From the Critic’s Notebook
Unsurprisingly, Big Food Media Collapses Into Wreckage of Its Own Making
In an iconically pompous style, mainstream food media outlets continue to serve a dreary and disjointed menu of driveling prose with a flair for the passé.
For a fleeting moment, I am enticed by the magazine’s cover spread of assorted small dinner plates and manicured fingers reaching for cocktails, the table set with extravagant glassware and even more expensive guests. One wrist is adorned with a knife tattoo in order to prove that chefs and line cooks are welcome here too. The image is promising — turn the page and enter a world where the biggest problem is how to decorate your kitchen so that people will think that you know how to cook. The front cover beckons me inside with the unwavering allure of a party that no one really wants to be at, but everyone feels obligated to attend in order to maintain appearances and appease fake acquaintances.
Such a garish display may be enough to fool an amateur reader, but those with a taste for the more avant-garde will find themselves woefully underwhelmed. Upon further inspection, the content is mediocre at best. Words vary in flavor and quality, but are consistently served alongside oversaturated images of boring people pretending to enjoy boring food. The table of contents promises a life of surface-level happiness and bland but blissful ignorance, which can only be achieved if you are willing to throw integrity to the wind and settle for an existence full of unexceptional wines and overpriced ceramics.
The magazine’s ninety-page tasting menu is comprehensive yet largely uninspiring to the more nuanced consumer, featuring many of the same banal offerings that have been found in years past. The specials include a recipe for hamburgers (with a “sustainable” alternative made from industrially manufactured plant-based meat) and an opinion piece about an online food trend that no one asked for, nor wanted.
When inquired for a recommendation or a more detailed description of the menu, the servers (also commonly referred to as ‘editors’) will simply gawk at you in disbelief. It is not their job to know very much about anything, only to carry food to the table and make sure it looks good enough for a photograph.
The amuse-bouche this evening is a microscopic spoonful of critical thought, seasoned with a faint flavor of optimism. It comes in the form of a letter to the editor that is not offensive to the palate, but does not offer much in the way of depth or complexity. A simple explanation of how to host a dinner party is paired with a brief paragraph about childhood, in an obvious attempt to demonstrate that some level of introspection and observation has occurred, despite the glaringly absent culinary knowledge.
The next course is a collection of the best bacon, egg, and cheese dishes in the country, which includes a sandwich that has been liquified and injected into the center of a donut. This is followed by a definitive ranking of cities which is based solely on the opinion of one cis, straight, white man and his friends, all of whom have been given a company expense card in order to execute their research. The remaining small plates are similarly démodé, lacking significantly in substance and innovation. The words have the flavor and texture of an overcooked and under seasoned Béchamel sauce — curdled and grainy, it is near impossible to swallow without trying and failing to stifle a grimace.
I am equally disenchanted by the main courses, as gallant yet hollow claims of increased seasonality, sustainability, and diversity fall horrifically flat. The same celebrated chefs continue to occupy every page, despite the fact that their offerings have not changed in the slightest. The intended showstopper is an entirely unsurprising profile of a toxic and abusive chef at yet another high-profile fine dining restaurant, which features interviews and accounts from countless traumatized staff members and little to no recognition of how this narrative may be applied on an industry wide level to enact lasting change. Of course, there is also a dish that features ramps, priced higher than necessary in order to commodify nature and assert an awareness for the modern taste buds.
The beverage selection is certain to please, so long as you possess a thirst for the mundane. There is a recipe for a spritz of some kind, alongside tips and tricks for how to properly drink alcohol in the summer (tip: it’s not at all harder than you think). Here you will find that the gaudy drinking glasses from the cover shot make a repeat appearance, this time with an embarrassingly high price tag attached in very small print. There are also instructions for how to make your own ice at home, along with directions for putting the ice into the glasses so that it will look attractive on Instagram. Recommendations from the sommelier include an overpromising and underwhelming chardonnay with skin-contact, in a clear and desperate attempt to stay relevant.
Dessert is a lengthy description of yet another donut, this time decorated to look like a slice of pizza. There is only one actual donut available for sale each day, and it is served to the guest who can prove that they want it the most. All patrons are expected to arrive with a prepared speech of intent, and the individual with the most convincing argument will be permitted to purchase the donut for the low price of $10. It is then photographed extensively alongside coffee that doesn’t taste very good and a glass of Italian amaro to assure readers that European standards are being upheld.
When it comes to online takeout options the menu is more expansive, though still limited by the editor’s ego. If we are lucky, he will serve us a story about the root causes of rampant sexism and harassment in the hospitality industry, or send us home with a recipe that actually teaches us how to cook. If he recognizes your name on the waitlist and knows how popular your friends are, he will surely usher you in without a pay wall. And if you are opportune enough to catch him in the act of yelling at the staff in the kitchen, he might even apologize, though it probably won’t change anything.
The service at this establishment from start to finish is inattentive and arrogant, as the attitude appears to be one of pretentious indifference. It is unclear to me whether these people have cooked before, or even eaten at all. The dishes were tepid and unappetizing upon arrival, and are most likely to be served out of order since no one who works here has ever looked at a kitchen ticket.
When I inquire ever so politely about ingredient sourcing or how they plan to uphold public promises of an ethical business model, they appear to be at a loss. Instead, the server offers to “hop on a phone call to discuss at a later time,” knowing full well that when I step out the door I will not be returning, nor answering his call.
Correction: The name of the abusive chef has since been removed from this story to protect his identity and reputation—he is a close personal friend of every editor in chief in New York City.
Rating: 0 Stars
Drinks and Wine: You’ll need them.
Price: $$$ (a little bit too expensive), plus the cost of your integrity.
Open: All the time, unfortunately. Especially on Twitter.
Reservations: Accepted based on social status, appearance, and ability to disregard morals.
What the Stars Mean: Absolutely nothing.