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Dignan

Your Cover is Blown ....

48 posts in this topic

Yes, Katherine, that's correct. Do you see that as a terribly difficult intellectual challenge for a critic: Here are five mushrooms on my plate. There are four mushrooms on the plate of a customer across the room. It doesn't take a particularly keen mind to imagine the experience of the man with four mushrooms instead of five -- even I can do it. Likewise, what most kitchens think is "perfect" is simply defined as no mistakes in cooking: the meat is done to order, etc. It doesn't alter the fundamental conception of a dish. That perfect performance may be able to eliminate inconsistency in production, but it doesn't change what the restaurant is serving -- and that's what matters from the standpoint of the critic.

But when you see that the other diners in the room have four mushrooms to your five, can you also tell that yours are cooked to order, where theirs were made yesterday and reheated in the microwave?

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I think that what the restaurant needs to be cognizant of is that the reviewer is just one opinion. The regular customer is probably more imortant. They will tell their friends, who will tell their friends, and so on. And there are so many more regular customers than reviewers. Especially here in Houston, as far as I can tell, we consider a reviewer's opinion as just that. A data point and a guide. Granted, Robb is a very good guide. (Dona Tere tamales are awesome.)


Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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Most people in the restaurant industry who bother to open serious restaurants just don't behave that way, Katherine. Indeed, most good restaurants serve better food than their customers demand. But no, of course it's not possible to detect the undetectable. For the most part, though, restaurants give themselves away in more ways than one and you can make assumptions based on that behavior: the restaurant that par-cooks food for regular customers but cooks to order for VIPs is also likely to tip its hand by serving disparate sized portions, by assigning a lot more service staff to the VIP table, etc. Once you get the sense that you're witnessing a scam like that, you know what you're dealing with.

I must emphasize, however, that behavior like this on the part of a restaurant -- something extreme like intentionally serving total crap to one customer but really good stuff to another -- is a once in a hundred meals occurrence. It is therefore not in my opinion valid to base all restaurant reviewing decisions and attitudes on the reprehensible behavior of a few bad apples in the industry. As I said before, anonymity can be a useful tool in addressing the predatory practices of the slimiest bottom feeders of the restaurant world, but the relentless advancement of the cloak-and-dagger anonymity agenda is a disservice to everyone because it paints the whole industry with that negative brush.


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 a restaurant (or any other institutions) is not first class, trying harder in desperation is more likely to produce a worse result than a better. I would suggest that certain expensive top-rated restaurants have got where they are for the same unreliable and ultimately fragile reasons as, say, dot.com stocks. Like musicians with an awesome technique but no taste or understanding, they will wow the impressionable for a while and then give way to the next fashionable virtuoso.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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two points came to mind while reading this and i think they're important enough to mention:

1) a good restaurant tries to please EVERY customer. certainly, they do not always succeed. but i've been in a lot of restaurant kitchens and i've never detected a hint of "who cares about this plate, it's not going to anybody important." this is certainly not to say that all restaurants succeed, it's just that they're trying as hard as they can. which is not to say that you should then be satisfied paying $250 for an average meal just because they were trying hard (this is why i rarely eat out anymore, except at the tried-and-true places I know are capable of giving me my money's worth).

2) anonymity is overrated, but impartiality is not. while i think it's silly for reviewers to dress up in disguises, i do think it's important that critics not be perceived as being part of the "restaurant establishment." critics should do everything they can to stay separate from chefs and owners. they should not go to restaurant parties. they should not go to dinner with friends who are chefs. they should not have friends who are chefs. in my opinion, this is where the real bias sets in: not in being recognized at the last minute, but in being chummy and giving breaks in reviews because "you know what they really can do."

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Few inflexible rules there, Russ, but a lot of wisdom, particularly about getting chummy with the establishment.


Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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What do you reviewers think in terms of differences in service between people perceived as "nobodies" and VIPs? I recall extremely supercilious service at Lutece when it was 4-star and an attitude from the server that we were to blame for considering a duck dish to be mediocre, watered-down burritos at Chanterelle when it was a 4-star. (To be fair, I did have good service at Bouley, though the meal was a disappointment, but I've had better luck with service at 3-stars.)

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Any multi-starred restaurant which treats customers in a supercilious manner has simply been rated too highly. The critics responsible are as dilatory as the restaurateur and have thereby demonstrated their incompetance.

EDIT: Of course a rating may quickly become obsolete for any number of reasons, particularly in a fashion-driven milieu.


Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Any multi-starred restaurant which treats customers in a supercilious manner has simply been rated too highly. The critics responsible are as dilatory as the restaurateur and have thereby demonstrated their incompetance.

How do you figure that? How could the critic for the New York Times know that "nobodies" would get bad service with an attitude?

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How could the critic for the New York Times know that "nobodies" would get bad service with an attitude?

If it's the case, word gets around, particularly if you really want to know. As to the NY Times penchant for upper-echelon restaurants, John Hess disposed of it neatly a quarter-century ago. It's all in Taste of America, and it's hardly changed.

yielded to an urgent appeal to take over the critic's job at The New York Times in early 1973, with the understanding that would not have to stay longer than a year. threw in [my] napkin after nine months, sick of the gourmet plague that had marked our first meal for pay, and our last, and most of those in between. This was not much of a surprise . . .But what was extraordinary was the response of hundreds of readers who wrote that they felt the same way, but had thought that it was they who were out of step.
Charles Shere tells of dining with a friend in Maasricht several years ago and ordering a Salade Nicoise. It arrived ostentatiously laid out on the plate, complete with half-a-dozen shrimp. Charles looked at it in some bemusement and his friend apologized that pretentious Dutch restaurants had a tendency to “shrimp it up” – “opgarnalened” was the lovely Dutch word. An equally slippery word is needed to describe the same tendency in over-the-top American restaurants.
Edited by John Whiting (log)

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Robb,

This is your Q&A. Maybe you could discuss why you try to dine anonymously when reviewing?

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critics should do everything they can to stay separate from chefs and owners. they should not go to restaurant parties. they should not go to dinner with friends who are chefs. they should not have friends who are chefs.

Do you believe these rules should apply to all critics vis-a-vis their chosen disciplines: art, music, books, etc.?


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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critics should do everything they can to stay separate from chefs and owners. they should not go to restaurant parties. they should not go to dinner with friends who are chefs. they should not have friends who are chefs.

Do you believe these rules should apply to all critics vis-a-vis their chosen disciplines: art, music, books, etc.?

yup. it just gets too dicey. 1) it's awfully hard to be fair when you're dealing with people you know well. you tend either to be too hard or too forgiving. 2) in general, critics should resist the urge to think of themselves as "part of the community." undeniably what you do affects the community, but you represent the readers, not the industry you're covering. this, i find, is the biggest failing with most food writers. let's face it, restaurants are sexy, fun places to be around. it's great to get special treatment. but you do a far better job for your readers by staying an outsider.

note that i'm commenting strictly on restaurant critics. there is room for general feature writers to get "inside" the building, but even then one must be really wary. i have only developed what i would consider to be real friendships with a few chefs and those have always had tensions because even though they might have understood intellectually why i couldn't write about them very often, it still pissed them off when they saw other chefs being written about. it's a tough balancing act.

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. . . in general, critics should resist the urge to think of themselves as "part of the community."

In the world of books, this is almost impossible. Since few literary critics can scrape even a modest living, they tend to be authors reviewing each other. The attentive reader soon learns who are the objective ones and who are the luvvies.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Russ, I don't think a critic should "represent" anybody. A critic should represent excellence.

The recommendation for restaurant critics to remove themselves from the community they cover is obviously well intentioned, but I have two main problems with it: 1) Although you say you think art, music, book, et al. critics should also follow those guidelines, those are not the generally accepted guidelines for such critics. As John W. explains, an extremely high percentage of literary critics are authors. That restaurant reviewers are widely held to a different standard says something about editorial attitudes towards restaurants: it is a statement that restaurants are generally corrupt and trying to take advantage. It's not a message I approve of. I also think it says something about restaurant reviewers: that they are incapable of resisting flattery, pressure, etc. Well, that's part of one's job as a critic. You either resist it and do your job, or you don't resist it and you suck. 2) The focus on separateness as a means of maintaining integrity is in my opinion a diversion. If a critic is so weak willed that he would give a better review to a friend's restaurant than to that of a stranger, then no amount of enforced separation is going to prevent a hundred other improper forces from affecting that critic's judgment: media coverage, criticism from peers, nasty letters from chefs, pressure from readers, pressure from editors, dietary preferences, past history at a restaurant, etc. A critic needs to remain independent from all these things, not just from the people in the industry. And a critic who can maintain independence can do it regardless of contact with chefs and restaurateurs.


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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fat guy,

i know all the theoretical arguments, believe me. everyone finds their own way and some lessons are best learned on your own. i'm just trying to give you the perspective of more than 20 years of doing this. i am neither an ethical hard-liner nor laissez-faire. i'm telling you where i have run into problems and where people i've known have run into problems. you can take my advice or leave it. do me one favor, though: print this out and if you are still a critic in a couple of years, let me know what you think then.

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One point that Russ made that we have zipped right pass, is that the risk is not only being overly positive about a friend chef's restaurant and food, but also being overly critical out of concern for guarding against the opposite.

And then there is the question of what kind of "friend" we are talking about: a mutual admiration society; a social, business or professional aquaintance dubbed "friend"; or something closer to the range of deeper reciprocal relationships many people attach to the word friend, or what?

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you're right richard, that was vague. for a critic, i would recommend not socializing at all (of course, there are times when it is unavoidable, but in general). as a feature writer, i'm talking more about true friends. i don't want to be in a position of writing about someone when because of our friendship i know things about them that they might not want known. in that situation, i would either have to soft-pedal the truth, or opt-out. in 99% of the cases, i'll opt out (and that does go for writers as well as chefs ... i won't review my friend's books and i won't review books that have been edited by my editor).

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Anyone who thinks anonymity doesn't matter needs to read Ruth Reichl's 1993 review of Le Cirque in the New York Times. This is the last word on the subject, as far as I am concerned. Reichl got a bad table and rude service when she went to the restaurant anonymously. But on a final visit, she was recognized and suddenly she was fawned over. They seated her ahead of the King of Spain and the chef sent out special dishes for her to taste.

Reichl blasted the restaurant for the disparity of treatment and demoted them from four to three stars.

Fifi, you may not believe that I dine anonymously, but I do. As Ruth's writing explains, it's easy to tell when you've been recognized. When they seat you behind the door to the kitchen and forget your appetizer, it's a pretty good sign they don't know you are a critic. Come eat dinner with me sometime. You'll see.

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