Locally Grown

Food Criticism: It’s Not Horseplay

It’s refreshing to see that so many of you have such strong opinions regarding the desired credentials of the people who have been charged with the task of influencing your opinion with their…opinion.
Some of you have tried making a distinction between Food Writers, Food Critics, Restaurant Critics, Restaurant Reviewers, Entertainment Writers, and Yelpers, BUT you can toss around words like Foal, Mare, Colt, Filly, or Stallion, but a horse is still a horse.  If you choose to review food or a restaurant (professionally or on a user-reviewed site like Yelp), you are really trying to throw yourself into the same stable as the rest of the neighing nay-sayers.  This is one of the reasons I don’t “review” restaurants here, and if you took a look at the first Locally Grown post which i re-posted last week, you would maybe understand where I am coming from.

Do we need restaurant reviewists?  We do. Do we need sweeping food review reform? Probably not.  Unlike the policies force-fed to us by our elected officials, the word of a reviewer can and should be taken with a little subjectivity.  Ok, maybe my coffee intake has overtaken my ability to turn a sensible sentence.

We DO need people who are willing to venture out to new dining spots and share the story of their experience with others who may not be able to get out as often to try new spots, or may not have the financial or time resources to spare on an unknown venture.  There is nothing wrong with being careful with your wallet/purse or your tastebuds, and you careful diners have to be thankful for those who would help you avoid making a dining experience into your own personal tar baby.

Reviews can help you ensure your next dining experience doesn't end up like this.

In this case a review can be a valuable asset.  BUT the problem is trust.  Should you trust a particular reviewer or publication?  Should you put the fate of your hard earned money and free time in the hands of a stranger?  Have you ever been disappointed by a restaurant after reading a glowing review?  I have.  Hell, I have even gone to work at a particular kitchen because of its popularity within the reviewer crowd only to be fully let down.

What does all of this gibberish mean?  (it’s funny, you would think that stepping away from the bottle for a length of time would make for more coherent posts) I will try to sum this up one more time:

LG Tips For Successful Ventures Into Unknown Dining

  • Friends – First and foremost you should have, or find, a friend or colleague whom has similar taste as you, and has an adventurous spirit which propels them into the dining world.
  • Social Media – Use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to your advantage.  You can begin networking with like-minded diners from your area and find some hidden gems that would have otherwise escaped your grasp.
  • User Review Sites – Yes, read reviews on popular web search sites in addition to user-reviewer sites such as Yelp and the like.  Yes, I warn you about trusting these sites…but not all of the reviews are from deck stacking restaurant staff or disgruntled diners/former employees.  With a little reading and research you can find some trustworthy folks.  Right, Jordan?
  • The Print Press – The Physically Printed On Paper crew are a good resource for finding newly opened or soon-to-open spots.  Your local newspaper (sometimes) has an entertainment staff with ears to the ground listening for the faint footsteps of an approaching restaurant opening.  You can also get a valuable history lesson on the dining scene from people who have been dining…professionally…for a number of years. You can also be misled by someone with years of “beef” built up with the local Restaurateurs and Chefs.  Approach the words of the “pro” with the same caution you would use as the “Yelper.”
  • Food Bloggers – Local food bloggers are a valuable resource.  These people have invested the time and money in their own web presence and generally take their writing serious.  This is another avenue which you have to explore carefully, read their blogs and get to know their taste.  If they have written about a restaurant you frequented, compare your experience with theirs.  If there are discrepancies contact the blogger and open a discussion.  Most bloggers are more than helpful when it comes to explaining what they have written about.
  • Insiders – Do you know someone on the “inside?”  Shirley Surely you know someone who works in a restaurant (this seems elementary to me as all of my friends know someone who works in a restaurant).  This doesn’t really pertain to chains, those folks IMO and experience know nothing about the local dining scene.  I am talking about insiders who work at places like Django, Alba, Centro, 801, and the like.  These folks usually have worked at a few of the local spots and know the food and service provided.  Pick their brains, even when dining at their restaurants. I know this sounds a little tacky, but I am sure anyone reading this has the ability to wind a yarn around the situation.

The message here is such:  You have to do some research, spend a little time poking around.  Your money and time is valuable, and Our Fair City has an almost inordinate amount of restaurants vying for your financial attention.  Don’t trust just one source, there is no “Food Guru” (although one guy tried convincing you of this) which can espouse every bit of knowledge you need to make a decision.  Don’t trust a “star” system, trust your own taste and ingenuity.

My last bit of advice is DON’T TRUST ANONYMOUS INTERWEB REVIEWERS.  If you don’t have the cajones to attach your real identity to your opinion, it must not matter that much to you.  These people are what I often like to refer to as “Culinary Cowards” (not to be confused with Culinary Cow) are often just talking a bunch of crap.  Go back to AOL chat rooms with your BS, CC.  We don’t need you here.

Culinary Cow Sez: Trust your tastebuds, but keep them away from ME!

Now get out there and eat (Local)!

The Cook.

P.S. feel free to ask me for dining ideas (FB Sam Auen, Twitter @VegChefDSM, Email locallygrowndsm@gmail.com).  I HAVE most of the information you need at my disposal


A Conundrum Of Critical (Food) Criticism
2011/01/20, 8:43 am
Filed under: Local Food Commentary, restaurant reviews | Tags: , , , ,

Dear (Tens Of) Readers,

Sometimes in life our ears act as catcher’s mitts to fastball rants and curve ball truth-smearings, but once in a while our cartilaganeous (yes, I just made that up) sound-capture-holes bear witness to such a simple yet precise change-up which effectively closes out the game.  Such a query befell the ear-atuses of a local food critic this past weekend during a seemingly routine visit to one of the DMZ’s newest and most innovative dining concepts.  A person at this food venture struck up a conversation with this local Food Critic went (according to the account which squeaked by my ear lobes and landed in my brain lobes) a little something like this:

Person: “Oh, so you are a food critic.”

Critic: “yes, I am.”

Person: “Are you a chef?”

Critic: “No…”

Person:  “Well, then how do you know how to write about food?”

Critic “…”

Wow.  The “Person” just blew my mind.  All of this debate about what qualifies as good food criticism and whether food critics should even be considered legitimate (especially due to the recent bias and favorite playing of a  13 year vet…or is it 14 now) has just taken a turn toward home.  (please excuse the baseball references, I am just trying to wash away the single digit temperatures by thinking of spring)  Would you rather take your dining cues from someone who knows the food from a kitchen and service standpoint, or would you like to continue tuning in to the eating advice reception from a handful of “Professional Diners” around the state/country who seem to yearn more for whatever they are reviewing to conform to some ideal they formulated in another country/restaurant/bar?  To some wildly mild aesthetic that comforts the person writing the review?  What about real facts, real discussions of food and technique, objective, unbiased reviews of service and value without regard to the reviewer’s personal prejudice toward the reviewed cuisine, concept, restaurateur, chef, or light fixtures?

You, my tens of readers, have been duped on many occasion by restaurant reviewers around the world.  These business or journalism school grads don’t really know food like the women and men who have chosen a path to culinary glory, but they know how to write words.  There have to be a few out there who transcend this problem, who crosses the line drawn in the sand between the food professional and the food critic.

“Are you a chef?  Then how do you know how to write about food?”

The Cook

Defection, Deflection, Datebook Dissection aka Wini-Gate

Note: This post was originally written on Thursday, but due to time constraints was not finished or posted.  I am including the original post, but more of the story has unfolded…so now this is happening:

Wini-Gate part 1

Being inside the kitchen-sphere gives one a great insider view into the hearts and minds of those who have decided that they have what it takes to please the palates of the eating public.  One of the common complaints from these hard working owners and chefs, after bad customers and slow business, is the dreaded Restaurant Reviewer.  Cries of foul play, unfairness, favorites, and the like can escalate into the more-popular-than-you-would-think “well, if I see that so-and-so come into MY restaurant, I will just tell them to leave.”  This is a comment that is generally prefaced by much drinking or similar shenanigans, and is always a tough talking empty threat…until now.


La Mie Owner Joe Logsdon ended what could be hundreds of years of threats of denial towards Reviewers this week with the shocking treatment of our very own Datebook Diner.  DD and her Husband attempted to enjoy dinner at La Mie (Now that La Mie has purged itself of Le Jardin, which was a restaurant which served dinner in the La Mie spot and was owned by former Grand Piano Bistro chef Tag Grandgeorge), when they were met with the Brick Wall of Denial from Mr. Logsdon.  To get the inside story on what happened you should read DD’s account of the event. My truncated version is this:  Winni and her husband showed up very close to closing time, were met by owner Logsdon, and were turned away.  I, for one, and pretty shocked at this brazen denial of not only someone who would like some food, but someone who’s opinion on food is generally trusted by the general public.

But does the general public (that means you) need to rely on the opinion of a few professional foodies, or are we ready to trust our digital peers?

Added Friday, Dec 3:

There has been much dicussion/argument regarding Wini-Gate as to who was right or wrong in this situation and I firmly stand on the side of Mr. Logsdon.  I know that those of you who follow me on twitter were treated to a “you don’t know the whole story” while trying to argue for the DD’s valor, and I am sticking to my story.  I WILL share the other side of this incident when and if I speak to the guy who reached down, grabbed his stuff, squeezed a little, and felt that pain that lets you know that you have cajones to fly that Mission Accomplished flag, Joe Logsdon.  Joe, who may go down as a hero to anyone out there in the industry who wanted to treat their local food critic to a little bird watching.

Anyhoo, i suppose I should go earn a real living at my actual job.  This will earn you all a special Saturday edition of Locally Grown, as we aim to stir the turd in the punch bowl until it is properly incorporated in the punch party we call the DMZ Dining Scene.

The Cook

The Name’s Beard, James Beard (Awards)

Another Monday is upon us, greeting some of us with in warm wash of sunshine on our shoulders (which reportedly makes people happy), and climbing on the backs of others.  Whatever, it’s just Monday (although I hear Tuesday is just as bad), and it will pass.  It’s funny how even though many of us who are employed in the food industry consider ACTUAL Monday as our perceived Saturday or Sunday, Monday still holds in it’s grubby little paws the same lack of appeal and hardships as it does for those of you who are kicking it Monday through Friday style.  It could have something to do with trying to keep up with the weekend festivities that the rest of the “normal” work force are partaking in while also trying to keep our “shit” together as we work the busy, grueling (well, I hope it’s busy and grueling for everyone) Friday and Saturday shifts…and some of you REALLY lucky folks get the benefit of working Sunday Morning duh duh duuuuuuh…..Brunch.   What’s the point?  I forget, honestly.  Something about the Equal Opportunity nature of Monday’s wiles.  Um…lost it.

I heard from a local source that it is again time for The 2011 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards nomination process to begin.  This is an exciting time of the year for Chefs around the country, as getting a JBA is akin to winning an Oscar for your food.  (I was planning on making some kind of beard joke here, but that would be disrespectful to one of the greatest culinarians…ever).  (ok, I am just going to go ahead with the joke).

Although a righteous beard, it is not the kind we are talking about here.


Personally, I don’t get very excited about the James Beard Awards, as I will never be on that level and the chances of a chef from Our Fair City nabbing the Best Chef award from the grips of someone from a larger city in our region (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD, WI) are more than slim.  It’s still fun to watch and speculate.  Kansas City, Minneapolis, Madison, and Milwaukee all have some great chefs, so what do we have?  Here are the guidelines for the award, from the James Beard Foundation web site:

Chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions. Candidates may be from any kind of dining establishment and must have been working as a chef for at least five years with the three most recent years spent in the region.

I think two-time Cochon555 winner Matt Steigerwald of Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon, Iowa is going to be my first pick.  Chef Steigerwald has decimated the competition at Cochon and managed to get a 5 star review in the Datebook.  He has definitely set both new and consistent standards in our region (especially in Iowa), and meets the time in service constraints.  His staff is knowledgeable, respectful, and super nice.  At Cochon 2008, Chef Steigerwald’s people made me a great vegetarian dinner from the ingredients they were using for the competition dishes.  Great Stuff.

Second Choice, George Formaro.  George has done more to change the face of dining in Des Moines more than any other chef/business owner in the last decade.  He is the drive behind such local favorites as South Union Bread Cafe, Django, Centro,Jorge’s Tacos (at the Downtown Farmer’s Market), and Gateway Market not to mention that his South Union Bakery makes the bread served by most of the better restaurants in central Iowa.  I would really like to see George step back from his enormous machine and take a year to operate ONLY one small (fifty=ish seats) restaurant.  I would wager that it would be quite an experience for diners and Chef Formaro alike.

Those are my choices for this year.  Who are yours?  Discuss.


The Cook

Hooooly Chow! A Hairy Carry!

Yesterday LG covered the aftermath of what is currently Our Fair City’s “Defining Moment of International Culinary Capacity,” the Adam Emmenecker Sandwich challenge as sort-of-tackled by Travel Channel star and Slop Jockey Adam Richman.  In the end what/who tackled what/who was lost in the fray of yet another ploy to illicit the help of the city’s “Food Press” to further the global acknowledgement of our locavore-istas and the chef-driven local food scene here in Iowa.  We heard from the Food Dude (via my facebook account, you can “friend me” there for more musings.)  regarding his dealings with food television producers, and the Illustrious Datebook Diner, who was as inquisitive as ever.  Let’s see if we can turn back time and find a way to cull forth her comment…(The following is in no way an attack on DD, but since she summed up many good points in her comment, this is happening.)

[rubs magic jaunty light fixture]

La Bonne Femme: Well, maybe there’s an adverse connection between our “gluttonous portion lack of control” and the finesse/precision/creativity of our cuisine. When quantity is valued over quality, bi-coastal food scouts aren’t going to pay much attention.

I see the point, but quantity is valued over quality in every city around the country, in one restaurant or another.  Food Scouts go either to the “Big 5,” NYC, SF, LA, PDX, CHI, or to Places Of Interest As Promoted By Said Places Of Interest.  You have to create a “buzz” or “rattle” around your food scene to get noticed, especially in a small market such as Des Moines.  This is where the “credibility” of the actual print press can come in handy, hence the call to um…arms? pens? You get the point.

Also, on the chef-driven local food scene, what can you get here that you can’t find at good restaurants in many places? What makes DSM stand out? Lots of cities in the country lie close to agricultural abundance….

All True, except that Iowa is supposed to be the Agricultural Center of this Tootsie Pop we call America.  How many licks will it take to get to the center? Huh?

it’s what chefs do with the goods that makes news.

Yes, but it is really what the NEWS WRITERS do with the news of what the chefs are doing with the goods that makes a difference.  News is just marketing with a little more credibility in this equation, so get out there and spread the words.  There are chefs that are kicking some culinary ass around here, and they aren’t getting the due that they deserve.  This is a problem.  You can’t get noticed if your head is buried in the sand.  Just ask any ostrich.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the food scene here, but I just wonder what you think would be worth the country’s attention, as in, You HAVE to go to Des Moines to eat at __________.

(I have an answer, but you go first.)

Ok, I will go first.  In fact, the first draft of yesterday’s nonsense-a-thon included a list.  Here is another version of it, in not much of an order:

  1. Alba
  2. Cafe Di Scala
  3. Azalea
  4. Baru 66
  5. The entire Asian Cuisine phenomenon (I realize this is not a restaurant)
  6. Lincoln Cafe

There are many others, but I am on a time constraint here.

Here is MY point:  The writers of Juice, the Register, Cityview, and all other major news outlet type things: Please listen to what I am saying here.  I, along with many local chefs and restaurateurs, implore you to use your influence and maybe a little of your free time to lift up the Food Scene.  Help elevate it to the “next level” by working with other media outlets, in other cities, to form some kind of partnership…and maybe, now that we have our proverbial foot in television’s door, we can let the world know what is happening in the great city of Des Moines.



The Cook

Des Moines Vs. Food Television

Last night saw the airing of the Des Moines edition of famed gorge-tastic eating challenge show “Man Vs. Food” on the Travel Channel.  Host Adam Richman visited the High Life Lounge for some Broasted Chicken and Bacon-Wrapped Tots, then traveled to Jethro’s BBQ in Dogtown (that’s the Drake Neighborhood, for those of you not in the know) for a shot at the Famed/Feared 5 pound Adam Emmenecker Sandwich.

This Will Hurt You.

The challenge involves eating over 5lbs of food in 15 minutes or less.  A fools game that has been attempted many times (and from all accounts, a dozen more shots at the title were made during the episode’s showing at Jethro’s last night) but accomplished by only two people.  Two. At the end of the episode we learn that Adam Richman was NOT number three.  Not even close, and there is no shame in his game.  He came, he saw, his eyes bugged out a little, he ate, he did not win.  An admirable effort, but against a too-potent adversary.

We can all rejoice that the Travel Channel has (kind of) finally done right by our fair city, albeit not for its culinary prowess, but for its gluttonous portion-lack-of-control.  I, along with many others, would have liked to seen the Heartland episode of No Reservations air with some DeMo footage, but that was never in the cards according to the producers of said show.  There was also a rumor that the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” was in town to film, but no footage has aired.

What is my point?  My point is a question.  What has DSM been doing to warrant such a reaction from the Filmed Food Press?  Especially in this day and age of “anything food-related can make a television show,” we should be seeing some sort of feedback from the mass media of not only our rising toward culinary glory, but the fact that chefs from around the country have been relocating (or considering relocating) to our area to be in the midst of the farms and fields that produce the fresh, quality ingredients that they crave.  Sure, there are many other cities with great local food scenes, but none of them, in my opinion, come close to having the access to agriculture to which we here in Central Iowa are accustomed.  Maybe the producers of said food shows haven’t found the right chef/kitchen/restaurant to feature, only the right food challenges.  My challenge to the press:  Put us on the map for the food that is happening, not just the portions.

Chew on that for a minute or fifteen.


The Cook.




Sweet Baby G-bus! It’s A Miracle!/The Assigment
2010/10/04, 4:40 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Here it is, a wonderful October Monday Morning, the Sun is embracing the DezMoz/DMI/DSM/DeM Metro Area in a glorious hug of warm rays, the cool autumn air crisp and clean, and some other nice things, including NO COMPLAINTS FROM ME.  Yes, a miracle has truly taken place this weekend…it was very much like that Ice Cube song, “Today Was A Good Day,” but more like “Todays Was Some Good Days.”

This is where you would have seen the chart I had prepared based on the happenings of Ice Cube’s Good Day vs. an Average Day vs. A Bad Day vs. This past weekend, but since I use Ubuntu/Open Office, I could not save the graph as a WordPress-friendly file type.  If anyone has any advice regarding this problem, other than switching my OS, let me know.

Instead, you get this partial flow chart from www.geekologie.com

Today DOES Seem Kinda Odd...

My chart was more situation-specific, but whatever.  Thankfully the Geekologie geeks know how to utilize graphic editing software.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a ton of complaints from the last week, but this weekend trumped/erased from memory said issues.  Instead, let’s do something different.

This week I would like all of you to visit your favorite restaurant, you can do this solo or bring a group.  Doesn’t sound to difficult so far, does it?  I would like you to enjoy your favorite meal served by your favorite server/cashier/drive-thru attendant/lunch lady/sandwich artist/etc (hey, not everyone’s favorite restaurant is fine dining, you would be shocked to find out my favorite spot to eat, as I would possibly be shocked to find out yours).  When the meal is over, thank the people who prepared (the chef, the burger flipper, the taco guy, etc) and served your food.  I mean REALLY thank them.  Not in the “this is the best service I have had, then leave a crappy tip” kind of way, but in the “I truly and sincerely appreciate all that you have done to make me a happy repeat customer then tip well, if it is a tipping situation” kinda way.  A light sprinkling of complements on top of the Donut Of Food Service-itude goes a long way.

The Donut Of Foodservice-itude Awaits Your Sprinkles

Let’s review the steps:

  1. Go to favorite restaurant
  2. Enjoy meal and service
  3. Let the people responsible know how much you appreciate them and their food.

You could even take this a step further and contact the establishment via the mail or interweb to compliment them a second time (after you have complimented in person).  These people have worked hard to make you happy.  Show them some love.

That is assignment number one.  Assignment number two is as follows:

  1. Think of a restaurant you enjoy which you “discovered” through a print review.
  2. Send the Reviewer/Critic an email or “tweet” thanking them for turning you on to said eatery.

Even easier (unless you can’t think of an instance where a food critic/restaurant reviewer steered you to a good restaurant, which I find highly unlikely) than assignment one.

You have your assignments, now get out there and spread the love!

The Cook