Thursday, January 13, 2011

FOOD CRITICS & THE AGE OF THE INTERNET: the Inferiority of the Superiority Complex

On this particular Sunday morning in January, with the advent of this very New Year, I found myself reading Michael Bauer’s “Top New Restaurant” selections from the 2010 openings around the Bay Area over my morning cup of coffee. As I was reading, I received my daily email from EaterSF and soon found my way to an article about the latest blow-ups between professional chefs and food critics. Caught up in the drama, I followed the link to the full article, which detailed how several rather nasty interactions between critic and restaurant had triggered public responses from irate chefs, and so on.

The fact that there is an entire section of Eater devoted to the “lash back” of restaurant chefs against critics they feel have unfairly mauled them in print caused me to think in depth about the role of the traditional food critic in this new millennium. Many professional critics seem more concerned with finding fault with the restaurant that is the subject of their critique (their reviews often resembling nothing so much as copious checklists of microscopic flaws) than they are with providing real information with which to assess a restaurant. The critical but informative narration of the reviewer’s dining experience has devolved into snippets of negativity. “My server seemed distracted by my order.” “The cilantro in the soup was off.” “Not enough salt.” “Too much salt.” It would appear that negativity is the new black.

With so many fine dining choices available, particularly in an economy that has severely restricted what diners have to spend, sloppy service and sub-standard food will rapidly make themselves known. I would prefer critics to give me less mean-spirited gossip and a little more direct information. If I need to make a choice between restaurants, I would love access to a descriptive list of several trusted critic’s favorite dishes and where to find them. It would be far more useful than being subjected to a succession of petty criticisms, often about details so minute that they might never be repeated or noticed on a future visit.

I am not suggesting we ignore the unreasonably rude or thoughtlessly sloppy, or that we fail to comment on them. There is a place for focused criticism to foster choice. But it does appear that professional criticism has gone too far in one direction and lost all sense of balance. Antagonism, cynicism and flat-out nasty attitudes seem to be the current vogue with critics (and indeed with journalists in general). It would be better replaced with a more positive and informative point of view, so that their audience can make knowledgeable decisions about which establishment to patronize.

It may be that what we need from our food reviewers has changed. It was once the case that when a new restaurant opened, dining there might require the family to save for a month to enjoy an evening out. That family wanted to know in advance if their dollars would be well spent, if the restaurant would be worth it. Critics could provide them an answer to that question, and the information was useful. Once we needed only the answer to a simple question: to go, or not to go. But dining has evolved. Critical writing needs to evolve with it.

There are now also sources other than critics for opinions on dining. The endless cacophony of information emanating from the internet may cause professional critics to feel threatened by what they view as the encroachment of less informed amateur journalists on their turf. It is certainly true that some faltering newspapers have turned to unpaid or underpaid “internet bloggers” to supplement or replace their paid professionals. It is no wonder then that professional critics feel they must distinguish themselves. There are exceptions to be found in the occasionally cheery write-up, but they are rare, perhaps because positivity is never hotly debated, and gets less attention. The less incendiary articles go unnoticed. The cycle continues.

It seems increasingly true that professional food critics believe negativity is their most meaningful role in the literary ethos. As they reflexively seek more effective methods for distinguishing themselves from the thousands of non-professional food writers who now vie for the same readership, they become more and more mired in this sludge of negativity, instinctively seeking that which garners the most attention. Modern critics seem a little too motivated to find and enumerate faults – to highlight the nuances of failures — often at the expense of relating much of anything useful about the experience to be had in the food itself.

I find myself wondering if the practice of what one might term “competitive critiquing” remains useful to the consumer. In a culture that is already too caught up in the ego of influence, the opportunity to wield the power to control the consumer’s choices is, for some, irresistible. Intoxicated by the potential influence each opinion can render, and eager to reach as many people as possible with that opinion, critics seem to be growing ever more snarky. As each critic’s audience increases in response to coverage of various heated exchanges, so, it seems, can his or her ego. But does a larger audience frothing for ever juicier battles between critic and chef or restaurateur really translate to a better informed one? Is that how we come to understand and appreciate what is best about our new food culture?

Today’s dining has become something other than whether or not the service is prompt and the food edible. Dining is developing into an event, the opportunity to participate in a series of sensory adventures. There is a movement afoot. It is a time in the culinary world when all the flavors of the globe are colliding together. These flavors are being wielded like paint on a palette by a new generation of talented chefs to create rich banquets of textures, sights and tastes. Chefs are mastering a multitude of new and increasingly difficult techniques, and their patrons are reaping the benefits. Each chef is inspired by his or her own muse, prompting them to create new and inventive cuisines. The resulting meals are often intoxicating. Arriving at each new restaurant holds enormous potential for a variety of life-enriching experiences. When a new restaurant launches, there is that thrill as the doors open to reveal ever more possibilities. Dining out is theater — food our newest art form. We, the dining public, are incredibly lucky to be alive in this shining renaissance of culinary history.

If one accepts that food preparation is an art form, then one must also acknowledge that we each interpret and appreciate art differently. The “eye of the beholder” is subjective. Thus the preparation and service of food, its many subtleties and inflections in potential for execution, deserve a thoughtful discussion in its dissection. It requires a writer to make every attempt to be detailed, to illustrate the food in all its nuance.

If a writer were thoughtfully to describe a painting — its mood, its colors, the techniques favored by the artist – a reader could use that description to decide whether he or she wishes to make the effort to view the artwork firsthand. If an art critic writes only, “I hated it,” or “there was too much blue,” how is that information particularly helpful?

There remains a school of thought that only the most educated in a field are informed enough to find fault. Somehow this notion translates into a false belief that fault finding itself is a particular skill. This is a fallacy. It is always easier to be critical than it is to accurately relate a transformative experience in words. Recognizing that not all experiences are transformative, and some are downright unpleasant, there may be room to out them in print, but they will eventually out themselves in the vast echoes of the foodie internet. Why, then, should the more skilled writer spend time on the obvious and the easy for the cheap thrill?

All creative culinary endeavor deserves a certain level of basic respect. My background in the arts has left this perspective deeply ingrained, and leads me naturally to afford the chefs whom I patronize a certain initial predicate of deference. I arrive wanting to enjoy the meals they have prepared. I make little pretense at being critical. It is up to each individual chef to fail me, to fall short of my expectations. Armed with this attitude, it has been my experience that those Chefs who are inauthentic are easily spotted. A chef or a restaurant has failed me only when he or she has shown a significant lack of effort. Respect and deference should be mutual.

The goal should be to afford readers the opportunity to eat vicariously through the writer, to decide which of the favorites described might be most enjoyed by them. What they ultimately choose is a matter of personal preference. To describe the mood of a meal and how well a restaurant brings its particular brand of “love” across to its patrons is no small task. And, yes, some are much more successful than others. There is something delectable to be found at every end of the dining spectrum, from simple take-away stands to the most refined of the Michelin-starred restaurants. To occasionally be constructively critical in an effort to be balanced is fair, but should never be a goal. Missteps should be mentioned only if they are obviously the result of something systemic or deliberate, such as a lack of proper staffing. Criticism should not be used to “juice” one’s readership.

In an era when professional journalists are fighting for space in a shrinking print media, their territory encroached upon by hoards of amateur food writers and wannabe critics, the professional food critic may be a dinosaur in need of a significant update. When I imagine the food journalist, I see a fedora-wearing, false-mustachioed middle-aged man, booking his reservations under an assumed name and arriving in a cloud of mystery with a small notepad and a pen. This persona seems overly melodramatic. Anonymity has been practiced for decades in the belief that it will preserve journalistic credibility, yet it is possible that the value of critical anonymity itself may need to be reevaluated. The notion that an unknown reviewer will necessarily have the most “authentic” dining experience grows increasingly flawed.

Nowadays, for better or worse, anyone can Yelp. As a result, most restaurant owners seem keenly aware that each and every table now represents a potential critic, another voice in the cacophony. The result has been that restaurants that care about their reputation will provide everyone who walks in the door with an equal experience. With all its flaws, the internet has been the Great Leveler of the diner’s playing field. Anonymity of the professional critic may serve only to keep the smaller establishments from knowing a particular reviewer, since the upscale dining community is keenly aware of who is who. In the Bay Area, it is absolutely the case that most upscale restaurants know exactly when Michael Bauer is in the house.

While one can understand and appreciate the desire to relate the most authentic experience to the dining consumer, it is apparent that the days when the acerbic, restaurant-skewering, terror-inducing print journalists could serve a meaningful role to that consumer have come to an end. If indeed they ever existed. In an era when the full spectrum of main stream journalism feels compelled to focus consistently on the negative to compete for readers, and when negativity is the number one tool used to sell a story, how the public rely on these same sources to remain impartial in their criticism? Might not the consumer be better served by reporting methods that instead rely on relating the experience had by each individual critic as creatively and informatively as possible, allowing potential diners to determine what they may or may not want to experience firsthand?

Professional critics were once the primary source for discovering where best to enjoy fine dining. With the advent of sites such as Yelp, Chowhound and Epicurious, and the thousands of individual blogs available on Google, that is simply no longer the case. For better or worse, opinions, information and amateur “reviews” can be found in abundance on the internet. The dwindling audience of readers who obtain their information from print or the recommendations of friends and acquaintances will gradually be replaced by a more techno-savvy diner, who uses a combination of print, internet and group-consciousness sources like Twitter to determine where they wish to dine.

We should all adopt a more positive, information-driven methodology across the board in food “review” discussions. What is really to be gained from Chef bashing? What do we really learn when a writer says they hated various minutiae at a particular restaurant? Though the Yelp model is hardly the ideal, because of its encouragement of “wannabe” food critics to mimic the journalistic professional by ranting about “crappy waiters” and “over-seasoning” in barely complete sentences, the positive information found there can be quite useful.

People are naturally honest about what they enjoy. It is hard, if not impossible, to misrepresent when something is good. Find positive statements echoed by a large number of consumers, and your odds of being in agreement are high. This information is more useful than an inexperienced food critic complaining the cilantro balance in his soup was off. If twelve other “non professionals” all enjoyed the soup will you really stay away?

In spite of our collective love of snarking at each other, nasty doesn’t make anyone look smarter. It just makes one appear mean-spirited. It is also true that writing about what you don’t fully understand is irresponsible. Before slamming anything, be sure you “know of what you speak.” If you are a blogger, a Chowhounder, a Yelper — don’t try to impress me with your superiority, but rather tell me about those meals that really rocked your world and where you had them. How well things were done. What really succeeded, and why. Make an effort to describe the food as creatively and as thoughtfully as you possibly can, so that your readers can imagine each bite and decide what might appeal to them.

With the advent of the internet, everyone fancies himself or herself a food critic. While I personally write about food regularly, I do not see my role as that of a critic, but rather as a relater of tales about dining experiences. Not all experiences being equal, some tales are more enthusiastic than others. But I have no ego invested in whether you go or not. If a place I enjoyed doesn’t appeal to you, read on, pick another. As a writer I want you to find what best suits you, your tastes, your preferences. Be smart. Don’t be swayed by critics alone when deciding where to spend your dining dollars. The fact is, it is easier to find truth in the positive than in the negative.


  1. Interesting take, although out here in the middle of the country (at least in Indy), all of the paid by a publication food critics are overly positive for fear of losing ad revenue. You have to read their "reviews" as basically advertisements which pisses me off sometimes (and why I started my blog). Not everyone has the luxury of the food as art that you are lucky enough to enjoy in the Bay Area. :)

    I still think honesty is the best policy....

  2. So cool that you're following so closely! I agree folks should be honest. I also think the topic needs some examination. And yes, it is definitely the case that the food where I live is pretty spectacular! We can 'dish' more over dinner. So looking forward to it~


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