Confessions of a Hired Palate:
If you decide to read this article - assuming you make it through to the end - and then keep going until you get to that mini biography (called the byline), you’ll see that mine states the following: Ken Alan is a corporate concierge for CBRE. He is the restaurant features editor for Main Line Today, and…
Yes, I happen to have an unusual work situation. I’m a fulltime concierge with a side hustle that takes me to a multitude of restaurants in a year where I consume copious amounts of food and beverages and then write about each experience while getting paid for it.
In fact, it’s as if I’m always working in or writing about restaurants almost 24/7. When I’m not checking them out during the daytime for my corporate clientele to try, than I’m probably out after-hours seeking to learn about all of the cool places for my readers to enjoy, as well.
So, yeah, I sort of eat things and drink stuff for a living.
For the last six years, I’ve been humbly-fortunate to be the epicure reviewer for Main Line Today - a highly-respected and well-distributed lifestyle publication that’s geared toward Philadelphia’s Main Line, a.k.a. its affluent and storied western suburbs.
One of the few remaining in-print magazines around these parts, with a strong circulation and readership to boot, MLT can be found on subscriber’s coffee tables across the land, and in professional-looking waiting rooms throughout the region. Pick an MD’s office, a chiropractor’s, a dentist’s, or any high-end car dealership situated between Philly’s City Line and the western edge of Chester County, and you’re sure to find a copy of the magazine.
Flip to the back, and there you’ll locate my copy…
What made me want to become a restaurant reviewer in the first place? One major reason is, it helps me to remember -
Remembering the impact that I gleaned from flavors most recent, or, of those I discovered in my youth, and the exciting affect they had had on my palate as much as on my psyche: that first deliciously-bloody slice of seasoned rare roast beef my grandmother made me try - me, the curious six-year-old who had up until then only known well-done meat because that was the way my mom made it for my dad, who liked his charred to a crisp.
The lemony piquancy of my first veal picante, which was ordered at the Stokesay Castle along Mt. Penn, by Reading, PA (still in operation!) - and not just that veal picante alone, but taking in the whole restaurant scene there: the regal tapestries and vivid coats of arms affixed to the high stone walls; the snappy crispness of the waiter’s black apron; the milky, caper studded veal melting on my tongue…
After that particular meal, I just knew that I wanted to spend my life learning about restaurants. Or, remembering the time my parents took my sisters and me to the Astral Plane in the mid-‘70s; a hippy-trippy eatery on 17th Street in Philadelphia - one of the city’s vaunted “First Renaissance” restaurants. It was there where I had my very first taste of sweet red curry via a plump and pungent chicken breast. It was as if the floodgates of Thai flavors (and Eastern spices in general) were suddenly opened to me like some dusky and mysterious maiden for the very first time.
Then, much later on, I got to enjoy the one dish that’s become sort of my culinary pinnacle: close to twenty years ago, when I was attending a small gathering of local journalists held by Chef Derek Davis at his then-operational steakhouse called Kansas City Prime (in Philadelphia), one of the finger foods being passed around was Derek’s Wagyu beef cheesesteak, which was smothering an asiago-topped Italian roll languorously ladled with white truffle-accented lobster tail.
It was the ultimate comfort food decadence!
Sure, there were the weekend family jaunts to King Fu for highly-average Chinese food; to the Howard Johnson for those incomparable, oil-soaked, all-you-can-eat clam strips; to the Thunderbird in Broomall (a Philly suburb) for a big, sloppy pepperoni pizza and a Pepsi…
I didn’t just want to think about my experiences, I began to want to write about them, too, so I’d never lose the memories of the places I was visiting.
I credit three people as partially responsible for my being a restaurant reviewer: 1. Mr. McDevitt, my eight grade English teacher (the year I aced English and F’d algebra); 2. Bob Bickell, the late and lamented publisher of The Restaurant Report, a restaurant-supporting trade publication of high merit and respectability. Bob published my first-ever restaurant-related article, Critiquing Restaurant Critics – a point/counterpoint piece that gave me the confidence to want to continue my dream of hospitality writing back in 1997.
Guess what? It still viewable on the Internet to this day! (Keywords: Ken Alan, The Great Debate)
The third influencer is Michael Klein. The long-scribing Table Talk editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer didn’t have to take me on as a “Mystery Muncher” (a clandestine freelance reviewer), but he did anyway.
Michael being Michael (read: one of the biggest nice-guy mensch’s that I know), he saw enough potential in me to let me run with my passion, and he allowed me to be a Mystery Muncher for over a decade with the paper, until the recession of 2008 put the kybosh on extraneous freelance articles like my biweekly copy in the Friday Weekend section.
But by then, thanks to Michael Klein, Bob Bickell, and even Mr. McDevitt, I was finding my voice, my style, and ongoing writing gigs.
I’ve never sought to become famous or even a nationally-published scribe, but I have continually represented respected publications through the years, including Philadelphia magazine, Philadelphia Style, and Mid-Atlantic Events Magazine (since 1996.). Nary a month has passed in two-hundred eight of them where I haven’t felt the cold steel trap-grizzly bear jaws of a deadline fast approaching!
Through some luck and good contacts, Main Line Today came my way in 2013.
Its monthly coverage, combined with its sweeping distribution, has led to inevitable comments that I’ll continually receive from family, friends, clients and coworkers who all start their sentences in the same general way: “I was reading your latest review in the Main Line magazine...” which is quickly followed by “…when I was waiting for my root canal” or “…right before physical therapy,” or “…getting an oil change,” or “…as I was being prepped for my colonoscopy.”
If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me: “Being a restaurant critic is my dream job!” I’d have a hell of a lot of coins. To all of you who really think this way, I say, “Start living your dream!”
Even though a degree in journalism has gone the way of the Betamax repairman, there are still so many opportunities out there for aspiring writers - in fact, more now than ever before.
Any restaurant reviewing wannabe has a lucky advantage these days: Yelp, or TripAdvisor, or any of those similar types of online aggregators of opinion-based data - they’re all practice platforms. Write a review, edit and hone it; then write another one - a better one, and so on… Practice makes perfect!
Then, start a blog or try to gain readership traction on large platforms like Reddit and Tumblr. Maybe pitch a national publication or blog, like Food & Wine or Eater.
Then, finally, one day you’re a restaurant critic. And who knows how far you can take that?
I could never, ever produce an accurate list of all of the restaurants I’ve reviewed over the years.
What I do know - with all of that dining behind me - is that very few places scored less than a “C” with me, with most holding certain redeeming characteristics of some sort or another. I’ve learned, as well, that some of the dive-iest joints can be the best kind of places, and that most people who wait tables - even the worst of the bunch - they’re still, by and large, usually really good-hearted individuals.
Where have I enjoyed some of my most thought-provoking meals?
Well, there was that time when my wife and I got to dine at Noma in Copenhagen during its heyday. (Note - for years running ‘til recently, Noma was considered #1 on “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list.)
Was Noma’s Rene Redzepi’s molecular gastronomy really the best of the best end-all/be-all? Sure, why not? But my most memorable takeaway came from my wife getting unintentionally locked in the restaurant’s water closet for over twenty-minutes. Since then, she’s suffered anxiety due to the incident!
Who’d ever think the outcome of “the best meal on earth” would be a thorny case of claustrophobia?
A personal-best meal for me was probably the Cajun eats I enjoyed to no end at Cochon in the Garden District in New Orleans. Ah, that magical fried alligator with chili garlic aioli!
Or, was it taking my dearly-departed grandmother to famed Le Bec-Fin?
Or, taking my dearly-youthful daughter to our special “Daddy/Daughter Day” dinners together at some of this region’s most-interesting restaurants (Morimoto, Nectar, the Ritz-Carlton), which always was (and still is) a life affirming moment.
Throughout my time as a so-called “restaurant critic,” I’ve appreciated being able to support small independent operators, knowing the incredible challenge it takes to dedicate one’s life to serving others.
I see the industry continuing to become less formal and more convenience-minded while it also trends toward healthful, sustainable and varied menu options.
I love how we’re a society that values food, life and family as one in the same; chefs as artists, and restaurants as culture.
But I also eschew the judgmental nature that’s inherent within social media usage, and how restaurant ratings systems have become a blood sport with those who are on the receiving end - and their mercilessly shuttered businesses - as its collateral damage.
One day my time of hiding behind the reviewer’s mask will conclude. When that happens, I’ll be free to accomplish my final bucket lister - to find the perfect bar possessing the perfect beer list, food menu, bartender and corner stool. There, as I delve into a good book, I’ll happily eat and drink my fill to consumption, knowing I won’t have an editor breathing down my neck, waiting for my next 650 words.
Until that day comes, I thank you for making it to my byline - at least this time around!
Ken Alan is a corporate concierge for CBRE. He is the restaurant features editor for Main Line Today, and the founding member of the Philadelphia Area Concierge Association. Ken.Alan@cbre.com