How Keith Lee, a TikTok food critic for the new economy, guides us to eat well – and good

Lee has a critic's ethos, just like the late Roger Ebert and the misunderstood Anton Ego from "Ratatouille"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 1, 2023 12:02PM (EDT)

Keith Lee (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Keith Lee (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

To hear some Atlantans talk about Keith Lee’s recent visit, you would think he burned the city’s restaurant scene to the ground. The TikTok creator embarked on a recent culinary tour of Georgia’s cultural mecca, hitting lesser-known joints along with higher profile places like Old Lady Gang, partly owned by “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Kandi Burruss.

Since Lee primarily focuses on small businesses, many of them Black-owned, he might not have visited Burruss’ place if not for the insistence of someone imploring him to swing by. That’s what Lee did, employing his usual secret shopper-style methods.

Every few years . . . a prominent publication shares a deep-dive analysis of the critic's role.

Lee rarely dines in-person at the places he reviews because most of the places he highlights are independently owned takeout joints that are rarely, if ever, reviewed by major newspapers or magazines or epicurean-focused sites like Eater. Most don’t have a connection in the culinary world – i.e. they aren’t the so-called “secret” place where a notable chef, writer, or other celebrity eats. They’re spots opened by ordinary people who are confident cooks but lack a promotional budget and therefore, a steady clientele.

Old Lady Gang doesn't suffer from this problem, as Lee discovered when he sent his family into the restaurant as he waited curbside. Under normal circumstances, they would bring food to him to the car, where he films many of his “taste tests.” This time they were informed that the restaurant didn’t fill takeout orders on weekends and worse, there was an hour-plus wait to be seated. Upon hearing this Lee walked into the place to see if he would be treated any differently – and lo and behold, suddenly a table was available in five minutes.

“As always, I don’t want any special treatment. I want to be treated like everybody else,” he says in his video review, explaining why it didn’t feature the usual gustatory theater. “I pay for my food like everybody else. I’m a normal person. I’m a normal customer. Things like this is exactly why I do reviews the way I do.”

Old Lady Gang wasn’t the only place lightly charred by Lee’s surprise inspection. In his review of The Real Milk and Honey, Lee opens with his signature intro of, “I got it. Let’s try it, and rate it one through 10,” and immediately follows it with, “As you can see, I don't have any bag in my hands.” Again, the takeout ordering experience was the problem . . . until he showed up inside.

Atlanta Breakfast Club managed to get food into Lee’s hands but, as he termed it, “The customer service was interesting. While the people were nice, the rules they had set were interesting to me.” Among them? No takeout. No waiting area. And if anyone in a party is not seated when the waitstaff comes to take an order, nobody at the table gets water, coffee or anything. All that and, according to a family member's report, the place charged a dollar for a dollop of butter to go on a biscuit served without jelly.

@keith_lee125 Atlanta Food Tour Recap ? would you try it ? ? #foodcritic ♬ original sound - Keith Lee

Every few years, and with increasing frequency over five or so, a prominent publication shares a deep-dive analysis of the critic's role. Several of these pieces cite wisdom from two of the wisest voices in the field. One is the late Roger Ebert who, along with the late Gene Siskel, raised generations of film and TV reviewers with their popular weekly show “At the Movies.” Siskel and Ebert’s repartee on the latest movies helped consumers decide whether plunking down their hard-earned dollars at their neighborhood box office would be money well-spent.

“We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness,” Ebert observes in his famous 2008 essay “ ’Critic’ is a four-letter word” which, unsurprisingly, is considered some version of the critic’s scripture. “Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.”

If you’re wondering what a movie critic’s observation about criticism has to do with a TikToker, the answer is what inspired Ebert. He wrote this in appreciation of the Pixar classic “Ratatouille,” specifically its food critic Anton Ego, who earned the nickname of “the grim eater.”

Director Brad Bird wrote Ego in a way that seems to reflect the fear and mild disdain artists hold toward professional critics until, at the film’s climax, he crafts a review that both speaks to the low esteem in which critics are held and explains their social and cultural utility.

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment,” Ego writes. “But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Fan culture is often cited as the reason for criticism’s alleged die-off, especially in the movie and TV space where review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes can allegedly be gamed by studios soliciting positive reviews from fan sites.  

A positive review can result in what’s known as the Keith Lee Effect, with lines down the block in front of a restaurant that was struggling before his visit.

The culinary critic's supposed competition is vindictive Yelp reviewers and food influencers who post theatrical videos extolling a restaurant’s menu — some paid for by the people they're supposedly reviewing, and others creating content at the establishment's expense.

Lee does not do that, although old-school journalists may balk at describing him as a critic since he’s also transparent about leaving hundreds of dollars in a single tip – something that most food writers are frankly not in a position to do.  

But then, most food writers aren’t being flown out to Los Angeles by Kevin Hart, who sought an honest evaluation of his vegan restaurant despite Lee warning him that if he didn’t like the food, he’d say so. Lee also assured his viewers that he was predisposed to detest vegan food before he took a bite of its faux chicken sandwich and appeared to have an out-of-body experience.

“I don’t think I’m a food reviewer per se, or an influencer or a content creator. By definition that’s what I am,” Lee told Today in May when he was asked if he follows other food reviewers on social media. “I’m not in competition with anybody. I’m not in the same category with anybody. I’m in my own lane. There’s no traffic in my lane. There’s nobody over here but me.”

Well, yes and no. Lee has a critic’s ethos, but he’s also filling the gap between the democratization of opinion social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok and the elitist world in which many critics operate.  

Moreover, Lee’s tastes reflect those of people who like to eat well and eat good. Those terms can mean the same thing, but Lee’s 14.4 million TikTok followers understand the difference. Eating well at a top restaurant can be transformative but also prohibitively expensive; eating good is a stroke of good fortune that lives in the meeting place of flavor, fulfillment and affordability.

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And like most of us, many of those will only get as close to a Michelin-starred dining experience as watching an episode of “The Bear.”  

That’s fine, since Lee goes to places most professional culinary arbiters will never visit, hitting up sandwich joints and strip mall restaurants, listing how much things cost and talking about the accessibility and customer service experience of each location. His reviews are concise, his delivery is fast-paced and he’s honest and kind, reminding his followers that his experience is his alone.

A positive review can result in what’s known as the Keith Lee Effect, with lines down the block in front of a restaurant that was struggling before his visit. Takes landing on the “not-so-good” side of the plate are accompanied by his passionate discouragement from leaving bad reviews based on his evaluations.

“I mean no harm,” he often says, “No malicious intent.” Neither does any professional critic, believe it or not.

Ego says something else that applies here: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere." The culinary world is dominated and defined by acclaimed chefs and the people who work under them; a handful of James Beard award-winning writers who studied cuisine, and a few star food experts like Padma Lakshmi.

Lee is an MMA fighter who began posting videos on social media as a means of combating his social anxiety. When he’s not posting videos from his car, he conducts reviews at a low table in his Vegas home, where he sits in his child’s Paw Patrol-branded chair.

His rating scale isn’t codified, but that doesn’t matter – the meat of each review is his reaction.

Sure, he discusses the balance between acid and sweetness in a sauce and mouthfeel (without using the term), but the verity in his opinion is in how long he remains silent, a distant boom sound effect letting us know when the flavor hits, and the rare times his eyes roll back in his head. When he talks, it’s often with his mouth full, but he politely covers it with his hand as he talks about the flavors exploding on his tongue or notes where they should be but aren’t.

That’s why Atlanta’s reaction to Lee’s highlights of “the good and not-so-good” about their dining scene made such a splash that even Cardi B had to weigh in and co-sign his findings about Atlanta restaurants' aversion of easily accessible takeout.

“I feel bad for Atlanta residents,” she said in a recent Instagram Live response to Lee’s week of reviews. “It is extremely bougie. Like, eating in Atlanta is extremely bougie. And I just thought it was me. But now that I see that other people feel that way? HAHAHA! I knew I wasn't crazy. I knew it!”

This, naturally, led Burruss to posting a TikTok about the lack of takeout at Old Lady Gang in a more diplomatic fashion than other restaurants, one of which tried to downplay Lee's influence before posting an apology. 

@kandi Thanks for stopping by #OldLadyGang @Keith Lee ♬ original sound - kandi

"It is very unfortunate that we couldn't serve [Lee] and his family. We . . . would have loved to, OK?  But he's right, we don't take to-go orders on the weekends. And the simple reason is because we do love and appreciate the people who come and support our restaurant.

"So with that being said," she continued, "We don't want to overwhelm our kitchen by having to, you know, have such long times for the people who are actually at the restaurant, plus having to do to go orders, because obviously that will make the long the wait times even longer."

And now we know.

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“I believe a good critic is a teacher,” Ebert wrote in 2008. “He doesn't have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some ‘work’ and others never could.”

Ebert was talking about movies which, now more than then, people can take or leave or watch in a theater or at home regardless of what some critic has to say about them. Music and TV critics, given the onslaught of content available, are always missing some phenomenon the large culture unearths or backing a show or a record that appeals only to other critics.

A bad album or show risks wasting one’s spare time, whereas a bad dining experience represents money lost and tangible resources wasted, two things few of us have in abundance. We all have to eat, though, which means the lesson in Lee’s success might in some way inspire consumers to reconsider criticism’s utility, that it’s less about loving or dismissing an effort than finding someone whose informed evaluation aligns with yours.

“I genuinely want to see what's my favorite,” Lee says in his ranking of Chicago’s chicken joints before making that point in a voiceover. “Keyword: My favorite. Before you come in the comments and tell me I'm wrong, I can't be wrong about my opinion. This is what I personally like.

“And let's be honest, there’s no right list here,” he adds. “No matter how I order, somebody’s gonna be upset.”


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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