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Dream Jobs: Wendy Johnson

Amanda Whitley

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

When we’re young, many of us fantasise about being musicians or making movies; as we get older we may dream of being paid to review fine food, or working in magazines. But what’s the reality of these ‘Dream Jobs’?

Noticing a gap in the CityNews’ content over a decade ago, Wendy Johnson suggested a weekly food column. Today she’s Canberra’s longest serving restaurant reviewer.

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HOW DID YOU GET YOUR ‘DREAM JOB’?

I pitched the idea to CityNews about 12 years ago — Canberra’s dining scene wasn’t as delicious then, but it was tasty enough to justify a weekly story. The then-editor challenged me to dish up a smorgasbord of story ideas and kickstart the column.

I have a master’s degree in journalism and so took up the challenge. I’m still there having dined more than 650 times since my first review.

WHAT DOES A TYPICAL REVIEW ENTAIL?

First, selecting where to eat. This is a snap with Canberra’s burgeoning food and wine scene. The editor doesn’t tell me what to review. I choose, eat and file, trying to balance type of eatery, cuisine style, new versus old, and location.

Second, rocking up announced with friends. If booking is wise, a friend usually books or I use their name. I don’t disguise myself with wigs or oversized sunglasses.

Third, eating once and then reviewing. I don’t have the time or stamina to dine out several times in the same place and average results out.

Fourth, telling a well-rounded story. Dealing with a tight word limit is challenging when covering décor, ambience, service, food, wine, address and opening times.

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WHAT ARE YOUR ‘RULES OF ENGAGEMENT’?

I don’t approach restaurant owners, asking them to pay for my wine and food in exchange for a guaranteed glowing review. Writers who do this should declare they’ve been paid for their opinion.

I’m wary of expectations, which is why I rarely go to ‘openings’. Most restaurant owners who know me would never try to influence me anyway.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES AND WHAT ARE THE BEST BITS?

Food overdose; having to put up with mediocre 
fare and service, while paying for the privilege; maintaining the courage to write negative feedback, especially when you know the owner, chef or staff; deciding if humour is appropriate, and fitting reviewing into my busy schedule.

The best part is being presented with art on a plate, experiencing inspiring chef creations and different cuisines; meeting passionate wait staff; and hearing that my suggestions have informed positive change.

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HAS ANYONE TAKEN UMBRAGE WITH A REVIEW?

I rarely deal with direct aggression but I’ve had a Twitter campaign against me, an owner call me at night yelling down the phone, another accuse me of trying to close a long-standing family business (they did close but certainly not because of my one review). I’ve probably been banned from some eateries but I’m not fussed. I rarely return to eat in a mediocre establishment anyway.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE WHO DREAM OF EATING AND WRITING ABOUT IT FOR A LIVING?

Have the courage to stir the pot when the pot needs stirring. Season your comments well. Never be vindictive. Be fair – if reviewing ‘cheap and cheerful’ don’t apply Michelin-star standards. Do your research. I remember a ‘reviewer’ complaining that the top of the crème brûlée was hard. Duh.

All images by Martin Ollman

You can read this article in full and more in our latest edition of Magazine: The Dream Issue. Available for free while stocks last. Click here to find your closest stockist. 

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Amanda Whitley

Amanda Whitley is the founder and director of HerCanberra. In her 'spare time', she instructs zumba, loves to cook (and eat), and wrangles two gorgeous little girls. She's done everything from present the tv news to operate a stop and go sign and is passionate about connecting Canberra women. More about the Author

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