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Compromised food critics


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Simon wrote:

If on the other hand you told us that Gotham ( right person?) was the most wonderful restaurant on earth and we would all be saps, suckers and ne'er do wells if we didn't go there, just because Tom was nice to you, then that would be unforgivable

Gotham is Alfred.  Anyway, here (and I'm essentially agreeing with you and Shaw) is a hard situation to imagine:  I recommend you go to a restaurant that I know to be lousy just because the owner did me a favor or is my pal.

Wouldn't it be more likely that I would convince myself that the lousy restaurant is good because the restaurateur is my friend, and then recommend a bad restaurant with the best of intentions?  I think Shaw is right that some people are better at avoiding this kind of psychological misfire than others, but I'll bet every one of us thinks he is the good kind.  We can't all be right, can we?

Ethics guidelines aren't there to prevent bad people from doing bad things.  They'll do that anyway.  They're there to restrain certain impulses that lie in all of us (present company excepted, of course).

That said, the idea that Shaw should have turned down the opportunity to do his Beard-nominated Gramercy Tavern series because he was a working restaurant critic is insane.  Maybe it should probably disqualify him from then writing a traditional review of the place, but I doubt he had any interest in doing that anyway.

As for me, I have a clear picture of what I want my reviews to accomplish.  I review the kind of place that you, time-pressed food-obsessed reader, drive past and wonder whether it's worth laying out for lunch there.  If you read my reviews regularly, you probably know that I like spicy food, like having my water glass full, am willing to try the weirdest thing on the menu so I can make a joke about it, and various other quirks.  Add this in with the review and you'll decide whether to go or not.

But my job is so easy.  There's almost no chance that someone at one of these places is going to recognize me, and often they have such a dedicated neighborhood clientele that they wouldn't care if they did.  And if someone decides to spring for dinner at one of my Neighborhood Deal joints, they're out maybe $30, max.  The lead reviewer, who does the big-ticket restaurants, has a much more complicated task, one I don't envy her, and a mission much less well defined.

Hey, Shaw, is your Last Days of Lespinasse piece still on fat-guy.com?  I couldn't find it.  That was a seriously great piece of restaurant criticism with all its prejudices hanging out.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Matthew--the better, tougher question is ethically and professionally should Shaw be able to write the Gramercy Tavern piece (or personal profile pieces like it) IF he was also the lead restaurant critic of the leading newspaper in town?

Is this a proper definition and restriction of the form--that Russ Parsons was talking about previously as to why a columnist's gig was better than the more restrictive restaurant reviewer's beat?

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Steve, that is a better and tougher question, one which I will clumsily dodge.

I don't want to read back over the whole thread, but I think it was you, Steve K, who argued that the paper would do well to have a single person under Consumers Unionesque restrictions, and I am swayed by this argument for the reasons outlined above:  that ethical lapses mislead the public and hurt the paper's reputation, and ethical lapses are caused less by bad people and more by bad situations.

On the other hand, I think these restrictions make the restaurant critic's job as annoying as a job can be when someone else is picking up your dinner tab.  "I've got a great idea for a story!" the critic might say to himself.  "A week in the kitchen at--damn, can't do THAT story."  So I'm also swayed by the other side of the argument, which I'll attribute to Shaw, that says that critics fenced in by such tough standards produce neither good criticism nor good writing.

And I do think there's a difference between restaurant criticism and Consumer Reports.  I would call it extremely unethical if an editor at CR were to form an outside relationship with an auto executive.  The public derives an important service from knowing that CR can't be bought.  (Whether this is true is another issue, probably one that will come up.  I believe CR has largely earned the public's trust, although not their restaurant reviews.)  Is it necessary to hold a restaurant critic to the same standard?

We've also drawn parallels with movie critics, and my favorite, Roger Ebert, provides a good example.  Ebert loves to pal around with movie stars.  He chats up studio execs.  And at the same time, he makes no secret of his prejudices, and he does give negative, often scathingly negative, reviews ("I hated, hated, hated this movie," etc).  You could argue that Ebert is an unusually ethical person (doubt it) or that freed from the traditional critic's restrictions, his reviews become paradoxically more valuable.

I don't know the answer.  Is that obvious enough?

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Great answer and only moderately a dodge.  I hear what you're saying.  I, too, have mentioned Ebert as a wonderful critic--capable of tossing off weekly thumbs-up or down sound bytes as well as deep, reflective intellectual long form pieces.  Stephen Hunter as well in the Washington Post--though no one straddles the high and low brow divide as well as Ebert.

I don't believe he accepts junkets and perks however and in any event, he is but one critic, one voice--albeit a significant voice--but in one city.  His negative review of a film would in a much smaller way--and possibly no way at all--hinder that film's possible success nationally.  The negative review of a new restaurant by the lead restaurant critic of a newspaper can have chilling negative financial repercussions on alot of lives--hardworking waiters and line cooks and dishwashers as well as the ownership group.  There is no Siskel or Roeper or whomever to the Ebert in this case.

Shaw argues for anarchy--rethinking how we approach restaurants--a virtual overhaul of the entire system and I find I am ultimately in agreement with him.  As long as such an overhaul completely reorders and de-emphasizes the current value of the restaurant review--the star ranking--in the eyes of the public--and places value instead in more serious, less-restrained forms.  Until Steve Plotnicki stops caring how many stars a new restaurant gets in the Times.

Until that anarchy, though, this is why I'm a minority voice here arguing for stricter ethics and avoiding the appearance of impropriety and avoiding a Bauer-like situation in SF. (Presumed Bauer-like--I haven't read a reply from Russ regarding the questions Steve Shaw and I asked.) Cooking--especially in a new restaurant--is just too local and too subject to petty personal politics, much more so than a film released nationally.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Consumer Reports has come up often as an analogy, so I think it might be worth dwelling for a moment on an area in which the Consumer Reports methodology fails as emphatically as Zagat's: Food. Consumer Reports is great at evaluating dishwashers and other products where numerical measurements can be made and side-by-side comparisons are relatively revealing. When it comes to cars, the evaluations are still pretty good assuming you want a car that is practical above all other things (there is little appreciation for connoisseur cars that may not work as well or last as long as a Camry but are way cooler). But the food-product ratings in Consumer Reports are a laugh riot. They're not even set up well, no less performed with any modicum of taste or expertise. The point being, when you evaluate food, you need something more than a survey, and more than a committee. You need a voice.

Critics may have power. I don't know how much. Some restaurants seem unaffected by negative reviews in the New York Times, while others have fired chefs on account of negative reviews (which only proves that someone believes the review has power; it doesn't prove power). But remember, ethical restrictions are not a substitute for taste. A reviewer with bad judgment will marginalize himself in the public eye quicker than any panel of ethicists ever could.

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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A reviewer with bad judgment will marginalize himself in the public eye

My guess is not always. I think it's possible to be quoted as an expert by the majority of the population just because you write for a journal that carries some authoritative establishment weight. I don't think the dining public is all that discriminating, at least not in NYC. Some critics may be quoted more often and in loftier circles, but that's about it.

While a bad review has left some restaurants unscathed and cost chefs their jobs in others can be attributed to a number of things and it's hard to say if it's the food or the criticism. It's true that a restaurant with an established following is less likely to be hurt than one that's just opened.

I actually started to write, because of the Consumer Reports methodology comments. A parody of Consumer Reports rating the top haute cuisine restaurants in NYC would be amusing. I suppose you'd start by trying to order the most similar dishes and weighing the foie gras and dividing the weight by the price to determine value. I'd expect a line noting how soon the panel members suffered hunger pangs after a three course menu and a tasting menu at each establishment. I have no idea how they'd rate the speed with which your courses were delivered or how long they'd let you occupy a table and if fast or slow would get the higher marks. Surely there'd be footnotes for those restaurants allowing the greatest latitude in substituting items on the tasting menu, as well as for those that would make a hamburger on request or privide ketchup if asked. A score for rmantic dining would be based on an accurately measured lighting level. And finally a panel of blindfolded diners eating in a soundproof booth would score all of the food based on taste alone. I only hope I haven't spoiled one of your plans for an up and coming newsletter.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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But Bux you have to ask who reads restaurant reviews in the first place. If you have a newspaper that circulates a million copies a day, how many of those million actually get their Wednesday food sections cracked open? Of those readers that read the food section, how many actually read the restaurant review, which is most often on the last page of that section? It is a small, self-selecting minority, I think. And while there are some inexperienced diners in that group, for the most part I doubt the readers of restaurant reviews can be fooled consistently over time. And if they can, there's no way to protect them.

The reality of being a restaurant reviewer is not so simple as writing whatever you want and going home. There are tremendous pressures exerted by the industry and by the readership. Factual errors are identified immediately. Errors in judgment, which are harder to document, are at least suggested. Although a newspaper will typically stand by its reviewer, I pity the reviewer who makes an enemy of the entire restaurant industry, or who repeatedly makes contrarian judgments from the consensus of the gourmet community. If you do that, you'd better explain yourself very well -- and you'd better be right.

I know that those here who have suggested ethical guidelines mean well and seek only to help good people resist temptation, but good taste is a stronger limitation than any set of ethical guidelines. As a connoisseur, it is virtually impossible to bring oneself to say bad is good. As a fool lacking in taste and discernment, it is easy to do so -- just as easy as it is to circumvent ethical guidelines that in reality have no enforcement mechanism anyway. That's what irritates me so much about some publications that have these ethical guidelines: They get credit for having the guidelines, but they are rarely exposed when their writers violate those guidelines or commit transgressions that fall outside the guidelines altogether.

I want to go back to an example given here, where I was the subject. Let's give that example in a more realistic manner: William Grimes wants to spend a week in a restaurant kitchen and write about it. I say great, let him do it, let him write about it, and not only will I enjoy reading it but also it will make him a better critic. Now, let's say he spends that week at Jean Georges. And then it comes time a year later that he has to review Jean Georges. So what? Would anybody seriously say he shouldn't do it? I suppose the editor of the section should say, "Hey, Bill, are you worried that you might pull punches? Want to let Frank handle it?" But if the answer is no, and the answer feels honest, let him do it. What's the downside?

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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If you have a newspaper that circulates a million copies a day, how many of those million actually get their Wednesday food sections cracked open? Of those readers that read the food section, how many actually read the restaurant review, which is most often on the last page of that section? It is a small, self-selecting minority, I think. And while there are some inexperienced diners in that group, for the most part I doubt the readers of restaurant reviews can be fooled consistently over time. And if they can, there's no way to protect them.

Steve

You seem to be trying to down play the effect that major city restaurant critics actually have. I agree that only a small percentage of people will ever open the pages of the food reviews.

But!!!! It is only a tiny percentage of the population that actually dine in the type of restaurant we are talking about.

Only about three percent of the population is interested enough in food to read about it. But these are the very people who are fickle enough to change their dining habits as a result of a good or bad review - after all you wouldn't want to admit that you had just gone to a restaurant that had received a bad review in the London Times or the Sydney Morning Herald or the San Francisco Chronicle.

So don't underestimate the power of the press to change the dining habits of their readers.

However, I agree completely that we should be moving to a new paradigm and encouraging people to read forums such as eGullet where they can get a more in-depth interactive perspective. After all it is quite clear that the more opinions of a restaurant we have, the better the judgement we can make.

Roger McShane

Foodtourist.com

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Only about three percent of the population is interested enough in food to read about it. But these are the very people who are fickle enough to change their dining habits as a result of a good or bad

Sez who, Roger ? My guess is exactly the oposite, that these are the very people who are not fickle enough ....

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Would anybody seriously say he shouldn't do it? I suppose the editor of the section should say, "Hey, Bill, are you worried that you might pull punches? Want to let Frank handle it?" But if the answer is no, and the answer feels honest, let him do it. What's the downside?

Well, this is obvious.  He should get Randy Cohen to do it.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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But Bux you have to ask who reads restaurant reviews in the first place.

Very few, but I'll hazard a guess that for every ten people who read reviews there are twenty-five who can tell you that a certain restaurant got four stars or was panned. My point is that a powerful newspaper will put the point score in the general consciousness of those who never read the reviews. Things get known the way a guy who never reads about golf has heard of Tiger Woods. Anyway it has nothing to do with the conflict of interest issue. For me conflict of interest is hardly ever a problem with the best and worst of reviewers. A great reviewer will be above it and a lousy reviewer writes lousy reviews not worth reading anyway. It may well be a problem with a mediocre reviewer working for an important paper, but that's a shame anyway. An important paper should be a good one.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Maile Carpenter earned a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for her feature "Eating in Michael Bauer's Town," which appeared in San Francisco magazine and which Chocokitty linked to previously.

In case anyone would like to revisit, here's the link:

http://www.sanfran.com/features/bauer/bauer.html

This passage resonates no less than the first time I read it:

"On top of his duties as the Chronicle's lead restaurant critic, he is also the paper's food editor and head of its nine-person food department. Most other major metropolitan newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, separate the tasks of section editing and restaurant reviewing, but at the Chronicle, Bauer has autonomous control over every food-related story. He's free to print a splashy feature about a friend's new restaurant, for example, and to decide which chefs to cover in his "Secrets of Success" recipe column.

Bauer's role was expanded even further in March when he was appointed editor of the Sunday Chronicle Magazine. The new position gave him the authority to kill a column by his longtime rival, Patricia Unterman, and to run a cover story in May touting the genius and fame of his close friend Cunningham along with Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters."

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Just an aside, or diversion:

Strolling the aisles of a used-book store, I happened upon a 'Recipes from a Famous Restaurant' cookbook inscribed by the author to an equally famous restaurant critic, 'with respect, and love', etc. etc.

Naif that I am, I was surprised on many levels: 1) How does one give away a book that has been personally inscribed?; 2) As both parties are well known in food circles, was the act of giving the book away, rather dangerous?; 3) What does this tell us about the restauranteurs desire to kiss-up to the critic? 4) Wow, #3 really failed!

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Liza--I suspect critics and food writers donate to cookbooks to charity all the time, especially in college cities which have a thriving second-hand or used bookstore scene. Years ago I remember finding dozens of cookbooks, supposedly from Phyllis Richman's personal collection, at the Dupont Circle branch of Second Story books.  I even bought a few despite my lack of fondness for her ability as a restaurant critic.  I suspect donated or inscribed books can travel through several hands before they find a permanent home on one's shelf. Can you imagine the pile of dreck from cookery writers, food authorities, food personalities and, yes, even chefs that must accumulate in newspaper food section editor's and reviewer's offices? It has to be massive.

I wouldn't indict the critic too much on this--and as far as chefs cozying up to critics, well, don't be a naive naif.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Hey, I donate books all the time to Housing Works here in NYC. But if a book had been personally inscribed to me, I would at least tear out that page ! And as naive as I may be, I'm not famous. And that certainly colours the situation in my book. (sorry!)

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Someone once told me that books personally inscribed is worth less than a book with a general "Hi there" and the author's name. Apparently, a general inscription means you can pass yourself off as a pal of the author!

That said, I do cherish the signed books my family has gathered over the years...for me, it's sort of a record of an encounter, no matter how brief.

At my newspaper, cookbooks are either stacked up under the food editor's desk; passed out to those with an interest in reading/reviewing; stored in a conference room for possible future reference; or sold at a semi-annual book sale at ridiculously discounted prices to aid charity.

A bit of a pain, yes, but I'd rather have the book than those silly press kits with a photo of the cover and 4 sample recipes.

Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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Probably the hierarchy should include books inscribed to a famous recipient, which are especially valuable.  Anne Fadiman has a good essay on this topic (presentation copies) in her book Ex Libris.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Steve's latest post reminds me of a situation here in the Detroit area: the editor-in-chief of our local glossy magazine is also the restaurant critic and head food writer. Restaurants do advertise in the magazine. Would this raise a conflict of interest issue as well?

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It would depend, I think, on how thick the wall is between advertising and editorial. If the editor-in-chief writes a review without thought of possible consequences - ie. dropped ads - that's okay. (Although I'd wonder about how he or she would handle anonymity.)

Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

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It would depend, I think, on how thick the wall is between advertising and editorial. If the editor-in-chief writes a review without thought of possible consequences - ie. dropped ads - that's okay. (Although I'd wonder about how he or she would handle anonymity.)

it should be, and is, church-and-state in any reputable rag. there is no grey area.  in the event that this isn't the case (and why anyone would read these publications is beyond me), the readership is (usually) keen enough to pick up on it, as it's pretty obvious.  

with that said, it is a fact that a very sizable percentage of people "read" magazines for the ads, most notably music, beauty, and fashion mags (naming only a few genres), where the ads are at least as appealing to the reader as the copy.

personally, i read mags for the half-naked chicks in the ads.

edit:  after reading that article:  yuck.  worse yet, TV.  as we all know, everyone believes *every*thing they see on TV.  this is an outrage.  :biggrin:

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