Some chefs might freak a bit to have 18 restaurant critics in their restaurant at once and at lunch.
But Root 174's Keith Fuller was expecting this group: the seventh-grade "exploratory class" at nearby Environmental Charter School. The school's "lunch lady," Kelsey Weisgerber, is helpin Katie Lockley each them food writing, and this cold afternoon they took a walking field trip to the Regent Square restaurant to do some reporting for restaurant reviews that they need to write and turn in by next Tuesday.
Kelsey invited me to be there, along with my friend Hal B. Klein, to talk a little about food writing.
But these kids looked like pros -- especially the one who was wearing that looked like an old-school newsman's fedora. At one point, they were nearly silent as they jotted down notes.
"If only this were the sound of the cafeteria," Kelsey quipped.
The students and their teachers asked some great questions of me and Hal and especially of Chef Keith, who told them how they make the crispy brussels sprouts that were served as a starter, as well as the chicken and the falafel tacos (or "falacos"), and talked about his tattoos ("I have a Darth Vader eating a cheeseburger on my chest.") He also told them the great story about how he recognized former Post-Gazette dining critic China Millman when she came in a couple of years ago, decided to personally make her dessert, and wound up serving her a vegan brownie topped with Caesar salad dressing.
He was much smoother today.
One budding critic pronounced the sprouts "tantalizing."
(Of course, as was pointed out, they are flash fried.)
"What's your favorite dish on here?" asked one student, holding the menu.
Chef Keith: "The braised lamb neck," explaining how it fits his interest in transforming humble ingredients into superb dishes and his love of "winter food."
Another student didn't mince words, coming straight at a difficult issue: "Do we get dessert?"
They did not, but the person who gets the best grade for his or her review will get a T-shirt from Chef Keith, who asks only for "all four-star reviews" in return.
But seriously, he can handle constructive or even negative reviews, he said. "I really like what I do, so I don't really care."
Early indications are, the critics really liked the tacos, judging by all the thumbs-up, which included mine and Hal's.
We two food writers were left with a shared question of our own:
Why weren't our seventh-grade field trips like this?
Watch The Forks next week, when we'll try to post some of the students' reviews.
Bob Batz Jr. photo