Yet Still More on Chefs vs. Bloggers: My View of Restaurants

I realize that this horse I’m beating is near to death, but I can’t help but think that there’s too much that’s being misunderstood when it comes to how people interpret this new medium of blogging (feh, new? I’ve been blogging since 2001 and food blogging since 2004…but I digress).

The latest salvo comes from Michael Ruhlman’s site (he of a recent Bloggers vs. Chefs article himself) , where Shuna of Eggbeater fame leaves Mr. Ruhlman a heartfelt note.

From the post:

Please represent all of us food bloggers when you write. Please pass on to Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali and Thomas Keller that there are chef, pastry chef, line cook, culinary student and pastry cook bloggers out there, too, who are attempting, in their own small ways (few of us are represented by The Food Network/ Top Chef/ Iron Chef and the like…) to talk about what it’s really like standing over hot stoves 14-19 hours a day, 7 days a week, like they [once] did.

Before I address the above, I think it’s pertinent to post my own point of view of restaurant reviews. Back in early 2005, I made a conscious choice to no longer do restaurant reviews on this site. There were several reasons for me doing so:

  1. A restaurant review of a place in Seattle means very little to a reader in Portland, Oregon, let alone readers in New York, Atlanta, or even Paris.
  2. There were already many people doing restaurant reviews.
  3. …and most importantly – I find the reviewing of restaurants extraordinarily tedious.

For me, when a restaurant is either good or bad, the restaurant reviews were easy to write. I loved writing about good restaurants, but hated writing about the bad. It was difficult for me to dismiss what others clearly had put a lot of energy into. But mediocre restaurants were horrible for me. When a restaurant was mediocre, the review was extremely difficult, as I simply have no patience to write something that I felt was not worth writing about. Applying the standard bell curve, there are only about 5-10% of restaurants worth talking about, and 5-10% that are truly horrid, and everyone else sort of falls somewhere in between there. Even if I’m optimistic, that leaves only 20% of restaurants exciting enough worth writing about, and half of those result in the very easy job of slamming bad restaurants. Writing about mediocrity was (and still is) a fool’s game, and I didn’t want to go down that route.

More interesting to me were/are the dynamics between what I call the “dynamic trinity” of the restaurant world. The trinity that I refer to here includes: the business owners of the restaurant; the typical consumer is simply searching for a good place to eat; and finally the “artistry/status” crowd that includes restaurant reviewers, food snobs and (some) chefs.

Over the past few years, what we’ve seen in this entire “Chefs vs. Bloggers” debate is that people from the second group (those consumers simply looking for a good meal) have a bigger and more influential affect upon the carefully crafted image perpetuated by the publicist’s of various upscale restaurants(and when I say “bloggers”, I’m using the less informed Batali definition that includes the Yelp commenters and forum folks at Chowhound and egullet). No where is this more evident than the howling that comes from restaurant owners and chefs when b-cue Shack gets a three star rating on Yelp compared to the three and a half star rating that the readers gave the Michelin-hungry Le Petit Jambon.

And now we have a chef/blogger asking Ruhlman to keep in mind that there are many different breeds of food bloggers and please don’t lump them all in with the anonymous folks who trash Le Petit Jambon because they got a bad seat and a rude waiter on opening night.

But this perspective is a bit disingenuous. Just because a person/reviewer is anonymous doesn’t mean that their experiences weren’t valid. As I’ve written before, 99.999% of the people who leave a restaurant has an anonymous review of the place where they just ate. All blogging did was give a much, much wider audience to these folks. The failure of restaurant owners and chefs to see this point truly confounds me.

Personally I believe that the true issue here is that this glamorous veneer of Michelin-star-hungry businesses that has been forged and promulgated by restaurateurs and publicists alike is being threatened ever so slightly by these bloggers. When you have a large contingency doing favorable comparisons between a $25 dollar plate of Gnocchi à la Parisienne at a Michelin-Star-Hungry restaurant versus a similar $13 dollar plate found at a lesser known location only eight miles away, bottom lines may eventually be affected. That has to scare the crap out of anyone who just invested hundreds of thousands of dollars plus on a restaurant.

I’m not saying that all bloggers are equal. That same bell curve I applied to restaurants fits just as easily over all food writers (be they bloggers or nationally known restaurant critics).

But the reality is that, for the foreseeable future, this megaphone of the anonymous that food bloggers have found is not going away.

UPDATED: Edited for clarity