by Amy Elvidge
A look into the life of the Globe’s restaurant critic. First shares the reality of her work and advice on how to live the dream as an aspiring gastronomer.
Parents coming into town? Valentine’s Day dinner? Craving for a taste of the exotic? Before we head out we usually scour the Internet for restaurant advice, and what better source for gastronomic insight than The Boston Globe’s own Devra First. First lives out every Friedmanite’s dream job as a restaurant critic, challenging her palate with culinary delights in a host of locales—from Michelin starred to taco stands. First takes the Sprout on a behind-the-scenes journey of how she came to the Globe, the relationship between her gourmand life and nutrition, where to dine out well on a student budget, and what it’s like to be an opinionated female in the food world.
First came into her current job after starting as a copy editor and arts editor, and always writing about food on the side. “I’ve always been interested in food, growing up in a household where culinary exploration was the norm and cooking and eating were central activities. I have no formal culinary training, but I do love to cook,” she added.
When she reviews a restaurant, the food takes center stage: “I think first about the food: how it tastes, how it is prepared, what kind of thought goes into each dish. I also think about service, atmosphere, and the general experience.”
As we well know, restaurant dishes and their home-cooked counterparts vary vastly in their nutritional content. First chooses not to focus on nutritional aspects of her dining experience unless that is somehow a focus of the restaurant.
“Going out to eat is often about treating oneself rather than sustenance. I do think a lot about nutrition personally, of course. I have been a reasonably healthy eater all my life, and the frequency with which I consume fried, fatty fare has been much greater as a result of my work. I try to balance that with what I eat the rest of the time,” she said.
As a restaurant critic, First is constantly introduced to new and different foods, which may prove problematic depending on health circumstances. First became pregnant in 2013 and entered the world of pre- and postnatal nutrition (thanks for your help, Nutrition in the Lifecycle!).
“I was really looking forward to having strange cravings and was disappointed not to have any. I continued working through my pregnancy, which was occasionally tricky; I tried to avoid the foods that can actually be dangerous but otherwise kept eating as usual while on the clock. Off the job, I remember wanting strong flavors. I ate a lot of falafel with hot sauce and Indian food—of course, I always want falafel and Indian food, pregnant or not.
“My son’s first solid food was banana. He loved it! I didn’t want to give him packaged rice cereal, as doctors often recommend. For one thing, there had recently been a lot of talk about the potential for arsenic in rice. But also, I wanted him to first experience food that was food, not a powdered substance from a box,” she said.
Although food comes first for Devra’s reviews, she keeps cost considerations in the back of her mind. “I review higher-end restaurants, so the bill tends to reflect that, but I do have an eye out for value. A very expensive restaurant can be worth it or a ripoff; if it is the latter, I try to let readers know.”
Not to worry: Devra has a lineup of spots that we can enjoy on $30 or less—particularly near Friedman!
“For $30, you can really eat wonderfully well just about anywhere in this town—from Cambridge and Somerville to Fort Point and the South End. But I believe you have the good fortune of being located right near Chinatown, one of the best places for budget dining. You can great Vietnamese food at Xinh Xinh, excellent soup dumplings and more at Dumpling Cafe, round-the-clock dim sum at Winsor [Dim Sum Café], seafood dishes at Peach Farm, Taiwanese specialties at Taiwan Cafe, and hot pot at Q, Kaze [Shabu Shabu], and Shabu-Zen. I could go on! Other neighborhoods that are great for experiencing international fare at very reasonable prices: Allston (I adore S&I Thai, and there are some good Korean spots) and East Boston (Mexican, Peruvian, Italian).”
The interview would not be complete without highlighting the recent prominence of women in the food world, getting jobs and respect as serious chefs. We got First’s take on food media professionals.
“The role of food editor is fairly evenly divided between men and women, but there are currently fewer women in critic positions. That said, some of the most powerful restaurant critics have been women—I’m thinking particularly of Ruth Reichl in her tenure at The New York Times. Garlic and Sapphires, a book she wrote about the experience, informs a lot of people’s ideas of what it is to be a restaurant critic—disguises, special treatment, and all.
“There are certainly challenges for women who want to be restaurant critics, and many of them are simply the same things we talk about when we discuss the issues women face in any workplace. But also, culturally, women are expected to be nice and sweet. As a critic, one must be willing to say tough things that people won’t necessarily like. I’d love to see more women critics in every discipline; I’d love to see girls taught to be comfortable thinking and writing critically from an early age,” she said.
And listen up Sprout restaurant reviewers: First advises that when experiencing a restaurant you should aim to tell the restaurant’s story. “Try to describe the food and atmosphere in a way that lets people experience the restaurant, whether they will go themselves or not. Feel free to use interesting adjectives, similes, and so on in describing food, but make sure the description still works. Don’t shy away from pointing out the negatives, but don’t be snarky for the fun of it. This is someone’s livelihood. Restaurant critics are consumer advocates above all, but if there is one commandment, this is it, and it is not particularly sexy: Be fair,” she said.
Finally, First goes by her real name, but must have a visually anonymous identity to protect the authenticity of her experience. “I toyed with the idea of using a pen name, but I think it is important to own your work and be upfront. If you can’t say it with your real name, maybe you shouldn’t say it at all? And I never inquired, but I suspect the Globe would not embrace pen names, as an issue of journalistic ethics,” she said.
“Working anonymously is a strange pursuit. So much of journalism is about making connections, and being a restaurant critic is almost deliberately isolating. That is one of the less-enjoyable parts of the gig, as I like talking to people, asking questions, seeing how things are made and done, and so on. I have to quash many of my natural reporter tendencies. I can’t tell you how many times a week someone asks ‘Do you know so-and-so?’ and I reply: ‘I don’t know anyone!’ But there are ways in which anonymity is freeing. I’m an introvert by nature. And it’s nice to be able to run to the store in sweatpants with messy hair. Would I like more recognition for my work? I’m not an attention seeker at all. But I’m pretty sure if you asked any writer in the world anywhere this question, the answer would be yes.”