Compromised food critics
Posted 06 April 2002 - 04:49 AM
I want to know if anyone believes that a critic can really review the restaurant of someone they have an association with?
If Joel Rubichon opens a restaurant tomorrow could Patricia Wells dispassionately review his restaurant?
Equally, can a reviewer who is recognised and therefore is given special service do their job properly. For example, the reviewer who turned up at the Fifth Floor last year and announced that he was there to review the restaurant therefore he had better be given a table. The superstar chef and a bottle of champagne immediately materialised as did a table, even though there were dozens of people who were waiting. Would this be a dispassionate review?
There is also the creeping syndrome of critics helping chefs with books and articles. If you have spent the week working with a chef on an article can they review the restaurant?
Should you also put a disclaimer on the review? Like the travel writers who spew forth gushing reviews of hotels in exotic locations but then put in a 4 pt font the fact that they received the accomodation free.
Do our reviewers from major newspapers and magazines and web sites fall into this trap or are they all as pure as the driven snow?
Posted 06 April 2002 - 07:25 AM
Posted 06 April 2002 - 08:09 AM
we had that conversation here on eGullet a few months ago. he had been a regular writer for Playboy magazine back in the 1960s. Was eGullet credited as a source?
Posted 06 April 2002 - 09:08 AM
But I think the good ones try as hard as they can to remain hands-off and objective and, most of all, anonymous.
I work on a weekly basic cooking column with a restaurant chef and occasionally spend a night working in the kitchen of the restaurant to feel the "rhythm" - I do this with the blessing of my newspaper. Before I did, though, I made it clear I would never, ever review anything he did from that point on.
Food critics don't spring forth full-grown. Most of us had prior lives and ran across chefs in that capacity. If I review a restaurant where I'm recognized or known, I always tell my readers so they know where I'm coming from. (Some of my compatriots disagree on this, feeling readers think its snotty to mention being recognized or known.)
On the whole I go out of my way not to be known or recognized. I think I'm doing a disservice to my readers if the only experience I can report on is what the critic gets instead of what is dished out to the average Joe. And, of course, there's disagreement in the critics community about this. Yet I think the tide has turned, strongly, toward anonymity. I tell people than anyone who shows up in a restaurant and announces he/she is a critic should be shown the door. Either he/she is a fraud or he/she is so compromised the review won't be any good.
The Association of Food Journalists has suggested guidelines for critics. (I chaired that committee.) You can read what AFJ has to say by going to: www.afjonline.com.
Posted 06 April 2002 - 09:10 AM
Posted 06 April 2002 - 09:25 AM
Critics are like judges. Judges make a good-faith effort to avoid behavior that will get them entangled in a case they might hear, but they are allowed to have a life. If they sense the slightest conflict of interest, they should recuse themselves from the case. Anyone who reads the Pacific Northwest board knows that a regular on there is a local chef and a buddy of mine. Obviously I wouldn't review his restaurant, but I might recommend it to a friend and make it clear that I know the chef. I don't see any ethical problem there.
Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May
Posted 07 April 2002 - 03:05 AM
I've said this before, but how can an incompetant chef working with inferior produce bring forth a culinary masterpiece just because he knows that it will be publicly evaluated? Likewise, can a depressing decor and an ill-trained staff be magically transformed? Something which can be influenced is the degree of attention one gets, but it's easy to spot obsequiousness. An observant reviewer will readily detect whether other tables are being properly served; there is a palpable atmosphere in a room full of unhappy diners.
Equally, can a reviewer who is recognised and therefore is given special service do their job properly.
Will a duff piano-pounder play like Rubenstein just because he knows there's a critic in the house?
Posted 07 April 2002 - 03:51 AM
But surely that is not the point! We are not talking here about comparing incompetent chefs with those who are competent. Very few food critics seek out the company of chefs who can't cook.
how can an incompetant chef working with inferior produce bring forth a culinary masterpiece just because he knows that it will be publicly evaluated?
The point of this discussion is whether the things at the margin can be slightly changed to push a place from three stars to fours stars or similar. If a critic knows and likes Bouley or Boulud or Ducasse or Ramsay how can they possibly be dispassionate enough to judge whether they are going to give a three star rating or a four star rating.
And the other things do matter. I read a review of Le Bernardin a couple of years ago. The first thing the reviewer commented on was the wonderful spacing of the tables and how this gave you an expansive feeling. Obviously this was important to that reviewer and set the tone for the review. When I ate there I was jammed into a row of tables at the back of the restaurant with my elbow firmly implanted in the ribs of the woman at the next table! The known reviewer obviously had a better experience.
This is why, despite its faults, the Michelin system of anonymous reviewers is far superior to the newspaper system where one reviewer becomes the scourge or supporter of restaurants in that town.
Posted 07 April 2002 - 05:00 AM
You are evidently more concerned with microscopic Parker-like gradations of stratospheric excellence than I am. I'm happy if a reviewer evaluates the ratio of expertise to expense with sufficient accuracy so that I don't get a nasty surprise.
The point of this discussion is whether the things at the margin can be slightly changed to push a place from three stars to fours stars or similar.
Posted 07 April 2002 - 06:36 AM
But I disagree totally on the call for a Michelin (or even Zagat) system of nameless, faceless reviewers. I have to or I'd lose my job.
There's an in-between: A reviewer who works anonymously yet is known through his or her writing. I can't tell you how important it is for readers to 'connect' with a reviewer. They get to know his or her likes, dislikes and passions. I don't mind it at all when someone writes in and tells me they know if I hate something they'll love it and viceversa. That means they have a sense of where I'm coming from and are adjusting their expectations accordingily.
The big issue for me is whether or not the reviewer has the discipline to stand apart, to remain "hidden." Certainly the seduction of being pals with big name chefs is there, no one is better at hospitality with a hidden price tag than food people - and you'll always find a colleague who has slipped down the slippery slope trying to entice you to join them. That's why I never accept an invitation to a party from food friends unless I know whose invited - and I don't socialize at all with people who don't recognize my concerns and commitment to remaining anonymous. So far, it's worked for me. There's no photo of me in the wrong hands that I know of. THat's quite a marked difference from my predecessor, whose mug was plastered on the back walls of the best restaurants in town.
As for the question of being disspassionate, that is an issue. Journalists are taught to be evenhanded, disspassionate, fair. (How many actually keep true to that lesson can be debated later.) When I covered the cop beat I told people I'd plaster my mother on page 1 if she screwed up. YOu have to go at it with that attitude. You have to try and evaluate everyone the same, no matter if you are acquainted with them or like them. And that means writing a negative review if you have to. Even if the chef never talks to you again. That's the price of being a journalist.
Posted 07 April 2002 - 11:19 AM
This applies, of course, not only to critics and reviewers of all sorts, but to news reporters and commentators as well. Those with a reputation inevitably make friends who work within the areas concerning which they write. It's up to the individual readers to exercise intelligence in evaluating, over a period of time, the objectivity of those whom they regularly read. We all have people to whom we go for guidance, and others whom we read merely for gossip, if at all.
You have to try and evaluate everyone the same, no matter if you are acquainted with them or like them. And that means writing a negative review if you have to. Even if the chef never talks to you again. That's the price of being a journalist.
In other words, critics must be evaluated with the same scepticism which they are presumed to exhibit on our behalf.
As for Roy Andries de Groot, it would have been rather difficult for a famous blind food writer to show up at an important new restaurant under a cloak of anonymity. :)
Posted 07 April 2002 - 01:00 PM
If I rely upon a review to dine at a restaurant, and I find I've been 'misled' then I won't go back to the restaurant and I won't read the reviewer again. I guess that most people do the same. So the value of a biassed review is very short-term for both restaurant and reviewer. Is that such a big deal? Well maybe professionally yes, and I can understand true professionals getting hot under the collar about it. But in reality, the amount of influence wielded by charlatans is very limited.
Posted 07 April 2002 - 02:23 PM
What does that mean ? Blumenthal cooks in the Guardian canteen, or what ? ???
... his own newspaper's chef in residence
Posted 07 April 2002 - 02:35 PM
Aside from the campy running metaphor, it didn't bother me particularly. A lot of people are enthusiastic about Blumenthal; he has put to good use the various scientific titbits he's picked up from Harold Magee. After reading the review I'll definitely look into the luncheon offer, if it's still going.
Posted 08 April 2002 - 09:11 AM
Also, for sake of clarity I do state right at the beginning of the review that, historically, I've always thought highly of Blumenthal's restaurant and often said so. I also said that, depsite this, I had misgivings over the new project. He was not there on the day I went, the staff were not known to me nor I to them and I was not recognised.
Finally Matthew Fort, the Guardian's restaurant critic, and Blumenthal's editor on his column did not review the riverside brasserie. There endeth the lesson.
Posted 08 April 2002 - 09:16 AM
Second - I partly agree with and partly depart from John Whiting. A journalist working in a subject-area in which they are genuinely interested is almost bound to make friends - or at least get to know pretty well - some of the professionals in that area. It is fine to say that a friendship shouldn't stand in the way of a bad review. I think the situation is more subtle in real life. I have had the experience of coming to a better understanding and appreciation of someone's endeavours through contact and conversation with them: the result has unquestionably been a better review than if they had remained a stranger. I don't think this is dishonest - on the contrary, I think it's often part of the job to try to develop a sympathetic understanding of the subject - but lets be clear that personal relationships will indeed color a writer's appreciation of a subject.
Posted 08 April 2002 - 09:34 AM
It's easier for a restaurateur who has just been burned to blame it on the critic than to take a good, hard look at his/her operation. I've encountered a number who, if they had put the energy they used to complain into their restaurant, would have received better ratings. And in pointing a finger at the critic, they use everything they can - even accusing the critic of engaging in a conspiracy with rival restaurateurs!
Too many people think the fix is in (and, sadly, sometimes it is. I just heard an area reviewer is going to a 'press party' for a restaurant before she's even filed a review) so I think it's best to keep your nose super-clean.
Reviews also generate such passion. I was never threatened - not even when I covered a Mafia trial - until I became a restaurant reviewer.
Also, I think editors, particularly newspaper editors, harbor an inherent distrust of anyone eating and drinking on their dime. A lot of those crusty, old hard news types can barely be forced to acknowledge food sections have merit, let alone admit food sections and food stories are among the most popular with readers.
As for p.r. pampering, it does happen. But you should never get comfortable with it or learn to accept it. You owe it to your readers, and the folks paying your paycheck, to call it straight.
Posted 08 April 2002 - 09:39 AM
I'd no more believe that a food crtic can be impartial than I do in Platonic Ideals and that cups, balls, bowls, the iris of the eye are all imperfect copies of a Perfect Ideal Circle. Or read or not read a book, see or not see a movie, go to or not go to a restaurant, or eat or not a meal from someone's advice unless I wanted to or didn't want to in the first place.
Reading is not eating. But writing that reads in such a way that the taste of the writer and what they have tasted are both clear really schmecks.
"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.
"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."
Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM
Posted 08 April 2002 - 09:44 AM
They get suckered in by the people who need them and their good words. Why do you think publicists exist? They play up to the desire of these people to mingle with the "in crowd"
In many cases a journalist can rise above it and their knowledge can give them the ability to be objective.
In food and restaurant criticism I would argue this is almost impossible. I give you
Meades - estimable and knowledgable but still capable of writing toe curlingly embarassing articles about his bessie mate MPW
Giles Coren - who writes shoddy articles displaying openly his lack of knowledge and also has his picture at the top of his column. Why not just have cards printed that say " I AM REVIEWING THIS FOR THE TIMES PLEASE GIVE ME FREE FOOD" and hand them out when you walk into the place
Matthew Fort - Not friends with Conran by any chance?
I am not sure about the US but in the UK the state of restaurant criticism is in my living memory at an all time low.
Does it matter? No more than the state of critical journalism on Cinema, Books etc etc. But many people depend on these people for guidance when faced with limited resources and a bewildering choice. If that advice is compromised then they are no better than a Dr who prescribes a branded drug which costs twice as much as a generic because the rep sent his wife some flowers
Posted 08 April 2002 - 10:35 AM
It's all about being professional. It's not wanting to be part of the "in" crowd but assisting your readers by providing them with a service they can use.
It's also about agreeing on what is or isn't permissable. The idea of restaurant reviewing as a respectable subgenre of journalism is still so relatively new that I think the ethical guideposts aren't as evident, or solid, as in other beats. Hence the AFJ guidelines I mentioned earlier.
Please don't get the impression that I spend the entire day stewing about restaurant reviewing ethics, but if the opportunity presents itself to lobby for professional behavior I do it.
Posted 08 April 2002 - 10:49 AM
Simon mentioned Lester Bangs. one of the summits of the latter part of his sadly foreshortened career was his series of articles for the New Musical Express about being on the road with The Clash. He was passionate about the band - hugely enthusiastic. He also pointed out some of the inherent problems with what they were (then) trying to do. I don't know for sure, but I would expect CBS picked up all his hotel bills, probably his international flights, and paid for his drinks and meals too. If the NME paid for anything, I shall pass you a feather with which you are free to knock me down. But Bangs's readership trusted him, and rightly so. At the end of the day, it's the track record of what you put on paper, rather than how many free parties you go to, that counts.
Posted 08 April 2002 - 02:10 PM
I don't actually find anything in what follows with which I disagree. I wonder what I implied that I was unaware of. Although I didn't say so, I certainly believe that, given a modicum of integrity, friendships with practitioners of whatever art or craft you're writing about is not only inevitable but essential.
- I partly agree with and partly depart from John Whiting.
Anyone writing about food, or writing about food writers, should read John Hess on the subject. John was restaurant critic for a year for the NY Times in 1973-4 and reported thereon in the book he wrote a couple of years later with his wife Karen, _The Taste of America_. (It is republished in the U of Illinois Food Series.) See especially Chapter 13, The Hustlers, and also the appendix, which contains several of his reviews. As a food writer, I react to John Hess rather as a sculptor might respond to Phidias or Michelangelo -- wonderful! Now where do I go from here? As for Karen, one of the most formidable challenges I ever faced was a dinner sitting beside her with John on the other side. She has a well-deserved reputation for not suffering fools gladly; fortunately she's very tolerant of court jesters! :)
Posted 08 April 2002 - 02:47 PM
Posted 08 April 2002 - 10:37 PM
Posted 08 April 2002 - 10:53 PM
I think the clearest conflict comes from what a reader usually thinks of as the perception of fairness, i.e., the reviewer is without conflict. Many readers set a threshold for their critics to maintain, that includes among other things, anonymity and not having any personal relationships with personel from the restaurant they are reviewing. But the more I read from people who require those things from reviewers, the more it doesn't add up how anonymity and a buffer on personal relationships guarantee anything but lonely reviewers. Unless someone can explain to me how those two things help write a good review? Or how the inclusion of those two things make for a bad review ? Isn't it something to be weighed on a case by case basis? :confused:
On balance, I think this issue is more about free speech than it is an issue about conflict. From my perspective, I want a free marketplace of ideas. That is the only way that I get to properly judge a reviewers words. As long as there is adequate disclosure, I can put the appropriate weight where it need be. But if anything is covered up, even if it is for the benefit of anonymity etc., I have been cheated out of the real truth.
That is why I find the original example used, Patricia Wells reviewing Joel Robuchon to be a prime example of how people place percieved integrity over the actual benefit of someone with approriate expertise doing a bang-up job. I mean is there anyone who can explain Robuchon to the public better than PW? And if she exagerates his greatness in any manner, is there anyone here who believes she is doing it for commercial reasons? Her integrity is well, and long established before it could ever become an issue.
The other thing that motivates readers to demand anonymity etc. is that they want to insure that the reviewer ate the same meal they were going to be served. Diners are always suspect that they are being "ripped off" and served the sludge while good old Patricia was served the good stuff. I find this hypothesis to be sort of out on a limb and here's why. Restaurants are a word of mouth business. While critics drive business, nothing can dry up a reservation book than the first few waves of post-review diners proclaiming a place was awful. So if a place trumped up their food, and what they were really serving sucked, it would only take a few weeks before the word got out. And if it happened often, the reviewer would quickly lose their credibility. So if this game was perpetrated, it wouldn't be for long.
There is another aspect to this issue that is lurking beneath the surface, which is the fact that people want a review to be representative of the average meal served at a place. Personally I can never understand this sentiment. I want a review to showcase a place AT IT'S BEST. And that is because when I go to a place, I want to know how to get them to perform for me AT THEIR MAXIMUM LEVEL. Why would anyone want the average experience if they can acquire the knowledge of how to get the best experience? :confused: Yet. that's what people seem to be fighting for.
The topic often comes up about the wine critic Robert Parker's friendly relationship with the winemaker Michel Rolland. Quite often Parker gives the wines Rolland makes high scores. And from time to time, you hear the accusations of bias about the reviews. But it seems to me that the only remedy to that charge that makes any sense is to TASTE THE WINES YOURSELF. If the wines taste bad and you conclude that Parker is shilling for Rolland, you can forever discount his opinion. But if you agree with him to any reasonable degree, I don't understand what there is to complain about? Complaints should to be limited to actual, not perceived diminution.
Posted 09 April 2002 - 01:43 AM