Q&A: Restaurant critic Brad A. Johnson gives us the recipe for success

July 27, 2016

If we’re being honest, it seems like Brad A. Johnson is living our dream life: he’s a food critic and photographer who gets paid to travel and dine out, he’s won a prestigious James Beard Award—one of the culinary world’s highest honors—and, perhaps most enviously, he recently participated as one half of a two-person team that tackled the arduous task of reviewing every single restaurant in Disneyland.

But while the nature of food writing sounds like heaven, the field definitely deals with its fair share of criticism: not only was the profession villainized in our generation’s most eminent film about cartoon rodents, Ratatouille, but on a more personal note, Brad’s own O.C. Register article, “The 75 Best Places to Eat in Orange County,” stirred up some controversy within our Southern California-based office. (Ramen Yamadaya? Et tu, Brad?!)

So to clear up all of these conflicting narratives, we went straight to the source himself, to find out once and for all what it’s really like getting paid to eat:

 

1. First things first: what’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted?

The OG Burger at Vaka Burger in Boyle Heights? Deep-fried pork larb in Koh Samui? Iberico ham in San Sebastián? Bun cha on the streets of Hanoi? Wahoo ceviche on a fishing boat in Playa del Carmen? Too many memories to pick a single favorite.

 

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(Ramona in Cancun, Mexico // Photo by Brad A. Johnson)

 

2. What did you study in school? How did you decide?

Originally I studied pre-law. But I worked full-time in restaurants to pay for college, and I always liked going to work better than I liked going to class, so I dropped out and focused on restaurants for a few years, while also dabbling in photography.

 

3. What caught your interest first—food or writing? Or did the two always go hand-in- hand?

I always liked food, but it was a total fluke. I was beginning my career as a photographer, and I was chatting with the editor about our fashion spread. He was in a terrible mood, so I asked him what was wrong. He said, “Here, read this,” and shoved a manuscript at me. It was a restaurant review that he had commissioned from a professional critic. I read it, laughed and said, “I could write better than that.”

I was joking, of course, but the editor asked if I would please do it because he was on a very tight deadline and couldn’t publish such a terrible story. I said no; he pleaded until I said yes. He gave me a wad of cash, and I reviewed a trendy new restaurant. He loved the review, and I loved writing it. That’s when I decided to go back to college and get a degree in magazine journalism.

 

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(Sextantio Le Grotte Della Civita in Matera, Italy // Photo by Brad A. Johnson)
 

 

4. Give us a little bit more background as to how you got to where you’re at today:

Several things happened: While studying journalism at Texas State, I opened a restaurant with some friends, where I created most of the dinner menu. After graduation, I got a job in Chicago writing about chefs, restaurants, and hotels. Then, out of the blue, Microsoft called. I became a restaurant critic for Microsoft (alongside some of the top critics in the country at the time) for a groundbreaking web project that was way ahead of its time. Sadly, it didn’t last, but I’ve been working as a restaurant critic and travel writer ever since.

 

5. What does your average day look like?

I eat out every day. The biggest part of my job is eating and driving around looking for something to eat. And most of what I eat never makes it to print because ultimately it’s just not worthy.

 

6. Are there any writers and/or chefs that you look up to?

Julia Child was a huge inspiration—I loved her curiosity. Ruth Reichl was, of course, a giant influence—her review of Union Pacific was one of the first reviews I ever read. I love the brutal honesty and humor of Giles Coren, a British critic. And I always enjoyed reading Jane and Michael Stern in Gourmet.

As for chefs who have genuinely inspired me, it’s a long list: Joel Robuchon (France, Las Vegas), Marco Pierre White (London), Hiro Urasawa (Beverly Hills), Angela Hartnett (London), Andre Chiang (Singapore), Stephen Pyles (Dallas), David Thompson (Bangkok)…too many to list.

 

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(Baby squid sushi at Shunka in Costa Mesa // Photo by Brad A. Johnson)

 

7. What was your very first job?

I was a radio disc jockey, spinning classic rock.

 

8. If we handed you the keys to one of our green RVs right now, where would you drive?

I would have to follow the food. A trip up the coast from California to Vancouver could be good: lots of oysters, wine, Dungeness crab… Or a barbecue tour through the Texas Hill Country, perhaps?* 

(*important RTN editor’s note: PLEASE take us with you!)

 

9. If you had your choice, your last meal on earth would be:

USDA Prime ribeye steak, grilled over mesquite.

 

10. If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring food critics, it’d be:

Taste as much as you can and travel as far as you can. Taste things where they were invented so that you can learn how things are supposed to taste. Then write about your experiences, not about your knowledge—never presume to know more than the chefs you are writing about or the audience for whom you are writing.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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