Janice Okun, the Only Restaurant Critic in the History of the Buffalo News, Retires (Kinda)

Her career began at The Buffalo News in 1974. She “retired” in 2009 but it seems that retirement was figurative as she continued to write the restaurant reviews in addition to another weekly column. Now, after 38 years and hundreds of restaurant reviews, Okun has decided to “step down” according to a column by editor Margaret Sullivan

Now, this isn’t exactly a retirement either. Instead, Okun is stepping down from the restaurant review column. Okun will still have a byline at The News as she’ll continue with her column for the Wednesday Taste section of the paper. 
So, for those of you keeping score at home, this is Okun’s second announced departure and she hasn’t actually departed. Yes, it has a Favre-ian quality to it. 
Okun has become something of a social media punching bag. Her most recent reviews have been maligned for oversights that are shocking given the scope and resources at the disposal of The News. Most notably, Okun helped give flight to the now infamous Valenti’s saga. 
Specifically, in her review of the North Tonawanda Italian restaurant, she repeated “Chef” Terry Valenti’s claims that he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, served as head chef at Mama Leone’s in Manhattan and, get this, appeared on Iron Chef. Oh, and he said he won his Iron Chef battle by beating Bobby Flay. All of these claims are false. Most remarkably, it only took a minimal amount of time using Google to prove the silliness of those claims. 
The Buffalo News subsequently removed references to these claims though the 2.5 star review remains on their site. Less than two months after Okun’s review, the restaurant has been shuttered and the the owners have been evicted. Buffalo Pundit wrote extensively about the Valenti’s saga if you’re interested. 
With Okun leaving the restaurant review column, Andrew Galarneau will take over. You can follow him on Twitter here

About the author  ⁄ Jackie Treehorn

22 comments
whatever
whatever

"They could have cast a wide net to find the best person"

All I'd question is whether your def of 'best' (best = more foodieish than this guy might be) for the reviewer role is really what most people living in Buffalo would prefer. Maybe some readers would value more Buffalo-centric writing than would result form a national search (damn those uncouth hayseeds if they do of course, but if they do, they do).

Or maybe market research showed the foodie segment is smaller than you'd guess. Or maybe they really did a national search and concluded this guy was better overall for what they wanted, or maybe they offered to others and were turned down - who knows.

It sounds like you're absolutely stating as 100% fact that they didn't do any national search either now or back when they hired this guy as food editor. Unless you have inside info about that, I just find it an odd thing to write as fact like you do. But you might be correct.

I have no idea either way if a more foodieish approach to reviews would attract more eyeballs and ads, or lose more, or be a wash. If I was Warren B, I'd have wanted them to try figuring that out. We really don't know if they did or didn't, but we're free of course to pretend like we know.

Rand503
Rand503

I don't mean to dump on this guy. I mean to dump on the News. Surely, there are qualified people in the US who are both excellent writers, and knowledgeable about food and wine. Furthermore, they have published, whether it's a small publication, a regional thing, or even just a blog. They could have cast a wide net to find the best person who is interested in moving to Buffalo and is happy with the salary they offer. At the least, they could have cast out the net and interviewed a handful of people. That would have informed them of the quality that's out there.

Buffalo is at the forefront of several initiatives on the food front, especially when it comes to the locavore movement. A good food critic can and should get to the know all the leaders and people in the movement and help push it along. The critic should identify the trends, both regionally and locally, and write about them and help push our restauranters, patrons and amateurs come together and capitalize on it, making our region better. There is so much that a critic can do to help organize our community.

I doubt the News is even aware of what they could do, much less be interested in this. They just want a guy who can tell us whether the sauce is good. it's a complete wasted opportunity.

whatever
whatever

"limited to whether the sauce tastes good or not, something any other patron can figure out for themselves"

They can figure out for selves, yes. But when deciding places to try, some portion of BN's customers (we can only guess what %) might really prefer more limited focus on basic aspects rather than a writer trying to weave into reviews a lot of background gained from "...southern france to learn what a cassoulet is", etc.

Some might tune out if reviews bring up topics like those or use foddie jargon, while others might shout 'know nothing!' if it doesn't happen.

Perhaps outlets like BN might be smart to have two kinds of skilled writers as reviewers - one aimed at highly judgmental foodies (a perhaps valuable minority with higher-than-average income, good for ad click demographics, etc), and one aimed at those who prefer more straightforward descriptions of what different places are like, how their food tastes, atmosphere, offerings, etc.

They've already been doing some very basic reviews of inexpensive places in Gusto, so that leaves the question of how best to approach reviews for mid-level and upscale in ways likely to attract the most readers and ads.

Rand503
Rand503

You are correct -- we should wait and see if he has anything good to say. But when you combine the fact that he has no formal training in the food industry, no real experience that I can see, no history of writing about food and wine and no indication whatsoever that he knows anything more about food and wine than the average amateur, I'd say that the odds of him being an budding food critic are pretty darn long. And for taking the top position the WNY region, that's a pretty hefty leap.

If someone told me that someone who has never demonstrated any skill in owning or operating a restaurant of any size is going to open the biggest and finest restaurant in the city, sure, I'll wait until it opens before I say anything. But my expectations are going to be that this is a really, really long shot.

If the News has a budget to pay for him to visit southern france to learn what a cassoulet is, or spain to learn about paella, or china to learn what chinese food is really like, then perhaps he can learn on the job. But if he doesn't have the experience, he's reviews will be limited to whether the sauce tastes good or not, something any other patron can figure out for themselves. But again, I suspect the News won't be spending any money to actually help the guy get educated enough to talk about food and wine in a serious way.

But again, perhaps I'll be proved wrong.

whatever
whatever

While I realize many people are in a hurry, I just thought unless you'd had more than a cursory look at his past writing of things that aren't reviews, maybe it could make sense to wait until he's actually written a few reviews before saying anything as insulting as 'local yokel' or 'know nothing'. Maybe. -shrug-

Doing it before hand looked like severely criticizing a restaurant's food before it opens.

YesSir
YesSir

Say what you want about Janice, but the one unassailable fact is she is built to the curb

BrianWhite
BrianWhite

She's horrible at her job. Good riddance.

Amybuff
Amybuff

From the comments section of the Buffalo News replying to a recent Jeff Simon review:

"Historically Jeff likes to see lotsa flesh,,like a dirty old man with failing fantasies its always about the body. the ancient and past his used by date "reviewer" should've been farmed out to some suburban pennysaver years ago. still working on an interview from 1991? 21 years ago? wow. now disappointed that your Madonna fantasy of half time lap dancing didnt pan out you get on with some irrelevant monarchy whines. maybe you should've spent halftime with your hidden Hustlers in the basement "secret office". please retire."

LOUIS, BUFFALO,NY

"Your column shows your ignorance, and as one commenter stated, your ageist(and dare I say, sexist?) bias, in many ways."

Tony, Buffalo, NY

The Boss
The Boss

I have spoken to Mr. Galarneau on a couple occaisions regarding food and wine and was shocked at his poor grasp on some very basic food and wine priciples. Do not expect much. The News probably will not tolerate being to harsh anyway.

Rand503
Rand503

If I'm not mistaken, wasn't Okun the food critic of the Courier-Express before it went defunct? And then she moved over to the News later?

Rand503
Rand503

Sorry -- I didn't see the link at the bottom for some reason. Therefore, my speculation of who the News will hire is obviously wrong, as they have already hired someone. Nonetheless, I notice that he graduated from UB in 1988 with a degree in journalism, and has been living in the Buffalo area for several years. That would identify him as local, I believe.

His CV mentions that he was a journalist for about 15 years after graduation, but makes no mention that he has a specialty in food writing, and in fact highlights a variety of other experiences.

It is true that he has a blog on food writing and events around town. Does that make him qualified as a food writer or restaurant critic? I'm sure reasonable minds can disagree, but the best food writers are people who either came from that profession, or have strong experience in living in a variety of cultures, or something that really qualifies them to know more about food and its preparation beyond what any earnest amateur can do.

Although I haven't reviewed his blog extensively, a cursory review shows to me that he knows nothing more about food and restaurants than any dozen of foodies that I know.

Being a critic of anything, be it music, theater, food or politics, requires two things, and I'm sure you will agree with me: An ability to write in a lively manner, and extraordinary knowledge of the subject at hand. That knowledge should be far more than what a knowledgeable amateur has and should at least be equal to a professional level, if not at the highest levels.

How else could we trust his judgment? And with the power that a critic wields, the industry requires someone who is top notch in the field, because any judgment call can make or break entire careers.

I also realize that it is difficult to find anyone who can do both extremely well, and those who are can command hefty compensation. So you must excuse my scepticism. I hope that the new critic is both a good writer and knows his beat, but so far I haven't seen much that would suggest it so. Perhaps he will prove me wrong.

whatever
whatever

Rand, if you clicked the link Jackie put at end of article's first para, you'd have seen the replacement's name.

Are you making all those insults toward Mr. Galarneau? Are those well-informed criticisms from you toward him?

Rand>"they will hire some local yokel who is politically well connected and know nothing"

Rand503
Rand503

They could bring in someone who actually knows food and wine. But this is the News -- which means they will hire some local yokel who is politically well connected and know nothing, but will work for cheap.

DMZ
DMZ

Have a thumbs up.

Amybuff
Amybuff

Now if they can only get that old pervert Jeff Simon to retire, they might be viewed as a real newspaper.

If I read another Simon article about boobs and ass, I'm going to barf!

The Boss
The Boss

For all her travels, one would think she would have a more wordly understanding of food, wine and dining service. Either she was deliberatley soft and simple for us dumb Buffaloians, or she truley was just a simpleton. She seemed to just go with the popular view as who was best and never really challenged the status quo in the dining scene. Certain "popular" restaurants are just not good and she propped them up for years, and never truly shined a light on hard working newcomers. Poorly informed servers, limited menu selections and shotty wine service and options should show in the final review. Let's hope the new guy opens the eyes of readers and diners and shows a more honest and insightful prespective on our restaurant scene. The critic should challenge our restaurantuers to get better or get out.

longgone
longgone

Regardless, she is horrible at what she does and should have been fired for the Valenti's story.

As others have put it...to accept the lie that someone who beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef would be running a red sauce place in NT...means you're either stupid, senile or lazy. Maybe a combination of all?

Okun should be ashamed to cash her paycheck. One has to wonder what pictures she has of Sulllivan.

stef
stef

Anyone can be a critic, but the writing ability is severely deficient on many food blogs. Yes, I am referring to some of the independent bloggers in Buffalo. They need someone to edit their posts......someone who knows basic grammar rules and knows how to spell. Content is important, but terrible writing detracts from the message. I hope there are some people out there who think writing skills are still important.

Chris
Chris

Isn't the snooze trying to cut costs? Why not bring in a new kid from a smaller city that has talent. He/She would be cheap and you would refresh the process.

Social media and blogs make food writing accessible to anyone that wants to be a critic. The new can't afford to mail it in anymore. The food section as well as the restaurant reviews should be viewed as an authority rather than just another resource alongside yelp.

RobS
RobS

Actually, as explained clearly and accurately in Sullivan's piece, Okun retired only as food editor in 2009; it was never announced as a complete retirement from the paper and, as planned, she continued to write the restaurant review and, later, a weekly column. As also made clear by Sulllivan, Okun now is stepping down from her position as restaurant reviewer only. So really it's a change of duties: the scope of her work has altered. And though I'm sure Okun would appreciate the comparison to one of football's greatest all-time quarterbacks, she has not changed her mind every year, nor has she ever been disingenuous about her plans or intentions.

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