I received a letter from a 10-year-old named Oscar telling me he wanted to be a restaurant critic. Here's my response.
You write that you are 10 and want to be a restaurant critic when you grow up. It's definitely a plus for you that your parents love to cook and you love to eat everything and anything. I see from your email that your favorite foods are oysters, canard confit, sushi, your Mum's 8 hour lamb with rosemary gravy, crunchy potatoes cooked in duck fat, and your Dad's fish pie. That's very impressive for a start. You make it all sound so delicious. Are you sure you want to wait till you're grown up?
Ten is the perfect age to start being a restaurant critic especially if you have an aggressive mother who will push your claim -- the press loves child prodigies. Are you short for your age? That helps too because people will think you are even younger than 10.
It looks from your email like you're from Australia where there are many fine restaurants with world class chefs. And you need to taste the best, as well as your folks' cooking, to develop your taste memory. Taste memory is what your tongue stores in your brain if you're paying attention.
Experiment! Taste weird things in ethnic restaurants. Taste everything you can, even if it makes your parents faint and fall under the table. You don't have to pretend you actually like tripe or pig's feet although you get points if you do.
Remember to make notes. Learn to write under the table so the waiter doesn't notice. That's what you need to do when you become a professional critic because a critic should try to be anonymous, unnoticed, invisible. Tell your mother to call you by a different name every night so people don't realize there is a new critic named Oscar.
If the family budget is tight, start saving up now. Sell your own cupcakes door-to-door or invent a new computer game so you can afford great restaurants and overseas travel. Save for summers in France and Italy, spring break in Hong Kong. Read up on truffles. If you can figure out how to grow white truffles in your backyard, you won't ever need to worry about money.
Maybe you already take notes at restaurants when you go out with your folks. Possibly you already have a professional outlet -- a newsletter or magazine aimed at young people or the teen page in your local newspaper. Plan to spend the next ten years intelligently prepping for food world stardom...it's good you asked now. In America, 12-year-old "restaurant critics," are already food blog darlings. Maybe your mom has a cousin who knows Rupert Murdoch. You can send him a jar of your own gooseberry jam.
Start cooking now. The more you know about what's right, the more you'll know about what went wrong when you taste it.
You don't really need to speak and write perfect French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish but you should be able to translate a foreign menu and say "How is this cooked?" in the major cuisine languages and hopefully understand the answer by the time you're 12.
When you're 12 or 13 you might get a "stage" in a famous chef's kitchen. That means you work a few months without pay in a great kitchen peeling carrots and onions while secretly writing down everything the chef knows.
Don't count on getting rich as a restaurant critic, especially if, as seems likely, most magazines and newspapers eventually fold and only the blogophere remains. Still you could become a Food Network star with many cookbooks and your own salsas in jars. Watch the star chefs on TV. See how they talk. Short sentences. Maybe even funny. That's what's known as "a sound bite." You want to speak in clever sound bites in case you get famous or become a judge on Top Chef Series 102. Try imitating Mario and Emeril or Bobby in front of the mirror everyday. Or maybe you're more of a Julia Child type. Ask your Mom.
You might also consider apprenticing yourself at 18 or so, if not immediately, to a seasoned critic. Do you think you could copy my writing style so I could escape from my computer for a few weeks?
Perhaps not all this advice will fit your current situation but the basics are here: Taste. Eat. Cook. Study menus. Read cookbooks. I read Joseph Wechsberg's Blue Trout and Black Truffles for inspiration. Get a funny hair style so you don't look like just any other 10-year-old boy. Maybe wear a hat. Remember: tattoos are permanent.
Break an egg.