Thursday, January 3, 2008

Mr. LaBan, I Presume?

The life and times of a food critic

By Amanda Stern

“My only request -- a vow that lasts for eternity-- is that you will not divulge any details of my physical appearance. For obvious reasons, this is important to me. I trust that you can be trusted.”
It was upon these conditions that I was allowed to interview Craig LaBan, Philadelphia’s chief restaurant critic. Over the course of the day I spent with him, I discovered LaBan might have one the best jobs in Philadelphia.
For 10 years, LaBan has been getting paid to eat in restaurants and write about it. On average, LaBan eats about 500 restaurant meals a year, which works out to about three lunches and four dinners a week. By year’s end he has reviewed and rated 45 restaurants in total and these weekly restaurant reviews appear in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer feature section.
When he’s not out dining and accruing all of the material for his reviews, he’s holed up at his desk in the Newsroom at the Philadelphia Inquirer, transcribing notes, interviewing chefs and restaurateurs, attending editorial meetings, and writing his reviews.
In any given week, he’s working on four to five restaurants simultaneously, all at different stages of development. His assignments that appear in the Sunday paper are due every Thursday, three and half weeks in advance, and include the review itself, along with its rating, smaller capsule reviews that appear in the sidebar of each page, shorter “Or Try These” restaurants, and accompanying drink recommendations.
He is occasionally assigned longer features, trend, or product pieces and right now, he’s begun work on his “Year End Bells” piece, a recap of all his reviews for the year, which will run as a cover story in the December 30th Inquirer.

The bell curve
LaBan rates restaurants with “bells” and he certainly sets the bar high.
“Ratings reflect a restaurant’s achievement within the context of its own genre. Since each bell represents such a broad category, the levels serve as a baseline for the restaurants to be recommendable.”
Rarely will he grant restaurants four bell status (Superior) and only a handful restaurants are even awarded three bells (Excellent). For example, this year he has not awarded any 4 bells, only 5-6 restaurants earned 3, and approximately 20 restaurants were given 2 bells. The majority of his restaurant reviews fall into the two or one-bell rating categories of Very Good and Average. Luckily, he rarely finds a reason to give out a no-bell "Poor" rating.
When choosing his restaurants, LaBan always keeps his audience in mind and aims to choose places with broad interest. Pricey, high profile restaurants come with the territory too, but it’s all about striking a balance. LaBan appreciates the benefit of working for the Inquirer, which has the financial resources to allow him to do the job right.
LaBan joined the staff of the Philadelphia Inquirer as its restaurant critic in 1998. A self-proclaimed Philadelphian at heart, he was thrilled to return to the city of Brotherly Love (he’d briefly been a staff writer for the Inquirer in the mid-nineties in the South Jersey bureau), and for almost ten years now he’s been the most influential voice on the Philadelphia dining scene.
In the last ten years, LaBan has had a front row seat to witness the explosion of Philadelphia’s dining scene. Philadelphia has always been a great place to eat, but in the last decade, the number of high-quality restaurants in Center City grew by more than 50
PAGE 3/LaBan Profile
percent “Restaurants are the lifeblood of a vibrant city. They are the first beacons of gentrification. As I review and reveal new culinary talents, I become the very first cultural writer to talk about the city’s new, emerging neighborhoods. I am on the frontlines of social research.”
LaBan feels lucky to have inherited a fertile restaurant scene, one with such a wide variety of restaurants.
“There’s a deep pool of options in Philly and that’s what makes this such a thrilling job.”

By the sea, by the sea
I join LaBan on a Tuesday, his busiest day of the week. We begin our morning with double espressos at the Starbucks on 20th and Callowhill, the first of three Starbucks stops that day. On the docket for today is lunch at Oceanaire, an upscale seafood chain on Washington Square. Today’s meal is a “revisit;” last time LaBan dined here for dinner with his editor Maureen and it was slightly disappointing, earning a “low” 2. He cringes at the memory of a “robotic” waitress and the lobster he ordered steamed, which arrived at his table broiled instead. LaBan usually visits his restaurants at least four times before writing a full-fledged review: one weekday visit, one weekend, and one night, so if Oceanaire makes the cut after our meal today, he will need at least two more visits under his belt.
We breeze into the Oceanaire, modeled after a 1930’s ocean liner, and we approach the maître d'. LaBan has instructed me to request the table for two, so he can avoid any direct conversation with the staff and attempt to maintain a low profile.
PAGE 4/LaBan Profile
To write about a restaurant and its cuisine, he begins by “interviewing the menu”. The menu at the Oceanaire is quite extensive and it takes several minutes for LaBan to deliberate who will order what. He is adamant that we sample the raw bar, so we split a ½ dozen oysters to start. Then he will order the New England Style Clam Chowder followed by the Coriander Bacon-Wrapped Diver Scallops and I will have the Clams Casino and the Chatham Cod with Shrimp and Corn Risotto.
Before our dishes arrive, LaBan explains that when he dines, he needs to “taste” all the food, but that he will rarely clean his plate. The drill when he dines out is that he’ll taste about two bites of everything on his own plate - including sauces, vegetables, and those cute flash-fried sweet potato chips on top, and then he’ll turn to his guests’ plates. During a meal he will often have a hidden microphone on him (although he refused to disclose to me where he actually hides it), but today, he just makes mental notes, many of which he shares aloud with me.
When our oysters are served, even though we chose an odd number of east and west coast, LaBan still lets me have half. His eyes light up after he samples his first.
“Excellent! Clean and fresh – I can nearly taste the bay that these are from!”
The clam chowder that follows is “classic, hearty, homemade goodness” and the clams casino, another classic appetizer, has “just the right balance of garlic and buttery bread crumbs.”
We both agree though that my cod and risotto are sub-par. “The presentation is lacking here. The cod overwhelms the risotto and see how overcooked it is? That’s why it’s so flaky. And, the risotto? Well, no one seems to be able to do a risotto well…”
When the bill comes, LaBan re-evaluates our meal, (“Those oysters are expensive! Very good, but very expensive…”) and then lays down a credit card and pays under an assumed name.

Hide and seek
Among restaurant critics, nothing causes more chatter and debate than the timeless question of anonymity, and in order to do his job to the best of his ability, LaBan goes to great lengths to keep his identity secret, wanting to have the same experience in a restaurant that the average customer would have. He often tries to disguise his appearance, growing assorted beards, changing hairstyles, dressing in costume and using pseudonyms like the one on his credit card. Ironically though, unlike some food writers, LaBan proudly uses his real name when he pens his columns. In the past ten years “Craig LaBan” has become a household name in our city and, because of his power to make or break a restaurant coupled with the mystique of his secret identity, he has managed to earn himself somewhat of a “celebrity” status.
Of course, restaurateurs, chefs, and faithful customers don't always like what he writes, but, “In this business, you learn to expect objections and over time, you just develop a thick skin,” LaBan says matter-of-factly. “Especially here in Philly…people care a lot about food in this town.”
After our lunch at Oceanaire we return to the office and LaBan scrambles to prepare for his live web chat, which he hosts weekly in the Inquirer Chatroom at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays.
LaBan writes a brief introduction and welcome to his chat audience, pausing for a moment before he churns out today’s “Crumb Cracker Quiz” a list of three dishes he sampled at various restaurants he’s visited over the past couple of weeks.
The reader who can match each dish to its restaurant wins a signed copy of LaBan’s book, The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide. LaBan spins around to his bookshelf and proudly retrieves a copy to show me. He flips through his guide, which includes 76 of his reviews of popular Philadelphia-area restaurants and over 600 shorter capsule reviews.
It’s 1:57 and nearly time for the chat to begin. LaBan copies and pastes his introduction into the text box, ending it with, “Ready, set…start crumbling!” for good measure. Within minutes of posting his greeting, his inbox is inundated with responses. For the next hour, he sits hunched over the keyboard, filtering through the influx of questions and reciting his answers aloud in a deep, husky announcer voice.
This weekly chat has become an increasingly important part of his life at the Inquirer. Although occasionally he finds the questions are offbeat, many of them can lead to quite fascinating discussions. Today’s discussion, for example, begins with a lively debate about cask-conditioned beer. Sometimes these chats will pique his interest enough to turn them into a longer in-depth piece for the Inquirer, but mostly they are just a fun way for him to touch base with his readers. Every week, the chat is transcribed and archived and available for viewing on the Inquirer’s website and Maureen says it gets the most hits besides sports.
The hour seems to fly by and at 3:03, LaBan has to cut off the discussion. “Well, I’m going to call this week’s chat perfectly cooked. May you all be well and eat something worth bragging about!”

Thanks for your thoughts
The day is winding down and he still needs to get his 80-line introduction for the “Year End Bells” to his editor before he heads home for the night. Before he even begins to type, he leans back in his swivel chair, pulls out a pad and pencil and brainstorms “by hand” first. Twenty minutes and two pages of jotted, illegible notes later, LaBan is satisfied and he starts to type. One sentence in and the phone rings. With a sigh, he throws on his headphones and answers.
All I can hear on the other end of the phone is a woman’s voice squawking away. LaBan can hardly get a word in edgewise, but remains pleasant and patient. He utters a lot of “uh-huh's” and “how terrible's” and then “well ma’am, when you remember the name of the restaurant, please do send me an email…but, for now, I’m under a deadline and must run…” (Rick Nichols, fellow food columnist, passing by, hears that comment and snorts: “Oh, the old deadline excuse!”)
Before LaBan hangs up, he exclaims, “Thanks for the bad fish alert!” He tells me the woman was a disgruntled customer who wanted LaBan to write a nasty review for the restaurant so bad she couldn’t even remember the name of it.
“What an ordeal! This poor woman ordered flounder and now she’s had flounder thousands of times in her life but this was not flounder, this was catfish! So, she wants to know, ‘Craig, how can I prove it?’” LaBan chuckles. “What would this city do without
me? My readers have emergencies? Craig LaBan to the rescue: I will right the wrongs of poor flounder-lady done wrong!”

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