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Traveling through London a few weeks back, I came across a startling news story in The Guardian ...information that, to my knowledge, hasn't been carried in the U.S. press.
"Critics Bite Back After Restaurant Reviewer Sued for Calling Chicken Too Sweet," blared the headline in one of my favorite English newspapers. I went on to digest every word, of course ...and found a disturbing story, that may contain signposts toward the future of food journalism.
Restaurant critic Caroline Workman, writing for The Irish News, in Belfast, published a review in 2000 of Goodfellas, a local pizza-plus restaurant. She didn't like it. She described the staff as "unhelpful," the cola as "flat," and the chicken marsala as "so sweet as to be inedible." She awarded the place one star out of five.
The restaurant's owner, Ciaran Convery, was more than usually unhappy. He considered her comments "defamatory, damaging and hurtful"—and sued the newspaper. The case has been dragging through the courts since then ...but, in February, 2007, a Belfast jury upheld the restaurant owner's claim, and ordered the newspaper to pay 25,000 pounds (about $50,000 today!) to the restaurant.
The landmark decision has restaurant critics, journalists of all kinds, defenders of a free press, and many lovers of liberty, in an uproar. "To say there's a freedom of speech issue here," commented Matthew Norman, The Guardian's restaurant critic, "is so blazingly obvious it almost goes without saying."
The newspaper, of course, has appealed the decision ...and the final outcome of this case is not yet known. But the fact that it has gotten this far raises some very elemental questions about the whole practice of restaurant reviewing.
As a restaurant reviewer myself—having reviewed hundreds of restaurants for The Rosengarten Report, and over a hundred more during my four-year stint as restaurant critic for Gourmet magazine in the late 1990s—I was initially horrified. The very thought of restaurant critics quaking in their boots, and having to consider the legal consequences of any gastronomic truth they choose to tell, even as the broken bearnaise is lubricating their lips, bodes ill, certainly, for the whole enterprise of restaurant reviewing.
However ...and maybe the following opinion has something to do with the fact that I recently opened a restaurant (Icelandic Fish & Chips, in Reykjavik), and have perhaps developed a little sympathy for the restaurant side ...what does happen when a reviewer in a widely read, influential publication says stuff that is flat-out wrong?
I frankly see nothing legally objectionable, or even objectionable, about what Caroline Workman wrote in The Irish News. However ...I'm thinking ...what if a critic came into my restaurant and reported that he or she was served rat droppings next to the cod? And what if I know that that's untrue? Should I have legal recourse? I'm thinking I should. Which just goes to show you how confused I am. And the whole area gets blurrier still when we're not talking about gross errors in the reporting, but matters of taste.
All of this hasn't gotten to the American courts yet, but we Americans recently had something of a landmark moment ourselves, in last week's Wednesday New York Times. On the very page next to Times' restaurant critic Frank Bruni's weekly restaurant review appeared a full-page "ad," purchased by restaurant owner Jeffrey Chodorow (longtime restaurant professional who achieved fame several years back as the owner of Rocco Di Spirito's ill-fated meatball shop in the NBC reality series "The Restaurant").
Jeffrey wrote in this ad—a long letter to Peter Wells, the editor of the Times' Wednesday food section—because he was upset by the New York Times' treatment of his new restaurant Kobe Club. He speculates that there may be a personal animus against him, noting that ever since his TV show "critics for The New York Times (and certain other publications) have been very hard on me." But then he gets to the core of the matter. "You should have critics on your staff," he writes to the Times, "that celebrate and support the efforts of people who work in New York in one of the most difficult and demanding industries there is. Criticize, but do it fairly, honestly and objectively and through people with credentials ..."
...which launches Jeffrey's unnamed attack on William Grimes (former Times reviewer), and his named attack on Frank Bruni. "They are not really food critics," he writes, scathingly. "In fact," he goes on, "there hasn't been a real food critic with food background (except perhaps Amanda Hesser) at The New York Times since Ruth Reichl."
What to do about this? Chodorow, exasperated by a real problem, concludes by proposing his own solution. "Your readers." he writes, "would not expect your drama critic to have no background in drama or your architecture critic to not be an architect. For a publication that prides itself on integrity, I feel your readers should be better informed as to this VERY IMPORTANT fact, so that they can give your reviews the weight, or lack thereof, they deserve.
In the interest of fairness, I am also introducing my personal blog, which will be a compilation of my food-related experiences and musings and a special section entitled Following Frank and After Adam (DR says: obviously Adam Platt of New York magazine), in which I will make a follow-up visit to restaurants they write about for the purpose of reviewing their reviews. My blog will appear at www.chinagrillmgt.com/blog. My friends in the restaurant business have warned me that there will be further retaliation against me for speaking up. So be it."
Well, no retaliations here, I assure you. I too want to raise the quality level of restaurant critics. But I'm not sure that Jeffrey's blog—or any blog—will have much of an effect. I know Jeffrey, have dined with him ...and I, personally, will be very eager to see his blog and take his suggestions. But how does any non-acquaintance of Jeffrey know that Jeffrey's blog, or anyone's blog, carries more authority than a review in the New York Times? Dueling blogs—with which we're already afflicted—don't lead us out of the wilderness.
I am ultra-sympathetic to Jeffrey's implied point that many restaurant critics don't have the qualifications to be restaurant critics. But I'm thinking of different qualifications ....and here, too, I approach solutions differently.
One recollection, among many: Several years back, a friend of mine was representing a new Italian restaurant in Manhattan. She invited four major restaurant critics to dine there (I was one of them) ...and she dined with each of them, four meals in all. She noted, she told me later, that the four meals were very similar to each other. I pretty bly disliked mine.
The chef was a young striver, from Italy, who obviously grew up soaking in the meaningless affectations of other chefs, internationally. The Italian-ness was absolutely drained from his food, like water off of pasta—with nothing of substance or style to replace it.
This was bland, pretty food—with a little signature squiggle of julienned and deep-fried carrot on top of practically every dish. Whoop-de-doo. " How did the other critics like the restaurant?" I asked my friend. "It was amazing," she said. "Critic A and Critic B" (they shall remain nameless, as shall the restaurant) "bly disliked their meals. And when they told me why ...they said exactly the same things you said!" "And critic C?" asked I. "Critic C ...loved it," she said with a giggle ..."and wrote a rave review."
OK. You could possibly argue that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, and that there's nothing wrong, fishy or irregular about one critic vehemently disagreeing with three others. But I don't believe it, not in this case. This was an excellent scientific sample—we all came as close as possible to having the same experience, and three of us reached exactly the same conclusions. I would argue that, with minor variations, any good restaurant critic in the world would have come to similar conclusions.
And the interesting thing is...none of us, not one of us in the quartet, has any special background (other than eating a lot over many years) that qualifies us to be restaurant critics. I bly disagree with Chodorow's implication that only architects should be architecture critics; criticism is its own kind of specialty, and sometimes those who can see others' work clearly, and describe it clearly, may well be better critics than some who actually do or have done the work.
What it takes, I think, to be a good critic of any kind, is taste. Taste, acumen, intuition, an innate sense (not necessarily a trained sense) of the art you're describing ...and, of course, the ability to express it all. I have friends with whom I dine, like Jim Munson, in San Francisco, who have never, ever been in the restaurant business—but a guy like Munson can assess a chef, and his food, and his restaurant, better than almost anyone I know with "a food background."
The ultimate remedy for inaccurate restaurant reviewing has always been the voice of the people. As one would do when seeking the advice of any critic, one must constantly compare one's own observations on restaurants to those of specific critics. If you agree with this lady a lot, you follow her; if you disagree with that guy a lot, you stop paying attention. It does happen (though it takes time) that the newspaper ultimately gets the message.
Today, however, the game is changing—largely due to economics. Top-end restaurants have become so damned expensive that it's no small matter any longer to be misled by a critic; take his wrong advice, and you've dumped a fortune. An even larger issue is the financial risk of restaurant owners; today, careers and fortunes ride on restaurant enterprises. I wouldn't sue a critic who writes that my cola is flat, but I can understand why restaurant owners are concerned about inaccurate reviewing; they stand to suffer disastrous losses.
So ...what's to be done?
I'm not entirely sure....and I've been thinking about this for a long time, trying to come up with something constructive. Finally ...but tentatively ...I've hit upon a plan, clumsy though it may be, that could someday make a difference.
It's the Restaurant Critic Certification Program.
This is not a training course; critics who participate are not "taught" restaurant criticism. Rather, it's a testing program to determine who has "it" and who doesn't. You come to the academy, or wherever it's held, and the top restaurant critics in the world supervise a day-long, or two-day long, series of dishes that are served to the participants.
Some of the dishes prepared in the kitchen are thought to be "perfect" by supervisors and chefs; some are thought to be mildly flawed; some are thought to be fatally flawed. The participants, after tasting each dish, are asked written questions about the quality of the dishes. I firmly believe that the excellent critics will have a very high positive correlation in their responses—and that the less gifted critics will be all over the map.
That's the basis of the "certification"—if your stats (the systems for which, of course, must be painstakingly developed) show that you're an excellent critic, you get the diploma. Newspapers or magazines that run your reviews can mention that certification. Diploma-less critics will have to earn their credibility the old-fashioned way—but, until they get the diploma, their barbs will sting less; one advantage of this system is that the poor restaurant owner, under attack by some misguided neophyte, can always say, "Well, look, he didn't have certification."
I know ...it's a wacky idea. And I know ...it could go really wrong, if done poorly. But think about it. If some excellent institution paired up with some really bright, skillful and creative restaurant critics—an amazing exam could be developed that could really give a restaurant critic credentials in this world. It wouldn't solve all the problems ...but you'd have a significantly better idea if those stupid deep-fried carrot squiggles are really worth schlepping into Manhattan to taste.
Reprinted with permission by Tastings, a free weekly E-Zine brought to you by:
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