An Appetite for Deduction
Five Columbus attorneys don’t mince words when moonlighting as restaurant critics
Published in 2005 Ohio Super Lawyers Magazine — January 2005 on October 31, 2016
There’s a strange phenomenon in the craft of food writing: Many of the country’s most influential epicurean wordsmiths have made the jump from passing the bar to getting paid for dining at one.
The most notable examples of this profound career switch are Tim and Nina Zagat, the husband-and-wife publishers of the eponymous and ubiquitous restaurant guides. The Zagats were both high-powered New York attorneys before starting their empire, which now rates in its characteristic conglomerate of consumer quotes everything from restaurants to golf courses in 45 cities worldwide. Jeffrey Steingarten, author and food critic for Vogue, was a Harvard Law–educated attorney before becoming The Man Who Ate Everything, the title of his uber-popular book. And Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic, started publishing his newsletter, The Wine Advocate, days after acting as assistant general counsel for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore.
There are many more attorneys — Columbus, in particular, is home to several — who split their time between the courtroom and the dining room as restaurant critics for local publications and media outlets. What’s the connection between shaping the law and shaping our opinions on who makes the best hamburger? The attorneys below, with equal appetites for the law and foie gras, mince no words explaining.
Advocate of “the most remarkable social custom in the world”
To know good food, one must first know how to cook it. That’s the adage followed by Steve Stover, a Columbus lawyer who reviews restaurants for 610 WTVN-AM radio. Stover planted his culinary roots at a young age when his mother delegated the Sunday-night meal to the family’s men folk. He started cooking for larger parties while working at the Ohio Ethics Commission, which led to cooking for students at area culinary schools, most recently Columbus State Culinary Academy.
When the Zagats starting publishing the Ohio edition of their restaurant guide in 1992, they tapped Stover to be the editor, a post he held for 12 years, until the Zagats cut back on their regional guides. “In the beginning, a lot of the Zagat editors were lawyers,” Stover says. “It was a lot of work, and a lot of food.”
His Zagat work opened doors for other critiquing opportunities, including a gig writing bimonthly restaurant features for CityScene Magazine. He also regularly judges cook-offs at the Ohio State Fair, armed with a bottle of Pepto Bismol in his custom-made leather holster. But early-morning commuters know him best for his appearances on WTVN’s Bob Conners Show, to which he has been a contributor for eight years. “Every Thursday morning at :45 a.m. I’m there,” Stover says. “It’s not a pretty sight. I don’t want people to imagine me there in my fuzzy slippers and bathrobe and pillow hair talking about restaurants, but I really enjoy it.”
When he’s not holding court on Columbus’ finest eating establishments, Stover is the legislative counsel for the Ohio State Bar Association, a position he’s held since 2000, when he retired as the administrative director of the Supreme Court of Ohio.
Stover is a strong advocate for the Columbus dining scene. “For a very long time, I think Columbus has had the best restaurants in Ohio,” he says. “There are quite a few places which, if you plunked them down in New York or San Francisco, would be successful.”
For Stover, the magic of the dining room extends far beyond what’s on the plate: “One of the most unique, remarkable social customs of the world is sitting down with friends and enjoying a meal together. It gives people the opportunity to talk. We don’t do that anymore.”
Good food clears your mind quickly
Woe to the chef who serves Richard Terapak undercooked chicken. The Columbus attorney chairs the Health Care Practice Group at the 280-plus lawyer megafirm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, representing area health care providers in a variety of cases. The former director of the Ohio Ethics Commission is also an airwave arbiter of fine dining and has been reviewing Columbus restaurants on WOSUAM, the local NPR affiliate, for eight years.
For Terapak, eating and opining offers respite from the bustle of the firm. “Dining is far less stressful than a fairly stressful opinion,” he says. “Good food clears your mind quickly.”
Terapak also gives his peers and clients a taste of the restaurant critic profession, often bringing them along for extra input. “They’re usually very willing to offer their opinions,” he says, adding that he’s not surprised that attorneys don’t mince words when at the dinner table. “Lawyers are supposed to be wordsmiths, which helps to articulate and express our descriptions of food and restaurants.”
Like other critics, Terapak was drawn to reviewing restaurants by his love for cooking, which he shares with others while teaching at Columbus State Culinary Academy. “Many attorneys get into restaurants because we enjoy cooking at home,” he says. “It’s physical therapy for us: While you’re chopping and dicing and concentrating on getting everything together at the same time to create a meal, you forget about the 15 unanswered voice mails on your phone. It’s a good transition into a different mindset.”
Terapak favors the mid-priced independent restaurants and holds off from panning a bad meal, choosing to say nothing at all if there’s nothing nice to say. “The chain restaurants are too predictable. I prefer the chef-owned places, where you get fresher ingredients and more creative dishes. That’s what I try to offer most often to the radio listeners, because they’re more likely to dine at mid-level restaurants on a regular basis.”
The Columbus native has noticed a sea change in the quality of local restaurants. “I think there’s been an unbelievable increase in better places to eat in Columbus,” he says. “I remember when all we had were steaks and chops places, and you had to drive to Cincinnati when you wanted a good meal. All that has changed.”
Finding the best Columbus has to offer
John Marshall is another attorney who can attack restaurants on two fronts. The petulant chef who fires his line cooks for sport or the lovesick manager who fondles the hostess might get slapped with a suit by the Columbus employment attorney. Or, worse yet, they might read about their culinary shortcomings in the next issue of Columbus Monthly.
An attorney at Marshall and Morrow, which specializes in employment discrimination, Marshall has been reviewing restaurants for a decade. He also helps pick the magazine’s choices for the annual “Best” and “Worst” of Columbus.
Marshall helped supplement his legal education at Ohio State University by catering and cooking at dinner parties, a hobby that attracted him to haute cuisine when he started his legal career.
Marshall explains the anomalous number of attorneys who moonlight as restaurant critics: “First, lawyers are by and large very social creatures. They like being out in public and being social. ... Attorneys also tend to combine social occasions and work. For most lawyers work life and social life are not distinct. They combine the two. And most attorneys can afford to dine out often.”
Marshall also finds similarities between legal writing and food writing. “I hope I make a persuasive argument why a restaurant is good or not,” he says. When critiquing Columbus restaurants, Marshall says he compares them to their peers. “I tend to review restaurants on a Midwest basis; I don’t try to apply New York or San Francisco or international standards. That isn’t fair.”
That said, Marshall agrees with the other lawyers-cum-critics that the Columbus restaurant culture is richer than ever. “The dining scene here is much better than it was when I started reviewing,” he says. “That’s because people are demanding a higher quality of food, and many have eaten in some of the great restaurants around the world and are expecting better meals here in Ohio.”
Once a restaurant reviewer, always a restaurant reviewer
Steve Samuels has served as Ohio’s lead counsel in several multimillion-dollar lawsuits. The Schottenstein Zox & Dunn partner also heads the firm’s environmental practice group, where he fights to keep the state’s air and water clean. But most people outside of the law know Samuels as a former restaurant critic for Ohio Magazine, a stint he enjoyed during the 1980s and 1990s.
When the magazine was looking for a Columbus restaurant critic in the late 1980s, a friend suggested Samuels, a Columbus native, to the editor. Samuels was offered the job, and for seven years he wrote at least two reviews a month.
But balancing the gastronomic life with the law became increasingly more difficult, and Samuels retired his critic’s pen in 1995. “Legal writing and creative writing are very different,” he says. “It makes me appreciate people like John Grisham who can do both. One is more deductive and the other more visceral.”
Samuels credits his legal education for making him a better critic: “Part of legal training is to be analytical. In addition to looking at something holistically, you learn to also look at the individual pieces and how they’re put together. I think lawyers bring that to the reviewing process.”
Although his reviewing days are over, Samuels still has difficulty eating like a normal diner. “One of the consequences of reviewing restaurants is that I’m still very aware of everything in the restaurant when I dine out,” he says. “My brain never stops focusing on the service or the ambience or if the food is cooked properly or not, analyzing everything. But, on the other hand, when you eat really fine food, you know it and it’s an ecstatic experience.”
A critic who grew up on Cordon Bleu cooking
For Jon Christensen, food came well before law. It was almost assured after his father, a career foreign service officer, was stationed in the south of France shortly after the end of World War II. “French bread was still dark when we got there. They were still recovering from the war and couldn’t bake bread with all-white wheat flour. It wasn’t until the Marshall Plan shipments started that the bread started getting lighter and lighter and finally became its old self.”
Christensen’s globetrotting parents were devout foodies and the budding gourmand was lucky enough to hover at the elbow of the family chef, a Cordon Bleu graduate. “We all picked up a lot from those experiences and it’s stayed with us for at least three generations,” he says. “Everyone in my family still cooks. It’s kind of second nature to be interested in food.”
That appreciation for food followed Christensen through Ohio State — where he majored in political science — to careers ranging from industrial electronics to reporter, photographer, producer and editor of the WBNS news and, later, to the communications offices of the Ohio Departments of Commerce and Health.
In 1975, the publisher of Columbus Monthly approached Christensen to write a wine article for the magazine’s first issue. The article, Christensen recalls, told the truth about Ohio’s wine pricing regulations, calling them legalized price fixing. “That got the wine distributors all ticked off and of course it made the publisher happy,” he says.
After drumming up so much great controversy, Christensen was asked to write restaurant reviews on a regular basis. He kept on writing during his return to Ohio State full-time for a law degree in 1978. “I was surrounded by lawyers [at the Commerce Department] and I figured I’d better get a law degree just out of self-defense,” Christensen jokes.
After seven years representing large corporate clients at Jones Day’s Columbus office, Christensen started his own firm. Today at Christensen & Christensen, he practices alongside his wife, Mary, and still works in corporate law, albeit with smaller clients.
Christensen followed the evolution of Columbus’ restaurant culture from his post at Columbus Monthly until 1991, through a stint at ThisWeek newspapers and, in 2000, as restaurant critic for The Columbus Dispatch. He marked the city’s gastronomical awakening at the opening of the French restaurant L’Armagnac in the late 1970s.
Asked to list the best restaurants in Ohio, Christensen runs down a few of his favorites, then stops. “To be perfectly frank, my favorite place for eating is at home and that should be true of most people, not just food critics,” he says. “You know what’s in it. The atmosphere is under your control; the music and how loud it is, whether there’s smoking or not. You can prepare a damn nice meal in the time it takes you to get in your car and go to the McDonald’s drive-through and back.”
That philosophy of food is something of a family tradition for Christensen. The values he learned at his parents’ kitchen counter in France have been passed down to his own daughters. “It’s very easy stuff to hand down. I feel like I got it from my parents and now the children have it from us.”
Where to Eat in Ohio
- Handke’s: Go to dine, not just to eat.
- Rigsby’s: When Chef Kent is cooking, this upscale bistro is as good as it gets in town.
- Spagio’s: Flavorful spa food options.
- City Barbeque: The pulled pork and brisket are the finest outside of Dixie.
- Kihachi: Artfully presented classic Japanese food. Call ahead for an “omakase” dinner for the full effect.
- Alana’s: The best seasonal ingredients transformed into sometimes wildly inventive dishes.
- Rigsby’s: The best Italian place in Columbus.
- City Barbeque: Won a first prize for its beef brisket at THE most prestigious national competition.
- Johnny’s Bar, Cleveland: The northern Italian and continental food is considered the best in Cleveland, and the service is always excellent.
- Phnom Penh, Cleveland: Specializing in Cambodian and Vietnamese dishes. It may be the best value in town, though it’s a bit of a hole-in-the-wall. Note: no credit cards
- Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, Cincinnati: Jean-Robert de Cavel, the new star on the Cincinnati culinary horizon, has eclipsed the legendary Maisonette as the No. 1 restaurant in the Queen City.
- Aioli, Cincinnati: Chef/owner Julie Francis has a good thing going at her casual, comfortable downtown spot. The eclectic menu has a variety of creative, well-prepared dishes at reasonable prices.
- Kihachi: Iron chef Japanese meets Charlie Trotter. Do NOT order off the menu. Just ask Mike, the owner/chef, to make whatever he wants, which will be multiple courses of small appetizersized portions. Not for the faint of palate.
- Handke’s: Featuring American/Western European cuisine that is competently prepared.
- Lindey’s: Where the “players” come to meet and eat. Very large and diverse menu.
- Cafe Istanbul: Turkish food (you might have guessed that!). Fabulous salads. Quality ingredients.
- Rigsby’s, Columbus: Mediterranean (southern French/northern Italian).
- Refectory, Columbus: “Classic French.”
- The Winds Café, Yellow Springs: “One of the first in the state to seek local food sources.”
- Handke’s, Columbus
- Mozart’s Bakery & Café, Columbus: Pastry shop.