Hi, I’m Christina and I’ll be your food critic today.

I have little of the usual experience that might qualify someone to become a critique gastronomique. I can’t cook, and my restaurant career is limited to one summer spent as a server at the Austin Grill in Alexandria, Va. — a role in which I did not distinguish myself.


I do, however, possess a voracious appetite and the sort of fearless naivete that leads a toddler off the deep end of a swimming pool. A few months ago I backed into what is clearly the sweetest gig at any newspaper: “dining reporter.”

Much of what I thought I knew about fine dining turns out to be outdated or wrong. It’s no longer the hallmark of a fancy restaurant that a waiter comes out and grinds the Parmesan for your dish. Many chefs now consider the term “farm to table,” a concept popularized by Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse, to be passé. Today, it’s just assumed that restaurants of a certain class will get their ingredients locally. Kosher is not the same thing as kosher style (expect phone calls from readers should you confuse the two).

I have eaten my way through the city’s bistros, public markets, restaurants in row homes and cafés in repurposed mills. I’ve sampled foie gras torchons, flounder crudo, coddies and crab cakes. I have snacked on sandwiches packed with invasive blue catfish, a species that currently dominates much of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

I have gained weight. Brief stints at the gym or in Weight Watchers have done little to reverse the effects of mukbang-like eating habits. I have bought larger pants.

(An aside: If you thought you knew binge-eating, you haven’t seen mukbang, in which people stuff themselves online for a living. The name is a combination of two Korean words, mukja — “let’s eat” — and bang song — “broadcast.” It’s addictive).

I have learned about lost Maryland food traditions like terrapin stew, Native American foodways refined by generations of anonymous women and black chefs. Food is more than just food. It is identity, environment, culture and history. And restaurants are more than just food. Great ones combine atmosphere, story and performance. They invite you in to another world. Others can make you wish you’d stayed at home.

The first time I was faced with writing a negative a restaurant review, I experienced a dilemma. How could I, a woman who until recently could barely poach an egg, criticize someone else’s cooking? A phone call with one of the most esteemed restaurant critics in America set me straight. “Don’t pull any punches!” he told me on the phone — repeatedly. As a food critic, he reminded me, I am on the side of you, the reader, and not a cheerleader for restaurants. I should write the review as if the chef were never going to read it.

I’ve written plenty of negative reviews since then.

Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with the pressures restaurant industry workers face. The job, with long hours and high expectations, takes a physical and mental toll. Many chefs and business owners feel they are letting their employees down if they don’t work themselves to death, sometimes literally.

The death of a well known chef on the Eastern Shore this summer made clear to me just how intense the life can be. At the memorial service, a regular guest told me just how much she had appreciated the restaurant, how a meal there could cheer her up on a rough day. Her words have stuck with me.

“It’s a really big experience when someone takes that much care with something," she said. "It’s more than just food.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Christina Tkacik (ctkacik@baltsun.com) is the dining reporter for The Baltimore Sun.