Can you cook? Restaurateur puts bold challenge to Edmonton food critics

Chef Paul Shufelt wants Edmonton food critics to eat their words.

'I understand that it would come across as a little bit of an attack on them, but that was not my intention'

Chef Paul Shufelt wants to hand his sauté pans to Edmonton food critics to see how well they can cook. (chefpaulshufelt.com)

Paul Shufelt wants Edmonton food critics to eat their words.

The local chef is challenging the city's culinary experts to prove their own skills in the kitchen by preparing a three-course meal for the public, and having it picked apart by a panel of judges.

The meal, for 150 people, would be called the Eat Your Words dinner. It would serve as a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House Northern Alberta.

"I was talking one time to a couple chef friends, and said, 'Wouldn't be fun if we flipped the script one day and had themcook for us and we got to review them,' " Shufelt said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"I was saying it more in angst at that point, but then I thought about it, and thought it was a good idea."

Shufelt delivered the challenge in a somewhat scathing Postmedia guest column in which he questioned some food reviewers on their lack of credentials and failure to check facts. He says armchair critics are taking over the industry.

Who are these people given the privilege of sharing their opinions about our city's restaurants? What experience or training do these experts have?

Have they spent years on their feet, repeating basic techniques over and over again, in hot, dark, cramped quarters, while angry chefs bark orders at them?

Have they gone to cooking school? Are they decent home cooks?

There was a time when the craft of being a food critic was highly regarded and feared. There was honour in the process.

Shufelt says he'd grown frustrated with some food reviewers in the city, and admits that he wanted to stir the pot.

"I understand that it would come across as a little bit of an attack on them, but that was not my intention," he said.

"It was meant to catch them off-guard and surprise them, much like chefs who end up waking up in the morning reading a review they didn't even know was coming."

A bitter battle 

Shufelt, who has worked in the restaurant industry since he was 16, has had his share of both positive and scathing reviews.

Reviews for his restaurant the Workshop Eatery in Summerside, in south Edmonton, have been so positive and plentiful, there was a point last year — shortly after it opened —  when he had to turn customers away

Even so, the prospect of a review being published still makes him cringe.

Shufelt says food reviewers without credentials are becoming all too common, and too often he`s seen hardworking restaurateurs have their dreams derailed by a single stinging article.

He says it's causing real tension among those who work in the kitchen and the people who are paid to judge them.

"And I don't know if that`s ever going away. We're not going to solve that by having a dinner together, but at the same time I think we have to try."

'All in good fun' 

Shufelt hopes to host the Eat Your Words dinner in January, if he can convince any food critics to get into the kitchen.

"The intention, to be brutally honest, was never to throw the food critics under the bus," he said.

"At the end of the day, the event is going to be hosted at my restaurant, so it's still going to be a reflection of what I do at my business. My kitchen staff would be there to help out.

"I have a few [critics] that have expressed interest and want to participate and a few that are very reluctant … hopefully we can persuade them that it's all in good fun."

Despite his distaste with some food reviews, Shufelt says he never intended to offend any of his counterparts, and he hopes he can help close the gap between the kitchen and the dining room.

"As much as I`m a chef, I don't envy the job of food critics … they have a tough gig. More often than not, they end up being the bad guy."

With files from Nola Keeler