The secret life of a food critic

The Coast’s restaurant reviewer, Melissa Buote, has become the critic for the people. There’s not much money in it, but she’s in it for the love of food.

By Jordana Levine

Melissa Buote is one year into her job as the restaurant reviewer at The Coast. She doesn’t have any formal food education, but she brings a unique passion for food culture to the table. While we can’t risk publishing anything that would reveal what she looks like, we can let you in on what goes on behind the menu.

“I’m your average Haligonian person,” says Melissa Buote. She could be anyone, but will not have her photograph published. (Photo: Jordana Levine)
“I’m your average Haligonian,” says Melissa Buote. She could be anyone, but will not have her photograph published. (Jordana Levine photo illustration)

By Jordana Levine

Melissa Buote scrutinizes the menu at Mary’s Place Café on Spring Garden Road.

“Do you know what you’re getting?”

She looks at the front page and then flips to the middle. She flips to the back page and back to the middle. And then back again.

“I’ve never been here before,” she says, finally deciding on a Mediterranean combo plate; she can pick three different dishes.

When the steaming plates are brought to the table, her eyes grow wide and she says, “Wow!” not expecting so much food on her $7.99 platter.

She scoops a forkful of lentil rice into her mouth. Then, she goes for the baked eggplant. She leaves half her pita wedges and a pile of stewed tomatoes untouched.

“I really do like eggplant,” says Buote. “It’s totally hitting the spot,” finishing it off first. She swirls her stewed tomatoes and onions with the rice, combining them on her fork for a mélange of flavours. It’s clear she’s enjoying herself and she’s eager to talk about food.

Find out More
Buote’s year in reviews
Buote’s predecessor
Food writer Amy Rosen
Chef at Home‘s Michael Smith
Herald food critic Bill Spurr
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Buote is the food critic at The Coast, Halifax’s alternative weekly newspaper. She’s been doing the job since the fall of 2009 and you might call her the food critic for the common people. While she enjoys upscale restaurants, she’s just as likely to frequent a greasy diner.

“We’re trying to make food more accessible,” says Tim Bousquet, her editor at The Coast. “We’re not going to do those pieces about elite eating and about the five-star restaurants and about the hundred-dollar bottle of wine.”

Says Buote, “My hope is that people can relate to me as a diner who has the same interests as they do. Somebody who’s interested in getting their money’s worth, but who sort of thinks beyond the bottom line into: Where is this food coming from? Why might they be preparing it this way?”

Buote says quality ingredients and a skilled chef make great meals, but food is special because it ignites passion in the kitchen and brings people together at the table. She loves to spark debate over food and doesn’t expect her readers to fall in line with her opinions.

Buote recalls a time when she gave the Gracious Indian restaurant a poor review. She was underwhelmed, even after giving it a second shot.

“Somebody else I know is… like, ‘I live in this neighbourhood. I really love this restaurant. It’s really cheap and great and easy,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s fantastic. It’s great that this is for you. It’s not for me.’”

That said, “It doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts,” Buote laughs. “If I go somewhere and a steak is overcooked, that’s a fact.”

Bul go gi at Song’s Korean Restaurant. (Juyeong Namgoong photo)

“The marinade is sweet, but not too sugary, and has the wonderful nuttiness of sesame oil.”

– Buote’s review of Song’s Korean Restaurant

The clanging of pots and pans at Mary’s Place can be heard from the open concept kitchen next to the table where Buote sits. Servers scuttle around picking up plates of food from a window. Sounds of a sizzling cooking surface can be heard. The smell of all-day breakfast lingers.

“I’ve never met her in person,” Bousquet says. That’s true of most of his writers. He is pleased to say, “I read her as being young and fresh, and she’s in a business where writers tend to be stodgy.” He continues, “It’s clear that she’s been immersed in the food world and that’s good, but it’s only good because she can say something intelligent and say it in an interesting way.”

Andy Murdoch, Buote’s friend and a former food editor at The Coast, agrees. “She’s a great writer. I do trust her judgment; I think she knows what she’s talking about.”

Although Buote knows food now, she grew up eating what she calls “classic Canadian mom meals.” It gave her an honest understanding of why some people eat for comfort rather than adventure. It helps her relate to the common person and she insists she prefers simple foods most of the time.

Buote recalls, “You know when people make beef stroganoff and they totally just use a can of, like, cream of mushroom soup instead of actually creating a sauce? My mom would do that and it was so tasty and we loved it as a kid.”

Melissa Buote as a child, centre, enjoying a tasty Halloween treat. (Photo:        )
Melissa Buote as a child, centre, enjoying a tasty Halloween treat. (Photo supplied)

Buote still cooks at home more often than she eats out, “partly because I am certainly not a rich person,” she says.

In fact, Buote doesn’t receive any money from The Coast for her meals. “So what they pay me for an article may or may not cover the cost of a meal.” She makes most of her income freelancing as a writer, project manager and more.

“This writing for The Coast isn’t a big money-making, lottery ticket-winning kind of writing experience. It’s really because I enjoy doing it…. I’m your average Haligonian.”

“I think she’s a writer for everyone. And I think she’s a writer for, definitely, the masses,” says Lisa O’Keefe, Buote’s best friend and pastry-trained food lover. “She does a really good job of giving the reader a diverse set of options…. I think she goes to some really awesome places that are really accessible to people who are younger as well as people who are living on a budget.”

O’Keefe worked briefly in the dining department of a magazine and says, “I became very disillusioned with reading restaurant reviews because I learned that a lot of people who are doing food writing… do not understand what makes something properly prepared. Granted, when you dine it is based on opinion, but it was very hard for me to see people – because I’ve worked in kitchens – people who have put their lives into their food get slammed for something that was done correctly by a food writer who doesn’t know any better.” She believes Buote is knowledgeable, though.

“I think that she is sensitive and fair towards the places,” Murdoch says. “But you know you can be sensitive and everything and still make a dig now and again.”

Melissa Buckley, owner of Moda Urban Dining, has to be coaxed into talking about her less-than-perfect review from Buote in The Coast. She sits stiffly, not quite comfortable recalling Buote’s hits at chef Matthew Pridham’s craft. “I was a little disappointed that the ingredients weren’t identified properly, but you know, it wasn’t overly negative. It wasn’t overly positive, but it’s okay,” adding, “Ultimately it’s the food writer’s opinion, so she has the right to say what she wants to,” she pauses. “Technically.”

That’s about all she’ll say.

“I always have a bit of an issue with food critics because it is and opinion,” says Maria Katsihtis, owner of Estia, a Greek restaurant that Buote reviewed in January. “What you taste as spicy is not necessarily spicy to me. What you taste as flavourful might be too much flavour for me.” However, Katsihtis was pleased with Buote’s article on Estia. “We did notice an increase in clientele,” she says, smiling at the review in front of her:

The same Greek platter at Estia that Buote ordered. (Photo: Julé Malet-Veale)
The same Greek platter that Buote ordered at Estia. (Julé Malet-Veale Photo)

“The moussaka has a generous layer of creamy bechamel and tender ribbons of eggplant, zucchini and potato.”

– Buote’s review of Estia

Buote does attract her share of angry comments on the Coast’s website. This doesn’t seem to bother her. She’s absolutely sure that, “You’ll never win with everybody when you’re writing a review,” but readers can choose which critics to listen to.”

That said, “I do find it exciting how people get excited or angry or passionate about food,” Buote says. “It’s certainly the first time as a writer that I’ve experienced… where people totally will tear into a person and get pure joy out of telling a person what a dumb shit they are as a writer.”

But her main competitor thinks she’s hasn’t done a bad job at all.

“It’s pretty clear to me that she really loves food and pays a lot of attention to food issues and how things are sourced,” says Bill Spurr, food writer at The Chronicle Herald. “I’ve been impressed with how quickly she’s hit the ground running.”

As for what he thinks of her opinions, “I often agree and I often disagree,” says Spurr, whose recent review of Moda was brimming with praise.

Breakfast at Louly’s Restaurant: shakshouka. (Photo:     )
Breakfast at Louly’s Restaurant: shakshouka. (Photo supplied)

“A casserole made of tomatoes, onions, chickpeas and eggs, the shakshuka is overwhelming. The huge slab has no less than five whole eggs.”

Louly’s Restaurant review

Buote glances around Mary’s Place Café, remembering what she’s heard about their great all-day breakfasts.

“I think that that cheap morning breakfast is a totally personal experience that no one will ever agree on,” Buote says, her warm laugh coming out strong. “It’s really like, ‘well what do you want to eat?’ If it’s eggs and bacon, she says, go to a place where it’s four dollars.

Buote looks at her plate again, defeated and unable to finish. “This is, like the most filling – I know! – It’s like, so much rice!” Still, her decision was a good one, and she’s content after a meal rich with chatter and flavour.

Jordana Levine’s lunch with Melissa Buote inspired the critic to write about herself in the Coast

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Homegrown publisher fends off multinationals
Media plays into policing strategy at G20 Summit