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Influence of Reviewer Experiences on Gourmet Stint


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#1 Chris Amirault

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 06:33 AM

So glad to have you at eGullet! I've so many questions, but I'll stick to one that you begin to address in your interview with JJ. Can you tell us a little bit about how the restaurant reviewer experiences you detail in Garlic and Sapphires have affected your approach to overseeing Gourmet's reviews and food writing? What did you bring from those experiences -- and what were you glad to leave behind?
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#2 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 07:17 AM

So glad to have you at eGullet! I've so many questions, but I'll stick to one that you begin to address in your interview with JJ. Can you tell us a little bit about how the restaurant reviewer experiences you detail in Garlic and Sapphires have affected your approach to overseeing Gourmet's reviews and food writing? What did you bring from those experiences -- and what were you glad to leave behind?

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It's hard to separate out the reviewer experience from my general experience; after all, I've been focused on food and food writing for my entire life. But after becoming the food editor of hte LA Times, and then going back to straight reviewing at the NY Times, I was really eager to get beyond restaurants and back into food and cooking. When James Truman hired me he said, "When I first thought about you, I was thinking of Gourmet as an elegant dinner party, but you've convinced me that it could be so much more." And that's what I wanted it to be - an advocate for people to start cooking again (no matter what that takes), a place where we can talk about the enormous changes in the food supply, a way to start dealing with not just consumption, but all the big issues about where our food comes from. I wanted to do for Gourmet what I hoped I'd done for the NY Times - make it more approachable, more democratic, more fun.

Personally, I was really happy to start working wiht people again. Reviewing is fairly lonely work; magazines are incredibly collaborative enterprises, and I was really looking forward to having a group of people to throw ideas around with every day. That's the most fun part of my job.

As for the reviews, at first I just wanted to make them real, to make them not be cheering sections, but actually critical. And, of course, to start dealing with ethnic restaurants. But after a while I began to wonder why we were doing real reviews in the first place. And I began to think that nobody needs a national magazine to write a couple of reviews every month, that it would be much more useful to do longer pieces on trends and so forth. I think that came out of my experience at the Times as well.

#3 Fat Guy

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 07:47 AM

Good morning, Ms. Reichl. If I may follow up on the "why we were doing real reviews in the first place" point, have you seen the piece Steve Cuozzo wrote in the New York Post when he announced that the Post would no longer be publishing "real reviews" and would instead focus on news, trends and multi-restaurant comparative pieces?

Mr. Cuozzo began by saying:

Restaurant reviews are over. History. Outta here. It’s time to report on restaurants in a new and better way . . .


His primary argument (though probably not his strongest) was that restaurants are too ephemeral to review with any accuracy:

Welcome to the zany new world of dining out, where eateries change moods and menus in the blink of a wine-soaked eye. Back when restaurants were smaller and more stable, a review might hold water for years. Today, once critics have moved on, the house mutates without any press attention.


He also takes a swipe at the "myth" of reviewer anonymity:

The mystique of old-fashioned reviews was built on the myth of “anonymous” visits. They were indispensable in a bygone age of snootier, smaller restaurants. But “anonymity” is now a joke. . . . I hate to break the news - all the New York critics are spotted the moment we walk in.


I realize you're coming at this from the perspective of a national magazine, and certainly it makes sense that a national magazine would seek to provide nationally relevant content rather than they type of reviewing that a local paper or city magazine provides. But do you think the argument might apply, as Cuozzo suggests, to local reviews as well? In other words, are restaurant reviews inherently flawed, either for the reasons Cuozzo cites or for other reasons?

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#4 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 08:36 AM

Good morning, Ms. Reichl. If I may follow up on the "why we were doing real reviews in the first place" point, have you seen the piece Steve Cuozzo wrote in the New York Post when he announced that the Post would no longer be publishing "real reviews" and would instead focus on news, trends and multi-restaurant comparative pieces?

Mr. Cuozzo began by saying:

Restaurant reviews are over. History. Outta here. It’s time to report on restaurants in a new and better way . . .


His primary argument (though probably not his strongest) was that restaurants are too ephemeral to review with any accuracy:

Welcome to the zany new world of dining out, where eateries change moods and menus in the blink of a wine-soaked eye. Back when restaurants were smaller and more stable, a review might hold water for years. Today, once critics have moved on, the house mutates without any press attention.


He also takes a swipe at the "myth" of reviewer anonymity:

The mystique of old-fashioned reviews was built on the myth of “anonymous” visits. They were indispensable in a bygone age of snootier, smaller restaurants. But “anonymity” is now a joke. . . . I hate to break the news - all the New York critics are spotted the moment we walk in.


I realize you're coming at this from the perspective of a national magazine, and certainly it makes sense that a national magazine would seek to provide nationally relevant content rather than they type of reviewing that a local paper or city magazine provides. But do you think the argument might apply, as Cuozzo suggests, to local reviews as well? In other words, are restaurant reviews inherently flawed, either for the reasons Cuozzo cites or for other reasons?

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I read Cuozzo's piece when it first came out, and I think he missed the big point about reviewing for a newspaper. I think the critics are like the op ed columnists, they're kind of the face of the paper, the way the public interacts on personal level. They give readers something to react to, get pleased or angry about, a way to have a conversation with the paper. And they're important for that reason. Also, I do think that a newspaper is very different than a national magazine, and that restaurants are part of the culture of a city, and therefore very important for the paper to weigh in on.

As for anonymity - well you know that you and I disagree about that. I think it's both possible and important.

The main point, I think, is that in this time of blogs, of EGullets, etc., ordinary reviews just seem so old-fashioned. There are so many other ways to get information that is more up to date. What that means is that a publication has to recognize what exactly it can provide to its readers with this antique form. And I think it comes down to good writing, some fun, an opinion. Certainly not The Voice of God.

#5 oakapple

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 09:47 AM

I read Cuozzo's piece when it first came out, and I think he missed the big point about reviewing for a newspaper.  I think the critics are like the op ed columnists, they're kind of the face of the paper, the way the public interacts on personal level. They give readers something to react to, get pleased or angry about, a way to have a conversation with the paper. And they're important for that reason.  Also, I do think that a newspaper is very different than a national magazine, and that restaurants are part of the culture of a city, and therefore very important for the paper to weigh in on.

As for anonymity - well you know that you and I disagree about that.  I think it's both possible and important.

The main point, I think, is that in this time of blogs, of EGullets, etc., ordinary reviews just seem so old-fashioned.  There are so many other ways to get information that is more up to date. What that means is that a publication has to recognize what exactly it can provide to its readers with this antique form.  And I think it comes down to good writing, some fun, an opinion. Certainly not The Voice of God.

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I agree with you about the Cuozzo piece. Of course, because he writes for the Post, his reasoning was full of hyperbole. But in the end, all he did was to diminish his paper's relevance. Cuozzo pointed out that restaurants sometimes "mutate" after the early reviews. This is, of course, true; but there are also restaurants that remain remarkably consistent over many years.

I also agree that critic anonymity is "both possible and important."

You refer to reviews as "old-fashioned" and "antique." I presume you're referring to the abundance of alternative information sources that didn't exist 15-20 years ago. Having said that, restaurants still post mainstream reviews in their entry foyers, which suggests that people still consider those old-fashioned reviews relevant to an extent.

As you still live in New York, surely you must occasionally have the experience of walking into a restaurant, and seeing your own Times review posted in the lobby. Do you often find that the restaurant has changed significantly from when you wrote that review? (I am not suggesting that the change must necessarily be for the worse; the restaurant could have improved.)

A related question.... With just one rated review per week, a paper like the Times has only limited opportunities to take a second look at a restaurant. When you were the reviewer, did you ever find that there were errors you wished you could correct, but could not? An example would be, "Restaurant X has improved since I gave it two stars a year ago, but the improvement isn't quite newsworthy enough to justify another full review."

#6 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 10:18 AM

I read Cuozzo's piece when it first came out, and I think he missed the big point about reviewing for a newspaper.  I think the critics are like the op ed columnists, they're kind of the face of the paper, the way the public interacts on personal level. They give readers something to react to, get pleased or angry about, a way to have a conversation with the paper. And they're important for that reason.  Also, I do think that a newspaper is very different than a national magazine, and that restaurants are part of the culture of a city, and therefore very important for the paper to weigh in on.

As for anonymity - well you know that you and I disagree about that.  I think it's both possible and important.

The main point, I think, is that in this time of blogs, of EGullets, etc., ordinary reviews just seem so old-fashioned.  There are so many other ways to get information that is more up to date. What that means is that a publication has to recognize what exactly it can provide to its readers with this antique form.  And I think it comes down to good writing, some fun, an opinion. Certainly not The Voice of God.

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I agree with you about the Cuozzo piece. Of course, because he writes for the Post, his reasoning was full of hyperbole. But in the end, all he did was to diminish his paper's relevance. Cuozzo pointed out that restaurants sometimes "mutate" after the early reviews. This is, of course, true; but there are also restaurants that remain remarkably consistent over many years.

I also agree that critic anonymity is "both possible and important."

You refer to reviews as "old-fashioned" and "antique." I presume you're referring to the abundance of alternative information sources that didn't exist 15-20 years ago. Having said that, restaurants still post mainstream reviews in their entry foyers, which suggests that people still consider those old-fashioned reviews relevant to an extent.

As you still live in New York, surely you must occasionally have the experience of walking into a restaurant, and seeing your own Times review posted in the lobby. Do you often find that the restaurant has changed significantly from when you wrote that review? (I am not suggesting that the change must necessarily be for the worse; the restaurant could have improved.)

A related question.... With just one rated review per week, a paper like the Times has only limited opportunities to take a second look at a restaurant. When you were the reviewer, did you ever find that there were errors you wished you could correct, but could not? An example would be, "Restaurant X has improved since I gave it two stars a year ago, but the improvement isn't quite newsworthy enough to justify another full review."

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I expect that restaurants will eventually stop posting those outdated reviews. When I walk in and see one of my old reviews up there it makes me think - uh oh, things must be really bad here if the best they've got is an 8 year old review. And I can't be the only one who feels that way. Certainly as more and more people become computer literate, the printed reviews become less relevant.

And yes, there were times when I wished I could rereview restaurants at the Times, but just couldn't because of space and time constraints. That was when I did radio pieces; it really helped to have that daily spot on WQXR. There were a couple of times when restaurants changed so much that I simply had to go back and review them again. But you risk just going in a circle, doing the same few restaurants endlessly.

#7 robyn

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Posted 29 November 2005 - 05:15 PM

I expect that restaurants will eventually stop posting those outdated reviews.  When I walk in and see one of my old reviews up there it makes me think - uh oh, things must be really bad here if the best they've got is an 8 year old review.  And I can't be the only one who feels that way.  Certainly as more and more people become computer literate, the printed reviews become less relevant.

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Well - just because someone can use a computer doesn't mean he or she knows anything about food. Correctly or not - I was impressed in your writings by what you seem to know about food. Now I probably know 100 times more about food than the average person - but you probably know 100 times more than me. And I'm sure there are people who know more than you (although perhaps not 100 times more :smile: ). I've run across a few amateurs who are somewhere near your league - but not many. So - in most cases - I'd take a review written by someone like you over 100 written by someone like me (or - what I find in most cases - written by someone who knows less than me).

I find it kind of sad to see the rather old fashioned process of reviewing - learning about food first - then sampling a particular restaurant a fair number of times - then taking the time to write carefully - biting the dust in the big cities (of course - in a smaller city - like the city where I live - the only purpose of reviews has been to make the restaurants which advertise in the local media look good). Robyn

#8 oakapple

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Posted 29 November 2005 - 05:56 PM

By the way, Nobu is one of those restaurants that still has a Ruth Reichl review posted. I'm sure I've seen others, but Nobu comes to mind.

I don't know whether Jean Georges has Ruth's review posted, but I know that her Times review of over 8 1/2 years ago (6/6/97) remains the most current one.

#9 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 29 November 2005 - 07:45 PM

By the way, Nobu is one of those restaurants that still has a Ruth Reichl review posted. I'm sure I've seen others, but Nobu comes to mind.

I don't know whether Jean Georges has Ruth's review posted, but I know that her Times review of over 8 1/2 years ago (6/6/97) remains the most current one.

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Robyn's certainly right that just because someone can use a computer doesn't mean that he knows anything about food. But the same is, unfortunately, true of reviewers. Just because someone's been hired to write about food does not necessarily mean that the person is qualified to do so. Most newspapers tend to think that just about anyone on the staff can review restaurants (and movies too).

Nobu still has my review posted? Odd - but then Nobu doesn't need any review's posted. They probably just never got around to putting up any new ones.