Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
An Interview with Janice Okun
By Paul Chimera
All photos in this article by Jim Bush.

great indoors
As much of Janice Okun as we can reveal. All photos in this article by Jim Bush.
“I’ve had a wonderful time,” Groucho Marx once remarked, “but this wasn’t it.”

Food critic Janice Okun can relate.

She remembers one of her biggest disappointments, when she and a group of fellow restaurant critics dined together in Lyon, France. Master chef Paul Bocuse was the evening’s impresario, and they were sure they were in for a culinary tour d’ force at his four-star restaurant.

Instead, only the first course dazzled. It was a wild mushroom soup served with a cap of puff pastry. Bocuse had originally developed the dish for French president Mitterand. “It was fabulous,” Okun conceded. “But it all went down hill from there.” The food was so undistinguished that neither Okun nor her companions can remember the main course. They do remember that a waiter noisily cleaned and stacked plates right at their table throughout the meal.

And so Janice Okun—normally mild-mannered restaurant reviewer for The Buffalo News—got rowdy with her friends. The food editors began sharing restaurant horror stories — admittedly under the influence of generously flowing wine. “I’m sure they wanted us to leave,” Okun reminisces with a slightly mischievous smile.

The following day she ran into the celebrated chef at an outdoor market. To his query about how she enjoyed last evening’s repast, she called it as she saw it: she’s had wonderful dining experiences, but, well, this wasn’t one of them.

“There’s a restaurant in this area for every mood, appetite, and level of budget,” Okun believes. “We’re blessed with a huge variety of good restaurants here, which is amazing for a mid-size city that’s not very economically sound.”

Dining out for Janice Okun isn’t quite like it is for the rest of us. In the nice-work-if-you-can-get-it department, her job takes the cake: getting paid to eat at restaurants. She’s been on the food beat at the News for twenty-six years.

It’s a unique career, and she loves it. “I like to think I’m helping readers spend their money wisely. My aim is to get people thinking about the food they eat—to become more demanding,” Okun explains. “They’ll then ask more of restaurants. And that’s good. Criticism improves restaurants in the community.”

Dining out is huge business. The National Restaurant Association reports that Americans are spending a staggering $1 billion per day in restaurants!

A healthy share of that collective check is being picked up by Western New York’s thriving food culture. “There’s a restaurant in this area for every mood, appetite, and level of budget,” Okun believes. “We’re blessed with a huge variety of good restaurants here, which is amazing for a mid-size city that’s not very economically sound.”

Enjoying Buffalo’s rich variety of cuisines is one thing. Publicly declaring whether a restaurant gets a four-star “excellent” rating, or the dreaded single-star badge of disrepute is quite another. It’s a responsibility a lot of people wouldn’t want.

How does she deal with pressure from restaurants?

“No matter who calls me to review a restaurant, I’m not compelled to review them. I decide what and when,” insists Okun, who’s of Russian descent and speaks forthrightly yet with a disarming manner that’s more grandmotherly than veteran journalist in tone.

Indeed, she is a grandmother—to 7-year-old William, “the world’s worst eater.” Her daughter, Jane Seidenberg Lenk, lives in Portland, Oregon, where she’s program director of a school for developmentally challenged children. Her son Robert J. Seidenberg is president of Mammoth Records in Los Angeles. And her husband of 46 years, Randolf (“Bud”) Seidenberg, is a manufacturer’s representative for non-prescription sunglasses.

Okun emphasizes that Buffalo News management take a hands-off policy when it comes to who gets reviewed—whether they advertise in the city’s monopoly daily newspaper or not. She’s thus free to tell us that the comfort food at Hennesseys Irish Pub in Williamsville “is mostly pretty bland.” Or to corral Buffalo Police officers as taste-testers—ranking Krispy Kreme donuts number one, while dunking long-time Buffalo mainstay, Tim Horton.

That donut drama drew the ire of at least one News reader: “Obviously sponsored by Krispy Kreme to make Tim Hortons look bad, your article was a mockery of honest journalism,” he wrote. To which Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan responded in a column: “I doubt that anything will convince him otherwise, but I’ll say it anyway: That’s not how it happens around here ... whether the subject is doughnuts or presidents, we do everything in our power to play it straight.”

Said Okun, reviewing her long career here: “There have been so many restaurant flaps, I can’t remember them very well. None were very serious, though.”

“She’s well respected within the newsroom,” says Dan Herbeck, who reports on federal courts for the paper. “She seldom slams a restaurant. She doesn’t want to ruin a restaurant’s reputation with one review.”

But Okun, who’s a regional panelist to help select the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Awards, rejects the notion that her pen is powerful enough to irreparably skewer a restaurant. “I don’t feel a reviewer can close a restaurant,” she says. “I think a restaurant closes a restaurant.” Besides, she reasons, “I can only tell people what I like or enjoy. They may or may not agree with me. The words are not written in stone.”

Tom Sietsema, restaurant critic at the Washington Post, concurs. “In this day and age, with so many sources of restaurant information, readers have a lot more material by which to gauge a restaurant,” he told me. “The lead reviewer on a primary newspaper is listened to, but I have to agree with Janice—a bad restaurant closes itself ... Yet there are also bad restaurants that go on and on and on!”

Okun, who has a home economics degree from Cornell University and has traveled extensively, says she looks at all price ranges, neighborhoods, and types of restaurants to give readers the broadest possible picture. “When a new restaurant opens, people are curious about it. I write from the point of view of the diner. I don’t see why diners shouldn’t have perfection.”

“I’m interested in what they say when restaurants call to complain. But I tell them I call it as I see it, and that I’ll be back. It’s all my opinion. What gives me the right to do this? I’m eating! I have long experience tasting food. I can bring an objectivity to it. And I’m more adventurous that the average diner.”

Okun always dines with a companion or group and works at maintaining her anonymity. She has a credit card in a bogus name—standard operating procedure for “foodies.” And due to Caller I.D., she no longer makes dinner reservations from her desk at One News Plaza.

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As much of Janice Okun as we can reveal. All photos in this article by Jim Bush.
She makes only mental notes while engaged in a meal, but may jot down some observations when she gets to her car. Having others with her allows wider food sampling and draws less attention to her.

“She’s reviewed us a couple of times, with a two-and-a-half-star rating. And she once did an ‘A-Team’ article that put us on the team as being a traditional Italian restaurant that’s consistent, with no surprises,” says Lee Federiconi, co-owner of Lebro’s Restaurant in Amherst. “She’s pretty objective. But if she gave me bad press, I might be on the other side of the fence!”

Which brings up a good point: how does she handle irate restaurant owners who feel she’s done them wrong? “I don’t feel any pressure from them,” she says confidently, fidgeting with a paper napkin during an interview in the Buffalo News cafeteria. Her nervous energy manages to knead the napkin into a spindly strip.

“I’m interested in what they say when restaurants call to complain. But I tell them I call it as I see it, and that I’ll be back. It’s all my opinion. What gives me the right to do this? I’m eating! I have long experience tasting food. I can bring an objectivity to it. And I’m more adventurous that the average diner.”

The secret to most dishes, she opines, is balance. No single flavor should dominate. Texture is equally important. “Meat should not be mushy, and neither should pasta, which mustn’t be overwhelmed with sauce.”

Okun’s food adventures have taken her to some far-off places, sometimes with unusual results.

She went to India convinced she wouldn’t like the food. And friends warned her about the drinking water. “I went with some other food editors and brought 50 bottled waters from Wegman’s. But I found bottled water everywhere in India, and a boy on our bus sold it. So I ended up buying from him. At the end of the trip, I still had 40 unopened Wegman’s bottles. I left them behind.” She found the food fabulous, by the way—“and, no, it didn’t make me sick!”

Then there was the case of the dubious lobster in Mexico. She, her husband, and son were dining al fresco at Cuyuca-22 in Acapulco. Their waiter announced he had only three lobsters left. That suited them just fine.

But when they were about to be served, the waiter dropped one of the lobsters on the ground. He picked it up, disappeared briefly, then returned. “We’ll, um, just share the two lobsters,” they told the waiter. To their horror, when they were leaving and another American couple was seated, they over-heard the same waiter declare, “Good evening. We have one lobster left.” The Okuns never said a word—just a quick “Adios!”

In 1979, Okun visited mainland China — one of the first American food editors to travel there. It was her first time eating snake. Despite conventional wisdom that compares the serpent to chicken, she found it tasteless. But when she was offered baked guinea pig in Brazil, she drew the line and opted for something a bit more appetizing. Even an adventurous palette has limits.

What the News food critic loves, she states unabashedly, is junk food. Charcoal-broiled hot dogs are a stand-out. A bologna and onion sandwich is her top choice from The Hatch on Buffalo’s waterfront. She’s also crazy about caramelized onions. “I have no ‘favorite’ food, though,” she notes. “I’m practically omnivorous. What I don’t like is raw carrots. They give me the hiccups. I like them in soups and stews, though.”

“Vongerichten, who owns...the superb Jean Georges restaurant in Manhattan (in the Trump International Hotel) is a bona fide culinary genius. But I can’t believe too many of us are going to search out the tamarind puree called for in his Veal Stew with Pineapple and Tomato.”

Okun, who did stints as hostess of the “Plain & Fancy Cookin’” show on Channel 4 and as assistant director of the Dairy Council of the Niagara Frontier, considers herself a good cook, but doesn’t do much of it these days, what with her children gone and spending so much time in restaurants. Tough duty.

She also has an irrepressible sweet tooth and vows she’ll come back in her next life as a pastry chef, recalling dreamily the pear tart with caramel sauce she had the night before.

Since joining The Buffalo News in 1974, Okun has observed a number of trends and astonishing growth in Buffalo’s cuisine and restaurant scene. “Immodestly, I’ll say it’s in large measure due to restaurant criticism plus a huge national movement and interest in food.”

At the time she came to the paper, there wasn’t much interest in fresh vegetables—in restaurants or homes, she recalls. “It was usually just peas, green beans, and corn. You never saw anything else. Now look at the variety we have! Even the most modest restaurants have three kinds of lettuce today.

“No one ever ate fish either—except fish fries. And it was usually frozen, due to the limited transportation systems. These days the general interest level has peaked. Chefs today are heroes. Now you have the Food Network on TV. In Buffalo we have a whole generation of chefs, thanks in part to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.”

Okun served as national president of the Association of Food Journalists and is co-editor of “The Best Places to Eat in America,” published by Harper & Row. She not only does restaurant reviews for the News, but covers consumer and nutrition issues and writes culinary features. None stands out in her mind as one she regrets or that elicited undue praise or disdain. “It’s a body of work. It is what it is. I’ve never had the belief I was unfair.”

She pleads guilty, however, to criticism voiced by some that she rarely discusses the quality of a wine list or what wines she and her meal mates ordered and how well they accorded with their dinner. Okun responds with characteristic candor: “It’s true, we don’t spend as much time on our wines as we should. There’s limited space in the paper, for one thing,” she says by way of partial justification, yet acknowledging this may be an area she and her editor, Susan LoTempio, may need to pay more attention to.

While on the subject, she favors Amarone, “a powerful (red) wine from Italy that has an almost bittersweet flavor. And it costs a lot.” She doesn’t much care for white wine, but leans toward two from the Loire in France—Sancerre and Pouilly Fume—“which are tangy but dry.”

An occupational hazard is the battle of the waist line. She admits it’s “a constant, terrible problem.” On evenings she’s on assignment, she tries not to eat all day. As to her weight, one colleague at the News put it this way: “She’s not fat, she’s not thin.”

Okun’s story ideas are as limitless as the foods she gets paid to eat and critique (her sojourns to foreign lands are bankrolled through her own resources, not by The Buffalo News). And she doesn’t sugar coat her opinions. In one piece on chefs’ cookbooks, she wrote, “Vongerichten, who owns ... the superb Jean Georges restaurant in Manhattan (in the Trump International Hotel) is a bona fide culinary genius. But I can’t believe too many of us are going to search out the tamarind puree called for in his Veal Stew with Pineapple and Tomato. Let’s face it, there is food that tastes better in fancy restaurants and food that tastes better from a home kitchen.”

In a review of the Restaurant at the Calumet downtown, while adoring her dinner there, Okun groused, “... desserts were a bit of a letdown here. They were presented on a tray, a technique that has probably outlived its appeal. (Things always look so embalmed.)”

Her writing is laced with levity and a dash of sarcasm, echoing her easy sense of humor.

Janice Okun’s advice to anyone new to the food criticism beat is, “Eat, eat, eat everything! Try to find unusual dishes ... figure out what makes them distinctive. Also,” she dead-pans, “join a health club.”

Paul Chimera is an independent writer and editor, based in Amherst.


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