Editors have to be sticklers about deadlines, so when the Maine Sunday Telegram advertised for a restaurant critic in early 2016, naturally there was an application deadline. Candidate Andrew Ross, one of 80-plus food writers (and would-be food writers) who applied for the job, missed it. I considered putting his application straight into the reject pile – if he can’t even make his first deadline …

And yet …

Ross’ letter expressing interest was so well-written, so smart and so evidently knowledgeable about food, I called him anyhow and asked him, along with a few others who had risen to the top of the pile, to try out. When those sample reviews came back, our pick for new freelance Dine Out critic was a cinch.

And Ross, who turns out to be a gentleman and a scholar, has never missed a deadline since.

On the cusp of his 100th review (excluding a few stories of his we’ve published, on burgers, food trucks and his favorite meals of the year, we telephoned Ross to ask about the job.

But we started by asking about him. The (greatly) condensed version: Ross’ culinary bio includes stints as a vegetarian and as mystery diner, visiting branches of Maggiano’s Little Italy, eating gnocchi, chicken parm “and more tiramisu than I ever anticipated I could possibly consume,” Ross said, then filling out lengthy questionnaires evaluating his meals. He has cooked nightly dinners at a Danish youth hostel (if you get a chance, ask him about frikadelle and snegle), picked up waiter shifts here and there, and briefly cooked on the line at a restaurant. In England, he had a short-term gig writing about cheap (but good) wine. And in 2002, he launched a popular food website, NYCnosh. (He shut it down in 2009.)

Most of these, by the way, were side gigs. By day, Ross builds online programs for universities and colleges. To prepare for that, he went to graduate school (twice) and earned a doctorate.

Eventually, Ross moved to Maine – and missed a deadline. Luckily, we overlooked it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: In light of Bon Appetit magazine’s recent designation of Portland as City of the Year, let’s start with the eternal Portland food question: Are we in the midst of a restaurant bubble and when will it burst?

A: People ask me this question a lot. The two or three questions I get asked when people learn what I do is:

1) What is your favorite restaurant?

2) Does Portland have too many restaurants, in other words, are we in a bubble?

3) And what food do you like best?

So I’ve answered the bubble question a lot. I think the answer is no. We have a lot of restaurants. If you go out to eat in tourist season, the restaurants are full. Often too full. But if you go in the winter, a lot of these restaurants – they’re still full. The clientele is different, obviously. It’s mostly locals. But people have restaurants that they have emotional connection to and that they want to support. Chefs say during the winter it is their loyal fans who keep them afloat. So the answer right now is no.

And there are gaps that Portland still needs to fill. Our options for Chinese food are limited. There are some great Chinese kitchens – Sichuan Kitchen is pretty wonderful. Empire Chinese does its own kind of Chinese-American dim sum very well. But there are lots and lots of different kinds of Chinese cuisine and those aren’t very well represented here yet.

We don’t have very many German restaurants. There is Schulte & Herr, which is excellent. But I can’t think of many other German restaurants in the area. That’s absolutely something we need more of. And we don’t have a place that focuses on American layer cakes. There is no bakery that does that. And I’ve always wondered why. We have so many amazing bakeries for such a small city. We have places that focus on pie, on laminated pastries, but again no place that does layer cakes.

And then, of course, Mexican. There isn’t a lot of really good Mexican food in the area, and that’s a problem. Most of the Mexican food we get here is your standarized, cheese-heavy American-Mexican food. Burritos and tacos. It’s all been Chipotle-ized.

Also, the city is missing is late-night dining options. I tend to eat late. I have friends that have called me biologically Spanish. It is so hard to find a good restaurant that is open at 10 o’clock at night.

Q: So what is your favorite restaurant?

A: The thing is I never answer that question with just one restaurant. I have a favorite restaurant for a whole lot of categories. Maybe that’s the luxury of living in a city like Portland. It doesn’t force me to have just one favorite restaurant.

Q: Can you name one?

A: (Long pause.) For Vietnamese, I like Huong’s. (Ross sighs loudly.)

Q: So this is hard? Choosing a favorite?

A: This is really, really difficult for me. There are so many good places. I feel like choosing one is excluding others. But I do really like Drifters Wife. It’s an expensive restaurant, but what you get is absolutely worth it. That’s a Nice Meal Out. I still think Lazzari has the best pizza in the city. They consistently do it well, and that oven is just amazing. And I think Chaval is almost always great.

Q: Generalize for me about the Portland food scene. How are we like, and unlike, the rest of the country?

A: Especially for a city that is as small as it is, the food scene here moves incredibly quickly. Some of that has to do with the fact that it’s pretty straightforward to open a restaurant in Portland. And it’s also pretty straightforward to get a liquor license. We have far fewer barriers to entry than some other places. Rent, while it’s not cheap any more, it’s not onerous. It’s possible to rent a storefront for a reasonable amount of money in or around the peninsula. In a lot of cities, the amount of financial backing you have to make that move is a huge obstacle.

But it’s interesting that we chose food as a mode of expression. Other cities with reasonable rents and low barriers to entry – they’ve chosen to build art galleries or boutiques or shoe stores. The thing that Portland has done that is relatively unique: It has attracted chefs from elsewhere in Maine and around the country and even the world, and it has given them a home.

The other thing that is really different and leads to Portland being a unique food city is people seem to be really eager to embrace new restaurants and food businesses.

My sister lives in the other Portland, right in the middle of (the city). Our Portland is one-tenth of the size of theirs, but within walking distance I can access much more in terms of food than she can. And if I get in the car and drive five or six minutes, I can access two different kinds of okonomiyaki, Somali sambusas, and at least three different versions of really good croissants. The amount of opportunity we have to eat different food and really good food is remarkable.

Part of it has to do with the fact that Portland, and Maine in general, has always had a really deep connection to food. This is the state that has supplied people with seafood for generations. There is a natural connection between Mainers and food.

Q: You say you’re hyper-focused when you are eating out for a review, so is it any fun? Or just work?

A: It’s both. Work and fun. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. I enjoy being focused and being an experience sponge. It helps me to pay attention and enjoy more when I’m off the clock, too. I love my job. I think it makes me love food even more – unfortunately for my waistline.

Q: How do you keep your own food prejudices out of your reviews?

A: Everybody has food preferences. I don’t think that precludes me from doing my job. I have a few foods I don’t enjoy eating. But I also know what good versions of those things taste like. I don’t particularly like popcorn. And I don’t like watermelon. At the same time, when I am eating for work, I don’t treat my own personal food preferences as guidelines I should follow. I don’t have a problem with organ meats. I don’t have a problem with fishy fish: I love mackerel. I love sardines. But when I am on the clock, I try to put aside my own personal prejudices. If I am at a restaurant and a watermelon dish is a signature dish, I will absolutely order that. And if it’s a good watermelon dish, I believe I am capable of telling the reader that.

Q: Can you truly tell if a restaurant is any good based on just one meal?

A: Oh, absolutely. First of all, I’m not only eating one dish. I’m eating a bare minimum of four dishes. It’s usually more like six or seven dishes. At the same time, I really think I should be going to places more than once if I can. If the budget allowed for it, I’d love to do that. That expands the range of experiences you have. The cruelest irony of this job is that when I have a terrible meal at a restaurant, I have to go back just to confirm it was as bad as I thought it was. But if I have a fantastic meal, I don’t get to go back to confirm that it was as great as I thought it was.

Q: What makes a great restaurant?

A: Someone asked me on Twitter when the Bon Appetit article came out if I had given any 5-star ratings to restaurants. And my answer was no. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had 5-star meals in Maine. It means I wasn’t on the clock at the time. I have absolutely found restaurants that are in that category. Restaurants like The Lost Kitchen. There is something singular about the experience of visiting a restaurant like Lost Kitchen. It doesn’t just start when you walk in the door. It starts before you walk in the door. I don’t think a 5-star restaurant has to be in a remote location. But it has to be capable of building that anticipatory excitement that Lost Kitchen does. And once you do walk in, you feel as if you are removed from the regular context of the rest of your life. Everything that happens for the next few hours is all about the experience of eating there. Also, the category of “great” covers more than just the 5 stars. For me, it covers the 4.5 stars, too, and there are probably a few 4-star restaurants I could toss in there, too, places like Elda and Drifters Wife, which can hold their own against restaurants all over the world.

Q: Which is harder to write – a positive or negative review?

A: I heard Nigella Lawson on the Bon Appetit podcast just a few weeks ago. She said precisely the same thing I have been saying for years: It is pretty straightforward to write about a really good restaurant or a really bad restaurant. The descriptions come naturally. The flow of writing about what went well and what went badly – there seems to be a natural directionality to that discussion. Writing about a mediocre places is incredibly difficult. And unfortunately I end up having to do that most frequently, which makes sense as average restaurants are the most common ones you encounter. That’s what the word average means.

Q: You’ve often talked to me about feeling bad when you know you are about to write a critical review but have just gotten off the phone with a super-nice, accommodating chef. Tell me about that.

A: That’s incredibly hard. I find that the conversations I have with the chefs – and I always call someone from the restaurant (before writing the review). It’s usually the chef because I have questions about how the dishes are prepared, but occasionally it’ll be the owner – and the conversations are like very small intimacies. They make me feel bad about saying negative things about the people I’ve just talked to, especially when they are really kind and generous with their time. At the same time, my job is not to pull punches.

My job is not to be mean, either – I try very hard not to be mean. I’m always aware there are lots of people on the other side of that conversation. It’s the kitchen staff. It’s the front-of-house staff. A negative review can have a very deleterious effect on a business. So I try to be extremely careful about criticism. I have to be sure I get it right and that I know what I’m talking about. Frequently, I will talk to chefs on the phone who are really, really sweet, and then I’ll feel guilty as I’m writing the review. But, ultimately, what I’d really like to see happen is that they will read what I write, wait for the sting to go down, and then reflect and ask if I wasn’t making some valid points.

Q: Do you hear from chefs after a review is published? Tell me the good and the ugly.

A: Let’s start with the good. I’ve written about a few places where I’ve had to call chefs after having written a bad review of one of their other restaurants, and a few of them have handled that second conversation with grace. And have told me they sat down with their staff and went through my review line by line and talked about what went wrong that night. I admire that. I wish I were that good at accepting criticism. People like Steve Corry (chef/owner, Five Fifty-Five and Petite Jacqueline). On the negative side, though, I have gotten angry emails from chefs full of expletives, and, in one case, I was told that I had ruined Christmas.

Q: How do you respond to that?

A: If a person suggests that I didn’t get something right, of course I want to know if that’s the case. I do ask questions if there are factual errors. But generally, it’s the overall impression of the restaurant. And I can’t correct that, and I wouldn’t correct that. My job is to tell the readers about my experience at the restaurant that night, not to coddle the chef. I am expressly forbidden from being friends with chefs and restaurant owners. That’s a very good thing. The newspaper forbids it, and it’s part of the (Association of Food Journalists) ethics rules: You shouldn’t be cozy with the chefs or owners. I couldn’t write what was true if I were afraid of offending chefs. If all of my friends were chefs, I’d have very few friends.

Q: So that’s chefs. But what about readers? Do you read the comments that readers post underneath your reviews?

A: Sometimes. I never respond, but occasionally I will read the comments. For the most part, the comments tend to be motivated by people’s personal preferences, their likes and dislikes and affiliations. When I write about hamburgers, for example, and I don’t mention Harmon’s Lunch, I get angry comments from Falmouth. Or readers from Saco writing to tell me I really should have gone to Rapid Ray’s.

Q: Er, haven’t I read readers’ comments that accuse you of being a snob?

A: Only a couple. It doesn’t bother me. People will think what they want to think regardless. If they came to my house and had a meal, I tend to eat food that is about as unsnobby as possible. I like really simple food as well as complicated dishes. My go-to dishes are things like Vietnamese food, which is pretty complicated but not snobby. And polenta. And I love layer cake. There is nothing snobby about a layer cake.

Q: So you like to cook?

A: I love to cook. I probably have a cookbook addiction. I’m very guilty of cooking two or three things I love and then moving on to the next cookbook. I bake a lot of bread; I bake bread two or three times a week. I like cooking with Vietnamese ingredients and flavor combinations. And I love Italian food, so I cook a lot of Italian.

Q: If push came to shove, eating in or eating out?

A: Oof. That’s a fraught question, Peggy. It depends where I am. I just spent two weeks on Vinalhaven and ate out twice, but both times would have preferred to be home. In Portland, it’s a tossup. We have such great options for restaurants and ingredients, it’s 50/50.

Q: Let’s talk about noise levels at restaurants. Every week you summarize them in the Bottom Line section of your reviews, and you take an unusual approach.

A: Nothing I have done has generated as much reader response as this. It was my way of trying to break out of this really impoverished method of talking about noise we have. Generally, when people talk about noise level, they use “low,” “medium,” “moderate,” “high.” Those words mean different things to different people. If I think a place has a medium noise level, you might find it rollickingly loud. I don’t think it’s terribly useful. At the beginning, I got emails from readers telling me they had gone to a place that I said was moderately loud, and they couldn’t hear themselves think. I didn’t get defensive and say, “I’m right.” I looked for a more descriptive way. My response was to draw some kind of a parallel with a situation people have firsthand experience with, or they can at least imagine. So if I describe a place as being as loud as “a walk along a stream in the forest,” they know that that means pretty darn quiet. And I know most people haven’t been to space, but if I describe a place as being “low Earth orbit,” people know there is no noise in outer space. That’s dead silence.

Q: As an editor, especially a food editor, I have a personal Banned Words list, words I hate in food stories like “unctuous” and “flavor profile” and “briny” when automatically stuck in front of “olives.” You don’t know this because you write so well, I never need to edit those words out of your prose. But I understand you’ve your own list.

A: Only a few words. Two of them I banned for kind of the same reason. Those two words are “delicious” and “authentic.” Delicious because it doesn’t actually say anything other than that I enjoyed it, and I think there are a million better ways to say delicious. It’s not informative. I banned authentic because it means so many different things to people that it’s lost its meaning completely. When someone describes an authentic restaurant, do they mean the recipes are from the place that the food is inspired by? Does it mean that the people cooking it are from that place? Does it mean the ingredients are from that place? Does it mean the people eating there are primarily from that place? It has so many meanings that it has none. I also have pet peeves about certain words like “bivalve.” I’m a biologist in a former life. Bivalve sounds like taxonomy, not food. And it drives me crazy that everyone who writes about oysters uses that word.

Q: What about restaurant pet peeves?

A: I’ve always believed that if somebody puts a dish on his or her menu, it means that dish should be good enough to serve. I don’t believe in the concept of ordering the wrong thing. A customer shouldn’t have to avoid it because of some unwritten rule that you don’t order X at that particular restaurant.

It always drives me crazy when people say critics say don’t understand how difficult the job in the kitchen is. It should be invisible to the diner just how hard it is to do what the chef or the server is doing.

And I don’t have to be able to go home and do that same thing (cook restaurant-quality food) in order for me to write about it. Chefs are creating something that is intended to be consumed. My job is as a very focused and hopefully articulate consumer, not a producer.

Q: You say your food tastes are often simple. Let’s test that. What did you eat for breakfast this morning?

A: Especially for breakfast, I tend to be a very routine eater. I think a lot of people who eat for a living are. I had Fiber One cereal, which is pretty much what I eat every morning and have since I was 25 years old. And coffee.

Q: Did you at least add blueberries to the bowl?

A: No. Just the cereal. It’s good because you have to eat it quickly or it turns into a thick paste. You don’t have time to dawdle.

 

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