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How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread

01/27/2015 09:06 am ET | Updated Mar 29, 2015
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Food journalism in today's world is all about a "best" list, a "what's hot and what's not" or a restaurant ranking system. It's about what we need more of, less of and what we better start doing right away. They tell us a chef's favorite holiday treat, favorite knife, favorite gadget, favorite song, favorite thing to do after work, favorite late-night snack, favorite morning ritual. Instead of stories, we get inventories. Is there any other form of journalism that continually rates things, judges them and then packages them up in a neat list? What is this insane business about ratings and lists? It's true, people read them, they click on them, but why should journalists always pander to the most basic, low-brow instincts of the readers?

To me, that constitutes a crisis. I understand that print media is a difficult endeavor, especially in the food world. We lost Gourmet magazine and La Cucina Italiana. Newspapers are working with skeleton crews in order to just survive. The select few that remain are desperately trying to be relevant in this increasingly digital world where clickbait is king. But what is relevant food journalism today? That's worth trying to figure out.

Social media -- just as much as lost advertising revenue -- is the enemy of relevant food journalism. Why would a reader wait around for a thoughtful and analytical article when he can obtain an immediate jolt from a cool, hip Twitter feed or even better, an Instagram account? He can read constantly updated online foodie sites like Eater, GrubStreet and Zagat and see all of the latest and greatest lists, hot spots, gossip, closings, chef divorces and breakups. With the addition of sites like Yelp, Chowhound and Urbanspoon, he has instant access to the hottest restaurant openings and so-called reviews from anyone who chooses to go online and write one.

Unfortunately, to combat the curse of instant access, real journalists have been forced to downgrade their standards, and are now in the business of giving younger readers their much-needed immediate buzz as opposed to producing more thoughtful -- and thought-provoking --content. In the process of lowering their standards they have done irreparable harm to the once-elegant business of reviewing restaurants. They have made traditional restaurant reviews all but irrelevant.

It wasn't always like this. It used to be a basic and admirable process. First, someone opens up a restaurant. Then, someone who has restaurant and/or cooking experience and knows how to write well, visits the establishment numerous times, describes it and gives it a rating. Usually it's stars, but here in Philadelphia, it's bells -- the influence of the Liberty Bell. The important thing to note here is that the professional reviewer sets the bar. He or she has carefully defined parameters: food, wine, service, ambiance and hospitality are among the most important. The restaurant waits anxiously for the review, which for most of my professional life was considered the benchmark of success. A positive review coupled with a well-written article, meant phone calls galore the next day, as well as a full reservations book.

Vetri opened in 1999. When we were well-reviewed, we could hardly handle all the phone calls. It was nearly incomprehensible. I answered phones in the morning. When Jeff Benjamin, my partner, arrived later, I started cooking and he took over the phones. We went from doing 4-6 covers on a Monday night to doing 40. Then in 2001, when we got our 4th bell (star) it was more of the same. We were forced to hire two extra receptionists to handle the onslaught; certainly a good problem to have. Even 8 years ago when we opened Osteria, our first casual restaurant, there was a significant change after a good review. But that was then and this is now. Osteria, for us, was the last review that moved the needle. Today in Philadelphia and in most other big cities, a major newspaper, local magazine or blog review literally all bear the same weight. That is to say, they all have minimal effect. In a city like NYC, where the New York Times is all-powerful, it may be slightly different. But even so, many chefs with restaurants there tell me that a good article may drive traffic for a week or so, but after that the uptick in business is basically a rounding error.

The reason is simple: All reviews carry the same weight, and are the same in importance. A newspaper review is buried under massive amounts of opinion and critiquing coming from every direction. And reviewers have responded by doing their very worst. Instead of changing with the times, finding ways to set a new standard, they have descended into the abyss of shock-and-awe journalism -- anything to draw readers' attention, and to encourage them to share on social media. This in my mind brings about a few major issues.

First, major critics have abandoned their sense of discretion. They no longer believe in standards for restaurants. One that invests heavily in a wine or cocktail program is no better than one that only serves food. A full-service restaurant is the same as a sandwich shop, pizzeria or even a hummus stand. Nice hummus at a counter? Give the joint three stars.

Critics illogically argue that they review each place based on how well it executes a particular concept. With that thinking, a McDonald's could conceivably get 4 stars as it strives to be the very best greasy, fat-laden, diabetes-causing place in the universe. Even the Golden Globes is intelligent enough to have separate categories for actor/actress for Drama and Comedy, because the organizers understand that the two simply cannot be rated by the same standards.

Secondly, it seems as if writers have become exactly the same as "egotarian chefs." Alan Richman coined the phrase in a GQ article called "The Rise of Egotarian Cuisine". However, he might as well have been talking about food writers. In fact, if you substitute a couple words here and there, you can make the same argument.

He writes:

"...something is wrong in our restaurant kitchens (food reviews) lately. Suddenly, a new breed of chefs (writers) seem to have decided that they should be cooking (writing) not for your pleasure but for their own."

Or this:

"The food (writing) is intellectual, yet at the same time often thoughtless. It goes directly from mind to plate (paper), straddling the line between the creative and the self indulgent. The dishes (articles) that fail have little to do with the foundations of cuisine (writing) as we know it, as taught by master chefs (great food writers) or in culinary (writing) academies. When it works, the chefs (food writers) have been classically schooled and their worst impulses reined in."

Illustrative of how seriously food critics are taking themselves these days is the recent epidemic of stories they have been publishing about themselves, announcing they are dropping their anonymity. The truth: They never had any. As if we didn't know who every one of them are when they come into our restaurants, wearing wigs or dark glasses. Those stories demonstrate dual flaws, that they are both deluded and self-important.

By far the least admirable aspect of reviewing today is the need to express every opinion in superlatives. No nuances allowed. Everything is either awesome or awful. If it's not the best, it's the worst. If it's awesome, they are screaming with joy. If it's awful, they are howling with rage. Subtlety is nonexistent. They are no longer writing for the purpose of informing the reader. They are writing to take center stage, to promote themselves and their agenda. Aspiring critics who once studied writing, journalism and the art of creative expression are now using words and expressions such as "eeewwww," and "seriously yum," just like those on social media sites with which they are competing. Many of them would do a service to journalism by starting their own personal blogs, or critiquing solely from their personal social media profiles rather than pretending to be actual journalists. That way they will no longer be restricted by principles.

You might wonder why a chef/restaurateur is writing an article about writers. It might feel to you as though I am biting the media hand that feeds me. This is my attempt to come clean, to speak for all of us in the business. We talk about this all the time amongst ourselves. We discuss the food media. We're kind of obsessed with it. But we don't make it public. It's time we did.

Some of what we talk about has gotten better. The John Marianis of the world, the writers who lived in an ethical netherworld, are fading away. They are practically nonexistent. So too are the extremely questionable, maybe even litigable, tactics of Yelp. At least they operate out in the open, and everyone reads the reviews posted there with extreme skepticism.

The next big question is what the major critics will do next in their continuing campaign to make the lives of chefs more miserable. In Philadelphia, they have threatened that once they have published a review and graded a restaurant, they reserve the right to go back a couple months later and with one visit change the ratings however they deem fit. Sounds a little bit like journalistic bullying to me.

One thing is for certain, regardless of which direction food journalism takes, I'm still happy to earn my reputation the old-fashioned way, one good meal at a time.