On Being a Food Writer
When I visit a restaurant that I intend to write about, I normally don’t mention it until I have eaten and paid the check. I want to remove the possibility that someone will mistake me for a restaurant critic, and think that my opinion can be swayed by free food or overzealous service.
I’m not a critic, though I guess I do write critically now and then. But the food-writing community in New Orleans is small enough that even a man, like me, who doesn’t “rate” restaurants, merits attention now and again. It used to make me very nervous for several reasons.
First, I know I tend to be flippant, but I take what I do seriously. If I am going to write about a restaurant after dining there, I want to do it from the perspective of a customer who has not been treated as though he was a VIP. (I don’t always get to dine at a restaurant before I write about it, because in my column in New Orleans Magazine I often cover places that haven’t yet opened, and don’t write about the food in that case, but that’s a story for another day, I guess).
Second, and this is really more on me, I try very hard not to take free stuff. It’s not because I’m afraid it will skew my objectivity – I’m a lawyer first and foremost, and while some may scoff, my objectivity and my ethics are not for sale at any price. No, the reason being offered free stuff makes me nervous is that if I like the place, and want to go back, I’ll be worried that when I darken the door the reaction will be, “Oh, here comes that ‘food critic’ guy who wants a free meal.”
I understand, intellectually, that most of this is in my head. I doubt that most folks in the industry care all that much what restaurant critics, let alone a food writer like me, say. We don’t really have a “critic” in New Orleans, and if you doubt me, ask yourself this: when was the last time you read an actual negative review of a restaurant? That’s not the only measure of a critic, obviously, and I am most assuredly not casting stones at my colleagues (and in most cases, friends) who write for the other publications in town.
The truth is that New Orleans is a small town, and with the exception of Brett Anderson, pretty much all of the food writers/restaurant critics in town have pictures in their bylines. And I can tell you that Brett’s picture hangs in most of the professional kitchens I’ve visited in New Orleans.
Now lest you think this is another “how meta can he go” columns, I’ll tell you that the reason I was prompted to write this was a piece I read in The New Yorker over the weekend about New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. Meaning this is another “Peyton has a bug up his ass about the New York Times” piece.
The piece in question is by Ian Parker, with whose work I wasn’t familiar. It’s the New Yorker, so he’s an excellent writer; better than most, I’d say, given the limitations of the house style. Describing the experience of a critic being recognized at a restaurant, Parker writes:
Experienced for the first time, this covert cosseting feels slightly melancholy, like an episode of Cold War fiction involving futile charades and a likely defenestration. Nurnberger was a gracious server but, understandably, not quite at ease. She risked overplaying her role, like Sartre’s waiter in “Being and Nothingness,” who “bends forward a little too eagerly” and voices “an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.” In her effort to help, Nurnberger came close to explaining what a menu was. Rote questions about how we gentlemen were getting on—usually asked of me—had a peculiar intensity. “I’m very reluctant to break the fourth wall,” Wells had said to me earlier, speaking of restaurant staff. “But I wish there were some subtle way to say, ‘Don’t worry!’ ” He sighed—he often sighs—and added, “I can’t honestly say that. Because sometimes they should worry.”
Okay, so the reference to Sartre is a bit “on the nose” for a New Yorker piece about a food critic, but I certainly recognized the description of an obsequious server, and I have, in fact, told restaurant staff that there was no reason to worry. And in my case, it was true.
I don’t envy Wells, who at one point, discussing his relationship with the chefs he covers, is quoted as saying: “The danger is getting friendly with people you should feel free to destroy,” he said, and then stopped. “That’s not really the word, but you get the idea. People you should feel free to savage, when you have to.”
The meal he and Parker were having during this conversation happened in one of David Chang’s joints, a chef for whom I have a great deal of professional respect, and whose cookbook and magazine, Lucky Peach, I read, but a guy I have no desire to meet, because in my one, brief experience with him a couple of years after Katrina, he looked at me as I sat 10 feet away at Cochon Butcher, typing away on my laptop, and said to his companions (Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne and Eric Ripert), “Look at that asshole, he’s probably a blogger.” This from a guy who owes his career to being recognized by “bloggers” in NYC. Whatevs, as the kids say.
So I will admit to a bit of schadenfreude when I read in Parker’s article that Chang, the iconoclast-rebel-punk-rock chef who don’t give a f*ck, is terrified enough of Pete Wells that he showed up at what was at the time probably his 17th restaurant after being alerted to Wells’ presence. Did he think Wells was going to pull a Fierie on him? Surely not.
Well, maybe. Wells gave Chang’s Momofuku Nishi 1 star out of 4, which for a restaurant with any ambition is basically saying you’d be better off eating dog food. (In Chang’s defense, the fact that Wells asked for gluten-free noodles on one visit makes me question the guy’s overall judgment and ability to discern good food from bad.)
But then I can’t actually imagine having the kind of influence on the success or failure of a restaurant that Wells apparently has. There’s an anecdote in Parker’s piece about a poor review of a restaurant that Wells wrote, and how the restaurant thereafter closed: “Wells drew a finger across his throat, in joking acceptance of responsibility.” This segues into a general critique of tasting menus, which Wells apparently considers “disempower[ing]” to a critic, because everyone in the place has the same experience. That makes no sense to me, and I will admit that a tasting menu, done right, is my ideal experience at a truly excellent restaurant. But I do understand that not every meal is intended to be a religious experience in which diners worship at the altar of the chef; a great meal can be about nothing but the food and drink, but it can also be more about fellowship at the table, or anything else that makes the experience memorable.
I distinctly remember a conversation that took place about a decade ago with a chef who lamented the fact New Orleans doesn’t have a “real” restaurant critic, by which he meant someone who would give praise where deserved but would also pull out the sharp knife when necessary to eviscerate a pretender. I remember being a little embarrassed by the fact that I so rarely criticized a place.
I haven’t forgotten that conversation, but I no longer feel embarrassed in the least by what I do. Lord knows I write about this topic often enough that nobody could reasonably be confused about my purpose here. Having said that, it would be interesting to have someone writing with absolute objectivity about the dining scene.
Here’s the thing: it’s not hard to be critical, or even to write critically. It’s hard to write critically in a town the size of New Orleans. Pete Wells can go out to eat at fantastic restaurants in New York every third night for the rest of his life and never visit the same place twice. I’m not saying that I don’t write negative things about restaurants because I’m worried about the reaction I’d receive from restaurateurs and their staff, but I’m telling you that’s a real concern for people who actually write critically, and it’s definitely one reason I’ve never wanted to do that type of work.
I’m not sure New Orleans is ever going to have a critic like Pete Wells, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I think the folks writing about food here do a good job, and if most of the don’t write overly negative reviews, that’s probably because there just aren’t that many bad restaurants here.
That’s my story, anyway. I’d be happy to hear yours, and particularly whether you feel we need someone to write more critically about local restaurants.