Tag Archives: Criticism

What is “Good”? (aka…playing with an idea)

(Note: I’m just playing with an idea here. My conclusion at the bottom should not be considered as “definitive”)

The last chapter in (gratuitous plug alert!) my upcoming book Sweet Tooth, asks a question to which I have yet to find a comfortable answer: What makes “good” chocolate?

We could apply this question to many a product, not just chocolate, and get answers as vast and different as the people trying to take a crack at this puzzle. What is “Good”?

As philosophical and abstract as the answers may be, the question is still an important one to ask, especially in light that part of my job in writing about food, is to hopefully lead you to an answer that you can live with. There is an article of faith, that you, the reader, are taking any time you read someone else who carries an air of authority about them, regardless of how formal or informal the voice of the writer. By reading my stuff, or Anthony Bourdain’s, or Gael Greene’s, the goal, I believe is to have some understanding of whatever topic we are writing about that leads you to some new insight that leads you to choose something better than you would have chosen previously.

Oh, and hopefully you would be entertained while reading it, but that’s a separate part of the story. Let’s stick on the question for a moment.

The first place people go to when asking “what is good food” comes down to taste. But taste is highly subjective, even among the fooderati. What jazzes Ruth Reichl may not jazz Mario Batali. And, while they may respect a certain type of food, drink, or even a chef, they may not particularly like them enough to seek them out on a regular basis. I believe most people who write about food inherently understand this, but not to speak of it, for whatever.

This is further complicated by comparing one good product versus another. Do you think that the average person can tell the difference between one Chianti rated 92 by Robert Parker, and another, similar Chianti that had been rated a 90? While Mr. Parker may have the palate to distinguish such a difference, most people can’t.

So, if the above assertions are true (and someone may be able to convince me otherwise), if being able to communicate the finer points of “goodness” is subjective, then what’s the point?

Well, as I alluded to above, entertainment is one factor. While food writing may not be a lucrative career, it indeed does have romantic elements to it that allow readers to live vicariously through the author’s perspective. This is an important element, and one that should not be overlooked. But good writing is different from good food, and it’s the latter I wish to focus upon.

Over the past generation or so, “Good Food” has had new criteria added to it. Everything from Locavorism, to vegetarianism, to sustainability, to ensuring that the producers of the food can make a livable wage from their work, all of these questions are now being asked of food, and many people use these answers to determine whether or not their food is good. But these new criteria being asked really are based around questions of morality politics, and science. And these questions are often at odds from those being asked by the likes of Alan Richman and his ilk to a majority of food blogs out there.

The conclusion I have (just) arrived at is that there’s a vast difference between the quality of the experience of food versus the quality of the food itself. We see examples of this all of the time, and Alva Noë recently highlighted this dissonance:

It turns out most people won’t notice the difference between paté and dog food, so long as the latter is suitably presented with the right sort of garnish. And as for our ability to discriminate wine, even experts may confuse a white wine with a red when it is served at room temperature in a dark glass. And we’ll enjoy soggy old potato chips, it turns out, if our chewing is accompanied (over head phones) by the satisfying sound of crunching.

What are we to make of this?

I think there is a temptation, when we learn of these studies, to feel that we have been somehow unmasked, exposed, revealed to be, well, inauthentic in our pleasures. After all, if we can’t really taste the difference between cheap beer mixed with vinegar and an expensive micro-brew, then surely this means that our preference for the finer stuff is, well, a pretension.

Dr. Noë states that context matters, and when we apply this to food writing (and food media of all sorts, really), we’re not buying food, we’re buying the context in which it’s presented. And that context? That context is shaped by preferences shaped within us by our environment. A dinner in Paris sounds sexy to us because we’ve been told again and again that eating dinner in Paris is sexy.

Dr. Noë sums up:

We can discriminate dog food and paté, red wine and white, holding hands with someone we love and holding hands with a stranger. But what we are discriminating, when we do this, is not neural events in the mouth or hand, but what we are doing. And when the wine expert, or the lover, describes what matters in the flavor, or the caress, he or she is not identifying marks or features of the intrinsic qualities in the nervous system that only the expert of the lover can discern; taste is not a kind of measurement. Rather, the expert is calling attention to features of the flavor and the action that are precisely there for us to think about and pay attention to (emphasis mine – Kate).

In other words, “goodness” results from paying attention to the subtle differences and nuances within the context, not necessarily within intrinsic quality of the product being consumed. Taking the 92 rated Chianti mentioned above, I will be willing to bet my last dollar that drinking that Chianti at a wine tasting event in a hotel room outside of Indianapolis with a group a strangers is a far different experience than sharing that same wine with a lover while watching a sunset at the Grand Canyon. Ask a person to rate the wine at both locations, and you’ll get far different answers.

Or, to put it another way, the reason why Robert Parker rated one Chianti a 92 and another a 90, is that, perhaps, just perhaps, he got laid and/or paid on the day he gave out the 92 and didn’t on the day he gave out the 90.


Another Article on the Evil Food Blogs

Jeez, talk about your overblown title -

Restaurants vs. Bloggers: Rage Against the Machine
In the 21st Century, High-Powered Chefs Are Forced to Listen to the Little Guy — as Long as He Has a Keyboard

Ugh. There’s so much wrong here that I’m not sure where to start.

First and foremost – Yelp and Chowhound are not food blogs. Please oh please stop confusing the mediums.

Secondly, not all food blogs deal in restaurant reviews, for every Adam, there’s a Clotilde; for every Pim, there’s a Heidi. The difference between them is that Adam and Pim write about restaurants, and Heidi and Clotilde do not.

I find this above comparison striking, because while the publishing world lauds Clotilde and Heidi for their writing and their food knowledge, chefs and restaurateurs dismiss Pim, Adam and others for the lack of food knowledge. Where’s the logic? A food blog is only as good, only as knowledgeable, and only as trustworthy as the people running it. Passionate people tend to know a lot about the items they are passionate about.

Finally, are food blogs really that much of a threat? The biggest criticism I hear about food blogs is the lack of knowledge and understanding the blog writers have in discerning a restaurant’s intent.

Let’s ignore the premise for the moment that anyone who dines needs to know who Escoffier and This are in order to “get” food. Instead let’s focus on communicating the food’s “intent” (whatever that means).

If I’m served a dish that has what I believe to be too much butter in the sauce, but the recipe for the sauce was a traditional one used in Cuisine classique,  am I at fault for not getting the subtle tastes of lemon or whatnot in the sauce, and how it complimented the dish it was presented with? Or is the chef at fault for not effectively communicating the the sauce used goes well with fish or that the dish was an attempt to play with ideas of balancing the delicate with the bold? Whether I have an educated palate or not, I’m still going to think that the sauce has too much butter.

Because taste is subjective, there is no right or wrong answer to the above questions. And because restaurants are first and foremost a place of business, it’s up to a chef and restaurateur to create a place the keeps customers coming into the front door. Customers which include food bloggers who can afford meals with price tags of forty dollars per plate or more.

What I think it comes down to is this: Restaurant reviews from Food Blogs offer a reflection upon a momentary experience. And if that moment carries an unfortunate event, that event is either an indication of something systemic going on within the restaurant, or an anomaly. If it’s an anomaly, there’s little a chef or owner can do about it except apologize. If it’s something systemic, then the chef or owner should already know about it and be working on fixing it, or realize it is a problem…and then work on fixing it.

Because let me tell you restaurant owners out there something that should be readily apparent – 100% of your clientele are food critics. It’s just that only .001% (give or take) get paid for it.

(Note to self: Must remember that “Uneducated Palate” would make a great punk bank name.)


Alan Richman steps in it

Food writer Alan Richman takes on New Orleans, and proceeds to insult an entire city. Some choice quotes:

The citizens of New Orleans might not be the most energetic Americansâ??I believe their morning exercise regimen consists of stumbling out of barsâ??but they are joyful, expressive eaters.

and

I know we are supposed to salvage whatâ??s left of the city, but what exactly is it that weâ??re trying to cherish and preserve? I hope itâ??s not the French Quarter, which has evolved into a illogical mix of characterless housing, elegant antiques stores, and scuzzy bars, a destination for tourists seeking the worst possible experience. The entertainment values are only marginally superior to those of Tijuana, Mexico.

The response to his piece has been vitriolic, with Pim likening Richman to a jackass, Robert, over at Appetites, calling him a penis, and no less than the New Orleans Times-Picayune inferring that applying the label of “journalist” to Richman would only be correct if it’s definition included the use of wisecracks, sweeping generalizations and out and out inaccuracies.

I realize that this isn’t really food-news worthy per se. But Alan Richman is one of the bigger names in food writing, and it’s noteworthy when someone of his stature pens something like this:

During my time in New Orleans, I sought to keep some perspective. For example, when the sommelier at August brought me an incorrect vintage of the wine Iâ??d ordered, I tried not to be too distressed, knowing that somewhere in the Lower Ninth Ward a house was sitting atop a car.

This is quite possibly the worst food writing I’ve ever seen. It has all of the worst traits of criticism – entitlement, arrogance, and comparing the frustration of receiving the wrong vintage of wine to that of someone who LOST THEIR HOUSE!

tags technorati : Alan Richman Food Criticism


Comps and Compromised: Reviewers and “Power”

We’ve talked about comps and how reviewers can abuse the system for their own benefit before. I believe thise NYPost Page six item illustrates this point rather well (login: login@accidentalhedonist.com password:hedonist)

After the wine-y critic was seated, Morfogen visited his table to confirm that everything was satisfactory. Given another opportunity to vent, Passmore obliged.

“The food is great, however, I didn’t like my treatment at the door,” he said.

Morfogen said he was dumbfounded. “Food writers come in unidentified,” he said. “You never know they’re in the room. This guy did everything the opposite. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was surreal.”

Things only got worse when Passmore was presented with a check at the end of the meal.

According to Morfogen, Passmore growled, “I do not pay when reviewing a restaurant. If I pay this check, I will write an unfavorable review about Philippe.”

“I’m not going to pay for a review,” Morfogen said he replied. “My policy is that I don’t comp for reviews.”

For better or worse, comps are part of the food industry. The ethics for taking comps is a matter that certainly lends itself for interesting discussions, but it doesn’t change the fact that comps exist.

However, some people have forgotten that comps are short for “complimentary”. They are a bonus, an addition, nothing more. Anyone who requires a comp to do their job has missed the point of food writing. Anyone who demands a comp is abusing their position and the privilege of that position.

However (and I’m only putting this out here to not convict Mr. Passmore outright), if I had a new restaurant in New York city and wanted to get noticed, what better way to get publicity than to manufacture an episode that paints their location as a victim while putting any review of the place by a specific critic under the category of “compromised and biased”?

It’s a cynical thought to be sure, but one that should at least be acknowledged, even if only to dismiss it as “too contrived”. Personally I tend to believe the restaurant’s story, if only because it’s the one more likely to happen. As Occams Razor states: Given two equally predictive theories, choose the simpler. A critic acting like many humans act when they have presumed “power” is far more likely than my own conspiracy theories. But innocent until proven guilty, I suppose.

If you want to read the entire article, I’m posting it below the jump, as I have no idea on how long the link above will work.

Technorati Tags: Food and Drink, Food Writing, Ethics

Read more! »

John Mariani Speaks

John Mariani tells his side of the story in regard to the Critics vs. Comps issue I talked about a while back.

The a variety of interesting things he writes about, but the one I focused on is the following:

The reason comps exist is simply BECAUSE media cannot afford the money required to make food and travel sections possible. It is on record that the NY Times spends well over $100,000 on its restaurant critic’s expenses each year. I doubt very many newspapers, excepting the very biggest, have paid $20,000 and more for their restaurant critics to spend in one year. I’ve had such jobs, and believe me, if I went over $1,000 a month, I heard about it from my editor. How many other papers or magazines, now with chronically reduced bugets and staff, can afford to spend anything close to that amount? Which is why they pick up so much freelance and syndicated material and never asked who paid for what.

This is something that Steven Shaw had mentioned as well. For all this talk of ethical standards that the New York Times and other similar institutions put on their payed staff, these standards not only do not apply to freelancers, but cannot. For if the freelancers were forced to pay their own way, they’d never be able to work as food or travel writers.

He also touches upon the Moto comments as well as the Cleveland comments. For those who are interested in this story, his posts (and the subsequent ones) are a must read.

Kudos to eGullet and to Mr. Mariani for helping clarify this episode.

Which reminds me. From here on out, I will endeavor to let you guys know of any influences that may bias my own opinions. I’ll codify into a post the same way that I documented the PR Agreement post.

Technorati Tags: Food & Drink, John Mariani, Journalistic Ethics,Food Writing


Another Critic Shows His Petty Side!

What the hell is up with these folks lately?? This time an incident occurs in Cleveland (survey question may be needed for viewing of article):

When Free Times Associate Editor Larry Durstin was told lunch wasn’t dinner, he threatened to slam, in print, the questionable practices of the marketing department.

Free grub or bad pub?

Editor Frank Lewis canned Durstin when he found out.

Sheeesh. I know that in the several stories I’ve mentioned recently, it hasn’t been always the critics fault. From a meta-viewing, it is odd that there have been as many “compromised food-critic” stories in a such a short period of time.

Weird.


Portland’s Food Critic Soap Opera

Here I am, always late for the party.

Things in the food criticism game have been a tad bit discomforting of late. Not only have we had a bit of issue with the John Mariani affair, but now there’s a real scandal involving fellow Pac Nor’westerner Jim Dixon. He recently gave a marginal re-review of Portland’s Castagna restaurant. The review was a bit odd, in that it didn’t cover desserts or ambiance, but focused on appetizers and entrees, and had a particular gripe about salt.

Below are a few quotes from a 468 word review:

When Kevin Gibson and Monique Siu-a husband-and-wife team who’d both been present at the creation of some of the best meals in town (Gibson at Genoa, Siu at Zefiro)-opened Castagna on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in 1999, everybody was happy. Before its first birthday, a reviewer in WW’s own Restaurant Guide proclaimed it “the best new restaurant to open in Portland.” In 2000, The Oregonian dubbed Castagna its Restaurant of the Year.

So what’s my problem? In a word: salt.

(snip)

I also know that we fickle, inconsistent humans come equipped with varying abilities to perceive flavors.

So take this with a grain of salt. Or better yet, shake a little on the food at Castagna, because it’s still bland.

(snip)
I had to ask for salt for the cafe’s signature burger ($11), ditto for the steak ($19), two items that should’ve been pretty heavily salted before they were cooked.

On first perusal, this may seem like a relevant piece of criticism. But then the owners of Castagna, Kevin Gibson and Monique Siu posted a letter to the editor in which they drop this bombshell.

…in the best interests of full disclosure, please let your readers know that your reviewer imports and sells sea salt.

Whoops.

To add insult to injury, the Castagna dropped off a 50 lb Salt lick to Mr. Dixon.

Weekly Editor Kelly Clarke responded that this little fact of Dixon’s business should have been noted somewhere around Jim’s review. But, she noted “In order to avoid any conflicts of interest, Dixon does not sell salt or olive oil to restaurants he reviews for WW.”

That little bit of news sure lit a fire under some people’s bottoms in Portland, as they responded with several further letters to the editors, wondering where the line is drawn in this “Conflict of Interest” debate. One writes “If a restaurant chooses not to do business with Mr. Dixon, then he is free to review them?” Another reader follows up with “I know that you all are proud of your Pulitzer Prize this year, but Jim Dixon and Kelly Clarke just took a little shine off your publication’s well-deserved reputation.”

Ye-ouch!

Jim Dixon then responded to his critics in the same column, essentially saying “I have never tried to sell salt to Castagna.”

Which may be true, but he has sold salt to restaurant Clarklewis. But as Portland Tribune’s Phil Standford points out, Clarklewis is owned by Michael Hebberoy, who also owns a company who caters for a place called Family Supper.

This is what Dixon said of a dish at Family Supper:

We joined the party, and we all ate sliced fresh tomatoes drizzled with good olive oil and sprinkled with chunky sea salt

As I said before — Whoops. Although to be fair, Dixon took on Clarklewis as a client after this review. But without that key bit of information, it does make Dixon look compromised, even if he isn’t.

I could write a treatise about ethics and restaurant criticisms. I could sit here on my perch on high and waggle my finger at the various parties.

But really, it is far more entertaining just to sit back and watch. I’ll save the ethical discussion for another day. There will also be more mature posts soon — as soon as I am done being entertained by all of this.

Meanwhile, read the following forums to follow up on this melodrama.

And bring some popcorn.

Technorati Tags: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews, Restaurant Criticism