But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. – Anton Ego
It is finally over.
After nearly 40 years as the Restaurant Reviewer/Primary Food Writer/Dunsel for the Buffalo News, Janice Okun is finished. The finale didn’t come easily. The saga seemed to have more false endings than the Return of the King. Her first retirement came in 2009 when the primary food writing duties were turned over to Andrew Galarneau. Andrew, a friend, was denied the title of Food Editor and Ms. Okun retained the reviewing duties.
In February she did step down from reviewing and Andrew took that over, a move that was marked by a revamping of the reviewing process. One small step towards reality. Ms. Okun, much to the consternation of many concerned with the local food scene, continued to be featured in a weekly Q&A column. Yesterday, in an announcement almost hidden in the weekly food section, she called it quits. Andrew is safely ensconced in his role as Food Editor. Finally.
Is it merely conjecture to suggest that this is tied to the change in Publishers at the News next Tuesday? In any event she's not only merely gone, she’s really most sincerely gone.
Restaurant criticism is an honorable profession. My issues with restaurant reviews in general have been published elsewhere. The biggest is the absurdity of ratings system – the comparison of eateries that should not be compared. As I put it in Buffalo Rising: sometimes it's not "apples and oranges", it's "apples and carburetors". At least the myth of anonymity has been put to rest. Andrew has been featured in online videos for a few years.
I have no personal animosity toward Ms. Okun. Like most in the local restaurant business I know what she looks like. The closest I ever came to meeting her was sitting next to her at a restaurant (Oddly, I was lunching with Andrew). She may be a wonderful person and delightful dining companion. My observations are solely of her in her profession. Others in the food world credit her with positives I fail to see. I may be missing something.
Yet I am not alone in my observations. Other voices share these sentiments, some harsh and some merely bemused. I speak for myself.
As a reviewer she gave the perception, at least, of favoritism. It is understandable that as food writer you’d have to develop sources for information, but there are ways to keep it subtle. It renders suspect all reviews – particularly disturbing for those cooks whose talent merits high praise. Personally I found her style and affectations irritatingly anachronistic.
Her inadequacies as a reviewer pale beside her shortfalls as a food writer.
It would be excessive to lay it all on her head, but for 30 of her years she was the voice of food for the only newspaper in town. She had the opportunity to work to educate our population to move beyond their parochial expectations of food. By letting the food world pass her by, she contributed to retarding the growth of our neighbors’ perceptions and expectations of food for two decades, at least.
She was a Craig Claiborne in a Jonathan Gold world.
The critic as educator is a vital part of the job. Roger Ebert has observed: “I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn't have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some "work" and others never could”. Ms. Okun had ossified.
I mentioned last month that as recently as October she was still touting the same Chinese restaurants that she did twenty years ago. This at a time when the local food scene is abuzz with new offerings and the entry of authentic Chinese flavors to an otherwise dismal platter of choices.
By allowing her to continue beyond her sell-by date, the News bears much responsibility. At least now we are moving forward again.
Here is the wisdom of Anton Ego.