Craig LaBan, restaurant critic (James Beard award finalist) and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1998, didn’t intend to write about food for a living. While teenage summer jobs included making pizzas at Little Caesar’s and as a busboy at Phoenicia, the Bloomfield Hills native and Cranbrook alum’s early passion was music.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, LaBan moved to Paris. He had spent time abroad as an undergraduate, and returned hoping to be a jazz promoter. While freelancing as a music writer, LaBan got a job that would ultimately shape his career trajectory, that of a translator at a bilingual culinary school. In exchange for translating and cleaning, LaBan earned his culinary degree. While he says that he “tried cooking and did enjoy that, I really wanted to write about it.”
When he returned to the U.S. in the early 1990s, LaBan used his gastronomical knowledge to carve out a niche as a food writer in Boston. He then honed his craft at Columbia University’s Journalism School, and from there, spent time as a general reporter.
He had been working in New Orleans at the Times-Picayune for only a few months when their restaurant critic left. The job was his.
“Writing in a city like New Orleans with an incredible food tradition and a reading public that is so knowledgeable about its institutions was an incredible, magical opportunity for me.”
Shortly thereafter, the longtime restaurant critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer retired, and LaBan has been documenting Philadelphia’s – and the nation’s – evolving food scene ever since.
“There wasn’t the same sort of mass, pop interest in the food world as there is now,” LaBan recalls, citing the introduction of the Food Network as a seismic shift in the cultural perception of the cooking world. Social media has made it possible for everyone to be an amateur food critic, and LaBan laughs that he is no longer alone in taking pictures of all of the meals he eats, a necessity for someone who (pre-COVID) ate out approximately 350 meals a year.
“It’s sort of democratized food culture. It’s no longer just an elite experience of going out to eat fancy French cuisine with white linen cloths and rich, meaty sauces. We’ve experienced a cultural awakening and a diversification of what it means now to go out to eat. In the 2000s, eating out became entertainment. In the last decade, it’s become what those of us who live in cities with thriving dining scenes do. It’s just how we live. Neighborhood restaurants express our communities, and they have become public spaces in a way that 25 years ago they weren’t so much.”
For the past year and a half, reviews and rankings have taken a backseat, as LaBan’s focus has instead turned to the importance of the restaurant industry – economically, culturally, and socially. He, however, prefers to remain anonymous.
“It’s not really about the cloak and dagger. It’s just one tool in my toolbox,” he says, remembering that “there have been pictures of me in kitchens since before the Internet. Some very famous chefs hired private detectives to take pictures of me, and those pictures were faxed to chefs in Philadelphia from New Orleans.”
For him, though, “the story’s not about me.” It’s about “really covering the world and the places we live through the lens of what we eat, where we eat, and who we eat with.”
Story: Hillary Brody Anchill