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Tom Sietsema's Online Chat


lizziee
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In today's on line chat by Tom Sietsema, he made the following comment:

Northwest Washington DC: Tom, fill in the blank: D.C.'s next food trend should be _________________?

Tom Sietsema: Desserts that are worth eating.

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I didn't mean to imply that I agreed with Tom Sietsema, just that he must not have sampled some of Steve's desserts.

He most certainly has. He has mentioned them more than once in his reviews and chats. It seems he views them as exceptions to the rule.

Chief Scientist / Amateur Cook

MadVal, Seattle, WA

Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code

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  • 11 months later...

I think some of the chatters have unreasonable expectations. It's as if they expect a "great new find" each and every week. There are just so many restaurants Tom can juggle at the top of his list of favorites. If, for the sake of variety, Tom recommends a lesser restaurant to a chatter, I see that as a disservice to the chatter who will be out spending money.

I think Tom should feel free to simply filter out those complaints from chatters that he doesn't "mix it up enough".

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Here's a fun game:

How many of you are regularly tuned into Tom's live chat and submit questions (that are posted).

Reply to this post if you do.

Maybe someone we know is whining.

The question was about a trend. Something becomes a trend when more than a few people are doing it. I don't think it says a thing about whether he thinks Steve is a trend-setter...

We already know that Steve's desserts rock.

Very analytical reading, I say...

...

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I regularly read Tom's chats but almost never post a question or comment. I do think it is a shame how ridiculously critical some of the posts have been lately - although it really isn't that surprising. There are many people out there who are just looking for something to complain about or as tedwin said - simply have unrealistic expectations. He has been handling them well though.

Some say the glass is half empty, some say the glass is half full, I say, are you going to drink that?

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I read the chats, but never live. The one time I tried to ask a live question (with a different host and subject matter) it never got answered. And I never remember in a timely manner anyway. I generally read the finished product later in the day. If the critics don't like what he's saying; then change the channel. No one is forcing them to participate. I think Tom is remarkably good natured about it all.

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I usually don't have time to read them live but check them out later. Tom could choose not to respond to some of the whiners but I think he does because it can be entertaining to read. I love it when he puts someone in their place. People get hyper-sensitive during those chats sometimes (also on Going Out Gurus)... they really need to calm down and realize that these chats are a privilege. Most other cities have nothing comparable to them!

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I read weekly, usually real-time. I participate occasionally, maybe once a month. This week's Q didn't get answered though (looking for a quick bite/drink Friday before the Jon Stewart show at Constitution Hall, something within walking distance if anyone wants offer ideas).

One a couple months back did get answered though. I don't remember it exactly, but something to the effect of if he ever gave someone a suggestion/recommendation other then (what, in his opinion was) the best recommendation, because he was tired of always recommending the same places over and over. I'd have to dig through his archives for the exact question and his answer.

I asked because Zatinya kept coming up as his answer. Good relatively inexpensive eats downtown? Zatinya. Good Mediterranean? Zatinya. Good vegetarian options? Good deserts? Decor & ambiance? Impress out of towners? Zatinya. Zatinya. Zatinya. Zatinya. Assuming Zatinya is the right answer, which may or may not be the case, would he ever suggest elsewhere to relieve his own boredom? And actually be doing the questioner a disservice?

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"I think some of the chatters have unreasonable expectations."

Some? I see that as a rationale for him doing the chats in the first place--his genuine sense that it's his role to help raise awareness of food, to mention the good guys and gals he comes across, and to help establish what "reasonable" expectations are out there in the first place--as a diner and as a chef. Also, there just might be someone out there who hasn't heard of a Zaytinya or another of his oft-mentioned favorites yet--I get as tired as anyone else but frankly, DC has a few gems, a few special restaurants and chefs when viewed nationally (let alone locally) at different price points and I wouldn't want Tom to hold back. Praise is deserved until such time as it isn't. Praise is what critics trade in. It wouldn't be fair to those still doing it right after all these years otherwise. Of course, other rationales for the chat are to extend his brand, to extend his sphere of influence, which in turn helps sell papers. Let's also not forget he does type things at the spur of the moment--surely an unenviable task--some of which he later must regret. He must cringe reading some off-the-cuff comments he's made in the archives--but we're more entertained because of it.

Plus, it's the "chatters" own fault for not stretching Tom and not asking better questions--but then that shows you what everyone is up against here in DC: the common denominator and that denominator is likely to be just a little less adventurous, a little more conservative, and a little less experienced than what we eGulleteers might consider ideal. And we shouldn't fault Tom for playing to his entire audience: that's his job and I'm not aware of another prominent restaurant critic who has the courage to go online week after week for something like this. (Most critics don't even pretend to care what their readers think--what they think is all that matters.) It's the same with the Post Food section--it may not be the section of your dreams, the section you personally want, written and edited at your level of awareness--but it comes darn close to being the best newspaper food section in the country, week in and week out, for interesting content that works at all levels. Does it still have minor faults? Sure, but against its competition (I also really like what Russ Parsons, Emily Green and Charles Perry have done at the LA Times) the Post (arguably) gets it right more often, in more interesting yet accessible fashion, than anyone else. Plus, the Post has the incomparable renee comet (remember the August tomato? the $100 Cocktail Party?) and a stylish layout which really appeals as well.

Same with Tom--I barely can remember the last review I thought he totally missed the mark on--totally and completely got it wrong--and that was his very first review of Majestic Cafe years ago. He's since rectified that and rightly jumped back on the Lindeborg bandwagon. Otherwise, I just read and nod, and if I have a few quibbles, usually at the high end, they are far fewer than with our legacy of other critics. He's making the right choices, more often, than any other critic we've ever had.

The "chatters" should realize how lucky they are. And babka, right you are--that chat is a two-way street. I like that some sass spills out.

Morela--I've never submitted a question but would, I just never read the chat in real time. I'm always a week or two behind. Tom's been very kind and very receptive toward the stuff I've created around town for Jose. I agree with your analysis 100%--Jose's desserts were very good before he brought me aboard, I think Tom, other writers at the Post, and some national media have (fortunately) noticed the effect I've had--but trendsetter? No, for most it's not ever about trend. I take it that Tom meant, then, and I'm paraphrasing: "Desserts in DC stink and I hope they get a whole lot better. And soon." And I agree with him, though there is talent here. I was lucky Jose gave me the encouragement to stretch a bit but our area--its media and its chefs--has more dessert ground to cover before DC is known for much more than a creme brulee, a slice of some dense Southern-seeming pie or panna cotta (if you've happened across Todd Kliman's very fresh piece in the current CP.) The pastry chef/dessert scene in Chicago, for instance, kicks our butt, but I think pastry chefs are supported better in Chicago than they are here. At least there's some movement dessert-wise here--and Tom has helped create that movement, that awareness, by mentioning the names of pastry chefs in his reviews and his chats more often, by mentioning that pistachio/date/olive oil ice cream dessert at Zaytinya and that oatmeal dessert at Nectar and Valerie's layer cake at Majestic, etc. That raises the bar of awareness. It helps put something in the mind of our diners which I don't think is ordinarily there as they silently accept yet another disappointing dessert. There's more to dessert than a brownie with vanilla ice cream. As a result, I hope more chefs realize dessert isn't the forgotten stepchild and that more diners complain when it seems dessert isn't being integrated into the meal by the chef as well as it should.

Also, remember Tom harped on DC's all-too-perfunctory desserts in print before he even landed the critic's job--back when he was getting nominated for Beard journalism awards (his DC steak piece.) He was right, then, to do so because pastry chefs are devalued here and the desserts around town all too often underwhelm--more so than they do in other first or second tier food cities. I expect you'll see Tom continue to focus on dessert as an integral component of the restaurant experience, and perhaps even realize he has to call more chefs to account for their lackluster dessert performance because the fault ultimately lies with the chef--chefs hold the pursestrings with their staffing, ingredient and equipment purchases, chefs delegate the resources, chefs decide whether to hire a pastry consultant or what to pay a pastry chef, chefs relegate the pastry person to the back corner of the kitchen, on a cutting board, balanced next to the dishwasher, etc.

Quick--who's the pastry chef of Maestro? Citronelle? Cafe 15? Galileo? Colvin Run? the Inn? Marcel's? Vidalia? Don't you think the names of more pastry chefs at destination restaurants should be common currency if we were a top tier food town--as many knowledgeable foodies, including Sietsema himself, argues we are?

(And slarochelle, I appreciate your mentioning Zaytinya and I want you to realize I'm not trying to be reflexively defensive with this--you DO have a good point--and yes, I'm hopelessly subjective about that place--but Zaytinya IS all those things. It's a unique achievement unrivalled on our food scene if not nationally (except also perhaps by Jaleo) and many national voices agree with Tom. It's the kind of place a tour bus could pull up to--as our inimitable DonRocks once joked--and still get serious food at a serious value. And you know what--Rocks is right--Zaytinya can handle 55 people sitting down at once. I hope a critic would feel he's doing a reader a disservice if he allowed his recommendations to be swayed by anything other than merit. Jose has overseen something special at that scale and price point, he's created a system with Jorge Chicas (an incredibly detailed unsung chef) and staff in place to be all those things you mentioned--to most people--most of the time. I hope it doesn't drop off but if and when it does--Tom will be there to notice and how will we most likely find out about the dropoff? That's right, in real time from his chat. And it's not like he doesn't mention his displeasures--like over the lack of reservations at Zaytinya--very often as well.)

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I am ususally following live and have had four or five of my questions posted over the three years.

My questions are normally more geared away from "Where should I go for..." unless it is another city I am askinga bout. (He recommended a place in San Juan that I really enjoyed in response to a question.)

I try and draw more out about larger issues, similar to what we do around here. I think the chats would be more interesting for eGullet types if it focused more on the issues surrounding food and restaurants in DC as opposed to where to get the best... which tends to be repetitive.

Bill Russell

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I am ususally following live and have had four or five of my questions posted over the three years. 

My questions are normally more geared away from "Where should I go for..." unless it is another city I am askinga bout.  (He recommended a place in San Juan that I really enjoyed in response to a question.) 

I try and draw more out about larger issues, similar to what we do around here.  I think the chats would be more interesting for eGullet types if it focused more on the issues surrounding food and restaurants in DC as opposed to where to get the best... which tends to be repetitive.

bilrus,

I agree with your sentiment, but I don't know if we'll be able to get that, in as much as the chat is being done in a time compressed period. It would require more thought, and hence more time, for tom to get into more philosophical/larger theme issues.

I'm sure the "Where to go in ..?" or gossip questions appeal to him because they take so little time to think about and answer and he can please a larger portion of his audience.

Perhaps he'll deign us with an eG audience, so I don't have to say what I think he's thinking, but what he thinks about what I think he's thinking. :wink:

edited to sort out my mind

Edited by JPW (log)

If someone writes a book about restaurants and nobody reads it, will it produce a 10 page thread?

Joe W

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Perhaps he'll deign us with an eG audience, so I don't have to say what I think he's thinking, but what he thinks about what I think he's thinking. :wink:

I know, I know.

He did do a Q and A last summer and i know he has chimed in a few additional times in threads.

Sietsema Q and A

Bill Russell

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I try and draw more out about larger issues, similar to what we do around here.  I think the chats would be more interesting for eGullet types if it focused more on the issues surrounding food and restaurants in DC as opposed to where to get the best... which tends to be repetitive.

I'd imagine eGulleters who read Tom's chats do so regularly or even religiously, but I think these regular readers are in the minority. Otherwise, the same questions would not be repeated. It seems as if most questions come from people who have not read more then a few chats, or can't recall beyond a few weeks ago. With such "transient" readers, there is no history, so us regular readers will see the same similar questions over and over (this applies to a few of the chats I regularly read, not just Tom's).

Occasionally the chats have moved towards the larger issues. Carol Greenwoods inflexibility was one topic that came up leading to a minor eGullet-ish exchange, over a couple session even. But that is in the minority. I think most people just want to know where to have dinner this weekend.

For the rest of us, there is eGullet.

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Thanks for the link bilrus.

I was unaware since that was before I joined, but I'll be sure to take a look now.

edit for spellign dificulltees

Edited by JPW (log)

If someone writes a book about restaurants and nobody reads it, will it produce a 10 page thread?

Joe W

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Some thing I've noticed in his Chats, and which Bilrus mentions above, is the number of times someone asks Tom I'm going to be in London or Paris etc. where should I eat, and the number of people that report back that they had a great meal at the restaurant Tom suggested.

And Steve, I was at Zaytinya last night and everything was spot on. and for a Tuesday night at 7:00pm certainly full. esp. the bar area, where I was eating. Sorry no time or room for dessert (had a curtain call at the Shakepeare Theater).

Finally, although I generally like the Wash Post food section, I wish they would devote more time to chefs and other people in the biz. For instance, the New York Times food section today has a front page article about Chef Morou Ouattara of Signatures and the influence his mom and his upbringing in Africa has on his cooking. Now why is that in the NY Times, that should be in the Wash Post! It seems the Post devotes little time on profiling what goes on behind the scenes, and I think would make a great addition to the section.

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I suspect Tom's not doing this chat to be charitable; almost surely, it's part of his job description at the Post. Speaking of Post, he posts what he wants to post, meaning that it's his decision to air dissenting or hostile viewpoints. In doing so, he comes across as utterly fair and balanced, perhaps to a fault because it's clear that he lets the dogs get him down on occasion. But my impression is that he's a man of high self-confidence, and this is why he's perfectly comfortable (if sometimes cranky) opening up the doors to public criticism. I also think he generally enjoys these chats and takes them quite seriously, and that he's not just showing up waiting for the closing bell to ring.

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It's the same with the Post Food section--it may not be the section of your dreams, the section you personally want, written and edited at your level of awareness--but it comes darn close to being the best newspaper food section in the country, week in and week out, for interesting content that works at all levels.  Does it still have minor faults?  Sure, but against its competition it (arguably) gets it right more often, in more interesting yet accessible fashion, than anyone else.  Plus, the Post has the incomparable renee comet.

This is my first post, so please bear with...

but I could not disagree with you more re: the Post's food section. Every Wednesday I wake up excited to grab the paper and devour the food section and every Wednesday I am thoroughly disappointed by what seems to be more of a grocery circular than a respectable food section. I find myself having to go out for the NY Times, which I consider one of the best newspaper food sections in the country, and I hardly see similarities between the two. I think the Post has a lot of catching up to do.

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I must say, rare is the recipe that I feel tempted to try from the Post food section. They typically devote a whole section to a particular ingredient and then offer three or four recipes with it. If you don't like the ingredient, you might as well toss the whole section in the circular file.

I do consistently read Wolke's physics of food, although he seems to be running out of material as of late. I also read Franz's wine piece, although can never seem to find the wines he recommends.

They really ought to expand the number of restaurant reviews though. One review a week simply is not sufficient for a town this size. We have the Sunday Post magazine, and then a tiny blurb now in the Wednesday section, which is less of a review than a preview.

Edited by 8Track (log)

Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)

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8track--it's two reviews minimum--don't forget Eve Zibart--plus Tom's Dish does sometime function as a half view and Foraging often functions as an informal review as well when its subject is a restaurant. That's a lot. How many weekly reviews do you think are in the NY Times? One full, one cheap eats, and one Diner's Journal (preview.) That's it. I don't often read our local insert sections but it seems there are occasional reviews of restaurants in the Arlington and Fairfax inserts, of neighborhood kind of places that would always fly under the radar of the lead critic anyway. Wolke is a treasure, isn't he? His book is the best in its class as well. To your other comment, I wish wine and "wine with food"--a different subject--was less compartmentalized and allowed to flow into more of the section as a whole. I'd like to see the sommeliers around town given more play--and the chefs who "get" wine given more play. I wish this weren't kept at such arm's length from the rest of the section as it is currently with Franz. (Judith Weinraub won a Beard for her wine writing a few years ago.)

Let me ask you this--which restaurants do you think Sietsema/Zibart have dropped the ball on--anything out there that hasn't been reviewed in a timely fashion, any new opening grievously overlooked, any signifcant upgrade or downgrade which warranted a full re-review that his chats didn't adequately cover? It's not like there is a Firefly or Komi or Matchbox out there in each neighborhood falling through the cracks. If this city is so vital--whose work am I missing?

foodie2501--welcome. You're not the first local resident to disagree with me and not the first one to make the comparison to the NY Times section. I once felt the way you do, but now wonder if that comparison is valid. I view the Times as unique--it has a much larger staff, more money, higher circulation, a much more sophisticated local readership which dines out more often, a true national print readership as well and as a result more resources than anyone else. You'll wait in vain for the Post to catch up to the Times because they're not playing with the same tools or by the same rules. The Times sends Johnny Apple or Amanda Hesser to one foreign destination after another, the Times sends its writers to other US cities to file reports because they are the national paper of record--they cover Philly, Chicago, SF, it was Marian Burros who "outed" the Penn Quarter in the Times as the hot new food scene. (Anyone remember how Tom handled that Burros piece in his chat?) I doubt the Post food writers even have an expense account covering their lunch locally!

I like what the Times, and especially Burros, does, as well as you do. But Judith Weinraub handles the difficult, issue or regulation-driven food stories with as much delicacy and clarity as Burros usually does for the Times, Candy Sagon and Walter Nicholls, the only two other Post food writers, can be very funny, entertaining, devilish writers when the piece calls for it--serious otherwise--but not ever in a way that's too personal or vindictive. You rarely, if ever, discern the personal politics or agenda of the Post food staff, very rarely can you accuse them of not doing their due diligence, as can be apparent with other newspaper food writers. Fact is you (and I, I might add) are probably not in the largest demographic of the Post's readership--we're not recipe-driven home cooks with kids who want a recipe culled and vetted ahead of time or feature stories with recipes--and as a result we're not gonna get all the style, sophistication and edge, perhaps, that we both want. The question is--are we getting enough of this--and is what we're getting "right?" We got Walter Nicholls on the Pacojet before anyone else, we got Weinraub on Jose (written before he won the Beard Best chef Mid-Atlantic) in a way no one has appreciated Jose since Food Arts, we got Nicholls on agar-agar (remember that compelling Fabio photo?) before anyone else, we got Candy Sagon on the Rick Bayless imbroglio in more depth than anyone else. And that's just off the top of my head.

Jeanne McManus, the food editor, addressed some of this when she sat in for an eGullet Q&A, you might like poking around in her archive to see if you accept any of her rationale. He's one topic:

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=6845

As a chef, I also would like to see more coverage of chefs, more coverage of behind the scenes as you say tweaked but I suspect if you compared the percentage of Post stories involving chefs or restaurants it might be just as high as the Times--if you account for "percentage of total stories in the section" and if you also add in Tom's review or Eve Zibart's review which appear elsewhere. There is also less of the "I'm a sophisticated food writer, look at me" preening going on in the Post--to wit the Post would rather feature good stories, and the spare writing of freelancers like local cook-turned-writer Emily Kaiser (6 or 7 pieces in the Post last year--landed a NY Times piece on salt just recently--so someone had an eye for talent.) That's more Jeanne's style. That she gets eGullet in ways no other US newspaper food editor does is, well, just another distinction for her and another bonus for us. Remember the recent in-depth Post piece on eGCI which ran "above the fold?"

DonRocks--fair point about the chat being part of the job description--but someone maintained the chat Richman started as part of the job description, which speaks to overall level of commitment of the paper.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I am new to eGullet (I have been lurking for a few weeks now). I learned about this forum from one of Tom's chats.

Anyway, I feel like people have been really rough on Tom over the last few chats. A year ago, I didn't know anything about the dining scene in DC. Now, after reading Tom's chats religiously, I really feel like I know what's going on. Now, my friends are always asking me where they should go for dinner!

I think that the eGullet forums provide the next step in learning about the dining scene in DC (or any city, probably). Tom does a great job, but he's only one person with one opinion. I like being here and knowing what everyone here has to say about the restaurant where I am planning to dine. This is not to say that I don't still completely look forward to 11 a.m. on Wednesdays!

I don't really know what the complainers are looking for on his chats. I feel like it serves its purpose, and I think Tom does a great job!

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