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Chodorow's Response to Bruni's Review


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Ruth Reichl didn't (commune cooking in the late 60s doesn't count unless you're Molly Katzen). Craig Claiborne really didn't, until he hooked up with Pierre Franey. This leaves us with Amanda Hesser, who -- if any of you have cooked from any of her books, you will know -- is a stellar recipe writer and a veritable walking encyclopedia of food.

I'm not sure about Reichl's overall background, but by the time she joined the Times, she was a very experienced restaurant critic.

Hesser is a peculiar case, as she seems to have a strong resume, but she turned out a remarkable number of very controversial reviews in a very short tenure — not just Spice Market, but also Asiate, Compass, Montrachet, and Masa, to name a few.

Perhaps the lesson is that ignorant critics are bad, but knowledgeable ones aren't necessarily good.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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I mean, aren't we glad that someone has finally, publicly called Bruni on his many and oft-repeated mistakes as a reviewer?

Finally? Publicly? Chodorow's page of incoherent, self-indulgent drivel makes no points that haven't been made a thousand times before. But really, the qualifications issue is a bit of a red herring. Frank Bruni is a failure as a critic because of what he writes and fails to write in his reviews.

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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Points that haven't been made a thousand times before where, exactly? Here? In other internet discussion forums, on blogs and on internet sites? Although this may not be true for us -- we're here reading this, after all -- posting things on the internet hardly constitutes "public" for most of the public. A full page ad in the New York Times directly across from the restaurant reviews, on the other hand...

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Reichl spent a long time out in California in the 80s -- the heyday of Spago, L'Orangerie, Stars, etc -- and cut her reviewing teeth in an amazingly creative environment. But again, her lack of hands-on cooking experience has been the cause of consternation among many of the chefs she's reviewed (badly).

As for Amanda, well, there's no better way to make yourself instantly "known" than by setting yourself apart (although I couldn't disagree with the subject of one of her first reviews; the last time I was at that establishment--which you list, above-- the place smelled like a urinal, the food was pitiful, and I swore I'd never go back); Ruth did the exact same thing when, right after starting at the Times, she infamously handed out stars to a Chinatown noodle shop. The result of THAT was the possibly apocryphal tale of Bryan Miller (who Reichl had replaced) sending a scathing letter about her to not only Punch Sulzberger....but to the Page 6 editor of the Post. Ms. Reichl, in Miller's opinion, had denegrated fine dining by awarding stars, subjectively, to what he considered a dive.

Beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder.

Someone please correct me if I've gotten the above story wrong.

BeefCheeks is an author, editor, and food journalist.

"The food was terrible. And such small portions...."

--Alvy Singer

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I like that Chodorow wrote that letter. He put it out there and many people are thinking what he wrote.

Kind of random but i have been to the kobe club and it really isnt such a bad restaurant. I was surprised that it did not receive any stars.

A restaurant critic should have a thorough understanding of cooking and how a kitchen operates.

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I agree with you, Zabar, about hands-on kitchen knowledge: it makes for a better-informed reviewer and review (although the number of times that I've let my readership know that what they're eating is really re-purposed FILL IN THE BLANK is equal to the number of pieces of hate mail I've gotten over the years). All of this said, do we think that reviewers should, first and foremost, represent the general consumer?

BeefCheeks is an author, editor, and food journalist.

"The food was terrible. And such small portions...."

--Alvy Singer

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I highly doubt that there are a great many people who care about this stuff who also are weeping for Chodorow. Please.

You're talking about one of the most cynical restauranteurs in NY. He runs clubs that happen to serve food (if you can call it that).

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Points that haven't been made a thousand times before where, exactly?  Here?  In other internet discussion forums, on blogs and on internet sites?  Although this may not be true for us -- we're here reading this, after all -- posting things on the internet hardly constitutes "public" for most of the public.  A full page ad in the New York Times directly across from the restaurant reviews, on the other hand...

I was referring to both print and online media, for example Janet Keeler did a piece shortly after he reviewed Masa and noted that many people question Bruni's qualifications -- and even made the same point as Chodorow about Bruni being Rome bureau chief.

Still, I think you may be overestimating the number of people who will read the last paragraphs of a single advertisement at the back of the Times dining section, and underestimate the number of people who read online sources.

Weekday New York Times circulation is about a million copies (1,086,798 for 2006). At least three New York Times writers have told me that the rule of thumb they use (because there's no way to be sure) is that about 10% of that audience (about 100,000) looks at the dining section on a given Wednesday. Then you have to remove from that figure all the people who don't make it to the review, and all the people who won't notice the ad, or won't read far enough to get to the qualifications point. (There may actually be more people reading Bruni's reviews online than in print, however Chodorow's ad only appears in the print edition.)

The many and varied online critiques of Bruni have surely been read by more people than that. So I hardly think they're somehow non-public.

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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All of this said, do we think that reviewers should, first and foremost, represent the general consumer?

Yes, but not entirely. Clearly it's appropriate for the critic to put himself in the shoes of those for whom the restaurant exists in the first place. But it's also the critic's role to educate, to provoke thought, and to lead public opinion rather than merely ratifying it.

It may be that there are very few critics who actually live up to all of that. Then again, there are very few four-star restaurants, too.

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delicious snark on Eater:

"(If you're wondering, it costs on the low end about $30K for an ad like this, or $26 a word. In Chodorowbucks it's what he charges per person for about 15 minutes of eating at Kobe Club.)"

Edited by Nathan (log)
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A critic shouldn't "represent" anybody. A critic should represent the cause of excellence in cuisine.

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 was referring to both print and online media, for example Janet Keeler did a piece shortly after he reviewed Masa and noted that many people question Bruni's qualifications -- and even made the same point as Chodorow about Bruni being Rome bureau chief.

This piece? In the St. Petersburg Times? I hardly think that would be read by more people than Chodorow's ad in the New York Times. It's also by no means the scathing and direct open criticism of Bruni's qualifications that Chodorow presents.

The many and varied online critiques of Bruni have surely been read by more people than that.

Or they're being read by the same 2,500 people again and again on various different web sites.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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A critic shouldn't "represent" anybody. A critic should represent the cause of excellence in cuisine.

hmm...that's a conceivable Platonic description of an aesthetic critic (one that I might agree with).

however, a "restaurant reviewer" (the traditional and standard term) is arguably somewhat a public advocate.

as much as I admire what great chefs do, I'm not sure I really want to put it on the same level as literature or painting.

I'd read anything Lionel Trilling wrote on aesthetic endeavours..including cuisine...and that would be criticism in a sense. But that wouldn't make him necessarily a suitable restaurant reviewer.

put differently, you're talking about two different job descriptions -- someone who has to write a restaurant review every week is fulfilling a different function than a general aesthetic critic (which, frankly, I don't think restaurants deserve. food is not literature. let's not get too full of ourselves.)

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Well put. My only beef with that, you should pardon the phrase, is that reviewing then runs the risk of being entirely self-serving, since excellence in cuisine is so subjective.

BeefCheeks is an author, editor, and food journalist.

"The food was terrible. And such small portions...."

--Alvy Singer

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This piece?  In the St. Petersburg Times?  I hardly think that would be read by more people than Chodorow's ad in the New York Times.

I didn't say it was read by more people than Chodorow's ad in the Times. The implication above was that nobody has publicly made these arguments before. That is certainly incorrect. But Keeler's piece is just one print example. Another from my haphazard collection of Bruni clips: "Restaurant industry veterans are perplexed that such an influential post has been granted to someone sans a formal culinary background." (New York Press.) There's also a page on this in my book, for however many reads that's worth (approximately 108) -- I'll try to find it in electronic form and paste it here.

The many and varied online critiques of Bruni have surely been read by more people than that.

Or they're being read by the same 2,500 people again and again on various different web sites.

That's actually me clicking 2,500 times.

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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This is the passage you'll find on pp. 116-117 of Turning the Tables:

As William Grimes candidly described his own

qualifications, “I’m an amateur eater who’s turned pro.”

To his credit, Grimes generally acquitted himself pretty

well. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the performance

of his successor, Frank Bruni, another company

man new to restaurant criticism. Bruni, the former film

critic for the Detriot Free Press and the author of the book

Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush,

wrote more than 1,000 articles for the New York Times before

becoming the restaurant critic. They include hundreds of

stories about the 2000 presidential campaign, New York

metro happenings, and reports during his stint as Rome

bureau chief. But he wrote only a handful of stories containing

any discussion of food. His restaurant reviews reflect

his limited experience, expertise, and perspective, as

well as a preoccupation with issues other than food. When

he demoted the restaurant Bouley from four stars (the

highest available ranking from the Times) to three, he

seemed as determined to discuss gossip about the chef as

he was to discuss the food, and while the restaurant had

been operating since 1987 he had never before visited (“I

had the sense of being at a party to which I had come too

late,” he wrote). In his first four-star review, of the restaurant

Per Se, he added little to what other critics had

already written. He devoted a review to comparing two

steakhouses, Wolfgang’s and Peter Luger, and wrote more

about cardiology and his night on the town with a friend

than about the meat. On election night 2004, he was not

out expanding his culinary horizons but was, rather, writing

“An Election Night Web Journal” for NYTimes.com.

So anyway, all I'm saying is that Chodorow is hardly the first person to challenge Bruni in public. That's three print examples, not to mention all the online stuff (again, probably read by quite a few people), and we could probably go on like this all day. There's certainly no originality or bravery on Chodorow's part here. He's not even the first restaurateur to try this ad strategy, though the last time I recall it happening was, I think (someone correct me if I have the details wrong), when Warner LeRoy took out an ad to respond to William Grimes's review of the Russian Tea Room.

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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This piece?  In the St. Petersburg Times?  I hardly think that would be read by more people than Chodorow's ad in the New York Times.

I didn't say it was read by more people than Chodorow's ad in the Times. The implication above was that nobody has publicly made these arguments before. That is certainly incorrect.

Well, yea. The arguments have been made before, but I would argue that they haven't been made before on anywhere near this kind of stage and to anywhere near this volume of readership. So, for whatever it's worth, by virtue of the circulation and iconic status of the NY Times, and the fact that it's literally happening in their own backyard, this does seem like the "calling out" of Bruni and the Times that's likely to make the biggest splash thus far.

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This piece?  In the St. Petersburg Times?  I hardly think that would be read by more people than Chodorow's ad in the New York Times.

I didn't say it was read by more people than Chodorow's ad in the Times. The implication above was that nobody has publicly made these arguments before. That is certainly incorrect.

Well, yea. The arguments have been made before, but I would argue that they haven't been made before on anywhere near this kind of stage and to anywhere near this volume of readership. So, for whatever it's worth, by virtue of the circulation and iconic status of the NY Times, and the fact that it's literally happening in their own backyard, this does seem like the "calling out" of Bruni and the Times that's likely to make the biggest splash thus far.

I suppose...though the fact that it's Chodorow doing it sharply mitigates that.

If it was JG, Daniel, Bouley, Keller or even Danny Meyer or Steven Hanson it would have more of an impact I think.

this will be forgotten in two weeks (just like Prime Time Tables was).

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Would Robert Parker be as powerful and effective a wine critic if he himself was not incredibly informed about  winemaking?

I concur with that statement, however I'm not aware of Parker having any professional wine background. I haven't studied his biography in detail, but I thought he was a liberal arts major in college who went on to get a law degree and work at a Baltimore bank. I believe while he worked at the bank he got some names from local wine shops and started sending a wine newsletter around to a few hundred people. He's now of course preeminent, but I get the impression that he started out as the 1970s print equivalent of a blogger. Frank Bruni came to the table without any credentials but he's now quite an experienced diner.

Restaurant reviewers should be judged on what they write, not on some abstract set of qualifications, especially when there is no such thing as a degree in restaurant reviewing (or, if there is now one being offered by some "food studies" program, it's surely a joke). Culinary-school education is even more irrelevant to critics than it is to chefs. It's not clear whether non-kitchen experience in the restaurant business is a net negative or positive. (Whereas, experience working in a professional kitchen is most likely to give a reviewer some good perspective.)

Dining experience is helpful at the beginning of a reviewer's tenure, but after a few months on the job, dining out ten times a week, systematically, in New York, the Times critic is by default one of the handful of most well-dined people in the city. Until Frank Bruni became the Times critic, I had infinitely more experience of the New York restaurant scene than he did. At this point, he has infinitely more than I do -- in reading his recent year-end roundup piece in the Times I found that I had been to a laughably small percentage of the restaurants he mentioned.

So at this point, he has plenty of experience. He's just not a good reviewer.

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 it was JG, Daniel, Bouley, Keller or even Danny Meyer or Steven Hanson it would have more of an impact I think.

Or all of them. There has never yet been an organized campaign by the top people in the New York restaurant industry to bring down a critic, but it could happen. It wouldn't actually result in a critic being removed -- the Times would never (and should never) let industry lobbying cause the ouster of a critic -- however if done right it could significantly damage a critic's credibility.

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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this will be forgotten in two weeks (just like Prime Time Tables was).

I'm definitely in the camp that says this is pretty much a non event. Rich egomaniacs purchase vanity advertorials in newspapers all the time, and most of the time nobody cares.

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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