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Your Cover is Blown ....


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#1 Dignan

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 11:55 AM

Robb,

One of my favorite reviews you've done with the Press is

Bagels Rip My Flesh.

In the course of visiting several bagel shops, you had a series of confrontations with one manic shop owner who seemed to fear that you were trying to steal his bagel high concepts. Keeping your visit and purpose a secret probably doesn't always happen for you when you are reviewing. Have you had any other vigorous confrontations like the one described above?

Also, how do you deal with the likely more common situation where you've simply been recognized as a reviewer and are being treated extry special because of it?

Thanks. I enjoy your work.

#2 Robb Walsh

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 01:20 PM

Luckily, I don't think I have been spotted very often. On the two occasions I know was busted, I reported in my review that my cover had been blown.

If you are strictly anonymous, you basically have two choices, tell the reader that the restaurant figured out who you were, or don't write the review.

Of course, there were many other times when the restaurant probably suspected something was up. But I read a hilarious story somewhere about a restaurant owner in NY who was positive William Grimes was coming to his restaurant. The guy ordered lots of different stuff and tasted everybody else's food--they just knew he was a reviewer. So they bent over backwards to give him good service without letting on. But it turned out they were wrong. He was just another guy.
I am willing to bet that happens a lot.

But there are a lot of reviewers who freely admit that they don't care if they are spotted. Some call the restaurant and tell them they are coming.

What do you think about anonymity?

#3 fifi

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 02:37 PM

Anonymity is not a big deal with me. Even in a big city I assume that everyone knows who the reviewers are if they are paying any attention at all. Trying to maintain anonymity on an ongoing basis can get pretty silly and probably wouldn't work anyway. I understand that the restaurant might do something special for the reviewer. But I also get to know which reviewers can be trusted to give honest, objective reviews. That being said, I also tend to take restaurant reviews as just one more data point. A review may inform me of a new restaurant and give me enough information for me to decide if I want to go or not. I will then usually go and make up my own mind.

I just realized that all of the above could translate to: "Don't go skulking around. You will just look silly. And after all of that, I will probably ignore your opinions. But thanks anyway for the entertaining writing." :laugh: :laugh: :laugh:
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#4 Dignan

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 03:09 PM

What do you think about anonymity?



Can a restaurant adjust its food and service in order to provide a better experience to a particular diner? I think that they can, if they're determined to do so, through inordinate attention to that meal -- maybe a larger hunk of meat, more attention to the prep of the sides, focused expedition, increased vigilance on part of the service staff, etc.

In a good restaurant, I don't think that the impact should be all that significant. The groundwork for a good meal was established before you walked in the door. But when the purpose of the visit is to judge the place, it may be enough to change the result of the sampling. When a reviewer rates as well as reviews, such attention may be the difference in stars (or forks, spoons, whatever the device) awarded.

So my lightly held opinion is that anonymity is the better practice.

#5 John Whiting

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 03:19 PM

Anyone looking for more thousands of words on the subject than they would ever want to read should do an eGullet search on "Compromised food critics". (Sorry, I've had no luck creating a hyperlink.)

EDIT: Pete Ganz to the rescue, below. Thanks.

Edited by John Whiting, 09 February 2004 - 05:01 PM.

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#6 pete ganz

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Posted 09 February 2004 - 04:52 PM

Compromised food critics

#7 ExtraMSG

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 01:23 AM

I've been asked at the end of meals if I'm a reviewer because when I go out of town I take notes on meals and get a copy of the menu. Maybe everyone should except the reviewers.

I think it's cool that some, like you, do try to maintain anonymity. It provides a different perspective. But I don't think it's feasible or necessary for everyone.

#8 skchai

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 02:54 AM

John Mariani (just for instance!) has taken quite a licking in these forums, such as here and here, as well as of course the article referenced here.

However, I'm curious, to what extent is the willingness of a food critic to remain anonymous a product of the willingness of his or her publication to pick up the bill? Critics at the larger newspapers seem to all be on expense accounts - some magazines may not be as generous. Or am I missing the point?

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#9 Chad

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 01:07 PM

Luckily, I don't think I have been spotted very often. On the two occasions I know was busted, I reported in my review that my cover had been blown.
<snip>
What do you think about anonymity?

Robb, if you're gonna be incognito you've got to lose the hat and sunglasses. I caught a History Channel special the other night and there you were. I thought, "Hey! That's Robb Walsh." Actually, my first thought was, "Hey, that's the guy from Blues Traveler!" :raz: Then I realized that he was talking 'bout Tex-Mex and figured it had to be you.

As for the insistence on anonymity, well, that's a topic that's been beaten to death here on eGullet. My personal take is that it's silly and pointless. In a city like New York or LA, every top-notch restaurant has a picture of the reviewers up in the service area. I've read that some places have a reward for spotting a reviewer. Most restaurants also have an informal network that passes along the false names and credit card numbers that reviewers use. They're not anonymous.

And so what?

A top-flight kitchen is a top-flight kitchen. The chef might taste the sauce himself or ensure that the salmon is cooked properly before it goes out, but he or his sous chef is probably doing that anyway. The kitchen can't do more than its best. And that's what they do each and every night, which is why they're top tier restaurants in the first place. Personal attention from the chef shouldn't make that big a difference.

And in a mid-level place, what are they gonna do, hire a new cook when they spot a reviewer coming in the door? Completely revamp the menu on the fly? Send out a bunch of off-menu items that aren't representative of the restaurant?

Nah, bag the anonymity and enjoy the extra attention.

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#10 John Whiting

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 01:49 PM

Right on! Shawn Hill of Mansion House, Ludlow, says that when he recognizes a celebrity of any sort, he doesn't tell front-of-house because he doesn't want them to be nervous.
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#11 Pan

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 01:55 PM

A top-flight kitchen is a top-flight kitchen. The chef might taste the sauce himself or ensure that the salmon is cooked properly before it goes out, but he or his sous chef is probably doing that anyway. The kitchen can't do more than its best. And that's what they do each and every night, which is why they're top tier restaurants in the first place.

If you were right, I would have had three great meals at 4-star restaurants in New York, instead of two mediocre meals and one meal that was bad except for the dessert. I just don't buy what you're saying for one second, and I'll give you an analogy:

My father was in residence at Louisiana State University from 1966-67, and many famous musicians came through to perform there. The only one who played great was Heifetz. The rest, my parents both agreed, figured that people in Baton Rouge didn't count and wouldn't know the difference, so they took their appearances there as a paid vacation. Why don't you believe it's possible for a kitchen to do that to "Mr. and Ms. Nobody"?

#12 John Whiting

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 06:00 PM

The rest, my parents both agreed, figured that people in Baton Rouge didn't count and wouldn't know the difference, so they took their appearances there as a paid vacation. Why don't you believe it's possible for a kitchen to do that to "Mr. and Ms. Nobody"?

Is it likely that a kitchen will cook to different standards for different tables on the same evening, not knowing who the strangers may be? A restaurant in a major city can never assume that all the diners on a particular evening will be ignorant.

EDIT: I once heard Rubenstein play badly (i.e. carelessly and distractedly) in London's Royal Festival Hall. I doubt if it was the result of any preconceptions about the audience. Homer nods.

Edited by John Whiting, 12 February 2004 - 06:07 PM.

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#13 russ parsons

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 06:49 PM

as someone who has had the bad (or good) fortune to dine with most of the big city restaurant critics in this country, i can say that in the great majority of cases they have been meals that have been saved only by sparkling conversation. i don't know what it is, but i suspect that when a critic is in the house, everybody goes into brainlock (and don't kid yourself, in a decent restaurant, the local critic is ALWAYS recognized ... the really cool places just don't let on).

#14 fifi

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 07:13 PM

So... Are we getting a concensus from the deans of all things culinary that anonymity is all nonsense and Robb can keep his hat and sunglasses? :laugh:
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

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#15 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 07:34 PM

Fifi, it's not all nonsense. It is, however, a big red herring. Anonymity is the number one issue on people's minds when they think about restaurant reviewing, a state of affairs that critics as a whole relentlessly encourage and reinforce even though they mostly don't dine anonymously. Yet anonymity is really just one tool in a large toolkit that a reviewer may want to use on occasion. Far more important are judgment, experience, writing ability, and of course integrity and independence.

Were we to test the anonymity hypothesis, we might look at a few things beyond the impressionistic claims that are typically made in such discussions: 1) Do critics who attempt to dine anonymously and those who don't tend to reach different sets of conclusions? 2) Do critics who attempt to dine anonymously tend to give better reviews to restaurants where they're recognized? I think the answer to both questions is an emphatic no.

Having dined at quite a few restaurants unrecognized, recognized, and possibly recognized but they pretended not to, I can say that it's probably the case that some restaurants can do some things to trick you. But in the overwhelming majority of situations, the following rules tend to hold true: 1) The sauces are made, the ingredients are purchased, the cooks are trained, the menu is printed . . . there is only so far most kitchens can stray from that course; 2) When they do identify you, you can usually tell and therefore you can compensate for any special treatment by checking out other people's plates, etc.; and 3) In the grand scheme of things if you visit a restaurant a few times you're going to see its true nature pretty clearly no matter how much they throw in your path in terms of smoke and mirrors.

There are very few restaurants out there these days where the whole place is organized around a radical hierarchy of special treatment. Certainly there are a few -- in New York, Le Cirque 2000 comes to mind. There, they really do have a whole larder full of ingredients just for the FOS tables. So in those exceptional cases you can probably produce disparate results by going anonymously and going as a recognized critic. Whether there's much value to that exercise, I suppose, depends on one's perspective.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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#16 John Whiting

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 08:11 PM

. . . in the overwhelming majority of situations, the following rules tend to hold true: 1) The sauces are made, the ingredients are purchased, the cooks are trained, the menu is printed . . . there is only so far most kitchens can stray from that course . . .

Exactly what Shawn Hill had to say on the subject. And, to draw a not irrelevant analogy: musicians, in my experience, do not -- indeed, cannot -- suddenly play better if they spot an eminent critic in the audience.
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#17 Katherine

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 08:17 PM

Wow.

Amazing how unmoved kitchens are to the presence of a reviewer, and how impartial reviewers are in the face of preferential treatment.

When the restaurant I was working in had a reviewer walk in, you'd better believe that everything was perfect, and there were lots of extras. But you're saying that you'd recognize these as such and review the restaurant based on an experience you didn't actually have, eh?

#18 Pan

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 08:25 PM

Thanks for cutting through the bullshit, Katherine. :biggrin:

#19 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 08:26 PM

Yes, Katherine, that's correct. Do you see that as a terribly difficult intellectual challenge for a critic: Here are five mushrooms on my plate. There are four mushrooms on the plate of a customer across the room. It doesn't take a particularly keen mind to imagine the experience of the man with four mushrooms instead of five -- even I can do it. Likewise, what most kitchens think is "perfect" is simply defined as no mistakes in cooking: the meat is done to order, etc. It doesn't alter the fundamental conception of a dish. That perfect performance may be able to eliminate inconsistency in production, but it doesn't change what the restaurant is serving -- and that's what matters from the standpoint of the critic.

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#20 fifi

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 08:33 PM

Fifi, it's not all nonsense. It is, however, a big red herring.


I agree with what you have posted. However, I will offer that all of what you have said may be true in New York. But, in the smaller markets (and I will include Houston as a "smaller" market) I doubt that ANY reviewer has a snowball's chance in hell of remaining anonymous, openly, no red herrings. Therefore, I rely on the reviewer's smarts to know when he is being "set up". I don't think, after many years of reading Robb's work, that anyone can scam him. I would say the same of Alison Cook in The Houston Chronicle. These are writers that have developed a reputation in an environment where I do NOT assume anonymity. We don't have that luxury. Houston is a collection of small towns.

Then I get back to the fact that I use the reviews as a data point only and go form my own opinion. :raz:
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#21 Pan

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 08:34 PM

That perfect performance may be able to eliminate inconsistency in production, but it doesn't change what the restaurant is serving -- and that's what matters from the standpoint of the critic.

Well, that isn't what matters most from the standpoint of the customer who wants to have a great meal like the one the critic got. You understand that, right?

#22 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 08:49 PM

Pan, I can't explain why you've had those bad meals except to say it happens even though it shouldn't. But it happens to everybody at least once in awhile. If you dine out enough you will get crappy meals even at the best restaurants in the world, and even as a VIP customer's guest, and even as a recognized critic (and I don't mean a B-team critic like me -- like Russ I've dined out with several of the major critics and had bad meals at good restaurants anyway).

But to try to extrapolate from your experiences at fine-dining restaurants to create a theory of how special treatment affects critics is what is called in logic, I think, a hasty generalization. My data, which are statistically somewhat robust, support a different conclusion: I've dined out quite a lot as Mr. Nobody and quite a lot as a professional restaurant reviewer and food journalist -- sometimes recognized, sometimes not, sometimes maybe-I-don't-know -- and my experience does not confirm the hypothesis that top restaurants don't on the whole perform well for Mr. and Mrs. Nobody, nor do my experiences confirm the theory that a critic can be easily hoodwinked by attempts at special treatment.

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#23 Pan

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 08:51 PM

Is it being hoodwinked if you judge a place based on how you're served? I don't think so. It was a 4-star restaurant for you. The fact that it was a 1- or 2-star restaurant for someone else is another matter.

I take note of your remarks but I'm still skeptical.

#24 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 09:00 PM

Pan, having spent nearly all the money I've ever earned on dining out, I am acutely aware of the needs of the consumer, because I am a consumer. I get just as pissed off as anyone when I pay $250 for a mediocre meal for two people -- and I've paid $250 for more mediocre meals than any sane person should. But you know what? It's not a critic's job to be a consumer or a consumerist -- that's the job of the Zagat surveys. It's a critic's job to be a critic.

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#25 TatarsHat

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 09:11 PM

ummmmmmm. I don't get this?

As a reviewer does it really matter if you are incognito or out there for all to see? I would think that a kitchen would strive to put out the best that they can and be consistent no matter what. Sure, they can throw perks if they know they are being reviewed but down the line what does that accomplish? An honest review, yes, but for the next diner?

Just a thought.... :raz:

#26 Katherine

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 09:42 PM

Yes, Katherine, that's correct. Do you see that as a terribly difficult intellectual challenge for a critic: Here are five mushrooms on my plate. There are four mushrooms on the plate of a customer across the room. It doesn't take a particularly keen mind to imagine the experience of the man with four mushrooms instead of five -- even I can do it. Likewise, what most kitchens think is "perfect" is simply defined as no mistakes in cooking: the meat is done to order, etc. It doesn't alter the fundamental conception of a dish. That perfect performance may be able to eliminate inconsistency in production, but it doesn't change what the restaurant is serving -- and that's what matters from the standpoint of the critic.

But when you see that the other diners in the room have four mushrooms to your five, can you also tell that yours are cooked to order, where theirs were made yesterday and reheated in the microwave?

#27 fifi

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 09:43 PM

I think that what the restaurant needs to be cognizant of is that the reviewer is just one opinion. The regular customer is probably more imortant. They will tell their friends, who will tell their friends, and so on. And there are so many more regular customers than reviewers. Especially here in Houston, as far as I can tell, we consider a reviewer's opinion as just that. A data point and a guide. Granted, Robb is a very good guide. (Dona Tere tamales are awesome.)
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#28 Fat Guy

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 10:01 PM

Most people in the restaurant industry who bother to open serious restaurants just don't behave that way, Katherine. Indeed, most good restaurants serve better food than their customers demand. But no, of course it's not possible to detect the undetectable. For the most part, though, restaurants give themselves away in more ways than one and you can make assumptions based on that behavior: the restaurant that par-cooks food for regular customers but cooks to order for VIPs is also likely to tip its hand by serving disparate sized portions, by assigning a lot more service staff to the VIP table, etc. Once you get the sense that you're witnessing a scam like that, you know what you're dealing with.

I must emphasize, however, that behavior like this on the part of a restaurant -- something extreme like intentionally serving total crap to one customer but really good stuff to another -- is a once in a hundred meals occurrence. It is therefore not in my opinion valid to base all restaurant reviewing decisions and attitudes on the reprehensible behavior of a few bad apples in the industry. As I said before, anonymity can be a useful tool in addressing the predatory practices of the slimiest bottom feeders of the restaurant world, but the relentless advancement of the cloak-and-dagger anonymity agenda is a disservice to everyone because it paints the whole industry with that negative brush.

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#29 John Whiting

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 10:10 PM

If a restaurant (or any other institutions) is not first class, trying harder in desperation is more likely to produce a worse result than a better. I would suggest that certain expensive top-rated restaurants have got where they are for the same unreliable and ultimately fragile reasons as, say, dot.com stocks. Like musicians with an awesome technique but no taste or understanding, they will wow the impressionable for a while and then give way to the next fashionable virtuoso.
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#30 russ parsons

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 10:38 AM

two points came to mind while reading this and i think they're important enough to mention:

1) a good restaurant tries to please EVERY customer. certainly, they do not always succeed. but i've been in a lot of restaurant kitchens and i've never detected a hint of "who cares about this plate, it's not going to anybody important." this is certainly not to say that all restaurants succeed, it's just that they're trying as hard as they can. which is not to say that you should then be satisfied paying $250 for an average meal just because they were trying hard (this is why i rarely eat out anymore, except at the tried-and-true places I know are capable of giving me my money's worth).

2) anonymity is overrated, but impartiality is not. while i think it's silly for reviewers to dress up in disguises, i do think it's important that critics not be perceived as being part of the "restaurant establishment." critics should do everything they can to stay separate from chefs and owners. they should not go to restaurant parties. they should not go to dinner with friends who are chefs. they should not have friends who are chefs. in my opinion, this is where the real bias sets in: not in being recognized at the last minute, but in being chummy and giving breaks in reviews because "you know what they really can do."