Being a food critic

Penelope Walsh learns that a food critic's eating habits are always scrutinised

Last word, The Knowledge

When I was 16, I did a stint of work experience at a TV channel in London. ‘TV,’ my supervisor told me, ‘is the only industry where, even when you go home after work, it’s impossible to switch off. Well, that and the food industry.’

And when it comes to working in food, I can tell you he wasn’t wrong. If you spend all day writing about edible items, it’s very difficult not to spend much of your time feeling peckish.

But, as a food editor, it turns out I’m not the only one whose thoughts are constantly influenced by my day job. Apparently, for many of my friends, the spectre of food criticism also plays on their minds, whether it’s me who’s cooking dinner or them.

My relationship with one flatmate never quite recovered after she asked me what I was cooking for dinner. It was something akin to crostini with caramelised apples and goat’s cheese. ‘Sort of cheese on toast,’ I said. She looked at me, then at my food, with suspicion. On the other hand, my taste for simple, old-school British cooking – our equivalent of Italy’s cucina povera (see, I had to add in a foodie note) – is always met with equal surprise. If I fancy fish and chips or a cheese sandwich, it’s apparently just as unexpected as flying fish roe.

Being a guest at dinner parties is yet more of a minefield. Contrary to popular belief, I’m an easy, unfussy guest and won’t be rating the experience using a Come Dine With Me-style scorecard. Yet for those who’ve been brave enough to offer me an invite, a strange self-deprecating anxiety seems to come with every course. ‘The rice didn’t quite turn out as I planned;’ ‘I didn’t have time to buy fresh chillis, so I used dried flakes;’ ‘It was meant to be rare, but it’s a little over-done’.

The other regular ruse is blaming someone else first. ‘I got the recipe from Jim, but we’ll see if it’s any good.’ Honestly, unless you bring me a bill afterwards, I won’t be judging you, or Jim. If you’re passionate about food, when others take the time and effort to share their own with you, it instils and engenders great affection.

Far from being intimidated by my interest in food, one friend takes it a step further. When I can’t make one of her dinner parties, she’s been known to save a portion of her delicious Mediterranean concoction for me to try. A love of food is wonderful, but it’s even better when it is shared.

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