Last month, veteran Portland food critic Karen Brooks won the James Beard Foundation’s coveted Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award, beating out powerhouse food critics around the nation, including finalists Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times and Bill Addison of Eater. Eater caught up with Brooks at her home, surrounded by what must be one of the most impressive salt and pepper shaker collections on the planet, to get an update on the state of food criticism in 2017.
Brooks got her start in the 1980s as a restaurant critic for WWeek, and after around eight years there, she took a position at the Oregonian, quickly earning a place as one of the newspaper's two restaurant critics. Brooks left the newspaper in 2010, and, ever since, she has been Portland Monthly magazine’s lead food critic.
EPDX: What do you think is the most important task of a restaurant reviewer?
Brooks: A lot of people think of the food critic as a culinary sheriff. That’s part of the job. But, for me, great reviews also tell us about food and culture, a community in its time and place. I’ve worked to chronicle Portland in its sheer amateur-ish Saturday Night Live-parody mode (1990s); our nice farm-to-table mode (late ‘90s); and the punk rock, “I Did It My Way” models (mid 2000s) — and now, Portland as a destination food city facing rapid growth.
I was once considered the queen of the take-down. WWeek recently challenged that I now only write positive reviews. [The article's exact wording is, "Brooks writes almost exclusively positive pieces these days."] But I think of my writing more as nuanced reviews. Restaurants are always in a state of change and inconsistency. The dishes on my table could literally taste different than the same dishes on the next table over.
For me, I’m trying to express why a place is worth writing about, what it brings to Portland’s conversation, while discussing the inconsistencies and frankly, what’s not working. That’s finding nuance.
E: How has your job changed since the internet?
Brooks: The internet democratized writing, providing a platform for anyone to share their opinions about food. While this created more interest in food, the “instant demand” news cycle put a lot of pressure on food writers. I always believed a place benefits from time — time to find its voice and footing. That’s not always easy now. The food media didn’t focus so much on restaurant previews before the internet. Now it’s a major part of food news.
Then again, the interest in food has never been higher. Food is a dominant conversation now.
E: Can food critics still be anonymous?
Brooks: It is very, very difficult. I think it was Eater who outed a bunch of critics.
E: Ah, yes. We did that.
Brooks: I don’t know if I’ve ever actually been anonymous. Early in my career, I also played in a band. It was easy to find me, if you were looking. While restaurants can surely make adjustments when you’re spotted, I have various systems in place to safe guard. No, I’m not telling you.
Also, Portland restaurateurs have that “who cares?” attitude. I heard that a well-known restaurant in New York keeps a special set of dishes reserved for restaurant critics. It can also offer elevated service, not just to the restaurant critic, but to all of the tables seated nearby, for an elaborate ruse. I can’t imagine Portland going to such trouble!
But, during one period, I did wear an undercover “psycho-babe” outfit.
E: “Psycho babe” outfit?
Brooks: Oh you know: blond wig, bright red lipstick … the femme fatale look. It made me a wreck. I dreaded someone making me and thinking, “Why is Karen Brooks wearing a Halloween costume?”
To really be anonymous, you have to isolate yourself. These days, everyone has a camera in their pocket. I grew tired of worrying about it. We live in transparent times. Most critics live with that.
E: How many times is the right number for you to go to a restaurant?
Brooks: Three at least, and, sometimes, five or six.
E: What are the considerations you take into account when reviewing a restaurant?
Brooks: I look for point of view. And the bottom line for me: Would I come back, spend my money, and tell my friends to eat here? That answer is not always as obvious as it seems. Maybe the food is great, but I won’t come back. Well, why not? Maybe the space feels like a Siberian prison. Maybe the chairs will make my chiropractor happy. Conversely, maybe a place only has a few noteworthy dishes but the owners treat you like royalty and the experience is unique.
E: What type of restaurant do you think Portland still needs?
Brooks: I’d like to see more consistency, some more originality, and more focus on technique. We used to be impervious to trends. We missed some things, but we were so original. We have to be careful not to just be like other cities. Instead, we should ask, “What’s worked here?” and keep pushing that farther. If we’re true to ourselves, we’ll be good. We’ll be cool.