A food critic is tasked with supplying printed and web publications with original written copy that they can use as part of their features on food, drink and restaurant reviews.
A food or restaurant critic is a writer who specialises in the areas of food and drink. Often, the critic will be required to attend new restaurant launches, special themed nights and trade shows. They must supply original content for use by the publication in their lifestyle and entertainment guides. It is a specialised writing job where the critic must have knowledge appropriate to the industry, and be able to discuss food presentation, service experience and food flavour in an engaging and informative way.
Larger lifestyle publications will employ a writer to cover this subject matter in an ongoing way, although a majority of critics work freelance, supplying content to various newspapers and magazines. Those who work for a magazine on a full-time contract will usually be expected to cover feature areas outside their specialist subject, so may also be asked to supply reviews of property or entertainment venues from time to time.
Specialised writers who have a full-time placement with a specific magazine will typically earn between £11,000 and £18,000 per year, based on average earnings for 2009 for the London area. Writers outside the capital tend to be freelancers, as the work is more sporadic. Often, the job is remunerated on a “per word” basis, although a typical 600-word article is usually worth around £70. Rates of pay for freelancers with very well-known international lifestyle magazines are better, and a feature may be worth around £120.
There are, of course, the additional perks of being able to attend very exclusive restaurants and receiving invitations to exclusive social events. Due to the nature of freelancing, a lot of food critics will work in other areas of journalism to pay the bills, and most will have an unrelated full-time job whilst they are making a name for themselves in their chosen field.
- Deliver clear and consistent appraisal of restaurant standards and food quality.
- Supply original, focused and engaging written copy to newspapers or magazines.
- Manage own time effectively to secure additional freelance writing jobs.
- Meet publishing deadlines.
- Depending on the size of the publication, some critics are also asked to supply original photography, or liaise with the venue in order to secure usage of their own photos.
- Be able to interview industry leaders and venue representatives.
- Deliver a written argument in a clear and unbiased way.
There are no formal academic qualifications which are required to perform this job. Anyone can elect to be a freelance writer, although most people choose to specialise in a specific subject area, which in turn demands knowledge and insight into that topic; food writing is no exception. Traditionally, it is an area where a writer’s flair for the written word is allowed to flourish, so a good understanding of creative writing and language expression is essential in supplying exciting copy.
Some writers express the belief that an A level in English is a benefit, although this does not guarantee that the writer will have a strong ability in being able to convey an exciting or authoritative written argument for use as copy.
- Understanding of reader expectations for food quality appraisal and service standards at various levels.
- Have an intuitive appreciation for creative writing, and an articulated gift for words.
- A broad and sensitive palate is an important and somewhat unique attribute.
- Be able to manage a dynamic “social calendar”, and be mobile enough to travel, sometimes over a considerable distance.
- Be a good manager of time constraints and managing multiple copy projects simultaneously.
Despite the travelling and continual need to sample restaurants spread over a city or even larger geographical area, a majority of the food critic’s work takes place at home. For this reason, it is classed as a low-risk working activity, although candidates should make themselves aware of appropriate health and safety risks involved because of the extended time spent in front of the computer. Some reviews or events can mean several days away from home too, so this can have an impact upon family life, should this be a consideration. A combination of deadline demands and the need to travel on several days of the week can lead to a potentially stressful working situation, and it is crucial that the critic can handle stress and time management responsibilities in an effective way.
Many food critics will typically start by organising their own visits to restaurants and events they like, and then creating their own personal portfolio of reviews and features. The critic is then armed with appropriate material for submission to publications. As with most freelance jobs, finding new work becomes easier with each published article, so it starts out as virtually impossible and gets more simple from there. Candidates should be aware that this is a popular and competitive subject area, and so it can be difficult to get a foot in the door. Established food writers can become quite well known, and a hectic first year can be enough to establish a portfolio of regular, paying publishing clients.
Normally, most critics begin by looking at well-known “foody” magazines, such as BBC Good Food, Food Quarter, or any one of a number of supermarket customer magazines. It does not take long for the writer to realise that these publications are inundated with potential feature ideas, and so it pays to spread their wings and look elsewhere. Most fashion and lifestyle magazines, and most newspapers also, have a section dedicated to food and drink, so some legwork is required to find a potential freelance spot. Often, the critic will need to look at publications abroad also, as it creates the possibility of finding new and exciting freelance partnerships with less threat from competition.
Also known as…
- Restaurant critic
- Food writer
- Food journalist
- Freelance writer
- Travel writer
What’s it really like?
Laurence Civil is a freelance food and wine writer, and is based currently in the Thai capital, Bangkok.
What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?
I used to work for British Airways as a ticket agent at Gatwick Airport. The perks of the job were the freedom to travel the world. I travelled to China in the early 80s which led to me writing about travel. Travel then led to writing about food, which in turn then led to me writing about wine. I am one of a few English language food and wine writers working in this region currently.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise’?
There is no such thing as a standard day. As a freelance writer, you often spend a great deal of time looking for new magazines with which to partner. Once the relationship is established, the magazines will typically approach you and offer you work.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry you must attend to?
Getting the photos and the information I had been promised in time to hit the magazine deadline. It’s okay working to your own deadline, but sometimes you are placed in a difficult situation by the actions of others. You must manage other people’s schedules as well as your own sometimes.
What do you like most about the job?
Being paid to do something that I like. I think a lot of people enjoy food and drink as part of their social lifestyle, but to experience some of the launches and events places you in situations that the public does not usually get a chance to see. It is very exciting, and very rewarding too.
What do you like least about the job?
As a freelance writer, the time I have to wait to be paid is a continual battle. Magazines are sometimes quick to offer you commissions, but not always so on-the-ball when it comes to settlement. It helps if you have an ability to manage your own personal finances in such a way as to give yourself a positive “cash flow” of work-in, payment-in.
What are the key responsibilities?
To be at the cutting edge of the dining scene, knowing who is opening and closing, and to have the best connections. It takes time to build up a database of network contacts, but you tend to be invited to a wide range of launches, parties and promotional evenings.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg- A Levels?
None required – getting the right story is all that counts in this business.
What is the starting salary and how does this increase over time with promotion?
I am paid on a fee basis which varies depending on the publication and country commissioning the article.
If you left this position, what else would you consider/prefer doing?
Food, wine & travel is my lifestyle. I cannot think of anything else that would appeal in the same way. It’s an exciting lifestyle, and a uniquely rewarding one.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Get a story that excites you, and write about it with passion. It does not need to be any more complicated than that.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must/should possess?
Passion, commitment and enthusiasm for what you do.
Any closing comments/thoughts?
Be original, be yourself. Writers have to find their own way of telling a story, and that comes from writing about something you feel passionate about.