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Professor Mark Vamos Teaches Business Journalism, Reviews Food

Vamos' Foodie Tastes Turns into Critic Gig with the Dallas Morning News

By Randall Kenworthy (B.F.A Advertising, '10)

Professor Mark Vamos has always been a foodie, but when he moved from New York to Dallas to become the William J. O’Neil Chair in Business Journalism at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, he was given the opportunity to take his love for food to the next level. Now, Vamos writes restaurant reviews for The Dallas Morning News.

Being a professional dining critic may sound like the good life, and in many ways it is, but it can be very challenging to find new ways to talk about food. Vamos said, “It can be very hard to describe how something tastes, and it can be particularly hard to describe it in a way that’s fresh.” There are only so many ways to say that a dish was good, okay, or not up to par.

Not only does being a food critic require one to be very creative when describing food, it also requires a broad knowledge of how food is made, a well-developed palate, and the willingness to try almost anything (and appreciate it). In a recent review of Sichuanese Cuisine, Vamos described one of his dishes, beef miscellany, as “a spicy stew of shank and tendon (plus some oddly frilly bits I couldn't quite identify) with tofu, napa cabbage, bean-thread noodles and dried chiles. It is an opulence of off-cuts, with the substance and depth of flavor that come from long, slow cooking of recalcitrant meats.”
Even with a title like “beef miscellany,” most people would probably not be prepared for the assortment of beef within the dish – to them, “beef” means burgers, steaks or hotdogs. Vamos, however, has a much wider frame of reference, which is one of the factors that make him a successful dining critic.

Another dish that Vamos sampled was “Ants on a Tree.” While not nearly as daunting as it sounds, the name would certainly steer less adventurous souls toward a different entrée. For a food critic, however, it’s an invitation.
While living in New York, Vamos spent 25 years as a business journalist. He was a senior editor at both Newsweek and BusinessWeek and eventually became the editor-in-chief of the business magazine Fast Company. This may not seem like the ideal background to become a dining critic, but Vamos said that the transition was fairly easy. “Thinking about and talking about food is something that I’ve always done,” said Vamos.

Vamos’s well-developed writing style helps to bring personality and humor to a business that is usually characterized as being overly straightforward. He described the ambience at the aforementioned Sichuanese Cuisine as “Not much. A clattery, too-bright utilitarian room with some vaguely Chinese decorations.” Thus, the reason to read Vamos’s reviews becomes less about whether or not to try a new restaurant and more about reading the entertaining descriptions and humorous side notes within them.

Vamos generally eats at a restaurant two or three times before reviewing it and, luckily for him, the Morning News foots the bill. Out of the restaurants Vamos has tried in the SMU area, he recommends Olivella’s, Kuby’s (Snider Plaza), Vietnam (Bryan and Peak), Jade Garden (Bryan and Prairie), Thai Thai (Greenville and Ross) and Garden Café (Junius and Henderson).

Since it can be tough to find good restaurants out of the multitude of small places in Dallas, Vamos gave a few pointers on how to tell if a place will be good or not. He said that if a restaurant is part of a chain, it should be immediately out of the running. Furthermore, if a restaurant has put too much effort into naming their dishes or coming up with jokes for the menu, it is generally a bad sign. Vamos said you never want your restaurant to be too clean either, or the restaurant is likely hiding something. He said the time it takes restaurant staff to help you upon entering is usually a decent indicator of how good the food will be.

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