How I Got My Job: Award-Winning Restaurant Critic

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In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Lyndsay Green.

In Lyndsay C. Green’s first year as the Detroit Free Press restaurant and dining critic, she won the James Beard emerging voice award and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Though relatively new in her field, she is already being recognized for offering candid, sometimes vulnerable accounts of her experiences eating and drinking in Detroit. At the close of 2022, the Mount Vernon, New York, native encapsulated her first year on the job with a piece, “Accidentally Anonymous,” describing in vivid detail the times she — a Black woman food writer covering a majority Black city — often felt invisible during her many dining assignments. At the time, she told Eater Detroit the experience took her to “real low” thoughts about her self-worth. “You have this expectation that — and that’s been my entire career — that once you get this title, that you’re going to have more visibility, and then that doesn’t happen. And you wonder, like, is it race? Is it me?”

Here, Green reflects on her journey to food journalism, how starting a career in food writing just as the pandemic broke was in some ways an advantage, and life advice that has helped her push the boundaries of restaurant criticism.

Eater: What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?

Lyndsay Green: I’m part dining reporter, part restaurant critic. One piece of my job calls for keeping a close eye on the local food industry, which runs the gamut of restaurants, markets, kitchenware shops, farms, chefs, bars, cafes. The other piece tasks me with sharing my experiences at Detroit-area restaurants with our readers. My favorite part is getting to keep my finger on the pulse of new restaurants and food businesses in the region. I also love recognizing culinary talents here. There are so many wonderfully creative culinarians that deserve the opportunity to share their stories with a wider audience.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

I wanted to be the beauty director of a travel or international magazine. When I graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a BA in print journalism and a BS in international studies, I got my start in the beauty department at magazines such as Ebony and Glamour’s Glam Belleza Latina, a quarterly magazine for Latin beauty aficionados, focusing on beauty and Black and Latino cultures.

In 2015, I left New York when my husband Marcus got a job in Chicago. I knew that my magazine days were over, because the market really is in New York. I started thinking I could start my own beauty magazine through a cultural lens. That’s how Beauty Atlas was born. Beauty Atlas was dedicated to discovering beauty ideals, trends, traditions, and establishments in cities across the globe.

What would you have done differently at school or paid more attention to?

I would have taken more advantage of internships, apprenticeships, and extracurricular activities in the journalism space as a student. In central Pennsylvania, there aren’t many opportunities to venture into women’s magazines, but as a New York native, I certainly could have sought out opportunities in the publishing scene sooner than graduation. I also would have tried to explore different beats to get a feel for subject matters I might have been surprised to take an interest in — perhaps then my journey to food writing would have started sooner!

What was the turning point in your career and your first restaurant/food industry job?

Marcus is originally from Detroit and so we’d been visiting his family for years and I fell in love with Detroit. I felt like there was a real creative energy here. So when his company folded in Chicago, I dragged him back home.

My plan when we moved to Detroit was to get a low-maintenance job, where I would be able to fund Beauty Atlas and scale it from there. When we got here in 2017, there was a position open for a managing editor at Hour Detroit. Just as soon as I got the job, our editor retired, and they put me in his role as the editor-in-chief for a year and a half. Very quickly, I was in a position that didn’t give me any space to think about anything else.

Then, at the same time as the editor-in-chief retired, the restaurant critic also retired. So I was also trying to fill that position, but I wasn’t finding the right fit. Eventually, I was like, “I could write these.” What if I just owned the entire food section because I felt like that’s what the magazine needed? To have one dedicated person who knows what they’re doing, is on top of the food scene, and covers new food businesses that are coming to Detroit, chefs’ stories, and manages the restaurant directory in the back of the magazine? I started my new role as dining editor in January 2020, the pivotal job that changed the trajectory of my career.

In early 2021, Mark Kurlyandchik, the restaurant critic for the Detroit Free Press, announced he was taking a voluntary layoff. He had seen my coverage at Hour and he reached out and said, “I hope this wasn’t too presumptuous of me, but I gave my editors your name.” It all happened very quickly; I became the dining and restaurant critic at the Free Press on November 1, 2021.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?

In March 2020, the food section at the Hour took a turn to accommodate the changes brought by the pandemic. Before I could even consider the hot-button questions that restaurant critics were asking at the time — To be anonymous or not? To include star ratings or not? — I instead had to cover a new topic under unprecedented constraints. I tried to use the opportunity to better understand hospitality workers, to ground myself in humanity. Reviews became reports on how restaurateurs had to pivot, and I began hosting live-streamed shows and pre-recorded cooking segments to engage with chefs and the magazine’s food enthusiasts from a distance. I ended up answering those essential questions through my reporting. Anonymity was not a priority. I jumped on Zoom calls for introductory meetings and interviews with folks every chance I got. Star ratings were off the table.

Reviews became reports on how restaurateurs had to pivot, and I began hosting online shows and videos series to engage with chefs and the magazine’s food enthusiasts from a distance.

As brutal as it was, the pandemic allowed me to gain a proximity to the food industry that I likely would not have had as a budding food writer in a normal environment. I was able to forge relationships and get a truer picture of the needs of the industry and the folks who run it during a time when all of the cracks in the system were exposed. I also, like many people, developed a passion for growing my own food, which inspired a deeper appreciation for farmers and food security activists. Today, I consider myself somewhat of a food sovereignty warrior with ambitions to empower everyone who can tend to their own organic gardens and live off of the land. That’s opened my food coverage up to agricultural topics.

Does gardening make you a better writer? How so?

I have a better understanding of ingredients in their natural state. I’ve gotten better at identifying herbs and produce in dishes. I’ve learned the taste of a fresh vegetable versus one that’s not, or whether an ingredient is in season in our zone or not. I’ve grown a deeper appreciation of the farmer and what it takes to grow food. This question makes me realize just how fortunate I am that my knowledge of food comes from the agricultural end of things as opposed to the restaurant scene, which is best known for some of its toxicity.

How are you making change in your industry?

It’s hard to think of myself as a changemaker. I’d say, I’m showing other food writers that writing about topics that are often discussed behind closed doors is acceptable. That writing about unpolished restaurants or cooks that aren’t typically discussed in the media is acceptable. Inserting yourself into a narrative when it fits is acceptable. And I think that’s helping to change what people would traditionally think about food writing and restaurant criticism a bit, at least locally.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

“All the rules are fake. Do you.” It’s a mantra originated by my good friend and founder of the School of Radical Healing, Adria Moses, and it’s an ideology that I put into practice at the start of my food writing career. Guidelines are nice, but when they don’t make sense, why perpetuate them? I vowed to challenge traditional practices in food writing when I started my role at the Free Press, and it’s really helped to liberate me from trying to meet standards that keep us from pushing the category forward.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

Just start writing! Start a blog, write for your school paper, your local magazine, take on an internship, study your favorite writers. And get familiar with food. Whether that’s working in a kitchen, on a farm, or in food retail, gaining an intimate understanding of the subject you’re covering will be vital in setting yourself apart.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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