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A Conversation with Nancy Nichols


Richard Kilgore
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I think your proposed system has at least one great fault. A five star forty dollar meal is not likely to be as good as a three star two hundred dollar meal, yet the inferior restaurant will boast of its better rating.

Oh, I beg to differ on this point! How many people would rather have their momma's cooking, a greasy cheeseburger, or a slice of NY pizza as their last meal, their favorite meal? No one picks quail eggs and foie gras.

No one? I sincerely doubt that, but it's irrelevant because I'd never confuse the best restaurant with the most popular one and you don't address my comment that a three star restaurant is a type of restaurant in the minds of at least a certain group of diners. I'd not argue that most people have never eaten in a great restaurant or want to. What I will argue against is the attempt of those who have no interest in eating in a three star restaurant to alter the definition. While it might be reasonable to designate a certain hot dog as a three star hot dog and a superior pizzaria as a three star pizzaria, it seems foolish to designate the best of a grade of mediocre restaurants as a three star mediocre restaurant.

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 I’ve seen plenty of freelancers grazing off restaurateurs with stars in their eyes and their reviews have translated into stars on the page.

I don't think restaurant critics are the problem. To my knowledge there are very few, if any, restaurant critics whose meals are not paid for by the publication that they work for. How could a restaurant bribe Frank Bruni? He's bankrolled by one of the most moneyed papers in the world. (Of course, the papers fund critics' eating to avoid potential conflicts of inerest.) The writers who are most vulnerable to the influence of comps are freelancers (and bloggers and people who post restaurant reviews on the Internet), anf freelancers write the majority of magazines. Free meals don't always buy positive reviews, as in positive "restaurant reviews": they buy coverage. Invite twenty freelancers to your restaurant's opening, and in the next restaurant round-up in such and such magazine, there you are. It is an unfortunate reality of the business that creates a barrier to entry for restaurants that either can't or won't comp. (I've also heard stories about editors and writers writing positive things about a restaurant, and then calling the week after publication to request a comped meal and getting angry when the restaurant won't oblige.)

But then a freelancers' position is precarious. How can a freelancer keep abreast of a city's dining scene without eating out a lot? How can a writer afford to remain a freelancer while eating out a lot?

What can you do to maintain your journalistic integrity? The first step, naturally, is honesty. I certainly feel worse about criticizing a restaurant that has given me free food, but I'll do it anyway. The second step is full disclosure. When I am comped at a restaurant or event and report the event on these boards, for instance, I make sure to disclose not only that the meal was free, but that the restaurant paid for it. If the disclosure is full, then the reader has information with which to judge the trustworthiness of the writer's opinions. Yet disclosure of this sort is not possible when freelancers are published in magazines or newspapers. Imagine an editor allowing the sentence, "The squab was perhaps the finest I'd ever eaten, though I must admit I was treated to it by the restaurant's publicist."

I have been taken out to restaurants by publicists and have gone to press dinners. But when I'm invited, I make sure the publicist knows that I can't and won't trade coverage for a meal, as Steven explained earlier.

JJ Goode

Co-author of Serious Barbecue, which is in stores now!

www.jjgoode.com

"For those of you following along, JJ is one of these hummingbird-metabolism types. He weighs something like eleven pounds but he can eat more than me and Jason put together..." -Fat Guy

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After posting a favorable report on a certain restaurant, based on a first visit (unannounced, of course -- I'm no big deal!), I received an email from someone at that restaurant thanking me and encouraging me to let him know when I return so that some kind of special treatment can be given to me. I wrote a polite response that didn't mention the offer of special treatment. I continue to recommend that restaurant based on my experience and plan on returning someday, but without fanfare or expectations of special treatment. Should they recognize my name and do something for me, so be it, but I will not ask for or expect it. It's different if I have a preexisting acquaintance with the chef, etc., but since my profession has nothing to do with food, that's uncommon (I can think of only one instance, in fact, and it really is a special case, as he's someone many long-time members of the eGullet Society know). My refusal of special treatment based on knowing that I am an eGullet forum host is ethical and something I feel good about, whether or not it increases my credibility as an amateur food writer in these forums to remain Everyman at restaurants where I'm not a regular (and where I am a regular, I don't get comps, anyway, as my regular haunts are decidedly down-budget).

I have to say that I think many of us are overlooking the possibility of subconscious effects from being comped meals. JJ, it sounds like, all things being equal, you find it more difficult to post a critical report on a place where you were comped than one where you weren't. Because you have integrity, you force yourself to be as accurate as possible, but it is harder, isn't it?

Also, allow me some skepticism that the source of money for an investigation of whatever kind cannot by itself skew results. There was an article in, I believe (docsconz will probably help with this) the New England Journal of Medicine indicting medical research scientists for giving up their objectivity and becoming cheerleaders for flawed medications in exchange for funding from pharmaceutical corporations. But it wasn't that simple, because undoubtedly, the overwhelming majority of those scientists believed in the work they were doing. Statistics bore out the bias in the studies, however, indicating that the source of their funding was probably affecting them subconsciously. So while individuals often overcome many potential sources of conflicts of interest, their web of socioeconomic interactions does tend to promote certain tendencies.

In terms of what Nancy has had to say about this issue, the most important thing to me is:

"If an ad exec in this office complains to me about a review, that person is fired."

Open and shut. Of course, there can be more subtle forms of suasion than open complaints, but based on what Nancy says, it would seem that they are not at play at her magazine.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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The conversation about comped meals and hiding the reviewer's identity intrigues me. I'm the food editor in Jacksonville, Florida. It's a growing city with new restaurants opening all of the time.As food editor, my picture is in the newspaper so I do not do the reviews. We do not have a full-time reviewer. I have three freelancers. I assign and edit the reviews.The newspaper pays for the meal.

Like many newspapers this size, we go only once. A return trip is paid for only if the first was a horrendous experience. As a result, the restaurant reviews tend to be favorable. They describe the room, give examples of menu items and prices. The reviewer may actually sample only four appetizers and four entrees and four desserts (eating off the plates of their guests). The newspaper will not pay for wine and balks at reciepts that come in at more than $150.

As food editor, I am the person the public calls and e-mails for restaurant advice. Because the newspaper does not pay for me to eat, I have not dined at many of the newer restaurants in the area. In fact, if my wife didn't have a much better paying job than myself, my dining experiences would be even fewer.

What this is all leading to, as we discuss ethics, do you think that the quality of food coverage and expertise at the midsize newspaper is lacking? Are we serving the reader if we are restrained economically from going to a restaurant more than once or if the food editor only knows about a restaurant from what the review said?

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I have to say that I think many of us are overlooking the possibility of subconscious effects from being comped meals. JJ, it sounds like, all things being equal, you find it more difficult to post a critical report on a place where you were comped than one where you weren't. Because you have integrity, you force yourself to be as accurate as possible, but it is harder, isn't it?

It's not that it's harder; it's that I feel worse doing it. Yet, come to think of it, I'm not sure if the comp is the issue. I'd feel as badly if I had a bad meal and was compelled to criticize a restaurant with a sweet old momma in the kitchen, who has come out of the kitchen throughout the meal to tell me how much she loves to cook.

The separation of editorial and ad is ideal, but as we know, it's not always a reality. If Ms. Nichols's magazine holds itself to such high standards of integrity, I applaud it. But it's no secret that news organizations allow sponsors to influence their coverage. And as I said, the sponsors don't necessarily buy positive coverage as much as they use their infuence to avert negative coverage. This ethical ideal fails in other industries, too. As we all know, in big brokerage houses the arms with public information and the arms with private information are not supposed to communicate. That would be unethical and unfair to investors. But they often do, and there are entire departments within the firms devoted to making sure both arms comply. What I think Steven was saying earlier is that if you trust that a newspaper can remain ethical when confronted with a decision that risks enormous sums from advertisers, why wouldn't you trust a reviewer who has to make a similar decision on a smaller scale?

Mr. MacDonald brings up an interesting point. I think we've been talking so far about big budget pubs. So, how does a smaller publication compete while maintaining ethical standards? The Times or D Magazine are able to righteously criticize an advertiser. That ad space can be filled easily enough if the advertsier pulls out. But how about a small newspaper, who is struggling to stay in the black?

JJ Goode

Co-author of Serious Barbecue, which is in stores now!

www.jjgoode.com

"For those of you following along, JJ is one of these hummingbird-metabolism types. He weighs something like eleven pounds but he can eat more than me and Jason put together..." -Fat Guy

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. . . . .

Mr. MacDonald brings up an interesting point. I think we've been talking so far about big budget pubs. So, how does a smaller publication compete while maintaining ethical standards? The Times or D Magazine are able to righteously criticize an advertiser. That ad space can be filled easily enough if the advertsier pulls out. But how about a small newspaper, who is struggling to stay in the black?

Let me take JJ's point a little further from a consumer perspective. I wouldn't exactly call Houston "fly-over country" but I do travel to smaller markets on occasion. My typical approach is to pick up a local publication or two with my breakfast and see what I can find out about dining options for the evening. I know in the back of my mind that I am not likely to find the level of critical reviews that I would in a big publication in a major market. But I don't really care. I understand that there may be a glowing report because the establishment is an advertiser. I also understand that the reviewer (reporter?) may have been comped. I make the same assumptions about the "tourist guides" laying around the hotel room. I still don't care. I have gained at least two pieces of valuable information: that the restaurant exists and something about what they serve. If I decide to try it out, I will come to my own conclusions.

Nancy . . .

Further to what I said above, have you ever explored how your readers use the information you provide? Can you characterize your readership?

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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Nancy, does D Magazine accept comps of any kind?

For example, there's currently a piece running called "Twenty-Five Great Escapes," by Jennifer Chininis, Allison Hatfield, and you. Did D Magazine pay to send one of the three authors to all 25 of those places -- New Zealand, Belize, Sardinia, Zimbabwe -- and pay for one of the three authors to dine at each of the recommended restaurants in each of those places?

If a freelancer writes a piece about a travel destination or a restaurant, is that freelancer required to pay for all travel and meals, or is it acceptable for the freelancer to write on the basis of a press trip, press event at a restaurant or by-invitation trip or meal? I didn't notice anything in the writers guidelines about not taking comps, nor could I find a posted ethics policy.

Do you personally ever go to restaurant opening parties or industry events where free food and drink are served? Do you ever accept, in the course of a meal that D Magazine is paying for, an extra dessert or taste on the house?

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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Ok, let’s hold on to our menus here. I can’t address each one of the above emails one at a time, so I’m going to make a summary essay. First of all, this discussion about the ethics of food reviewers could/can go on forever. As I said in the article we are allegedly discussion, I do not like the star system; therefore you guys can debate it all day. My magazine doesn’t use it and the punch it once had is lost. Restaurants are not like hotels where the star system is applied to a specific set of standards (like price, amenities, etc.).

To Michael, who writes about the music section of the Times:

I don’t care what they do in the music section, it is apples and oranges. No comparison.

To JJ, Thank you for bringing up the freelance issue. I’ve seen too many starry-eyed freelancers get comps and a little power and that is a dangerous situation. Not all; but plenty. I use a couple of freelancers, but I budget for their reviews and pay for their food. If I am recognized at a restaurant, I always write about it. Believe me, most of the time it DOES NOT matter. Like I said, just because a chef knows who you are doesn’t mean he’s going to instantly get more talent. For the record, I don’t eat with publicists or go to press dinners either.

Now, of course I am not a saint. I have made friends with chefs and restaurant owners just by being involved in the same community with them. Sure, it gets more difficult if you have a bad experience in their place, but I try to keep my job and my personal relationships separate.

To Dan McDonald: I say you are doing a good job as long as you present your review as a one-time visit. I always take the view of the guy who saves all year to take his gal out for one special dinner. The restaurant has one shot to make him feel like he has picked the right spot. I present reviews as a report or a journal of a visit. If I go twice I write that. Most people who have a bad experience the first time don’t go back, if you can’t afford it, call the restaurant post review, and follow up with an interview.

To: JJ, re: small newspapers. It doesn’t matter about the size of your publication, what you are missing here is that if you put journalistic integrity above anything, the rest will follow. Because sooner or later advertisers are going to want to associate themselves with a publication that readers read for true reader service. How many times do you really go to a restaurant based on a Where Magazine?

I realize I am doing this whole deal out of format, but it takes me longer to do it the other way. I’m a true techno moron.

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Steven:

Food criticism is different than travel writing. As the travel editor of D, I view travel columns as inherently positive pieces. We don’t criticize destinations because we are recommending the place as a service to our readers. We have a travel budget and use staff writers. We pay media rates for press trips. And whatever we go over the budget, we pay out of our own pockets. And yes, most of the travel freelance writers I have met, pay their own expenses and then sell the story to as many outlets that they can to recover costs.

I do not go to media events, opening parties, chef’s tastings, or wine events. If a chef sends me a dessert or an extra plate of anything I insist on paying for it.

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On a slightly different note, I've only been to Dallas once and I had a wonderful dinner at Nana with my wife. If you had to recommend for me another fine dining establishment for my next visit in your city based on your experience as a food critic, where would that be? Why would you pick this place?

Thanks,

Elie

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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Elie:

Nana is a lovely place, the food is as elegant as the view. Along the same caliber I would reccommend The French Room at the Hotel Adolphus--they have superb service and the rococo style dining room is gorgeous. I love Aurora, a new high-end eatery run by madman chef Avner Samuel. When he's good he's very, very good. He raised the bar around here when he opened this small (40-seat) fancy dining room. It's all Champagne, caviar, foie gras, live scallops, etc. Very high end. The dining scene in Dallas has changed so much over the last 5 years. There are some cutting edge chefs creating plenty of exciting new menus.

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Nancy,

What are some of your favorite underrated places...places that serve consistant, quality food but don't generate some of the press the Aurora's and the Al Biernet's of the town do? My picks would be Maguire's and 2900.

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[...]

To Michael, who writes about the music section of the Times:

I don’t care what they do in the music section, it is apples and oranges. No comparison.[...]

Probably not, but if there seems to be a clear connection between which concert series advertise and which concert series are reviewed, that tends to indicate that there may be at least an appearance of advertisement-driven coverage in some sections of the newspaper. Like it or not, those kinds of perceptions are likely to affect some people's views of the rest of the newspaper, sort of that pen you accidentally leave in your pants pocket may leak into your other clothes in the washer. I know there are a lot of "if"s in that post, but I'm merely being somewhat careful with my phrasing.

To Dan Macdonald: You can only do as well as you can with what you have. That's really the best anyone can do, and if you are doing the best you can, everyone should respect you. There surely is a need for restaurant coverage outside the biggest markets with the biggest budgets.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Good morning one and all. I am looking forward to a "meaty" debate on the topics raised in my article. I certainly stirred a hornet's nest of public opinion, especially in the restaurant community. Thanks for asking me to this forum. Now I have a place to discuss, publicly, some of the fall out.

Nancy, can you elaborate a bit about the "hornet's nest of public opinion, especially in the restaurant community". And can you clarify what the "fallout" was from the article. The issues you addressed in your article have obviously stirred up quite a debate in the Conversation thread, but you were referring to the response in Dallas and have not had the opportunity yet to discuss that here.

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*****

This brings up another point, shall we say the opposite end of the spectrum, “avant garde” cuisine pioneered by El Bulli's Ferran Adria in Spain and by the likes of Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea (and previously Trio). What are your thoughts about their approach? Too serious or gimmicky? Or is it good food taken to the next level?

Elie

This question raised by Elie seemed to get lost in the ethics debate. I also wonder what you make of the culinary avant guarde and Ferran Adria? Do you think Dallas would be receptive to the dining experince provided by a chef such as Grant Achatz? If not, why so?

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Steven:

Food criticism is different than travel writing. As the travel editor of D, I view travel columns as inherently positive pieces. We don’t criticize destinations because we are recommending the place as a service to our readers. We have a travel budget and use staff writers. We pay media rates for press trips. And whatever we go over the budget, we pay out of our own pockets. And yes, most of the travel freelance writers I have met, pay their own expenses and then sell the story to as many outlets that they can to recover costs.

I do not go to media events, opening parties, chef’s tastings, or wine events. If a chef sends me a dessert or an extra plate of anything I insist on paying for it.

FYI: The Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) Ethical Guidelines for Restaurant Criticism:

http://www.afjonline.com/rcrit.htm

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Elie

I love any chef who has the rocky mountain oysters big enough to break the monotony of the usual shrimp starter-salad-entrée-dessert pattern of American dining. Although I’ve never been fortunate enough to dine at El Bulli, I admire Adria’s approach and passion—especially the orgy with small bites of intense flavor. It’s a dining experience you have to train for. (Plus I’m a sucker for anything Catalan) And I’ll try anything (fried rabbit ears!) once. Grant Achatz “passion,” to me, appears to be less about the food and more about invention. I don’t want mushroom soup from an atomizer or sushi on a piece of paper. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned gal who likes the feeling of a full belly.

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Richard,

Well the local hornet’s nest pretty much mirrors the conversation that has taken place this week—everybody has a different opinion about food and food reviewing. Initially the restaurant community embraced Romano’s lawsuit—they viewed it as a springboard to get the star rating system revised. So far, nothing has happened. Restaurant owners are scared to challenge food critics, which I find odd. Although, if anything, I feel that my story did open up a line of communication in the whole restaurant community. I’ve spoken with all kinds of people I’d never talked to before and this kind of communication is invaluable for both sides. I spoke with restaurant owners who fear restaurant reviewers—a fear I feel is unnecessary. Like I said, a good restaurant review can help a good restaurant, but it can’t make a mediocre restaurant with a wobbly business plan succeed. A bad restaurant review cannot close down a restaurant who continues their business plan and continues to improve their food/service. There are several local restaurants (Guthrie’s, Chaucer’s) that reviewed favorably that have closed for one reason or another. A review is one person’s opinion and I don’t have the ego that says, “It’s my way or the highway.” Readers have minds of their own.

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Thanks to Nancy and everyone who has participated in the Conversation so far.

We will continue to take new questions and comments until 1:30 p.m. CST today, and then let Nancy respond to them and make any final comments she wishes to make before we end.

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Elie

I love any chef who has the rocky mountain oysters big enough to break the monotony of the usual shrimp starter-salad-entrée-dessert pattern of American dining. Although I’ve never been fortunate enough to dine at El Bulli, I admire Adria’s approach and passion—especially the orgy with small bites of intense flavor. It’s a dining experience you have to train for. (Plus I’m a sucker for anything Catalan) And I’ll try anything (fried rabbit ears!) once. Grant Achatz  “passion,” to me, appears to be less about the food and more about invention. I don’t want mushroom soup from an atomizer or sushi on a piece of paper. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned gal who likes the feeling of a full belly.

That sentence I've highlit speaks more effectively and positively, in my mind, about your attitude towards food than anything else you've said. If nothing else, it acknowledges that great food is not always obvious.

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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Elie

I love any chef who has the rocky mountain oysters big enough to break the monotony of the usual shrimp starter-salad-entrée-dessert pattern of American dining. Although I’ve never been fortunate enough to dine at El Bulli, I admire Adria’s approach and passion—especially the orgy with small bites of intense flavor. It’s a dining experience you have to train for. (Plus I’m a sucker for anything Catalan) And I’ll try anything (fried rabbit ears!) once. Grant Achatz  “passion,” to me, appears to be less about the food and more about invention. I don’t want mushroom soup from an atomizer or sushi on a piece of paper. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned gal who likes the feeling of a full belly.

Just to clarify, it's chef Homaro Cantu at moto who created the sushi on paper.

Ms. Nichols, did you ever dine at Trio when Chef Achatz was there?

I'll bet, in spite of your declared preferences -- which I essentially share -- you would have found it enjoyable. :smile:

Best,

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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Nancy, looking forward, what would you like to see in the Dallas food scene that is not there or there in too small a measure? What are we missing?

Similarly, what is missing in Dallas food writing? What is not being written about for whatever reason, that deserves to be written about?

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What this is all leading to, as we discuss ethics, do you think that the quality of food coverage and expertise at the midsize newspaper is lacking? Are we serving the reader if we are restrained economically from going to a restaurant more than once or if the food editor only knows about a restaurant from what the review said?

Don't be too hard, or easy, on yourself. Are you serving the reader? Probably. Are you serving him as well as he could be served? No. Are you serving him as well as you can under the circumstances? Probably. Would he be better served if your budget were greater? Most likely. Would he be better served if the paper went broke buying the reviewer more meals? An unlikely scenario, but you get my point that the quality is probably lacking, but it's a fact of life that's not going to change when budget restrictions have cut into the quality and believability of the news reports.

The only option is not to get too full of yourself (the editorial "yourself") and never pretend the reviews you publish are more than one person's report on an isolated meal. The interesting thing about a site such as ours, is that we may get a lot of reports on isolated meals by members who may or may not be qualified to comment on those meals, but that over the long run, readers get to sort out who to believe and how to weigh reports before taking them into consideration. I often favor the word "report" over "review."

Steven:

Food criticism is different than travel writing. As the travel editor of D, I view travel columns as inherently positive pieces. We don’t criticize destinations because we are recommending the place as a service to our readers. We have a travel budget and use staff writers. We pay media rates for press trips. And whatever we go over the budget, we pay out of our own pockets. And yes, most of the travel freelance writers I have met, pay their own expenses and then sell the story to as many outlets that they can to recover costs.

I do not go to media events, opening parties, chef’s tastings, or wine events. If a chef sends me a dessert or an extra plate of anything I insist on paying for it.

My wife is a travel agent. We accept all sorts of comps. It we didn't, we wouldn't have the experience to know about as many places first hand as we do. Being a travel agent is a lot like being a restaurant reviewer to some people, at least to those who want to know should I eat here, or should I sleep there. Comps sometimes backfire even when the agent wants to drive business towards the hotel that was so kind. There's a lot a hotel rep can do to put an agent in good frame of mind, but they can't compensate for the stupid decision of removing the second door to a room and robbing it of it's soundproofing. We've learned that hotels are not up to the standards they exhibited when we were last there and hotels that were recommeded before a visit are no longer recommended after a comped visit. C'est la vie. Credibility is all an agent can really offer. Is it different with a critic?

In the end, an agent can't see all the hotels in town, assuming the town is Paris or a city of its size. All you can do is offer a personal recommendation from the ones in which you've stayed and second hand info on the rest. That's the same thinking that was applied to comped meals earlier. Restaurants that comp reviewers stand a better chance of being reviewed and almost all publicity is better than none. It's an odd conundrum, if a newspaper accepts comps, it may be able to afford to report on more restaurants than if it doesn't. On one level that good for the consumer. I'm playing the devil's advocate, but if a reviewer can be absolutely honest, it's a potential gain for the consumer, at least for one who can keep the faith. The downside is that some restaurants unfairly lose the opportunity to be reviewed in some markets and that's a loss to the consumer as well as the industry.

This brings me to ask the purpose of a review and how it will be used. Sometimes it's more useful for a review not to rate a restaurant or pretend to tell the consumer if he should eat there or not and to concentrate on telling the prospective diner how to get the most out of the restaurant and where the strengths and weaknesses lie in the kitchen.

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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