Some say I was born a restaurant critic. There is no test for the position, so I guess it is as good a qualification as any. It didn't hurt that I had a patriarch in the image of Moses as a father, and the Promised Land he sought was a great restaurant. I was born in Athens, Greece, and my dad, Elmer Dills, was a restaurant critic.
Well, that is what everyone exclusively thought. For that was his cover from the 1950s until he retired in the late 1970s as an officer in the CIA. Many a night, a multi-starred general would arrive at the house to assist Dad with a foreign dignitary. When he left the full-time service of his country he turned to concentrate on restaurant service, where he covered all the phases of media: print, radio, TV and the burgeoning Internet.
I can't tell you all of the thousands of restaurants I visited through my youth. The way soccer moms shuffle their kids around today was the same for my dad and I, but our uniforms resided solely in a napkin, and our field was a table of utensils. I wouldn't be surprised if they've erected a law against it now, a form of parenting misconduct, but I learned to love escargot (cooked snails) before I experienced a visit from the Tooth Fairy.
As far back as my memories stretch, my father and I were tasting and interrogating restaurant staff on the preparation and ingredients of a meal. You would be surprised what a young boy can learn in the silence of a mouthful of pasta. By the time I got to college, I had a love for the restaurant world: the food, cooking techniques, ingredients and the compelling stories of this tribe of people. I remember a seminal event with my father after a show one evening. He had ordered a Greek salad, and when the server brought the salad, my dad asked, "What is this?"
"Why, a Greek salad, sir."
"No, a Greek salad does not include iceberg lettuce."
It was at that moment that I understood a greater truth of what my father had been knowingly and unknowingly teaching me. It may have been his travels throughout the world and his intimate understanding of other cultures that made him sensitive, or maybe it was his job with the CIA that honed the virtue in him, but he fought for the word "authentic." I still believe the word is worth fighting for. Often what is branded as authentic today is nothing more than a rendition, an impostor or a chef's fusion of an indigenous recipe. In the larger sense, we are all kings and queens of an edible empire, where cultures, foods, talent and stories have congregated as a great flood unlike any the world has ever had the opportunity to savor.
When my father switched from KABC to KIEV (which is now KRLA), I knew enough to help him with the show. The station manager, Bob Hastings, suggested that I consider subbing for my dad when he went on vacation. Getting paid to eat? I could do that sitting down. It was not long after, as I explored Los Angeles and its great medley of cuisine, that I knew I had to showcase their stories, culture and food on television. Fifteen years later, "Dining with Dills" has grown with PBS-Orange County and Charter Cable-Los Angeles channel 101, airing on Saturday and Sunday nights at 7 p.m., and I have recently added a radio show KABC 790 on Sunday evenings. That was my father's home station for 20 years.
In many ways, when I sit behind the microphone I am channeling all those moments my dad and I shared. I even catch myself taking the side of the consumer more frequently now: "Don't feel obligated to tip so much if the service wasn't good, but don't punish the server for bad food either." One of my favorite Elmerisms is: "No, I don't want to take it home. I didn't eat it here — what makes you think I'd enjoy it at home?"
One has to wonder with the explosion of the Internet if there will be an audience for restaurant critics in the future. In the city of personalities I am certain they are here to stay. As gastropubs ascended in the flight of Icarus and fell just as quickly, the food trends in Los Angeles cycle as fashions. Will the popularity of food trucks soar or wane in the coming years? Will the next Wolfgang Puck start in one of these motorized chuck wagons? We can only hope, but for me, I must admit, I still enjoy a comfortable seat and freshly pressed napkin from time to time.
PETER DILLS is the host of "Dining with Dills" on KABC Talk Radio and correspondent for CNN HLN. He has lived in Pasadena since 1971.