It would be tempting to call Clark Wolf an expert in expertise if the restaurant consultant wasn't so wary of how food writers have cheapened the term.
Wolf, who next week is moderating a New York University Fales Library panel on knowledge and influence in the culinary sphere, says contemporary critics and bloggers are too quick to assign the "expert" label to themselves and others.
"It's OK to be a lover, devotee, whatever, just don't call them experts," Wolf says of enthusiastic eaters who visit every Thai restaurant in their hometowns or learn to make cheese at home.
The complication for serious food writers who aspire to earn expert status - and the clout that accompanies it - is there's no step-by-step guide to attain the insight, track record, culinary experiences, trustworthiness and vision of Ruth Reichl, Michael Bauer or Jonathan Gold, writers with spots on Wolf's very short list of legitimate experts. Food scholars, unlike sommeliers, can't take tests to prove their worth.
"I almost want an author to be dead," Wolf says, noting it takes a lifetime to eat enough meals to write intelligently about food and another lifetime to assess the writing's lasting value.
Since it's very difficult to pry a restaurant review from a deceased critic, I asked Wolf how much expertise a living writer should have to acquire before his or her opinions can be considered authoritative. My friend Daniel Vaughn -- a barbecue blogger who writes for Texas Monthly and is working on Prophets of Smoked Meat, one of the first three books to be published by Anthony Bourdain's Ecco imprint - recently criticized the Today Show for bestowing the title of "Texas barbecue expert" on a young woman who spent three days in the state. Wolf agrees that's asinine - but also questions Vaughn's credentials.
"I don't care what he says at all," Wolf says. "He's working on a book with a guy who's a careerist, opportunist sideshow. If his book stands up in five years, call me back."
According to Wolf, a barbecue expert should have logged time working a pit. And since "context is everything," a Texas barbecue expert should be familiar with South Carolina barbecue traditions, among others. That's why Calvin Trillin is a barbecue expert in Wolf's estimation (a claim that would ruffle Robb Walsh, author of the Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook.)
Vaughn points out the majority of pit masters who participated in last year's Texas Monthly BBQ Festival, a gathering of the state's most talented barbecue producers, haven't sampled barbecue outside of Texas.
"Do I know everything there is to know about Texas barbecue? Of course not," says Vaughn, who's visited more than 400 joints statewide. "At this point I know enough about Texas barbecue to be a one-man panel discussion, but I'm still curious enough to keep learning."
Wolf says he applauds the effort.
"(Vaughn) is a fairly experienced barbecue investigator," he says. Like other writers intent on becoming true experts, he adds, "he needs to keep eating, keep traveling."