Restaurant Critic: Craig LaBan

Was food always your calling?

No. Although I always enjoyed eating. My mom cooked but it was not a communal activity.  I really didn’t connect with food until my college years. I was a French major in college and lived in France for three years. During my time there I was more involved with the music industry. I did land a job as a translator at La Varenne, a culinary school in France. It started in Paris then I moved with it to Northern Burgundy. I eventually returned to the States and lived in Boston freelance writing about food. I went to journalism school to learn more about the craft of being a good reporter, worked my way up through small papers covering communities, and eventually came back to food writing and restaurant criticism at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Where are you originally from?

I’m from the suburbs of Detroit. I attended University of Michigan. I’m proud of my Michigan roots. In my experiences you move around a lot for journalism.

Since returning to the Inquirer as restaurant critic in ’98 what has been your biggest “surprise” in food breakthrough in Philadelphia? What stuck with you even up to today?

There was no one big surprise. The city and its dining scene happened organically. It’s really stunning and exciting to watch and to be immersed in the scene. In 1998 Stephen Starr opened Buddakan. Then there was the arrival of Marc Vetri, the BYOB’s, Jose Garces, and the gastropub craft beer movement took place. Philadelphia has blossomed into a desirable place for young chefs. They have infused it with a new sophistication. The last couple years we have continued to move forward and it’s growing even faster.

Are you allergic to any food?

Any food critics you looked up to? Read about?

Food critics tend to be very reclusive – so I don’t get many opportunities to gather with colleagues. Among those I admire from afar, though, is Jonathan Gold from the Los Angeles Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. He’s a fantastic and witty writer who embodies the spirit of adventure and discovery that is the best part of food writing. He has the ability to dig through the ethnic neighborhoods and find the hidden insider gems. Pete Wells for The New York Times is a real pro. Alan Richmond is a funny writer. Calvin Trillin, the legendary writer for The New Yorker, also the author of “Alice Let’s Eat,” was very influential.

A wish list city you could review?

Tokyo, Japan. I love traveling. Also on my list is Shanghai.

What is your opinion on the Layover episode with Anthony Bourdain in Philadelphia? Was it accurate?

I was actually pleasantly surprised. I don’t watch much food TV because it’s very “fluffy". I thought the Layover episode was smart and accurate. However any 43min show will miss things. The episode showed the diversity of Philadelphia. There was a complete omission of Jose Garces, which was a shame because he has had so much to do with the food scene in Philadelphia. Jose needed to be mentioned and he wasn’t. Overall, though, it was a fun show and captured the pulse and attitude of the city. No cliches.

Any style of restaurant or food you would like to see in Philadelphia? See more of?

Better Thai food. Middle Eastern food is also very lame around here with the exception of Zahav. We can have regional variations on that. Same with Japanese. What would be great to have, but will be very hard to re-create, is to explore more of our own history, to take the old traditions and make new restaurant versions of that.

Favorite night to go out?

There are multiple nights I go out and all for different reasons. But never on a Saturday.