Your Opinion Matters

The idea of peer review is typically associated with science. My brother feared a mythological villain known as “The Third Reviewer” more than any childhood bogeyman. The food world is no stranger to reviews either. Frankly, science you have it easy.

Not the best I've ever had

In the food world, true peer review, where chefs are reviewing the work of other chefs, is usually reserved for culinary competitions and reality shows. Instead, we have professional reviewers. These are food journalists, akin to science journalists. They are professionals at reviewing and can vary widely in ability. They may or may not have expertise in the actual creation of restaurant food. They generally have spent a lot of time in and around restaurants. They are not exactly peers, but we try to be very nice to them lest you wind up in Guy Fieri’s shoes.

What scientists generally don’t have is the “everyone else that sits down and orders a plate of food” review. If you are like me, you do a little review in your head every time you sit down at a restaurant to eat. That internalized review might even get shared with your friends and family; but the advent of sites like Yelp have made it possible to broadcast those little reviews to the world.

Peer review of articles and grants can make or break a scientific career. Professional restaurant reviews can make or break a restaurant. So can those amateur, Internet reviews.

In the sciences, peer-review means the reviewer is knowledgeable about the subject matter and has done research themselves that is subject to the review of others. I know that I am not competent to pass judgment on work of my colleagues here at The Finch & Pea who are actively involved in research.

But, you don’t need to have expertise and experience to evaluate whether you like the food you are eating, do you? No, you don’t. We are all entitled to our opinions and tastes. And as they say, there is no accounting for taste.

DE GUSTIBUS NON EST DISPUTANDUM

There may be no accounting for our individual tastes, but, when we post that review of our meal online, someone IS being held accountable for our tastes. It just isn’t us.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. – Anton Ego (Ratatouille)

Diesel Sweeties by Richard Stevens (Original Strip: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial; Adapted with Permission)

Diesel Sweeties by Richard Stevens (Original Strip: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial; Adapted with Permission)

Being critical can be cathartic, and catharsis is pretty enjoyable. We also have to be aware that a critic – be it a peer, a professional, or an amateur out with friends – has power over those they are reviewing.

Consider the job of a chef. Long days, late nights, working weekends and holidays, cuts, burns, years spent work their way up or thousands spent in culinary school (or both). With very few exceptions, we’re not doing it for the paycheck (trust me, it’s a small one). Why then? Why go through all that?

Because we are passionate about food.

We are passionate about creating, about technique, about the effort required to realize a creative vision, and about the experience of dining.

What are you passionate about? Work, travel, being a parent? Now, ask yourself what it would be like to have your passion critiqued in a public forum. That’s not fun. Now, imagine that your livelihood is wrapped up in that passion. For many restaurants, which operate as small businesses, this is the case. Negative reviews not only cut to the heart of the passion chefs pour into their work, but chip away at the financial foundations of these small businesses.

I am not advocating for an end to negative reviews. Criticism breeds growth and change, and inadequate work deserves criticism.

I am advocating for thoughtfulness. Bear in mind that review you are posting has consequences beyond your feeling of self-satisfaction – consequences that affect the lives of people who are putting their hearts, souls, and often savings accounts into what they are doing.

Before you put your opinion out there for the world to see, ask yourself, “Was the food prepared poorly or simply not to your tastes?” You may also want to ask yourself if you have the experience and knowledge to tell the difference. I know that when it comes to my brother’s field of work I certainly don’t have either. My knowledge of my lack of knowledge informs the critiques I am willing to level at the latest scientific research.

Don’t be the author of a three-out-of-five star review who writes, “It wasn’t the best I ever had.” This sad individual must lead a life of constant disappointment if they expect the best they ever had at every meal, even at every expensive meal. The mind boggles at the euphoric experience that would be required to earn five stars in the eyes of such a reviewer.

You want to be the reviewer that provides thoughtful commentary on the level of service with realistic expectations of what the level of service should be in that restaurant. You want to be the person who understands that the true test of a restaurant is not whether there was a problem during your dining (we do try very hard to avoid these), but how it responds to those issues that “just happen” (eg, servers calling in sick, equipment breaking, an error on an order, etc.). You want to provide focused comments on how the food was prepared, not just how well it matched up to your subjective tastes.

Reviews like that not only provide other potential customers a more accurate evaluation of a restaurant (again, I’m not advocating for giving bad restaurants a critical pass), but they help restaurants do their job better. So, next time you’re logging in to pen a pithy and scathing review, take a moment to consider the real costs of your cathartic moment and whether you are using your power as a critic to make things better or just to indulge yourself.

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3 responses to “Your Opinion Matters

  1. I’m curious as to why a 3 out of 5 review is considered bad. 3 stars to me is a like. 4 stars means I loved it. 5 stars is where the food and service are amazing. I would go to a restaurant with 3 of 5 reviews. It seems to me that we have seen review inflation to some degree.

    One difficulty in figuring out a review is value. Most people can’t afford expensive meals too often. You expect amazing meals and service. If you don’t have that experience, you can have a more negative feeling than if it was at a lower cost restaurant. That could explain why people give poor reviews since they are rating their perceived value.

    One other problem is that some people review after one visit to a restaurant rather than after several. Getting something to your taste is a crap shoot at times as the descriptions of dishes can be undecipherable on some menus. Servers don’t always have a lot of time to explain. I would ask that restaurants do a better job of explaining dishes on their menus.

    • I think you are correct about the appropriate use of a five star rating system. The way it is implemented by the rest of society, however, makes three stars a bad review. This is less a “rating” problem and more a “signaling” problem.

      Under your accurate system, three stars still would not match up well with the “not the best I’ve ever had” statement.

  2. I’d agree with just about everything rogerthegeek notes and I think it highlights the idea of thoughtful review. The idea of expectations in a dining experience is important. If I go into a dining experience expecting a life changing meal, it is easy to have a poor experience. The meal could be fabulous, but still not live up to my expectations and that definitely degrades the experience. In scientific testing, preexisting prejudices skewing outcomes is the reason for double blinds. That won’t work in trying out restaurants, so the best we can advocate for is thoughtfulness and being reasonable in setting expectations. Value can absolutely be a factor in determining reasonable expectations. In general, the more expensive the restaurant the better the food, but it is faulty to use that as a universal axiom. The cost of a meal is not only great tasting food, but a high level of service, decor, demand, and, most often, location. Restaurants in New York don’t cost more because the food is better, they cost more because the rent is high. (*note: I know New York has outstanding food, but so do a lot of other places)

    One thing I believe you should set high expectations for in a fine dining experience in service. As a chef I firmly believe that service is just as important as the food. Great service can turn an ordinary meal extraordinary and poor service can ruin a spectacularly prepared dish. If I am going to write a negative review about a place, it will almost universally be about the service. In a truly great restaurant, the menu should be merely a prop for the server. The excitement and anticipation for the food should emanate from them.

    Lastly, I absolutely agree that a three-star review shouldn’t be considered bad. Unfortunately, it is. I don’t see a lot of three-star reviews that say “The meal was exactly what I expected, I would dine here a again.” For the most part, they are critical. Nothing catastrophically bad, but not positive. I seems more often that reviews are written with five-stars being the expectation and then points are deducted from there. I think roger is spot on that three-stars should be the baseline. Award extra stars for exceeding expectations and subtracting stars for not meeting them. I think if we could convince every reviewer to also throwing a line or two in explaining what their dining expectation were, we would be a lot closer to thoughtful and useful reviews.

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