March 25, 2009
Written by: Vincent McConeghy
Editorial Note: Our Blog "Another Dismal Dining Experience" was slated to debut on LocalFoodService.com as a rebuttal forum where food service professionals could share their perspectives on restaurant and food criticisms throughout the printed page and blogesphere. But today we begin the Blog out on a slightly different note, with the announcement of the retirement of a food critic with extraordinary longevity.
Food Criticism. Janice Okun.
If you've lived and worked in the food service industry in Western New York, you recognize that the above-mentioned words, interchangeable for the past four decades, have the potency to spike a coronary thrombosis.
Today, Janice Okun announced her retirement as Food Editor of the Buffalo News. The News gave Okun's farewell its due position, splashed across the top of the Life section, with an extended word count for Okun to encapsulate her extensive career.
I remember a professional colleague of mine from Seattle remarking to me how amazed he was that the people of Buffalo read their local newspaper so voraciously (Note: The Seattle Post Intelligencer recently folded.). Okun was the News' most-read writer, hands down. Sorry, Larry Felser. No matter how big the Sports Pages became, Okun held sway, generation through generation, with those in the community who truly influenced local opinion - the Ladies Who Lunch.
My first professional encounter with Okun occurred as a fledgling partner in the restaurant business, when opening the Left Bank restaurant in Buffalo with Maura Crawford and Michael Christiano. Okun solidly trounced us in her review. Her criticisms of our restaurant - on that night -were dead on. However, the review carried a distinctly personal bias against the restaurant, violating the Michael Corleone-rule of separating business from the personal. The community rallied around us at the time, sensing that Okun had overstepped a boundary, and they have never stopped patronizing one of Buffalo's truly great restaurants.
Years past. The sting of that review lessened, but the back-story to it grew in legend. As newbies to the business, we were unduly fixated on when Okun might appear to review us. Hence we allowed one our acquaintances -who claimed to be able to identify her out a police lineup, blindfolded - act as our Maitre D' on consecutive Tuesday nights, the night when those experienced in the business girded themselves for an Okun appearance. Not only did our acquaintance let Okun breeze past him undetected, he kicked over a full tray of water glasses next to her table, sending a thunderous clasp through the dining room, which Okun recounted, gleefully, in her subsequent review.
It gets better. There may have been a F-bomb unleashed, unwittingly, in her direction in the dining room when an enthusiastic patron asked if Janice Okun had been in to review us. In fact, there was a F-bomb unleashed in her direction, unwittingly, and we are all still convinced that Okun heard it.
Okun's farewell column is curiously reserved when viewed through the prism that her professional duties required her to repeat an act that by nature is extremely intimate - the act of eating. That act is very different from the business of running a restaurant. Many of the most highly rated restaurants from Okunís columns have faded into the culinary sunset. This is not to be unexpected. Restaurants that are truly successful (ie. most profitable) rarely, if ever, receive the highest critical acclaim.
Okun knows this well. Read her parting shot: "Let us never forget to have fun."
The greatest words written about food, in my opinion, came from the writer/poet Raymond Carver in his poem ìA New Path to the Waterfallî. Carver begins the poem with this startling sentence: "I've always wanted brook trout for breakfast."
There is joy and humor in that sentence about food, the act of discovering one's hunger again and again. Okun sat tableside to this discovery for many years and shared her findings with a loyal audience.
We wish her many more.
We encourage you to share your professional experiences and encounters with Buffaloís most read food writer, Janice Okun. We are certain you have many to share.