?

Then it’s clothes, make-up, and before you know, it you’re back on the set.

Only this time I’m on the set with another family, the cast of Days of Our Lives, who’ve been working together for so long they finish each other’s sentences. It was fascinating. Thrilling. Exhilarating. 

Until tasting time. 

And then I found myself asking: “What is a critic?”

Critics aren’t smarter than other people, and they don’t necessarily have better taste. But they spend their lives thinking about food, and in the course of their careers, they accumulate an enormous amount of knowledge  A critic’s job, ultimately, is to transcend her own tastes and judge the food on its own merits. The question isn’t, “Do I like this dish?” but “Is it good?” Is it original? How does it compare to similar dishes? Where does it fall in the history of this dish? How well did the chef execute it?

Good critics bring their knowledge of food with them when they come to the table, and it’s in their heads with every bite. Taste memory is important; while they eating they’re comparing this dish to others that they’ve eaten before. They’re considering its history, thinking about where the ideas came from, when the dish was first served, how it changed over time. So when a good critic bites into a dish, she’s not just tasting this dish, but also tasting its history.  

The cast of Days of Our LIves are smart, charming, and they’re great eaters. It was enormous fun to share a meal with them. They’re clearly knowledgable about food. But they’re not critics. And frankly, it just killed me to kick Odette off the show for a virtually perfect interpretation of a classic raviolo. Only a master chef could have made that dish. 

That said, I was completely happy with the winning dish in this competition. Jennifer’s seared duck breast and citrus-chili sausage dish was not only a smart, sneaky take on the theme, it was also beautifully executed and a joy to eat. She took a classic -- duck a l’orange -- and made it completely her own. In a word, she murdered the competition.