Tag Archives: food journalism

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.”


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

Comped Reviews are Biased! Long Live the Comped Reviews!

Now comes a discussion on one of several topics that makes me all heeby-jeeby — ethics and food writing.

For those of you not prone to following the times and travails of food critics, there’s been a bit of a brou-ha-ha of late revolving around one John Mariani. Mr. Mariani is a food critic for Esquire Magazine and his word carries a fair amount of weight in the food industry.

He’s also been recently bitch-slapped by Chicago Chef Homaro Cantu, where Cantu accused Mariani of sending Cantu’s PR people “a four-page list of requests before dining at moto (Cantu’s restaurant) last year, asking the restaurant to pay for everything from cab fare to his hotel bill — requests the restaurant did not honor”.

Mr. Mariani and Esquire magazine have both denied these accusations, but Esquire hedged their bets by stating that Mariani is a freelance correspondent for the magazine, not a restaurant critic. Which would be all well and except for the recent column in Esquire where Mariani has penned an annual list of the nation’s “20 Best New Restaurants“. Pardon me for saying, but the title smells oddly like a backhanded compilations of reviews, unless the initial title of the piece was “20 Best New Restaurants that I, John Mariani, Have Eaten In and Have Not Compared Against Any Other Restaurant”.

Call me crazy, but when you say one restaurant deserves to be on a “Best of” list, and another doesn’t, that’s a review — an oversimplified and inferred review, but a review nonetheless. But I am picking at nits here.

The real issue comes down to what is the ethical standard when doing reviews? The Association of Food Journalists recommends reviewers dine anonymously when possible and not make reservations under their own names, and a list of several other behaviors to which critics should adhere. According to this piece in the LA Times, Mariani misses the mark on several of these activities.

But I don’t think that Mr. Mariani is at fault here. As I’ve started dabbling my toe or two into the Food Press, there’s an underworld at work that the general audience doesn’t get to see, that of the publicist and various PR firms. Their job is to get their clients — whether it’s a chef, restaurant or a product — noticed. They do this because a chef, restaurant or producer go out of their way to get those with a voice (like John Mariani, or on a much smaller scale, this site) to notice them.

Also, as Steven Shaw noted in an eGullet forum thread about Mariani:

Paying for a meal doesn’t necessarily make a writer unbiased. Accepting a comp doesn’t necessarily make a writer biased. Those who sell out deserve the disapprobation of all; those who write with integrity don’t deserve to be dismissed just because they accept a subsidy….

…the travel and food media would contract to a fraction of their current size if comps were eliminated, and what would remain would be the old money, unimaginative, increasingly-irrelevant-and-biased-despite-unlimited-budgets old media. Comps are the basis on which smaller, newer media outlets and freelancers exist.

To which I’ll add, sometimes getting comped products can be a good thing, especially when you get something great that you hadn’t expected. Not to bring it back to me, me, me, but I felt oddly good writing about Adagio Tea the other day. Not because it was a free product (which it was), but because it’s a damn fine product. Does the fact that it was given to me by the tea company change the quality of a product? Not at all. What is at stake here is how you, the reader, interpret a review and the perceived biases of the writer.

Granted, there’s a huge difference between restaurant review and product reviews. But the real issue is the matter of trust built amongst the readers of the reviewer. Mariani writes damn fine reviews, well thought out, and perceptive. That he has built a credit line of trust amongst his readers is undeniable. Whether his reputation will be tarnished by this incident remains to be seen. His biggest unproven crime, it seems, is not that he accepted comps, but that he started asking for them — and here’s the biggest point — got caught doing so. Do you believe that he’s the only food writer out there that asks for comps?

I’m not trying to deny that there’s a fine line here, as there most certainly is. The skill of a reviewer comes not only from their writing, but also from their ability to navigate what compromises their stated ethics and what doesn’t. Without the former ability, readers won’t come to the writer, without the latter, the readers won’t stay.

Technorati Tags: Food, Food Writing, Journalistic Ethics, Reviews