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Reviewer Anonymity


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#1 Fat Guy

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Posted 16 February 2005 - 08:29 PM

What do you think are the pros and cons (if any) of reviewer anonymity? Also, how realistic is it to expect that a fine-dining critic can maintain anonymity long-term?

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#2 Eric Asimov

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Posted 16 February 2005 - 08:59 PM

Steven,

I know that this topic has been hotly debated on this site and I want to say that anonymity is a critical tool in a reviewer's bag. Maybe a better term is the pretence of anonymity.

Let's be honest -- whoever is the main critic in this day of surveillance cameras, caller ID and such can't expect to be anonymous. Maybe 25 percent of the time at best. It's much easier for the $25 and Under person, dealing with people who are not nearly as plugged in. But even if they know who you are, it's far better for everyone to at least pretend as if anonymity is intact.

The No. 1 reason is self preservation. Some of you may know, but many may not, that when a chef recognizes somebody in the restaurant -- it could be another chef, somebody in the business, a writer, whoever -- the generous impulse is to send out extra courses. They're proud of their food and want to share it with you, maybe only to further impress you. There will be extra desserts too. It's all very wonderful -- unless you have to eat this way every day, lunch and dinner. Believe me, it gets unhealthy very fast! More important, you lose the sense of rhythm and pace that is an essential part of gauging a restaurant.

Second, and perhaps just as important, without the PRETENCE of anonymity, maitre d's, owners, chefs, sommeliers and everybody else feels compelled to come over to greet you and chat and schmooze with you. Along with all the free and extra food comes free drinks, a tour of the kitchen, and god knows what else.

Whether they know who you are or not, I think it is crucial to have a firewall in place between you and the industry. You can't pal around with people that you may have to criticize in writing. You can't buddy up, and you need to keep a line drawn. The pretence of anonymity makes this so much easier.

Look, it's always better if they don't know who you are. Even if they do, there's only so much they can do. They are bound by their capabilities. I can't tell you how many times I've been in restaurants where they knew perfectly well who I was and they STILL fucked things up. This is not to say that a restaurant can't be on its extra-special best behavior, but I felt at least that I could always see through flattery.

The bottom line, though, is that anything you can do as a critic to preserve your distance from the people in the business helps you to be dispassionate in your assessments.

#3 Pan

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Posted 16 February 2005 - 10:34 PM

That was a fascinating, honest, and logical answer. It's also the first time I've seen that explanation, and it makes perfect sense to me.

#4 Fat Guy

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Posted 17 February 2005 - 06:29 AM

Interesting answer. May I follow up with two other questions?

First, if critical distance and firewalling are the goals, is "the pretense of anonymity" the best way to get there? Might it not be better, given the reality of a 75% recognition rate, simply to say to restaurateurs, "No extra courses. Treat me exactly as you'd treat a stranger. Don't come over to my table to schmooze," and to back that up by not overly socializing with or otherwise developing potential conflict situations with people in the business? After all, isn't that how critics, columnists and reporters in most every other area of human endeavor do it? A sports columnist, for example, has to be willing to face the athletes he or she criticizes, and while they may not have knives they tend to be really big. Political campaign coverage, while not criticism as such, involves riding on the campaign bus and maintaining close quarters with candidates, and sleeping with their interns if you're lucky.

Second, can you tell us, when you were doing the fine-dining reviews, what was the most outrageous incidence of preferential treatment that you were subjected to?

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#5 TAPrice

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Posted 17 February 2005 - 09:07 AM

After all, isn't that how critics, columnists and reporters in most every other area of human endeavor do it? A sports columnist, for example, has to be willing to face the athletes he or she criticizes, and while they may not have knives they tend to be really big. Political campaign coverage, while not criticism as such, involves riding on the campaign bus and maintaining close quarters with candidates, and sleeping with their interns if you're lucky.

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I think you're being overly broad here. Consider book reviewers, who are often rightly criticized if they write about authors they know personally. Political correspondents and sports writers, on the other, need to speak directly to their subjects. Otherwise, what would say?

I wonder, though, what the Times' policy is for movie and theater critics. Can they review films or plays if they know people involved? Is there some kind of paper wide policy governing interaction between reviewers and the subjects they review, or does the food section set it's own guidelines.
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#6 Eric Asimov

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Posted 17 February 2005 - 03:18 PM

Steven,

I think you have some idea how persistent people are, and please don't misunderstand, I don't mean to be jaded about it. You would be working nonstop to prevent extras and freebies, and you'd end up calling extra attention to yourself and spending a lot of time doing it. If you can't pass through unnoticed, at least you can pass through unburdened.

Todd, I don't know the precise policy as it applies to theater and movie critics. I will say that of course you are going to know people in the field you cover, and you are going to be friendly with them. Some people even marry one -- Bernie Weintraub, who just retired from the Times after covering the white house, India and most recently the entertainment industry, wrote a good-bye piece about how weird the entertainment industry was, especially after he married a top movie executive.

Building relationships is unavoidable to a certain degree, but anything that helps keep a distance is a good thing.

#7 32rueduVertbois

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Posted 17 February 2005 - 09:21 PM

given the reality of a 75% recognition rate

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Fat Guy,

Sorry if I've missed this on past threads, but what is your source for this "reality of a 75% recognition rate"?

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#8 Fat Guy

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Posted 17 February 2005 - 09:33 PM

Source = Eric Asimov, Yesterday, 10:59 PM, above on this topic.

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#9 Eric Asimov

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Posted 17 February 2005 - 09:47 PM

Yeah, it was me. Purely a guesstimate.

#10 foodgeek

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Posted 18 February 2005 - 08:32 AM

This is a combination followup question regarding this question and the discussion in my thread.

You mentioned in my thread wanting dishes (the example was French cuisine) that are not made here because the restaurants feel that the average american won't eat them. Excepting very pricey restaurants. Do you ever decide to chuck being anonymous, and request specific dishes beforehand. Maybe it is something you want that they will make for you if you order a couple of days beforehand? And then, just eat out as a customer, and not a reviewer?

I was thinking of a time a couple of years back when some people ordered an organ meat feast at Kabob Cafe -brains and eyeballs included-...and figured that you could do something like that at a French place.
-Jason

#11 Eric Asimov

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Posted 18 February 2005 - 09:12 AM

Jason,

That's actually never occurred to me. It's not so much that I want them to cook specific dishes for me. The point is that I would love to see some passionate French restaurateurs who are cooking what THEY want, rather than offering dishes aimed at perceived appetites.

#12 foodgeek

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Posted 18 February 2005 - 09:24 AM

I completely understand that. It is one of the reason's I loved eating ethnic foods in Queens. You eat at Sripraphai or order parillada (mixed grill including sweet breads and blood sausage) at an Argentine restaurant, and you know you are gettign teh real deal. There really should be something like that available -and affordible- for every cuisine, but I guess that would just be in a perfect world. heh. :)

You know, I really do feel that restaurants should put a few "strange" dishes on every menu, just for the foodies. I was so happy when I went to Tournesol once for my birthday and they had rabbit in aspic (w/garlic) as an appetizer. The everage american restaurant goer may not want to eat rabbit in garlic jello, but I ordered it, and it was great. Wow, that must have been almost exactly 2 years ago.

-Jason


Jason,

That's actually never occurred to me. It's not so much that I want them to cook specific dishes for me. The point is that I would love to see some passionate French restaurateurs who are cooking what THEY want, rather than offering dishes aimed at perceived appetites.

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-Jason

#13 Potter

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Posted 18 February 2005 - 10:01 AM

One major difference between a movie critic and the restaurant critic is that the movie is a finished product and either the critic likes it or doesn't like it. Once the film is up there on the screen there's nothing the acotrs, directors, etc can do to make the movie better. Not so with food. If a restaurant ciritc is recognized, the chef will make sure the food is cooked and seasoned to perfection, the garnishes fresh, the food fresh, the service excellent. The critic is reviewing the restaurant so the general public can make a judgment about whether to eat there. As such, if the critic is unmaksed and given extra courses, special treatment, and the chef makes sure the food is the best it can be, the critic is not getting the dining experience Joe SixPack would be getting if he were to walk in and order some food. All restaurants have off nights or mess things up sometimes. some restaurants just plain suck and the general public won't necessarily know it from reading a review by an "unmasked" critic. Plus, it must be fun for the ciritc to be anonymous, sort of like a secret agent or spy.
There was an essay by Mimi Sheraton called "My Times at the Times" in the anthology "Best Food Writing 2004." It discussed this very topic.

#14 Pan

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Posted 18 February 2005 - 02:26 PM

[...]First, if critical distance and firewalling are the goals, is "the pretense of anonymity" the best way to get there? Might it not be better, given the reality of a 75% recognition rate, simply to say to restaurateurs, "No extra courses. Treat me exactly as you'd treat a stranger. Don't come over to my table to schmooze," and to back that up by not overly socializing with or otherwise developing potential conflict situations with people in the business?[...]

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Have you ever done that, Steven? If so, what was the result?

#15 Mayhaw Man

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Posted 18 February 2005 - 02:31 PM

[...]First, if critical distance and firewalling are the goals, is "the pretense of anonymity" the best way to get there? Might it not be better, given the reality of a 75% recognition rate, simply to say to restaurateurs, "No extra courses. Treat me exactly as you'd treat a stranger. Don't come over to my table to schmooze," and to back that up by not overly socializing with or otherwise developing potential conflict situations with people in the business?[...]

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Have you ever done that, Steven? If so, what was the result?

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You are implying that someone would WANT to schmooze with Steven. Hard to believe, really. But I suppose that it COULD happen. :raz:
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#16 markovitch

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Posted 18 February 2005 - 06:06 PM

Fat Guy, i've got to say that asking a restauranteur not to send extra courses ann/or schmooze is like telling your little brother not to look at your porn stash... you can say it, but how much good can it do?
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