Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chef vs. Critic. The pen is mightier than the toque.

I like reading restaurant reviews. Some, because the writing is so bad that it makes me wonder why the writer is still employed. Others more because of the writer's style and use of prose paint an enticing picture of a restaurant. Then there are those that give insight into the restaurant's approach, the plates, the flavors. Then there are pieces that really don't fit into any of these categories.

Instead of painting a picture of what someone might expect to find, enjoy, eat and experience at the restaurant, a local food critic embedded this data in a critique of what the restaurant's owner should have done. He griped about the architecture, how the place wasn't "Bohemian" enough, how the chairs were funky. Thus, I read the piece as more an attack on the restauranteur's failure to conform to the reviewer's expectations than a fact-based review of the establishment.

In the context of the review the dishes seemed disappointing, even though the reviewer apparently liked them. So, the overall review - although it got enough stars - seemed negative. Like the place was somehow a failure in the critic's view: too-serious waiters, predictable, just not fun enough.

Even with great food, who would want to dine in a stodgy, predictable restaurant run by someone who abandoned his vision, to eat food and quaff drink served by pompous waiters? Would you go, knowing it to be cursed with bad architecture and infested with ugly chairs?

I have no quibbles about the part where the critic actually reviews the food, despite a minor glitch over an ingredient. So it wasn't orzo. No big deal.

Understandably, the restaurant's owner did not take kindly to the review. So he replied, using Facebook. He made a lot of good points - notably that the restaurant is successful, he likes it the way it is (so do a lot of other people, apparently). There was a bit of an attack on the reporter of the "who is he to criticize, anyway?" variety.

Many people commented. Most, if not all, were supportive of the restaurant. Some went so far as to lambaste the reviewer, thereby incurring his wrath.

A few days went by, and the reviewer - who never bothered to reply in Facebook - wrote another article, this time expressing surprise at the reaction at the rancor over his review. A review he believed to be positive, in fact.

I didn't read it as especially positive. I thought it was strange to attack a restaurant based on what direction its owner did not take, setting the food reviews in a bed of criticism. I thought reporting was based on facts: interviews with the owner, direct tasting, all that stuff. This read more like an editorial piece, advocating change.

The critic's second piece devoted over 800 words explaining what critics do, what they know and how many restaurants they've been to. Apparently becoming a restaurant critic involves nothing more than being a reporter who gets the critic job. No culinary arts training, no superior knowledge of food origins, process or preparation. No experience working in an actual restaurant. I don't expect food writers to attend chef school, but what exactly is their path from no clue to Expert Critic? Taste buds and a nose? Read a few cookbooks and you, too, can be a Revered Critic (B.A. in journalism required)? That's it?

Isn't that like a science writer who can't tell a photon from a prion? Yes, a reporter can theoretically write an excellent piece using investigative techniques. But when something is set down in front of you for your dining pleasure, shouldn't you have some prior knowledge of how it's typically prepared, so you can better communicate the restaurant's style of preparation, its choice of ingredients? Saying something is yummy, tasty, bad or heavenly is not, after all, great journalism. More must be said, vivid descriptions of the presentation, flavors, balance; in short, make the reader experience what it's like to savor the food and revel in the atmosphere (or lack thereof) of the restaurant.

Before writing about what was presumably in the restaurant owner's head several years ago versus now, wouldn't it be better to interview said owner after all your tasting was done and your food reviews written? Find out what he's thinking, where he's going, what he loves and hates, why things are the way they are?

Yet, who am I to question established wisdom? Another journalist wrote that bloggers are not journalists. We're something else. Not necessarily bad, just not bona fide journalists. So I'm just an outsider howling in the wilderness. Ignore my questions, since they're from Outside the System. But I still think I'm right. Knowing a subject gives more insight, doesn't it? Interviewing the owner and chef would give insight, wouldn't it?

After the War of the Pens, the critic and chef allegedly talked on the phone for about an hour. The critic deleted some offending text that apparently was not kind to the chef. The chef deleted his entire original Facebook post (even the valid, non-insulting parts), then apologized in Facebook for things he said that were less than flattering to the reviewer. All is well. They're friends again.

Personally, I think the chef lost. I think that the critic, with free access to publishing to a large number of people, convinced him that argument was not in his best interests. Force won, again.

The critic also managed to promote a local blog that agreed with his review on all but two points. Not exactly neutral. Will he mention this blog although I'm critical of the style of the review?

The critic, who seems just as thin-skinned as the chef about people demeaning his skills or qualifications, managed to insult all who comment from the online community by calling them insincere and not credible. If the online community is not worth bothering with, why do they have a feedback/comment function on their web site? Oh. I'm not a journalist, so I have no right to question Established Wisdom. But still...

The moral of this story? If you're a restaurant owner and victim of a strange and perhaps unjust review, just let it slide. The critic has the entire power of the press to attack you. He may not be especially fair about it, either. Your defense will probably be quixotic at best; remember that Most Chefs Are Not Writers, and you're probably no exception. You're going up against Dirty Harry with a pop-gun. Give up now, unless you consider that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Another moral would be as a reviewer and critic, wouldn't it be normal to expect scathing attacks (or counterattacks)? Isn't that part of the process of free speech? Shouldn't staying calm when people query your competence be part of your professional demeanor? Wouldn't the weapons of sharp wit and scintillating prose work better than anger and revenge, if those emotions were indeed present?

A third moral is that you apparently really don't need to know anything specialized to become a journalist in that field. One size fits all. Know the right people, get the job, eat some food, start writing. You're now an Expert Critic! No wonder people frequent all those public review sites - the public may have greater knowledge than the professionals in many cases!

This could have been less rancorous on both sides, but maybe that wasn't the intent. Maybe rancor means excitement. Excitement means sales. Sales mean staying employed in difficult times.

Note: Any remarkable resemblance between the people in the illustration and the real people I'm writing about is just proof that I'm psychic. I don't know what either of them looks like, except that they're both male. I think.

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