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The Food Guy: This Food Boy got a young start at food critiquing

CHRISTIAN TYLER RANDOLPH | Gazette-Mail file photo

You might say I got an early start on my path to being a food writer and restaurant critic. A real early start.

I was reviewing restaurants (even professionally, you might say) when I was a wee 8 years old. Not for the newspaper, but for two national restaurant chains themselves.

Let me explain ...

When I was a boy, my family was selected to be “mystery diners” at local Shoney’s and Captain D’s restaurants throughout the Huntington area and beyond. Our “assignment” was to visit one of each restaurant at least once a week — always unannounced — and to secretly try out different menu items, note the quality of service, see how clean the bathrooms were, etc.

After each visit, we filled out a report sharing our opinions and mailed it in to the corporate office, where they would use our reviews to determine what work was needed at each location. A week later, we’d get a fat check in the mail reimbursing us for everything we’d spent during our meal out.

But that wasn’t the best part of the “job” for me, tongue-in-cheek quotes added. The ultimate perk was those corporate folks insisting that we HAD to try several different items on each visit and everyone HAD to order dessert.

I don’t know how or why we were selected for this gig — I think Dad just knew another guy who’d done it and volunteered — but I do know I felt like the luckiest kid on the planet.

I’m still living that dream today, it seems, and the “work” I do continues to surprise many.

“You mean your job is to go out and eat and write about it?” I’m asked, almost weekly. “And they PAY you for that?!”

Hey, somebody’s gotta do it.

▪ ▪ ▪

Speaking of Captain D’s, while promoting next week’s Charleston Seafood Week (a cause I’m passionate about) in last week’s column, I made a funny-ha-ha comment about how your recommended two servings of seafood each week probably shouldn’t all come from that chain restaurant.

Guess who, I learned just minutes later, is a major national sponsor of said Seafood Week?

And guess who wanted me to know all about their recent significant efforts to offer a healthier, tastier seafood menu featuring grilled goodies like wild Alaskan salmon, lemon pepper white fish, blackened tilapia, shrimp skewers and more — all served with a choice of two veggies?

So guess who’s eating a little crow this week — and will be making a speedy trip to Captain D’s to eat some of those new menu items as well?

This guy.

Actually, those folks thanked me for shining a light on seafood and knew I meant no real harm. But still, they’re right. The new Captain D’s has come a long way, baby. Stay tuned for my take on the new lineup!

▪ ▪ ▪

While catching up on my Leaning Tower of Food Magazines last week, I saw where Malden’s own J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works got a lot of love in the July issue of Food and Wine.

In an article titled “600-Million-Year-Old Salt,” writer Brys Stephens shares the history of the ancient ocean that once flowed 300 feet under the Kanawha Valley, and how the forgotten brine it left behind remained untouched for some 600 million years until it was discovered by the Dickinson family back in 1813.

Today, siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne (descendants of that same family) have revived the business and are harvesting world-class gourmet salt sought after by some of the world’s finest chefs. Those chefs sing the salt’s praises in the article, which is also accompanied by nice photos of the property and facility.

It’s a great read — and great publicity for a well-deserved West Virginia product.

▪ ▪ ▪

Finally, I’m looking forward to seeing many of you at Wednesday’s Capitol Market Mixer fundraiser, where we’ll raise a glass, snag some good eats and listen to great live music while supporting Charleston’s premiere fresh-food destination.

I’d like to send out a special thanks to those of you who bought tickets online using coupon code KEITH after last week’s plea. I hope you’ll come up and say hello tonight.

And for anyone still wanting to go, it’s not too late! Just visit capitolmarket.ticketspice.com/market-mixer-2016 to snag your last-minute spot!

Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and an occasional food blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by email at wvfoodguy@aol.com. You can also follow him on Facebook as “WV Food Guy” and on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WVFoodGuy.”

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