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Bruni and Beyond: NYC Reviewing (2007)


slkinsey
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Thank you. It's not an easy job in his line of work. From that article:

It's by no means a sure thing, because, at 41, I've never been one of those metabolic wonders who can eat recklessly without gaining a pound. I have the photographic proof, though you'd have to put a gun to my head before I'd show it to you. It's a picture from my days as a political reporter. In it you see President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One, and you think he's sunk to some new low in terms of publicity stunts, because the rotund figure next to him looks a lot like a Star Wars character. I had swelled to nearly 270 pounds (on a 5 foot 11 inch frame), had a belly that hung over size 40 pants, and was a dead ringer for Jabba the Hutt.

I'm under 200 now—I don't keep track of the exact number—and I wear 33s and 34s.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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It strikes me that there are degrees of anonymity. At one extreme is Ruth Reichl, who actually worked rather hard to disguise herself—though sometimes she was recognized anyway. I don't think any other NYT critic has done that.

Frank Bruni's strategy might be called "passive anonymity." He doesn't disguise himself, and he's well aware that his photo is out there. But he reserves under false names, and he doesn't announce himself to the restaurant. I don't believe he pays with his own credit card. He interviews chefs by telephone, and his photo isn't printed in the newspaper. He appears on TV without his face being shown, which is a bit of a joke. Despite all that, he is frequently recognized, and doesn't try to pretend he's someone else.

RestaurantGirl's strategy, taking her at her word, is a little less passive. Like Bruni, she reserves under assumed names, and doesn't announce herself at the restaurant. However, I'm assuming she'll pay with her own credit card. She interviews chefs in person (or gives that impression), and there are fresh photos of her all over the place. She's basically saying: "I'm not going to tell you when I'm coming, and I'm not going to announce when I arrive, but I don't mind at all if you recognize me, and I'm not going to try to keep my face a secret."

Lastly, the critic could be wide open about it. "Hi, I'm Steven Shaw. I'm reviewing your restaurant for the New York Times. Could I have a table for four tomorrow evening at 8:00 pm?"

FG: If you were the Times critic, which of these strategies would you follow? Or would it be something else?

Edited by oakapple (log)
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well..RG purports this will be her strategy.

her track record to this point is to either use her real name or even "Restaurant Girl"...no joke. but then many of her "reviews" were of comped meals that she was invited to.

I suppose that now with a dining budget that might actually change.

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It strikes me that there are degrees of anonymity. At one extreme is Ruth Reichl, who actually worked rather hard to disguise herself—though sometimes she was recognized anyway. I don't think any other NYT critic has done that.

Ruth Reichl's disguises were an open joke in the New York restaurant community. Captains all over town recognized her in her wigs and glasses. The whole premise of the split-personality review of Le Cirque was false: Sirio told several writers at the time that he recognized her the second her foot hit the first step up to the restaurant.

FG: If you were the Times critic, which of these strategies would you follow? Or would it be something else?

I've written one short restaurant review piece for the esteemed New Jersey section of the New York Times, and I followed the guidelines propagated by that newspaper, as I have whenever I've written anything for the New York Times (maybe four or five pieces in all). I follow whatever policies my employer or client has in place. Fundamentally, I think this issue of anonymity is quite unimportant, so it's not where I'd waste my political capital. I'd spend my political capital on getting the star system revised or abolished, and otherwise bringing some sense and discipline back to the process.

As a purely intellectual exercise, however, yes, I'd advocate notice to all restaurants. The way I'd do it is in writing. I'd develop a standard letter that sets out the rules of engagement, for example I might specifically say I expect every dish to be served exactly as it appears on the menu, in the intended portion size. I'd also note that I may send confederates to the restaurant before and after I eat there, and they'll photograph and make notes on dishes, and if I see that I got a better or different dish than they did then I will make that the focus of the review. So, basically, I'd say here's your chance to hit me with your best shot, but it has to be within your normal parameters. (On subsequent visits, I might ask the chef to show me the ultimate off-the-charts VIP experience as well, so I can explain the range of what the restaurant is capable of.) I'd call the restaurant's owner to make sure the letter was received and I'd insist on assent to the rules of engagement, and if I didn't get assent I'd write about that in the review. I'd also publish the standard letter in a column, and generally try to set forth as many of my practices and beliefs to the readers and to the industry as possible. I'd explain that anonymity has always been a charade, that it's an anachronism anyway, and that I'm doing things a different way, openly and without the patronizing deception of the anonymous reviewing system.

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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I'm not sure what "engaging in anonymity" even means, but of course there's a radical distinction between the system I'm advocating and the system as it currently exists. I'm pretty surprised you think they're the same. But if you do think they're the same, then I guess you believe my system is just as good as the current one, albeit more complex (though I believe it to be simpler and more straightforward, not least because there's no deception with fake-name credit cards, phone numbers and other hijinks). In that case of de facto equivalence, at least my system would be open, rather than a system that pretends to be one thing but ad hoc works an entirely different way.

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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I'm not sure what "engaging in anonymity" even means, but of course there's a radical distinction between the system I'm advocating and the system as it currently exists. I'm pretty surprised you think they're the same. But if you do think they're the same, then I guess you believe my system is just as good as the current one, albeit more complex (though I believe it to be simpler and more straightforward, not least because there's no deception with fake-name credit cards, phone numbers and other hijinks). In that case of de facto equivalence, at least my system would be open, rather than a system that pretends to be one thing but ad hoc works an entirely different way.

I think that if you really sent anonymous confederates to see if the treatment and dishes stayed the same...that what you would be doing would be a de facto (albeit both more complex and more "honest") version of the current system. it would also probably require a higher budget. I could see it working...but only for the Times...I doubt any other newspaper could finance it.

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You're working from the erroneous assumption, upon which the anonymity system rests, that all restaurants are out to cheat us, and therefore you're assuming an elaborate and expensive network of confederates organized into a restaurant spy ring doing my bidding. I'm just talking about the occasional spot check/reality check. Most restaurants will play by the rules -- I know this because I've done it a hundred times at meals arranged by publicists, where I've said I want only what's on the menu, prepared that way, and then I've reconciled my notes with those of friends. Almost every time the restaurants play by the rules. Once in awhile they try not to and it's pretty easily detected. With a platform like the Times, you just make an example of the first restaurant that tries to pull that crap and the rest will fall in line. It's also not necessary to spend any money on confederates. You can just ask readers to send you photos of their meals -- which they do anyway -- so you can compare. If it becomes clear that something fishy is going on, you can shift gears and try to investigate by sending Peter Meehan or Pete Wells over for a meal with a notebook and a camera. That might happen once a year.

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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well..RG purports this will be her strategy.

her track record to this point is to either use her real name or even "Restaurant Girl"...no joke.  but then many of her "reviews" were of comped meals that she was invited to.

Insofar as the aforementioned strategy is concerned, her track record began yesterday. There is no evidence to suggest she violated it.
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You're working from the erroneous assumption, upon which the anonymity system rests, that all restaurants are out to cheat us, and therefore you're assuming an elaborate and expensive network of confederates organized into a restaurant spy ring doing my bidding. I'm just talking about the occasional spot check/reality check.

You're arguing a false dichotomy. No, restaurants aren't out to cheat us. But every starred restaurant can roll out the red carpet when it wants to. It would be pointless to deny that some people get better service than others. Heck, you wrote a whole book to explain how to get the best out of restaurants, which begins with the premise that not everyone gets that.

It's not that the average restaurant is stiffing most of its customers. But there is a level "above the norm" that's reserved for VIPs. By pre-announcing yourself, you would guarantee that, whatever that level is, you'd get it every single time. By going in anonymously, Frank Bruni guarantees that, at least sometimes (~25%), he experiences restaurants as the ordinary customer would.

The whole idea of sending a letter in advance, which the restaurant must assent to, seems awfully bureaucratic. It is also a concession that, unless you have such an agreement with the restaurant, they will indeed send out food that almost no one else would get. Your strategy of sending confederates to double-check is likewise a concession that, without monitoring them, you wouldn't be sure which restaurants are "cheating" and which ones are playing by the rules.

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It's a concession to the public hysteria on this issue. It's a way to say we're taking precautions against the feared scenario, implanted in the public consciousness by generations of restaurant reviewers who misrepresented themselves as being anonymous all the time even though they were mostly recognized, wherein a restaurant -- eek! -- gives better food and service to a recognized critic, a VIP, a celebrity, a visiting chef, etc. It's a system that says, okay, here are the rules, we all know them now, no more pretending, we know the restaurant gets to take a clean shot here, but you don't have to worry that my risotto will have twice as much truffle shaved over it than yours because we take simple precautions against that.

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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Not sure if this is the right area for this question but, here it goes....

Based on a small bit I read in Eater, it seems there is much hate and mocking for the Restaurant Girl and her recent promotion, where is this coming from and why?

"A man's got to believe in something...I believe I'll have another drink." -W.C. Fields

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Not sure if this is the right area for this question but, here it goes....

Based on a small bit I read in Eater, it seems there is much hate and mocking for the Restaurant Girl and her recent promotion, where is this coming from and why?

Some people think she is incompetent (doesn't write well, doesn't have the background to be a food critic).

Some people think that she's basically a shill for restaurant owners (goes to opening parties, gets comped, then writes puff pieces liberally cribbed from the press release).

Some people think she's too blatant about promoting her sexuality (two very glamorous photos in the Daily News), in what purports to be legitimate criticism.

Some people resent the career path she took to get where she is now.

Some people have rather traditional views of what a critic is supposed to be, and aren't willing to accept someone who chooses a different approach.

I'm not suggesting all of those reasons are valid (I don't personally agree with all of them), but those are the themes of the criticisms you read about her.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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Not sure if this is the right area for this question but, here it goes....

Based on a small bit I read in Eater, it seems there is much hate and mocking for the Restaurant Girl and her recent promotion, where is this coming from and why?

she's literally an industry shill without culinary knowledge who can't write and relies upon tendentious sexuality to sell.

the only reason anyone read her blogs or gave her a job is because she's reasonably attractive....(she's a failed actress who decided to take up this career path a couple years ago)

you will find several articles on gawker with more information:

http://gawker.com/news/new-york-daily-news...itic-289222.php

http://gawker.com/news/daily-news/daily-ne...face-291725.php

she also only recently started making negative comments about restaurants on her site...she relied upon openings and free meals so she could hardly be critical in the past.

also, she simply regurgitates press releases on her site without admitting to their provenance.

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It's like getting fine dining advice from that annoying mildly slutty/attractive girl in marketing who thinks an amuse bouche is how she reciprocated on her date last Friday night

she's literally an industry shill without culinary knowledge who can't write and relies upon tendentious sexuality to sell.

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I'd hardly characterize the AFJ (Association of Food Journalists) guidelines as "the" guidelines for restaurant reviewers. The AFJ guidelines reflect the opinions of a few people who run a small organization to which some food journalists belong (AFJ has a grand total of 275 members), and the members aren't even required to abide by the guidelines, which are explicitly stated as suggestions. I'm not even aware of any professional publications that have adopted the AFJ guidelines, though there may be some that I don't know about. Most publications, however, have their own policies.

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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I'd hardly characterize the AFJ (Association of Food Journalists) guidelines as "the" guidelines for restaurant reviewers. The AFJ guidelines reflect the opinions of a few people who run a small organization to which some food journalists belong (AFJ has a grand total of 275 members), and the members aren't even required to abide by the guidelines, which are explicitly stated as suggestions. I'm not even aware of any professional publications that have adopted the AFJ guidelines, though there may be some that I don't know about. Most publications, however, have their own policies.

how many foodwriters are there nationwide? 275 is a lot.

but point taken.

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It's like getting fine dining advice from that annoying mildly slutty/attractive girl in marketing who thinks an amuse bouche is how she reciprocated on her date last Friday night
she's literally an industry shill without culinary knowledge who can't write and relies upon tendentious sexuality to sell.

:laugh::laugh:

"A man's got to believe in something...I believe I'll have another drink." -W.C. Fields

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A friend of mine is the GM of a NYT 4 star and Michelin *** restaurant. He says when the NYT critic came in, he always had the staff make one or two minor errors (and he said it was well known what the critic looked like) so as not to give them the idea they were recognized.

i think the only infamous exception to this was at Daniel, where, as I recall, they got seated next to the door of the kitchen or something and the restaurant was demoted to NYT 3 stars.

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