Washing dishes in a Cape Cod restaurant at the age of 13 was a great precursor for Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s career as a journalist. When she began working summers at restaurants in the late ’80s, her motivation was to earn money to purchase records. Records explained “why the world sucked, and they gave you something to talk to boys about,” she says.
Every summer after her dishwashing gig, she continued to climb the kitchen hierarchy. She was an oyster shucker and mussel bearder at 14; a waitress at 15. Later, she was also the prep cook, broiler cook, line cook, and sous chef. Eventually, she became a part-time pastry chef at a few restaurants to help pay for college.
Her three winning articles, “Then There Were None,” “Port Is the Answer?” and “Colonel Mustard,” appeared in City Pages, where she wrote a restaurant column for almost 11 years before leaving in January to work at Minnesota Monthly.
Grumdahl says going to work at such a young age taught her a lot about making money and making it in the world. It also taught her a lot about what it’s like to work behind the scenes at a restaurant — and what it’s like to write about one.
How did you end up writing about food?
I really wanted to write anything that I could get my byline on. So I did all of the shit-work jobs. I wrote whatever people wanted me to write. I was the girl who never said “No.” Then the food beat opened up. I was making $7,000 a year and the food beat came with free dinner. I wanted to advance my writing career; there wasn’t a job I didn’t want. Frankly, I needed the protein.
What are some of the perks of being a food critic?
I was renovating my house once and realized I hadn’t had a stove for four years. You don’t have to wake up early — and you get free lunch and dinner, and sometimes even brunch.
What’s the difference between writing about food and other types of writing?
You use your senses more than other reporters. You’re not only writing down what you see, but also what you taste, smell and feel. It’s also very self-evident. The nice thing about writing for the alternative press is that you have a huge hole to fill. When you’re not competing with the AP or the wire, you get a diversity of viewpoints.
What’s the process like for writing a restaurant review?
First, I pick a place newsworthy of reviewing. Because restaurants can be very different on a Tuesday than on a Saturday, I go three different days at different times. Usually up to three people come along and I try to taste a couple of things on the menu. Even though, by now, I know how to choose a wine, I always ask questions to see what they know. There are times that I know more than them. For the food that wasn’t that good the first time I ordered it, I order it the next two times, just to make sure it was bad and it wasn’t the chef having a bad day. You have to take people’s reputation into consideration.
How nerve-racking is it to think about what a bad review can do to a restaurant?
I don’t believe a bad review can send someone into bankruptcy. I strongly believe a bad review doesn’t hurt a good restaurant. But, I take it very seriously and always err on the side of being more generous with the review. Besides, I don’t write a bad review of a restaurant I wouldn’t want to go to anyway — I just don’t write about it.
“Then There Were None” focused heavily on the future of restaurants in Minneapolis and the state of the economy. How are restaurants faring today?
The places that are opening are more conservative. Everything has a steak or flatbread pizza. But the food revolution is still very exciting even if they’re playing it safe. The economy seems to be going into that steady but slow growth.
Read the story that garnered Moskowitz Grumdahl a first-place finish in Food Writing (circulation 55,000 and over):
“Then There Were None“
“Port is the Answer?”
Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.