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A Chef and a Critic Bash the Star Rating System Simultaneously

In the Press Herald this week, both chef Krista Kern Desjarlais and food critic James Schwartz lament the system of rating restaurants with stars.

Bresca and the Honeybee, New Gloucester.
Bresca and the Honeybee, New Gloucester.
Adam H. Callaghan

In critic James Schwartz's case, his negative feelings on the issue of star ratings come up as part of a longer interview about reviewing food. He calls awarding stars his "least favorite part of the job," though he admits stars are a quick reference tool and doesn't think they should be done away with entirely. Naturally, he'd like readers to give the whole review its due consideration, rather than just counting stars and moving on.

Q: Many restaurant critics say that awarding stars is the hardest part. Is it?

A: Yes, it's my least favorite decision. I am conscious of two things: First, I am standing in for the reader, because I have had the good fortune to go to the restaurant. So I feel a responsibility to the reader to accurately describe my experience. And I am conscious of the fact that the number of stars awarded can positively or adversely affect the business life of a restaurant. That is a second responsibility that I take very seriously.

Q: So are stars a good thing? If you had your druthers would you get rid of them?

A: They are a quick reference tool. If I had my druthers, I would ask readers to check the number of stars and then read the review as opposed to turning the page or clicking to the next article.

In an op-ed that also serves as another hint of her upcoming restaurant plans, chef Krista Kern Desjarlais raises rhetorical questions such as "Do stars really matter?" and "Do stars really make or break a restaurant?" ("Yes and no," she immediately answers). As if anticipating Schwartz's responses, she asks why readers should be given a chance to skip an in-depth look in favor of a quick reference tool.

I'm not sure I know the answer for a better way to measure a reviewer's experience. But I do think that a well-written account of a meal - or two or three - and a desire to look beyond the plate and into the "soul" of each business could provide depth that is so often missing in food journalism. I'm told that stars are meant to be a short summation, a quick reference point for readers who are in a hurry. But why give readers the chance to miss out on a write-up that reflects more deeply on the experience of the restaurant?

She draws on her experiences from the other side of the reviews, including when she received four-and-a-half stars for Bresca in Portland and then four stars for Bresca and the Honeybee in New Gloucester. She concedes that these good reviews likely brought business, but, to put a fine point on it, she surmises that both of these reviews fell short of five stars partly for the mistakes of new chefs with salads.

She wonders, in particular, how a place like Bresca and the Honeybee, where the food is perhaps less important than the setting, can be measured against other restaurants. "Food is visceral and provokes feeling, and feelings create memories. How can you apply stars to a feeling? You cannot," she concludes.

Kern Desjarlais also suggests once again that she may be ready for a second location. "As I sit writing this, I am weighing the pros and cons of opening another restaurant and again having to face critics bestowing stars," she muses. The space is likely the same one mentioned by Melissa Coleman in her July review of Bresca and the Honeybee: "She tells us she has a location lined up in Lewiston-Auburn, but needs to decide if she's ready to get back into the scene," the former critic unveiled.