We all know that Robert Sietsema inspired a generation of food writers to explore New York City's outer boroughs for undiscovered, authentic restaurants serving a wide array of ethnic foods. This legacy of his has been mentioned in numerous reactions to his firing from the longstanding alternative newspaper The Village Voice -- along with those of two other notable staff writers - after serving as its food critic for two decades. The news comes at the heels of major upheaval in the newspaper's editorial department, as well as a generational shift in how news, particularly food opinion, is produced. With the loss of Sietsema, The Village Voice has lost an ardent -- even abrasive at times -- stalwart of journalistic integrity in food media. Though the paper has not yet announced any new food critic successors, it is difficult to conceive of many, given today's news environment, who go to such extremes to preserve the type of journalistic ethics that he stood faithful to.
In an age of bloggers, Yelpers and Instagrammers, in which everyone has the means to add their two cents, it's easy to see the need for a higher order of food criticism. A discerning audience seeks a knowledged and objective voice, placing its trust on reputable publications for solid reviews. In turn, aspiring writers learn from their (presumably paid) peers as a beacon of what they hope to accomplish, artistically and financially. And yet, for many publications, the quantity of blog posts is increasingly prized over quality of research and writing, and declining advertising revenue is squeezing writers' salaries -- if not themselves entirely. What, then, about the costs of visiting a restaurant at minimum three times and ordering as many dishes as possible, to form a comprehensive opinion for a proper review? This was one of the standards that Sietsema was staunch about; since breaking from routine was unthinkable, he would rather pay out of his own pocket when a budget was preventive. (Now, do you begin to see why Sietsema championed so many out-of-the-way, inexpensive, yet awesome restaurants?)
Even more purist was Sietsema's commitment to annonymity in a world where headshots are protocol for public presence, and food critics' photos are burnished in restauranteurs' mental inventory. Sietsema doggedly maintains an invisible public profile -- you may not publish photos of him on your Flickr stream or Facebook -- in order to remain incognito at restaurants. Wearing a mask whenever a public appearance is necessary, he has turned a twenty-first century improbability into possible practice. This is not professional paranoia. Speaking of her boss Ed Levine, Serious Eats' former Editor Erin Zimmer stated recently at a panel discussion that "Ed can't go anywhere without being recognized," and hence getting VIP treatment. So she and her colleagues were cognizant about that when reviewing a new restaurant for the site. Recognition: a blessing or food critic-career curse?
Sietsema also schooled food writers in steering clear of industry entanglement for possible conflicts of interest that would compromise our journalistic integrity. In "An Open Letter to Josh Ozersky," Sietsema scolded his fellow colleague for not disclosing gifted food, praising a restaurant that hasn't yet opened, and other possible obstructions to standard -- and won two journalism awards for the piece. His stance has met a particularly commercial entanglement-ridden time for food journalism, when editorial departments are meshing with storefronts and bloggers are approached with "sponsored content" opportunities to make cash in lieu of traditional ads. Food "critics" no matter their legitimacy are broached by restaurants, corporations, and marketing agencies who try to influence their subject matter, no matter the outcome of the opinions made. But Sietsema would have nothing of it. In fact, if a friend of his was in some way involved with a restaurant -- even as a line cook -- Sietsema refused to make a public opinion about it. A recurring frustration for him was friends who offered unsolicited insider knowledge about places: "Don't you know that I can't review it now?" he would say.
As the author of a book and blog in which I purposely shunned restaurants for two years, Sietsema and I were unlikely friends. In the Foreword to my memoir, The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, Sietsema wrote, upon hearing about me from a colleague: "I suppose he expected me to express contempt or outright derision, since my livelihood as a restaurant critic depends on everyone eating out as often as possible." But once I said goodbye to my strict diet of no restaurants, I embraced a main reason for eating out -- exploring different cultures -- and went along with Sietsema for work-related meals. We'd check out Henan food in Flushing, Tibetan food in Jackson Heights or a mom-and-pop Senegalese stronghold in Clinton Hill. It was clear that Sietsema had vicariously traveled the globe given the depth of food knowledge that he brought to the table. Accompanying Sietsema to the latest "New American" bistros in trendy neighborhoods would also mean a wildly enlightening session as we shared our least-favorite restaurant clichés. "This place is doomed," he might surmise, before publishing a few weeks later something a lot more thorough, thoughtfully composed, and incisively truthful about the restaurant's shortcomings and highlights.
It never failed to amaze me how well Sietsema was able to transcribe his experience into words. I believe that it has everything to do with how he upheld his rigorous standards of criticism. It's because he is not beholden to anyone's influence, respects authority and objectivity in his views, takes a scholarly approach, and does not allow for missteps through his sometimes extreme actions, against a commonly accepted grain. He is probably pissed off at me for feeling the need to even say so, but these observances have their merit. And were we to forget them would be an all-too-common thing, so unlike anything that Sietsema would encourage.