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Your Cover is Blown ....


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#31 John Whiting

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 10:43 AM

Few inflexible rules there, Russ, but a lot of wisdom, particularly about getting chummy with the establishment.

Edited by John Whiting, 13 February 2004 - 10:47 AM.

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#32 Pan

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 11:26 AM

What do you reviewers think in terms of differences in service between people perceived as "nobodies" and VIPs? I recall extremely supercilious service at Lutece when it was 4-star and an attitude from the server that we were to blame for considering a duck dish to be mediocre, watered-down burritos at Chanterelle when it was a 4-star. (To be fair, I did have good service at Bouley, though the meal was a disappointment, but I've had better luck with service at 3-stars.)

#33 John Whiting

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 11:51 AM

Any multi-starred restaurant which treats customers in a supercilious manner has simply been rated too highly. The critics responsible are as dilatory as the restaurateur and have thereby demonstrated their incompetance.

EDIT: Of course a rating may quickly become obsolete for any number of reasons, particularly in a fashion-driven milieu.

Edited by John Whiting, 13 February 2004 - 12:03 PM.

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#34 Pan

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 01:03 PM

Any multi-starred restaurant which treats customers in a supercilious manner has simply been rated too highly. The critics responsible are as dilatory as the restaurateur and have thereby demonstrated their incompetance.

How do you figure that? How could the critic for the New York Times know that "nobodies" would get bad service with an attitude?

#35 John Whiting

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 03:22 PM

How could the critic for the New York Times know that "nobodies" would get bad service with an attitude?

If it's the case, word gets around, particularly if you really want to know. As to the NY Times penchant for upper-echelon restaurants, John Hess disposed of it neatly a quarter-century ago. It's all in Taste of America, and it's hardly changed.

[I] yielded to an urgent appeal to take over the critic's job at The New York Times in early 1973, with the understanding that [I] would not have to stay longer than a year. [I] threw in [my] napkin after nine months, sick of the gourmet plague that had marked our first meal for pay, and our last, and most of those in between. This was not much of a surprise . . .But what was extraordinary was the response of hundreds of readers who wrote that they felt the same way, but had thought that it was they who were out of step.

Charles Shere tells of dining with a friend in Maasricht several years ago and ordering a Salade Nicoise. It arrived ostentatiously laid out on the plate, complete with half-a-dozen shrimp. Charles looked at it in some bemusement and his friend apologized that pretentious Dutch restaurants had a tendency to “shrimp it up” – “opgarnalened” was the lovely Dutch word. An equally slippery word is needed to describe the same tendency in over-the-top American restaurants.

Edited by John Whiting, 13 February 2004 - 03:55 PM.

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#36 Pan

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 03:28 PM

John, could you please give us a brief summary of what he wrote about that?

#37 John Whiting

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 03:36 PM

Sorry, I was doing that while you were posting and have incorporated it above.
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#38 Pan

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 03:42 PM

Sorry about the crossed wires, and thanks for the summary.

#39 Dignan

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 03:47 PM

Robb,

This is your Q&A. Maybe you could discuss why you try to dine anonymously when reviewing?

#40 Fat Guy

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 05:36 PM

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.

Do you believe these rules should apply to all critics vis-a-vis their chosen disciplines: art, music, books, etc.?

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#41 russ parsons

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 06:57 PM

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.

Do you believe these rules should apply to all critics vis-a-vis their chosen disciplines: art, music, books, etc.?

yup. it just gets too dicey. 1) it's awfully hard to be fair when you're dealing with people you know well. you tend either to be too hard or too forgiving. 2) in general, critics should resist the urge to think of themselves as "part of the community." undeniably what you do affects the community, but you represent the readers, not the industry you're covering. this, i find, is the biggest failing with most food writers. let's face it, restaurants are sexy, fun places to be around. it's great to get special treatment. but you do a far better job for your readers by staying an outsider.

note that i'm commenting strictly on restaurant critics. there is room for general feature writers to get "inside" the building, but even then one must be really wary. i have only developed what i would consider to be real friendships with a few chefs and those have always had tensions because even though they might have understood intellectually why i couldn't write about them very often, it still pissed them off when they saw other chefs being written about. it's a tough balancing act.

#42 John Whiting

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 08:58 PM

. . . in general, critics should resist the urge to think of themselves as "part of the community."

In the world of books, this is almost impossible. Since few literary critics can scrape even a modest living, they tend to be authors reviewing each other. The attentive reader soon learns who are the objective ones and who are the luvvies.
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#43 Fat Guy

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 09:42 PM

Russ, I don't think a critic should "represent" anybody. A critic should represent excellence.

The recommendation for restaurant critics to remove themselves from the community they cover is obviously well intentioned, but I have two main problems with it: 1) Although you say you think art, music, book, et al. critics should also follow those guidelines, those are not the generally accepted guidelines for such critics. As John W. explains, an extremely high percentage of literary critics are authors. That restaurant reviewers are widely held to a different standard says something about editorial attitudes towards restaurants: it is a statement that restaurants are generally corrupt and trying to take advantage. It's not a message I approve of. I also think it says something about restaurant reviewers: that they are incapable of resisting flattery, pressure, etc. Well, that's part of one's job as a critic. You either resist it and do your job, or you don't resist it and you suck. 2) The focus on separateness as a means of maintaining integrity is in my opinion a diversion. If a critic is so weak willed that he would give a better review to a friend's restaurant than to that of a stranger, then no amount of enforced separation is going to prevent a hundred other improper forces from affecting that critic's judgment: media coverage, criticism from peers, nasty letters from chefs, pressure from readers, pressure from editors, dietary preferences, past history at a restaurant, etc. A critic needs to remain independent from all these things, not just from the people in the industry. And a critic who can maintain independence can do it regardless of contact with chefs and restaurateurs.

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#44 John Whiting

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Posted 13 February 2004 - 10:41 PM

"To walk with kings, nor lose the common touch . . ." :biggrin:
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#45 russ parsons

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Posted 14 February 2004 - 11:50 AM

fat guy,

i know all the theoretical arguments, believe me. everyone finds their own way and some lessons are best learned on your own. i'm just trying to give you the perspective of more than 20 years of doing this. i am neither an ethical hard-liner nor laissez-faire. i'm telling you where i have run into problems and where people i've known have run into problems. you can take my advice or leave it. do me one favor, though: print this out and if you are still a critic in a couple of years, let me know what you think then.

#46 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 14 February 2004 - 12:27 PM

One point that Russ made that we have zipped right pass, is that the risk is not only being overly positive about a friend chef's restaurant and food, but also being overly critical out of concern for guarding against the opposite.

And then there is the question of what kind of "friend" we are talking about: a mutual admiration society; a social, business or professional aquaintance dubbed "friend"; or something closer to the range of deeper reciprocal relationships many people attach to the word friend, or what?

#47 russ parsons

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Posted 14 February 2004 - 07:28 PM

you're right richard, that was vague. for a critic, i would recommend not socializing at all (of course, there are times when it is unavoidable, but in general). as a feature writer, i'm talking more about true friends. i don't want to be in a position of writing about someone when because of our friendship i know things about them that they might not want known. in that situation, i would either have to soft-pedal the truth, or opt-out. in 99% of the cases, i'll opt out (and that does go for writers as well as chefs ... i won't review my friend's books and i won't review books that have been edited by my editor).

#48 Robb Walsh

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Posted 16 February 2004 - 07:15 AM

Anyone who thinks anonymity doesn't matter needs to read Ruth Reichl's 1993 review of Le Cirque in the New York Times. This is the last word on the subject, as far as I am concerned. Reichl got a bad table and rude service when she went to the restaurant anonymously. But on a final visit, she was recognized and suddenly she was fawned over. They seated her ahead of the King of Spain and the chef sent out special dishes for her to taste.

Reichl blasted the restaurant for the disparity of treatment and demoted them from four to three stars.

Fifi, you may not believe that I dine anonymously, but I do. As Ruth's writing explains, it's easy to tell when you've been recognized. When they seat you behind the door to the kitchen and forget your appetizer, it's a pretty good sign they don't know you are a critic. Come eat dinner with me sometime. You'll see.