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Comped Meals - The Question of Ethics


Daniel Rogov
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Two threads have appeared recently about critics/reviewers receiving complementary meals at restaurants. I have no desire to be the moral town crier but the many issues involved in comped meals raise a good many questions.

I can understand and sympathize with the problems caused, especially to those free-lancers who are paid a pittance for their columns and, to add insult to injury, are given far too little or even no budgetary allowance to dine at the places they are expected to review.

The question that arises in such cases as to whether the freelancer is expected to subsidize his/her newspaper or magazine. The answer, alas, in far too many cases, is positive, the problem being that so many people want to write restaurant crits that publications can afford to select those who are most willing to make a cash contribution to hold the job. Unfair, indeed, but a fact of life. After all, too many publishers and editors often take the rather despicable double attitude: (a) why should we pay somebody a good deal of money for doing precisely what it is that he/she wants to do and (b) if you, as the potential critic, do not like the conditions, there are 100 more waiting in line who will be happy to work this way.

And, because many really do want both the work, the pleasure of dining out and the perceived "status" of being a critic whose voice is heard, freelancers do wind up paying. Or, let it be stated more accurately, they wind up paying until they have become well established and valued and who remain freelancers building up a repertoire of publications for which they write or are given a full-time position, fringe benefits and all. Putting it another way – starting out as a free-lancer has something akin to being either an apprentice or a graduate student (i.e. a kind of bonded servitude while working for a hopefully higher status in life). It is though a form of voluntary servitude. No-one is forcing the freelance to do whatever it is that he/she is doing. It is a free choice. And, until one has established him/herself, the vast majority of freelancers have some other form of work and income with which to finance their endeavor.

Despite the economic problems involved, economic pain does not grant a deferment from the moral aspects of what should be honest journalism. Dr Johnson observed that "most journalists have the ethics of monkeys". His observation was as true in the late 18th century as it is today. That does not mean, however that all journalists or all journalistic publications must have a low sense of ethics. All depends on where one wants to go with his/her life.

That there are problems with comped meals is clear, if nothing other than from the psychological point of view that it is difficult to "come down hard" on restaurateurs, chefs and public relations people who have gone out of their way to be nice to you. That is even more true when you are dependent on those people for their "kindnesses". Agreed that well experienced professionals can see through the games that are played and even has counter-games of their own tricks with which to test the mettle of chefs and restaurants both from the culinary and the service side. But again, we return to that nasty psychological double-bind: how do you "kill" people who have been so nice to you?

Among other problems – with comped meals the restaurant often knows precisely when you're going to be there and so can assure that the right people are in the kitchen at the right moment, that you will get the finest cut of sirloin that they have on hand, and that the service will be especially attentive. That is true even for the famous critic who is almost always recognized but believe me, that critic has become famous because he/she has learned to recognize and in some cases "shut out" the special treatment and in others to even go beyond it. As the great Courtine put it so nicely: "If they know I'm there and everything is not perfect it simply proves that they cannot do it perfectly". For the freelancer just starting out, such putting asides and going beyonds may be far more difficult.

Personally, I find attending press meals even more problematic than receiving comped meals, for indeed when a restaurant knows that the critical press is in attendance everything possible is done to ensure that all is done as well as possible. In a sense, when the press is there en masse, all of the stops are pulled out, the normal "red caviar" (trout eggs) is replaced by servuga or oesetra caviar; the "truffle oil" is replaced with truffle shavings; and even the tablecloths have been better ironed before the press arrives. In my opinion, there is simply no honest way in which one can write a serious crit about a restaurant after such a meal.

As to how many times one has to attend a restaurant before writing a crit – sure, I'm all for the good old days when the great Mimi Sheraton was with the New York Times and could dine out at a specific restaurant two-three times with two-three other people before writing a review, but that simply does not happen very much these days. Newspapers and magazines simply do not have that kind of budget. If there were "good-old-days" of that nature, those are long gone. Even the best paid and highest-budgeted critics have a limited amount of disposable cash for their dining adventures and many (even though most of even the most famous critics rarely earn huge salaries) fund a second or third dinner out of their own pocket. As might be said "there just ain't no choice".

Being perfectly honest, there are times when one visit, with two or three other people in tow is quite adequate for writing a review. Exceptions are meals that are exceptionally bad or extraordinarily good, in the first case because of the philosophy that every chef or restaurant should be allowed at least one set of foul-ups and in the second to be sure that it was the food and service that so impressed or whether it was the mood or the company and to check the consistency of level. That may cost the critic some cash but in a way is compensated for because the truly bad meal allows us an opportunity both to laugh at ourselves and a kind of journalistic revenge by sharing our findings with our readers; and in the case of the fine meal because who, after all would want to deprive him/herself of another fine dining experience and then the ability to share our pleasure (perhaps even out-and-out joy) with our readers.

There are rare exceptions for which I find justification for comped meals. One of those is with the person who happens to be a wine critic and is invited to press tastings that are held at fine restaurants. Most of the honest wine critics I know would prefer tastings held not in a restaurant but in a odor-free and well lit tasting room, the only things on the table being the wines to be tasted, some bits of bread, water and napkins. That happens pretty frequently but there are those p.r. companies/wineries/mporters/stores that know that some critics demand (indeed that is the word I want) "better" treatment and thus hold their tastings with or to be followed by a meal. Not ideal wine tastings but that's life and sometimes about the only way many will get to taste a specific set of wines so unavoidable. For the person like myself who is both a restaurant and wine critic, the rule must be never to write a crit about such a meal and that precisely for the reasons given above with press dinners. Such meals can enter the critic's repertoire of knowledge but no more than that, never destined to appear in print.

No question about it – the ideal publication will pay fair wages either to freelancers or to full-time staff members and should cover within reason all expenses for meals, including wines and service. The ideal critic will respect and not abuse that by not inviting too many people to dine, by not ordering the most expensive wines on the menu and by tipping fairly but within local norms. Unfortunately, not too many publications are ideal and not all that many journalists are all that honest. No-one asks that the critic (food, wine, social, theatre, whatever…) to be a saint. What is required is a basic sense of integrity.

Apologies for this too long tome but this is a subject about which I have (obviously) strong feelings.

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That there are problems with comped meals is clear, if nothing other than from the psychological point of view that it is difficult to "come down hard" on restaurateurs, chefs and public relations people who have gone out of their way to be nice to you. 

There are lots of things about journalism that are hard. It's hard, as a reporter, to conduct a face-to-face interview with a person in his or her home, be served coffee, be treated well, meet the family, and then write an expose that you know will rip that family apart. But you write it because the news value outweighs those other considerations. It's hard to travel on a campaign bus with a candidate for months at a time, see that candidate and his or her staff all day every day, go back to your hotel room and write articles critical of them, then see them all again the next day after the paper has come out. But journalists do that. They learn to maintain an arms-length relationship. They don't avoid the campaign bus or avoid doing interviews.

Many types of critics get treated well by those they're covering. Music, theater and book critics get their tickets and books comped routinely even at publications like the New York Times. They get the best seats at performance venues, they get white-glove service from Mercedes when they go to review a new coupe, they have access to expert engineers when they review electronics products. With only a few exceptions, the travel media and wine media are industry subsidized. What primarily distinguishes real from pretend journalism isn't whether those comps are accepted; it's whether the comps result in favoritism.

Rogov, I'm wondering how much of your comment is based on personal experience and how much is speculation. Have you ever accepted a comped meal and then written about it? If not, how do you know it's so hard to write about it honestly? If so, did you not write about it honestly? I accept comped meals and don't feel the need to treat such restaurants any differently than those where money has changed hands. And in my experience publicists are grownups and expect that some comps will result in negative or mixed coverage.

For example, awhile back a publicist named Ben Schmerler -- who occasionally sends me such invitations -- from First Press PR invited me to dine at a new restaurant called Back Forty. I went, my reactions were mixed (most reviews aren't "positive" or "negative" but, rather, contain both positive and negative elements), so I wrote a mixed report. I said some nice things and I said some not nice things, for example "green wheat (like bulgur) with mint and yogurt sauce unfortunately tasted like health food from the 1970s -- overly salty health food." The one eGullet Society member who posted about a meal there, Nathan, seemed to like the place better than I did -- and he paid.

Now I'm pretty sure the owners of the restaurant didn't like reading what I wrote, but so what? I have no particular obligation to them, or to Ben Schmerler. I should note, however, that writing that sort of thing has never had the slightest impact on my relationship with Ben Schmerler. He still invites me to stuff on behalf of his clients, and while he knows I may write negative comments one day he also knows that another day I may love a restaurant and really get out there and champion the place (another of his clients, Toloache, is one of my favorite new restaurants and I've written very nice things about it both online and in print). Any experienced publicist knows that if you invite a bunch of writers to meals you're going to get some negative reactions. Indeed, I've had publicists thank me for making negative comments -- sometimes it turns out that the publicist has been trying to tell the client the same things and is glad for the media support. Some publicists try to argue with you, but it's no big deal -- if you're going to publish your writing you need to be prepared for people to argue with you. Once in a while (though not often), a chef or restaurateur also takes negative comments in stride -- but on the whole chefs and restaurateurs are not good at handling criticism no matter how constructive. Still, the most aggressive comments I've heard from chefs and restaurateurs have been no worse than what I hear all the time from members right here in eG Forums discussions.

with comped meals the restaurant often knows precisely when you're going to be there and so can assure that the right people are in the kitchen at the right moment, that you will get the finest cut of sirloin that they have on hand, and that the service will be especially attentive.

I think the most important point to be made about this issue is that it's a separate issue from the question of comps. Members of the press are recognized all the time, whether they're comped or not. We've had plenty of discussions of anonymity elsewhere, so I won't rehash those arguments here. Comps and non-anonymity are not, moreover, inextricably linked. For example, I have on my desk right now two invitations from restaurants that are in a form that allows anonymity to be preserved during the meal. These two restaurants have sent me what are essentially gift cards good for a free meal. The instructions are to come in, eat, then present the card as payment. I think that's a classy way to do it, but it isn't going to make me more or less likely to write nice things.

Rogov, you began your post by describing the reality of the journalism business. I think, and I'm sure you agree, that we need to take it as a given that publications on the whole are never going to come up with the kinds of budgets needed to do ideal, anonymous, fully financed restaurant reviewing. So that's the baseline. We already know the ideal will never be achieved. So rather than sit around complaining about it, I think it makes the most sense to focus on how to work ethically within that system. My concern isn't that it's impossible or even difficult (compared to any other kind of journalism) to be honest when writing about a restaurant where you've received a comp. My concern is that there are naive, inexperienced writers out there who don't realize you're allowed to be honest in such a situation. We should be focusing on establishing guidelines for journalists who accept comps, explaining to them (and to restaurateurs and publicists) that there's no quid pro quo. That seems to me to be the only realistic approach, given that comps are here to stay.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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As someone pursuing a field (classical music) in which reviewing is also very important, I have always found the food writers' assumptions about the central importance in that field of anonymity and non-acceptance of comps -- even by writers at the very highest levels of achievement -- a bit solipsistic, and naive as to the extent to which other fields have, and deal with, similar influences. It's as though these writers believe that food writing, reviewing and criticism as a class is somehow sui generis and therefore susceptible to far more insidious influence and manipulation than other forms of writing, reviewing and criticism. Somehow, sports writers, art critics, book reviewers, music reviewers, automotive writers, fashion writers, computer writers and audio writers, to name just a few, have managed to do reasonably well over the years (centuries longer than restaurant critics in some cases) despite the fact that they are extensively comped, often receive preferential treatment and specially prepared/vetted samples, and are never anonymous. Indeed, I would argue that these fields are often blessed with an overall higher quality of work when compared to the body of work we have from non-comped anonymous food writers. So, how do they do it?

Yes, it's true that the Metropolitan Opera cannot guarantee that the Times critic will see an exceptional performance, but they can certainly guarantee that he or she has the best free seats in the house, has special access to Metropolitan Opera stars, is invited for free to Metropolitan Opera events, and as any veteran of the opera can tell you, extra-special care is always taken to ensure that the opening performance the critics are attending is the very best the company can offer (for example, it's commonplace for the director to leave town after the first or second performance, and it's also commonplace that a Carmen production featuring Placido Domingo in the first 5 performances will have Cedric Schmengelthorper singing Don Jose in the last 3 performances). These are all ways that the opera company deliberately acts to show the critics their very best possible face, although most if not all of these adjustments benefit other patrons of the opera whereas a food critic can receive more individual preferential treatment.

But it doesn't stop there. The opera critic wants to continue receiving those free opening night tickets. The fashion critic wants to continue receiving those front row invitations to all the fashion shows (about which see recent writing in the NY Times). The art critic wants to continue to be invited to those special previews of all the important shows and exhibitions. The political writer wants to continue to be invited on the campaign bus. The sports writer is unlikely to be barred from the press box, but he wants to continue to have that special access to the most popular and quotable athletes. These things are all vitally important to these writers -- so much so that their relevance, influence, reach and, ultimately, earning power are inextricably linked to having them. A political reporter who finds himself without insider access to political information and without a place in the campaign tour will find himself without much of a job. So there is a very large influence on the political reporter to not burn his relationships. The sports writer who is unable to get those special interviews with the most newsworthy athletes won't find himself writing for the front page article of Sports Illustrated. So there is a very large influence on the sports writer to not come out too hard-hitting against popular, quotable athletes.

And yet, somehow, those negative opera reviews and those hard hitting sports stories and those political exposés continue to be written. Sure, some writers, reviewers and critics are clearly swayed as to what they do or do not write by these various influences. Some are not -- or, at least they do not appear to be unduly influenced. Some writers, reviewers and critics are good and some are not. I would suggest that, if it's possible for a sports writer who is comped tickets to the best seats in the house for every game, who is invited to observe training camp and practice sessions, who is allowed into the locker room, who is granted interviews with team coaches and management and who enjoys insider access to the team's athletes; if it's possible for that sports writer to still file a story about the management's horrible draft, the coach's poor game management, and a player's poor play or disturbing off-the-field behavior -- and this sort of thing happens all the time -- then it's possible for a food writer to respond critically to a restaurant despite having a comped meal or further relationship with the PR company, restaurateur, and/or chef. I don't believe that a good, experienced food writer who is recognized or reviews based on a comped meal should be unduly influenced -- either consciously or unconscoiously -- any more than a good, experiened sports writer would be influenced by his special considerations. Rather, these are things that the good writer should take into consideration. (I would actually argue that the food writer who dines under the assumption that he is anonymous and receives no special treatment is more likely to submit an unduly biased review than one who goes in with his eyes open for a comped meal.)

And, really, it seems silly to me to further the proposition that food writing is so unique and so special and so delicate that it is more susceptible to influence than any other form of writing, reviewing or criticism. Rather, I would suggest that, just like the other fields of interest I have given here as examples, there are food writers who will be influenced by these things and there are food writers who won't be. There are, of course, food writers who may or may not be improperly influenced by any number of things, perhaps entirely unrelated to special treatment by restaurants.

So I would suggest that the elements of discipline, talent, expertise and experience are more important than strict avoidance of the appearance of bias implied by accepting comps or dining non-anonymously. In a perfect, idealized world -- sure, it's nice gravy for the roast. But it's no substitute for underlying substance. I would suggest that accepting comped meals is no more a question of ethics than any one of a myriad of other possible influences or conflicts of interest which are accepted as the practical price of doing business in all these other fields. And I would suggest that the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and we should evaluate the work of food writers, reviewers and critics on the merits of that same work. Personally, I put far more value in the work of certain food writers who are acknowledged industry insiders, with well known faces, who are undoubtedly comped and who undoubtedly receive special treatment, but who nevertheless turn in valuable, critical and informative work over the work of other, supposedly anonymous writers who dine out exclusively on the company dime and nevertheless turn in relatively inferior, uncritical and uninformative work.

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Steven, Hi....

Sorry it took so long to get back to you on this but it's been busy days.

We agree that there is a certain dilemma here. Something akin to wine tasting, for example, when blind tasting helps to eliminate biases caused by labels that may call up good or bad associations. True though that not all tastings can be done blind so I agree with Robert Parker that professionals who are worth their salt should to a great extent be able to put aside whatever preconceptions they may have. The key words there though are "to a great extent". I'd say though that it would be pretty difficult for almost any human critic (as most of us are) to be served a 1996 Krug Brut Champagne and, unless it was outrageously corked, to think anything but of how great the wine is.

Agreed also that in many fields, comps are a norm. There is one huge difference between restaurant and wine criticism and any other form. Whatever form most comps take - theatre, baseball, the opera, the cinema, literary - the subject under observation and criticism is dealt with on a primarily intellectual level that perhaps with a certain overtone of emotion. In food and wine criticism, however, the objects we are criticizing become physically part of our bodies and are therefore dealt with both at the intellectual and the purely physical level. I would propose along with Claude Levi-Strauss that we relate differently to those things that become "part of us" and those things which remain "outside of us"

I do see the economic problem for critics writing for publications that do not give adequate compensation for either their work or their meals (or wines). Again though, the dilemma is that if we are not willing in some way to subsidize our work there are a hundred people waiting in line who would probably even pay for the privilege of being a restaurant or wine critic. Considering that the vast majority of free-lancers writing about food and wine have another means with which to support themselves, that almost seems "fair enough". As the upward striving broker or surgeon must devote unbelievable hours to his/her career, the freelancer is asked (forced?) to sacrifice a certain amount of cash.

We do, by the way, have a certain obligation to restaurateurs, chefs, wineries and winemakers, and that is to be fair. Among our obligations are to do our criticism with thought, hopefully with knowledge, without malice, and with the knowledge that both they and we have the same clients...that is to say, the people who read our columns are the people who patronize their restaurants or purchase their wines. In both cases of course the truest of obligation is to our clients - our readers.

From the personal point of view, I have indeed seen journalists who attend press lunches then write rave reviews and later return for yet another comped meal, somehow expecting the restaurant to "reward" them for their positive review. I think you know what I call that. I do know that if a restaurant critic does that in France he/she can go to prison for up to two years. I'm certainly opposed sending critics to jail for their lapses in ethics but am all for them receiving a handshake goodbye from their editors.

As to anonymity, agreed a long and oft-discussed topic, so just one question - is there any way that a critic. once fairly well-known can fully maintain anonymity and that no matter how generous his/her budgetary allowance?

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Agreed also that in many fields, comps are a norm.  There is one huge difference between restaurant and wine criticism and any other form.  Whatever form most comps take - theatre, baseball, the opera, the cinema, literary - the subject under observation and criticism is dealt with on a primarily intellectual level that perhaps with a certain overtone of emotion.  In food and wine criticism, however, the objects we are criticizing become physically part of our bodies and are therefore dealt with both at the intellectual and the purely physical level.  I would propose along with Claude Levi-Strauss that we relate differently to those things that become "part of us" and those things which remain "outside of us"

This seems to be getting pretty heavily into the realm of philosophy, if you're saying that the primary thing that makes comping matter so much more in restaurant reviewing than all these other fields is that you digest the food and make it "part of you."

Many forms of criticism (certainly criticism of any performing art) involve applying analysis to various physical sensations. In the case of the opera reviewer, the primary sensations are aural and visual (although there are certainly other components, such as the physical sensation of certan powerful tones, etc.) In the case of the food critic, the primary sensations are taste, smell and those associated with digestion. Either way, I don't understand how the fact of digestion tips the balance one way or the other (unless the writer is relying upon the restaurant comps for physical subsistence he otherwise couldn't afford).

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The basis of criticism is philosophy, for if were not there would be no moral imperative for the critic. And if we like, let us also keep in mind that food is the only art form that must be destroyed (that is to say, eaten) in order to be appreciated.*

In the musical, Oklahoma, there is a song "They've gone about as far as they can go".

True, they were referring to Kansas City and we to dining but I guess I too have gone about as far as I can go on this.

*Well, I suppose we could include Jean Tinguely and his self-destroying sculptures in this category but that might be stretching things just a bit

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The basis of criticism is philosophy, for if were not there would be no moral imperative for the critic.

I don't really believe that there is a principle originating inside the critic and compelling him to critique the work of others. I'm happy that there are critics like you out there, but I'd bet almost anything that you are among an infinitesimally small number of restaurant critics who think about their craft this way.

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So it seems, unfortunately, that in the end, this argument always comes down to a battle between those who take comps and defend it, and those who don't, and defend that.

The argument that sports, or opera or theater writers take comps, is irrelevant to restaurant criticism. These writers must cover an event, usually an unduplicatable one. Meals can be duplicated.

Rogov makes the point that criticism has its basis in philosophy. Unfortunately, when it comes to restaurants these days, there are simply too many cheerleaders, many of whom get invited to comped events (and some who do not, of course), and not enough philosophers.

Edited by Miami Danny (log)
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The basis of criticism is philosophy, for if were not there would be no moral imperative for the critic.

I don't really believe that there is a principle originating inside the critic and compelling him to critique the work of others. I'm happy that there are critics like you out there, but I'd bet almost anything that you are among an infinitesimally small number of restaurant critics who think about their craft this way.

While it certainly may be true that "you [Rogov] are among an infinitesimally small number of restaurant critics who think about their craft this way", it is by no means a reason to rejoice.

Edited by Miami Danny (log)
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Only once, when just getting started, did I let a restaurant comp me in return for a review. That was more than 20 years ago. A PR type set it up. I like to remember that I mentioned it in the review, but I am not sure. It happened to be one of the better restaurants in Pennsylvania. It was a great meal, and easy to write favorably about the place, but still I felt dirty. I think (hope) that was the only time. It still bothers me when I think about it.

I ate other free meals when writing for Philadelphia's City Paper. The Book and the Cook meals were free. The only writers I ever noticed paying for The Book and the Cook meals were Philadelphia Inquirer writers. I did see a major NY Times food columist and mate comped during The Book and the Cook. Looking back, since I always wrote a column or two on The Book and the Cook, it would have been better if I had paid for the meals.

During that same period I became personal friends with a chef-owner. Many an evening I would hang out in his kitchen and he would give me bites of this and that - maybe even a full entree that I'd eat, out of the way, on the serving line talking with him as he turned out. That struck me as OK and, along with dinner I got a lot of good inside info on the local restaurant scene. I am not sure if a critic should permit such a friendship with a chef, but I did and would again.

Mea culpas over, I object to comped meals, especially meals to be reviewed. It is not that they necessarily influence the writer. Steven would never sell his integrity for the cost of a meal. Nor would I. There are critics that would. Philadelphia had a couple of legendary freeloaders. Neither was respected by their colleagues or the restaurants that comped them.

That is my objection to comps. Restaurants and publicists think they can influence one's opinion by giving a reviewer free food - that waving a free meal will get the critic to dine at a place that would otherwise remain unvisited.

I don't think any restaurant ever respects a critic it has comped in return for a review. I think critics who don't accept comps and the publications that have no-comp policies - and these are usually a city's major critics and publications - have disdain for critics who expect and accept comps.

I also believe accepting comps is dangerous for the critic - impacting the critic's growth in the industry. Admitting to comps in a review doesn't change that. I don't believe the Philadelphia Inquirer would ever hire a critic who had regularly accepted comps, whether or not they were acknowledged in print.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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So it seems, unfortunately, that in the end, this argument always comes down to a battle between those who take comps and defend it, and those who don't, and defend that.

For the record, I don't write, nor have I ever written reviews of anything.

The argument that sports, or opera or theater writers take comps, is irrelevant to restaurant criticism.  These writers must cover an event, usually an unduplicatable one.  Meals can be duplicated.

Really? That seems a little naive about these businesses. I'm not talking about the one Bruce performance out in the Meadowlands. These are all ongoing businesses. Tell that to the Metropolitan Opera and its dozen or so performances of La bohème every season (the premiere of which is reviewed every year in the NY Times). Tell that to the producers of Cats, which ran for over 6,000 performances and more than 20 years on Broadway -- that's longer than most restaurants, and the "menu" never changed! Tell that the producers of any Broadway show, all of which are designed to run 8 performances a week so long as they can continue filling the house. Tell that to the Atlanta Falcons in the wake of the Michael Vick dogfighting controversy, or the New York Knicks in the wake of yet another forgettable season. Also, consider that by and large, the restaurant critic is reviewing between one and three "performances" or "games" by the restaurant.

The argument, by the way, is not that the situations are directly parallel. But rather that writers in these other fields have equally, if not more powerful reasons to be influenced -- and yet they seem to do pretty well. You think that a single comped meal at a restaurant is going to influence a food writer to go easy on a restaurant more than a season's worth of free seats to the local opera, invitations to the star-filled special events, arranged interviews with international stars appearing in company productions, etc. is going to influence a music critic to go easy on the new production of Rigoletto? Really? You're going to go with that?

And yet, somehow, negative opera reviews happen all the time. What does this mean? Does it mean that professional live opera reviewers are just better and more ethical as a whole than their counterparts in the food world? Are some music critics influenced by these things? Sure, of course they are. Some food writers who dine out on the company dime may be influenced by the fact that they want to screw the good-looking celebrity chef. What's that got to do with the price of tea? There are good, ethical writers who try to do the best they can, and there are bad, unethical writers who don't.

Among the food writers (both online and in print) upon whose work I rely, I'd say that those who dine (supposedly) anonymously and on the company dime are, as a whole, pretty low on my list.

Rogov makes the point that criticism has its basis in philosophy.  Unfortunately, when it comes to restaurants these days, there are simply too many cheerleaders, many of whom get invited to comped events (and some who do not, of course), and not enough philosophers.

Perhaps. But perhaps I just don't think that the guy writing about the merits of the linguini con vongole they're serving at Luigi's, however philosophically informed, is turning out stuff in the same league with Immanuel Kant (or Stendhal, who did the odd bit of criticism).

Mea culpas over, I object to comped meals, especially meals to be reviewed.  It is not that they necessarily influence the writer.  Steven would never sell his integrity for the cost of a meal.  Nor would I.  There are critics that would.  Philadelphia had a couple of legendary freeloaders.  Neither was respected by their colleagues or the restaurants that comped them. 

That is my objection to comps.  Restaurants and publicists think they can influence one's opinion by giving a reviewer free food - that waving a free meal will get the critic to dine at a place that would otherwise remain unvisited. 

I don't think any restaurant ever respects a critic it has comped in return for a review.  I think critics who don't accept comps and the publications that have no-comp policies - and these are usually a city's major critics and publications - have disdain for critics who expect and accept comps.

So, if I get this right: Your objection to food writers accepting comped meals is not that you think the fact of the comp would necessarily influence the writers' opinions (any more than other things might), but because you don't think it looks good?

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I just don't think that the guy writing about the merits of the linguini con vongole they're serving at Luigi's, however philosophically informed, is turning out stuff in the same league with Immanuel Kant (or Stendhal, who did the odd bit of criticism).

We are most definitely agreed on your point. I wouldn't even think of suggesting such a thing. What I am saying. among other things, is that it might not do any harm if we thought of Kant, Rousseau or John Rawls as setting a scene for ethical behavior.

I am also saying that (at least to me) critics in any field who have not a philosophical thought in their heads as they sit down at their computers (or with their ball point pens) to influence public decision making and inspire public thought and debate might do well to find another profession.

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Mea culpas over, I object to comped meals, especially meals to be reviewed.  It is not that they necessarily influence the writer.  Steven would never sell his integrity for the cost of a meal.  Nor would I.  There are critics that would.  Philadelphia had a couple of legendary freeloaders.  Neither was respected by their colleagues or the restaurants that comped them. 

That is my objection to comps.  Restaurants and publicists think they can influence one's opinion by giving a reviewer free food - that waving a free meal will get the critic to dine at a place that would otherwise remain unvisited. 

I don't think any restaurant ever respects a critic it has comped in return for a review.  I think critics who don't accept comps and the publications that have no-comp policies - and these are usually a city's major critics and publications - have disdain for critics who expect and accept comps.

So, if I get this right: Your objection to food writers accepting comped meals is not that you think the fact of the comp would necessarily influence the writers' opinions (any more than other things might), but because you don't think it looks good?

Maybe iddy, biddy right Sam.

My personal objection, were I still writing reviews, would be to have restaurants and publicists thinking they can buy me for the cost of a meal. It doesn't matter whether I were to write positively or negatively or a combination of both about a place. If I would not be there to write about them if they had not comped me, then they are buying my presence. That is a problem for me both in my desired self perception and the way I want others to see me.

As to "looking good" I am relating that to a critic's career. Many paths are open, but if one's goal is to write reviews for the NY Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer or many other of the major city daily's, a reputation for accepting comps in return for reviewing restaurants will likely remove one from consideration.

"Looking good" also refers to the respect of one's peers. Both restaurant writers and restaurant owners and staff. In portions of those groups, regularly accepting comps for reviews, brands a scarlet dollar sign across one's forehead.

"Looking good" to the public is a mixed bag. I think much of the public, including many of the "food aware" have no idea of a restaurant reviewer's ethical considerations. I could dine monthly at Daniel if I had a dollar for every person who has said to me, "I wish I had your job, getting all those free meals at restaurants." Many, if not most people, believe comps to be a fringe benefit of restaurant reviewing.

In today's media, that could change with a headline. Some slow news day, an investigative reporter decides to do an expose on all the free meals given by restaurants to restaurant writers. That could easily ruin careers.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

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Interesting, Holly.

What I get is that you're making the case that accepting comps hurts (or can hurt) the writer's reputation among his peers in the media and the restaurant community -- but not that accepting comps necessarily compromises the ethical integrity of the reviews or creates a situation in which the reviewer is necessarily unduly biased in making his critical comments?

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So it seems, unfortunately, that in the end, this argument always comes down to a battle between those who take comps and defend it, and those who don't, and defend that.

For the record, I don't write, nor have I ever written reviews of anything.

The argument that sports, or opera or theater writers take comps, is irrelevant to restaurant criticism.  These writers must cover an event, usually an unduplicatable one.  Meals can be duplicated.

Really? That seems a little naive about these businesses. I'm not talking about the one Bruce performance out in the Meadowlands. These are all ongoing businesses. Tell that to the Metropolitan Opera and its dozen or so performances of La bohème every season (the premiere of which is reviewed every year in the NY Times). Tell that to the producers of Cats, which ran for over 6,000 performances and more than 20 years on Broadway -- that's longer than most restaurants, and the "menu" never changed! Tell that the producers of any Broadway show, all of which are designed to run 8 performances a week so long as they can continue filling the house. Tell that to the Atlanta Falcons in the wake of the Michael Vick dogfighting controversy, or the New York Knicks in the wake of yet another forgettable season. Also, consider that by and large, the restaurant critic is reviewing between one and three "performances" or "games" by the restaurant.

The argument, by the way, is not that the situations are directly parallel. But rather that writers in these other fields have equally, if not more powerful reasons to be influenced -- and yet they seem to do pretty well. You think that a single comped meal at a restaurant is going to influence a food writer to go easy on a restaurant more than a season's worth of free seats to the local opera, invitations to the star-filled special events, arranged interviews with international stars appearing in company productions, etc. is going to influence a music critic to go easy on the new production of Rigoletto? Really? You're going to go with that?

And yet, somehow, negative opera reviews happen all the time. What does this mean? Does it mean that professional live opera reviewers are just better and more ethical as a whole than their counterparts in the food world? Are some music critics influenced by these things? Sure, of course they are. Some food writers who dine out on the company dime may be influenced by the fact that they want to screw the good-looking celebrity chef. What's that got to do with the price of tea? There are good, ethical writers who try to do the best they can, and there are bad, unethical writers who don't.

Among the food writers (both online and in print) upon whose work I rely, I'd say that those who dine (supposedly) anonymously and on the company dime are, as a whole, pretty low on my list.

Rogov makes the point that criticism has its basis in philosophy.  Unfortunately, when it comes to restaurants these days, there are simply too many cheerleaders, many of whom get invited to comped events (and some who do not, of course), and not enough philosophers.

Perhaps. But perhaps I just don't think that the guy writing about the merits of the linguini con vongole they're serving at Luigi's, however philosophically informed, is turning out stuff in the same league with Immanuel Kant (or Stendhal, who did the odd bit of criticism).

Mea culpas over, I object to comped meals, especially meals to be reviewed.  It is not that they necessarily influence the writer.  Steven would never sell his integrity for the cost of a meal.  Nor would I.   There are critics that would.  Philadelphia had a couple of legendary freeloaders.  Neither was respected by their colleagues or the restaurants that comped them. 

That is my objection to comps.  Restaurants and publicists think they can influence one's opinion by giving a reviewer free food - that waving a free meal will get the critic to dine at a place that would otherwise remain unvisited. 

I don't think any restaurant ever respects a critic it has comped in return for a review.  I think critics who don't accept comps and the publications that have no-comp policies - and these are usually a city's major critics and publications - have disdain for critics who expect and accept comps.

So, if I get this right: Your objection to food writers accepting comped meals is not that you think the fact of the comp would necessarily influence the writers' opinions (any more than other things might), but because you don't think it looks good?

"Opera Premiere". Only happens once. 'Cats' was not reviewed over the course of its run, with several performances over several months being examined, but during previews or at its premiere. Each baseball game, etc., is a separate event. And reporters are not there to 'review' the game, but to report on the results, probably more than 99% of the time. They also must do interviews in the clubhouse with players and team officials. Access is essential.

Who are these people who get comped meals and then write about them? The so-called blogosphere is littered with them. These are people we know, and understand that their critical judgement may, in fact, be swayed by the royal treatment. Just like in any other critical profession. Does it happen every single time? Probably not. But does it happen every now and then? Of course. To say otherwise would be ludicrous-just as in any other critical realm. But perhaps we expect so little from our restaurant critics because we understand this (as you stated above about the 'linguini'), and that is why the state of restaurant criticism today is so dreary, and we accept so much mediocrity.

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Interesting, Holly.

What I get is that you're making the case that accepting comps hurts (or can hurt) the writer's reputation among his peers in the media and the restaurant community -- but not that accepting comps necessarily compromises the ethical integrity of the reviews or creates a situation in which the reviewer is necessarily unduly biased in making his critical comments?

I think that is a personal decision, Sam. It would be a violation of my ethics to accept a comp to review a restaurant.

I do believe that restaurant critics can write reviews of comped meals without having the free meal influence what they write. But that does not mean the act is ethical. Or unethical.

There is no generally accepted standards of professional ethics for restaurant critics. In such a situation, I suggest that ethics for a restaurant reviewer are a combination of one's personal ethics and the perceptions and expectations of one's peers.

So far this discussion has been about the ethics of a restaurant critic accepting a comped meal. What about the ethics of a restaurateur who comps reviewers?

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

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Let's examine this. . .

"Opera Premiere".  Only happens once.

Dinner at a restaurant only happens once.

'Cats' was not reviewed over the course of its run, with several performances over several months being examined, but during previews or at its premiere.

Most restaurants are never reviewed by the same critic more than once, and most of the time based on only one or two visits. You are also not correct that theatrical shows or opera productions are never re-reviewed. For example, it is fairly commonplace for a newspaper to run a second review of an operatic production if there is a noteworthy change in the cast that would be of special interest (just like re-reviewing a restaurant after an especially noteworthy change of chef). It is also somewhat common to re-visit long-running musical theater shows after several years have gone by. Keep in mind that the "menu" (songs, staging, costumes, many of the same performers, etc.) at Cats never changed, so there was actually less need for a revisit compared to a restaurant's evolution after a year or more.

Each baseball game, etc., is  a separate event.  And reporters are not there to 'review' the game, but to report on the results, probably more than 99% of the time.  They also must do interviews in the clubhouse with players and team officials.  Access is essential.

Each meal is a separate event as well, although that's not most of my point here. My point is that a sports writer who enjoys special access to players and team officials (and the attendant career benefits) has a strong influence to not write anything negative about that team and those players. Why? Because if he does, he may find that special access cut off or given to a competing writer. This is especially true of beat writers who cover a single team or a single city's teams. If that team and its players cut you off, it's not like you can write about the team down the block. You might have to leave town and start over. In contrast, a food writer can always go on to the next restaurant down the block if he burns himself with one. It seems obvious that these are much more compelling reasons for the sports writer to be influenced to go easy on a team or a player than receiving a comp from a restaurant might influence a food writer to go easy on a restaurant. And yet, as I have pointed out, sports writers do hard-hitting and critical stories on teams and players all the time.

So, here we have the evidence that sports writers, who have much more powerful reasons to compromise their ethics in favor of a team or certain players, seem nevertheless to be able to make ethically uncompromised critical comments about these same teams and players. Indeed, this is the norm in the field. And yet, you and others are arguing that food writers, based on the comp of a single meal at a single restaurant, would be unable to do the same. What conclusion are we to draw here? That food writers aren't as good, or are somehow morally and ethically weaker than sports writers?

Who are these people who get comped meals and then write about them?  The so-called blogosphere is littered with them.  These are people we know, and understand that their critical judgement may, in fact, be swayed by the royal treatment.  Just like in any other critical profession.  Does it happen every single time?  Probably not.  But does it happen every now and then?  Of course.  To say otherwise would be ludicrous-just as in any other critical realm.

You say this as though the quality of food writing coming from "company dime" salaried writers is categorically better than the quality of food writing coming from comped freelance writers. I disagree. There is good and bad to be found in both groups. As I said before, there are any number of comped freelance food writers whose writing and judgement I value over that of most any "company dime" salaried writers. So I think you're off-base to suggest that it's comps that are reducing the value of food writing. If so, what is the explanation for the overall poor state of the writing we are getting from "company dime" salaried writers?

Of course, there are comped freelance writers who may be swayed by "royal treatment," which you seem to equate with comping (I would suggest that salaried "company dime" writers are much more likely to receive special treatment than any comped freelancer -- and candid reports from restaurateurs tend to support my suggestion). But my larger point is that a critical writer or reviewer has any number of potential outside influences that may sway his writing in one direction or the other. A skilled ethical writer tries to account for these potential influences and mitigate them to the greatest extent possible; a less skilled or ethical writer may be less willing or able to do so. What I don't see is that comping necessarily equates an unmitigatable influence and ethical conflict that stands head and shoulders above all other potential influences and ethical conflicts. For every writer who is unable or unwilling to consciously consider and mitigate the potential influence and ethical conflict inherent in accepting a comp, there are any number of writers who are unable or unwilling to consider and mitigate the potential influence and ethical conflict inherent in the fact that they want to screw the head waiter, or admire the restaurateur, or want a certain kind of restaurant to succeed, or don't like pasta, or feel that the chef/restaurateur has "dissed" the town's restaurant culture, or were likely recognized by the restaurant staff, or were in a bad mood that day, or were reviewing the restaurant of a major advertiser, or didn't really understand a particular style or restaurant/cuisine, etc.

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So, here's a question: How many restaurant reviewing jobs are out there where the employer pays for all of the writers meals? Let's just make a ballpark guess for the entire United States. 25 jobs? Maybe? I happen to know, by the way, that certain NYC papers do not pay for the writers' meals. So don't assume that every regular newspaper restaurant writer is eating out on the company dime.

So, absent of comps, how are we going to get new food writers -- especially writers who have any familiarity with, and basis to write critically about the more exalted (and expensive) styles of cuisine? I guess the prospective writer has to be rich and pay for all these things out of his own pocket? Work his way up from writing about Ray's Pizza to Alain Ducasse somehow? Has that ever happened? Or, is it more likely that newspapers will do what the NY Times has done in recent years, and bring over a writer from some other discipline as their new restaurant critic? Because, you know, that's really been great for the quality of food writing in this town.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Let's examine this. . .
"Opera Premiere".  Only happens once.

Dinner at a restaurant only happens once.

'Cats' was not reviewed over the course of its run, with several performances over several months being examined, but during previews or at its premiere.

Most restaurants are never reviewed by the same critic more than once, and most of the time based on only one or two visits. You are also not correct that theatrical shows or opera productions are never re-reviewed. For example, it is fairly commonplace for a newspaper to run a second review of an operatic production if there is a noteworthy change in the cast that would be of special interest (just like re-reviewing a restaurant after an especially noteworthy change of chef). It is also somewhat common to re-visit long-running musical theater shows after several years have gone by. Keep in mind that the "menu" (songs, staging, costumes, many of the same performers, etc.) at Cats never changed, so there was actually less need for a revisit compared to a restaurant's evolution after a year or more.

Each baseball game, etc., is  a separate event.  And reporters are not there to 'review' the game, but to report on the results, probably more than 99% of the time.  They also must do interviews in the clubhouse with players and team officials.  Access is essential.

Each meal is a separate event as well, although that's not most of my point here. My point is that a sports writer who enjoys special access to players and team officials (and the attendant career benefits) has a strong influence to not write anything negative about that team and those players. Why? Because if he does, he may find that special access cut off or given to a competing writer. This is especially true of beat writers who cover a single team or a single city's teams. If that team and its players cut you off, it's not like you can write about the team down the block. You might have to leave town and start over. In contrast, a food writer can always go on to the next restaurant down the block if he burns himself with one. It seems obvious that these are much more compelling reasons for the sports writer to be influenced to go easy on a team or a player than receiving a comp from a restaurant might influence a food writer to go easy on a restaurant. And yet, as I have pointed out, sports writers do hard-hitting and critical stories on teams and players all the time.

So, here we have the evidence that sports writers, who have much more powerful reasons to compromise their ethics in favor of a team or certain players, seem nevertheless to be able to make ethically uncompromised critical comments about these same teams and players. Indeed, this is the norm in the field. And yet, you and others are arguing that food writers, based on the comp of a single meal at a single restaurant, would be unable to do the same. What conclusion are we to draw here? That food writers aren't as good, or are somehow morally and ethically weaker than sports writers?

Who are these people who get comped meals and then write about them?  The so-called blogosphere is littered with them.  These are people we know, and understand that their critical judgement may, in fact, be swayed by the royal treatment.  Just like in any other critical profession.  Does it happen every single time?  Probably not.  But does it happen every now and then?  Of course.  To say otherwise would be ludicrous-just as in any other critical realm.

You say this as though the quality of food writing coming from "company dime" salaried writers is categorically better than the quality of food writing coming from comped freelance writers. I disagree. There is good and bad to be found in both groups. As I said before, there are any number of comped freelance food writers whose writing and judgement I value over that of most any "company dime" salaried writers. So I think you're off-base to suggest that it's comps that are reducing the value of food writing. If so, what is the explanation for the overall poor state of the writing we are getting from "company dime" salaried writers?

Of course, there are comped freelance writers who may be swayed by "royal treatment," which you seem to equate with comping (I would suggest that salaried "company dime" writers are much more likely to receive special treatment than any comped freelancer -- and candid reports from restaurateurs tend to support my suggestion). But my larger point is that a critical writer or reviewer has any number of potential outside influences that may sway his writing in one direction or the other. A skilled ethical writer tries to account for these potential influences and mitigate them to the greatest extent possible; a less skilled or ethical writer may be less willing or able to do so. What I don't see is that comping necessarily equates an unmitigatable influence and ethical conflict that stands head and shoulders above all other potential influences and ethical conflicts. For every writer who is unable or unwilling to consciously consider and mitigate the potential influence and ethical conflict inherent in accepting a comp, there are any number of writers who are unable or unwilling to consider and mitigate the potential influence and ethical conflict inherent in the fact that they want to screw the head waiter, or admire the restaurateur, or want a certain kind of restaurant to succeed, or don't like pasta, or feel that the chef/restaurateur has "dissed" the town's restaurant culture, or were likely recognized by the restaurant staff, or were in a bad mood that day, or were reviewing the restaurant of a major advertiser, or didn't really understand a particular style or restaurant/cuisine, etc.

Sportswriters are completely influenced by their treatment! Why do you think it takes years for imortant sports stories to break? And that they never seem to be broken by the sportswriters themselves (steroids and Michael Vick are the two most recent examples). Comps influence writers of ALL stripes, that is my point.

It is not the freebie alone, of course, that has led us to the dismal affair we currently face; but the lowering of ethical standards until there are none at all has certainly not helped. (Are you in favor of doing away completely with ethical standards, my friend? Or are there some that, while quaint, you might prefer to hang on to?) I would also say that categorically, sportswriters (and the fans themselves, probably, as well), are some of the most knowledgable about their field. Food writers, and their cohort, for the most part, as a pithy blogger might say, 'not so much'.

Edited by Miami Danny (log)
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Danny, the point that I am making is that there are myriad influences and ethical dilemmas that a writer may face. To focus on comps as though accepting a comp somehow breaks a writer's ethical cherry seems silly to me. And, as a performing artist, I have to say that all of my colleagues laugh and laugh and laugh when they hear that foodies and food writers believe that accepting a comp unduly influences a writer to go easy on the restaurant. Comping is standard in the theater -- so much so that some larger companies actually hold back a certain number of prime seats every night and have a person standing at the entrance, ready to hand those comps to any writer or music-world notable who might just happen by without a ticket. And yet, bad reviews happen all the time. Really bad ones, sometimes. Do some reviewers always give positive reviews because they want to keep on getting invited? Sure. But plenty don't. And the number isn't any greater than those who, for example, always give a great review to the hunky baritone who is often staged shirtless. Theatrical companies know that it's a risk -- they might get a great review/they might get panned. But it's a risk they know they have to take, because they want a review. So they comp the critics anyway. And everyone understands that the critic is not beholden to the company for the comp.

So, what I am suggesting is that it's silly to focus on comping as the Great Satan of restaurant criticism and reviewing. If the writing isn't generally very good, comps are pretty low on the list. And, frankly, if food writers were more skilled and and more ethical to begin with, comps wouldn't be a problem. And, again I toss down the gauntlet that no one has been brave enough to pick up: Taken as a group, the salaried "company dime" food writers aren't very good; and one can find a larger number of comped freelance food writers who are better than the salaried "company dime" food writer. This seems like a strong indication to me that it's not comps and the notion of "anonymity" that we should be worried about. I'd trade comps and notional anonymity for experience, knowledge, enthusiasm, a critical eye and something to say any day of the week. I would also suggest that, if some food writers write glowing reviews based on receiving a comp or attending a press preview, it's more a question of experience and skill than it is ethics.

ETA: If, as you suggest, sportwriters are on the whole more experienced and knowledgeable in their field than food writers (something with which I would agree), how do you suggest that food writers gain this experience and knowledge if not with comps? Should newspapers have "young food writing talent development" programs, where they pay for meals on behalf of food-writing trainees? Right, that'll happen. Or will food writers have to be drawn from the ranks of the wealthy, who could afford to educate themselves? Former restaurateurs or restaurant workers are out, of course, because they would have to many biases and connections for you. So who?

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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let us also keep in mind that food is the only art form that must be destroyed (that is to say, eaten) in order to be appreciated.

I've been mulling over this statement, without eating or destroying it, for a bit and I just can't see why this destroyed/not-destroyed distinction matters in any way at all. I'm all for getting at the philosophical underpinnings of the theories behind criticism -- this is a particularly rich realm when it comes to literary criticism -- but who cares that the food gets consumed? So if I go to a wine tasting and spit the wine instead of swallowing it, I've made a philosophical distinction? If I chew and spit my food instead of consuming it, I've made a philosophical distinction? I think it's possible to come up with rhetoric about how when you consume food it becomes a part of you, integrated with your being, you are what you eat, etc., but I think those comments are meaningless in the context of comparing food criticism to other forms of criticism.

Rather, I think if there is a theoretical distinction to be drawn, it's between those who see food criticism as a form of arts criticism and those who see it as a form of consumer protection. If food criticism is a form of arts criticism, the issue of comps is pretty much moot. If food criticism is about consumer protection, it may indeed make sense to follow the Consumer Reports model where the publication pays for everything no matter what, as a means of establishing a true arms-length relationship with the industry under review. However, I'd also point out that every publication I know of except for Consumer Reports fails that test miserably. Because if you're going to have a true arms-length system, you need to do everything Consumer Reports does: you need to be entirely reader supported and have no advertising, and you need to pay for everything -- not just meals but cars, computers and everything else you review.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Here's a theoretical question: Suppose the New York Times and all the other newspapers and magazines in the NYC area declared: We're not paying for the meals we review any more. From now on, the industry standard is going to be that our reviewers are comped and make reservations under their own name. Our expectations is that our writers will not be given inordinate special treatment, and our writers will be on the lookout for such treatment and adjust their reviews accordingly.

Does anyone suppose that there would be a drastic lowering of the quality of NYC restaurant reviews?

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I just don't think that the guy writing about the merits of the linguini con vongole they're serving at Luigi's, however philosophically informed, is turning out stuff in the same league with Immanuel Kant (or Stendhal, who did the odd bit of criticism).

We are most definitely agreed on your point. I wouldn't even think of suggesting such a thing. What I am saying. among other things, is that it might not do any harm if we thought of Kant, Rousseau or John Rawls as setting a scene for ethical behavior.

I am also saying that (at least to me) critics in any field who have not a philosophical thought in their heads as they sit down at their computers (or with their ball point pens) to influence public decision making and inspire public thought and debate might do well to find another profession.

Since I agree with you, I'd like your imput on the following question:

Can food critics be wrong? Can the clueless masses (of which I am one) be right? I would like to cite the following examples from art history: Ruskin had a really hard time with some of Whistler's stuff and-as you know-the critics hated Impressionism when it first burst on the art- scene. If this is off-topic, please let me know :unsure:

"As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex.Except for salami and eggs...Now that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced"--Alan King (1927-2004)

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So, here's a question:  How many restaurant reviewing jobs are out there where the employer pays for all of the writers meals?  Let's just make a ballpark guess for the entire United States.  25 jobs?  Maybe?  I happen to know, by the way, that certain NYC papers do not pay for the writers' meals.  So don't assume that every regular newspaper restaurant writer is eating out on the company dime.

So, absent of comps, how are we going to get new food writers -- especially writers who have any familiarity with, and basis to write critically about the more exalted (and expensive) styles of cuisine?  I guess the prospective writer has to be rich and pay for all these things out of his own pocket?  Work his way up from writing about Ray's Pizza to Alain Ducasse somehow?  Has that ever happened?  Or, is it more likely that newspapers will do what the NY Times has done in recent years, and bring over a writer from some other discipline as their new restaurant critic?  Because, you know, that's really been great for the quality of food writing in this town.

My guess would be at least hundreds if not thousands of publications pay for reviewing meals. Unless things have changed, in Philadelphia alone, the Inquirer, the Daily News, Philadelphia Magazine, the City Paper and I'm guessing the Philadelphia Weekly all pay for reviewing meals.

Food writers don't have to review restaurants to get started. One could suggest that the reading public would be better served if aspiring critics wrote about other aspects of food and restaurants - growers, chef's, dishwashers, a day in the life of a kitchen and such where no dollar outlay is required. Might even make them better, more knowledgeable and more well rounded critics.

A great Ducasse article would be the an apprentice's first day in his kitchen. No cost of a meal there.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

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