It is hardly a secret that I don’t like food critics.
On the whole, I find most food criticism to be surface level and elitist. Reviews themselves are a token of prestige that has long plagued the restaurant industry, encouraging bad behavior in the name of good ratings. Critics are held up on pedestals, their arrival in a dining room both dreaded and prayed for. This is because a review in the right place at the right time has the power to make or break a restaurant—a power which no one should be taking lightly.
That’s not to say that there aren’t good food critics—and I mean really, really good. I casually and frequently refer to former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl as my own personal hero, a point proven by the fact that at a 2019 book launch, just listening to her speak brought tears to my eyes more than once.
And take Soleil Ho, for example, whose presence at the San Francisco Chronicle marked a decisive shift of representation in food media. Her coverage of restaurants seeks to dive deeper, as she draws from her own experience in kitchens to explore the complex political and cultural dynamics that exist behind closed doors.
The thing about these women, and others like them, is that they bring a new meaning to restaurant criticism. They are certainly each responsible for large archives of reviews spanning the course of years, but they also write about food in a more compelling and perhaps revolutionary way. They both started their careers in kitchens, a trait which is alarmingly uncommon for the majority of food writers who claim authority on the subject. They write not only about a meal, but also of the social and cultural implications of a restaurant and of its critic, offering complex thoughts about how this relationship can and should function.
In contrast, it is hard to believe that a man like Pete Wells has any actual sense of what life is like on the other side of the pass, though he writes with the confidence of someone who has been granted limitless power and knowledge over the restaurant industry. Only recently did he take on such topics as workers’ rights, with a headline in October of 2020 that read “It’s Time for Diners to Ask the Servers: How Are You Doing?”. This could only be described as too little too late, considering these are the same servers who had been passed over for the first 7 months of the COVID pandemic, and for much longer before that. As the most influential man in New York City’s restaurant world, speaking for the most influential publication, a little support could go a long way—and has been historically lacking.
There is a narrative that circulates within the food media sphere that real stories from behind the scenes at restaurants are difficult to obtain. This could not possibly be more wrong—if there is one thing I know for certain about food service workers, it’s that we love to talk about working in food service. The problem is not that we are unwilling to answer questions, it’s that many of these questions have simply never been asked. Or perhaps, they have not been asked by the right people.
From the perspective of a restaurant worker, and a diner, the main attribute missing in most traditional food critics is this sense of deeper connection or understanding. As one coworker said to me, “what could Pete Wells and I possibly have in common? What about his life is remotely like mine?” I couldn’t agree more.
Born in a time when the microphone went only in one direction, the traditional food and dining critic represents an antiquated model of conversation and criticism. In a modern era when anyone can have (and share) any opinion on anything at any time, what is the value of such a singular and omnipotent being? Who critiques the critic?
It becomes not a matter of whether food critics should exist or not, but rather how they should exist. If the goal is to bring a restaurant experience into the homes of readers, perhaps the critic should not be so aloof and should instead engage with the food and the people or stories behind it. If restaurants are to be about more than just food on a plate, then an analysis of deeper cultural and political context seems much needed.
Historically, a restaurant review takes a meal (or three) and summarizes it into a hopefully mouthwatering description, the goal being to entice a consumer and convince them that this is in fact the best steak frites that money can buy. It has traditionally been a transactional role, designed to advise uncertain diners and establish restaurants as places of cultural and economic significance.
In the past, the value and power of a critic has been based around their ability to infiltrate restaurants secretly and provide an objective gateway in for the average (or more likely above average) consumer. In catching the restaurant by surprise, a critic hopes to be treated in the same way that any other patron would be. The unintended side effect is that restaurants and their staff are constantly on edge, aware that at any moment someone very important could be sitting down for dinner and deciding their fate.
Through their words, critics are able to grant us access to rooms we would never otherwise step foot in, meals which we could never afford to eat on our own. This is thanks in large part to an expense card, which serves as a one-way ticket into any dining room in the world. Can’t swing a table at Per Se? Fear not—Pete Wells will go for you and tell you what you’re missing.
In a sense, this could be seen as a way to cross cultural and socioeconomic boundaries, providing admission into an unknown and unattainable existence that lives behind the exclusive wait lists of fine dining restaurants. This seems to be the most controversial question surrounding food criticism, one that can be traced back to Reichl’s first days at the Los Angeles times. In an excerpt from her book, Garlic and Sapphires, she explains the paradox:
In an act of madness I told the editors of the most powerful paper in the world that they were doing things wrong. “Your reviews,” I said, “are very useful guides for the people who actually eat in the restaurants you review. But how many of your readers will go to Lutece this year? A thousand? That leaves out more than a million readers. And at a time when people are more interested in food and restaurants than they have ever been in the history of this country, that’s a shame. You shouldn’t be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants, but for all the people who wish they could.”
Reichl raises a good—and lasting—point. With the job of a critic being to provide a gateway into a restaurant, the question of access lingers. Are these reviews for people deciding whether or not to go, or for those of us who don’t even have the option? Are they a way of taking such establishments down from pedestals in an attempt to democratize food culture, or simply another tool to enhance their prestige?
Based on one non-review from Wells in 2017, it would appear as though the latter is more often the case. Wells makes a point of not reviewing a Noma pop-up, claiming that it would be frivolous to report on a meal and an experience which will be gone just a few weeks later.
On this, I would beg to differ, and I would not be alone. An immediate response written in Vulture points to the fact that this position is inherently one of privilege, and somewhat unwarranted authority:
Wells casts his refusal to review Noma Mexico as an expression of distaste for exclusivity and preposterous luxury in a desperately poor area. Fair enough, though I’m not clear which other restaurants might fall afoul of his principles. But what about those of us who will never know the pleasures of spending a fortune on a piñuela sprinkled with grasshopper paste and coriander flowers? Shouldn’t we at least be permitted to read about it?
What emerges from this conflict of exclusivity and principle is a much broader question pertaining to the value and purpose of a critic. As food becomes more about sustainable ingredients and local communities, and less about service or a curated experience, shouldn’t the criticism follow suit? Rather than turning our noses up at venue-less pop up dinner events or food-based community spaces that stray from traditional restaurant models, shouldn’t we instead shed light on the countless new manifestations of food in our current society?
I am far from the first person to wonder about this evolving role of a critic in the modern (and constantly developing) food space. Take for example the recent reckoning over the failures of food media at large to present diverse narratives, or the evolving moral role of a critic in the midst of #MeToo. The rise of celebrity chefs and subsequent abuses of power can also be largely attributed to food media attention, as aspiring chefs are motivated by a constant battle for something as prestigious as a glowing review from the New York Times.
These questions coincide with a more general grey area within food media, which is the extremely blurry line between food writing, journalism, and critique. In a time where food politics are served on the side of every meal, there is little left to distinguish a review from a chef profile from an investigative reporting piece. Some feel that a restaurant critic should stay objective, focusing only on the plates in front of them. But is meal just as good without any context or understanding of the people and places that made it? Is a dinner from the kitchen of an abusive chef still worthwhile, when moral self-doubt is sprinkled throughout each bite like finishing salt? I would argue that it is not.
Instead, perhaps critics should be invited into the kitchen to hear the chef explain their inspiration and business model. They could seek to educate the public on the importance of a sustainable and equitable food system, which includes sustainable and equitable restaurants. They should highlight the importance of good people making good food, because context is everything and words hold power.
In many ways, this change is already happening. Food critics are now scattered broadly throughout cities and platforms and publications. New York City alone has more informal food critics than one could count, in addition to a handful of traditional critic positions with The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and Eater.
Many of these critics (the good ones, that is) are finally starting to change their tune. In one of my favorite articles of the last year, Eater’s critic Ryan Sutton takes a much needed swing at the majorly elitist and classist implications of TAK Kitchen and its closure. His coverage of the pandemic has managed to bring workers’ rights and safety to the forefront, coupling traditional reviews with a deeper analysis of federal politics. Tejal Rao has joined the New York Times critic roster in L.A., where she highlights immigrant cuisines and communities through a much more personal review format. The result is a form of food criticism that seeks to do more, in a time where food itself is taking on more value.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Chicago would be losing its last full time restaurant critic. After 31 years with the Tribune, Phil Vettel has decided to step down, leaving Chicago critic-less. Many seem to be mourning the loss of such an institutional power, unsure what the city’s culinary future will look like. Odds are, it will look largely the same, if not better. This is because, with the loss of a full-time food critic, a city does not lose its culture or foodways—it merely loses a spokesperson.
What this news suggests instead is that we live in a time when everyone is a critic, and when food is finally being recognized as something with complexity and importance. As the food industry adapts to an ever-changing social and political landscape, the restaurant review must adapt to. In many ways, it already has.