This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
It’s Friday night. You want to go out to dinner at a nice spot but you’re sick of your go-to places, or maybe you’re new in town or passing through on a trip and you have no one to ask for a recommendation. In short, your only options are just going old-school and walking into a place that looks good from the outside or looking up restaurants online and combing through reviews to see if they’ll be any good.
The problem is platforms like TripAdvisor and Yelp – which were kind of invented for this type of situations – are full of fake reviews. Plus, people are much more likely to leave a review when they’ve had a bad experience, skewing the overall restaurant’s rating and turning many a review section into a highly entertaining dumpster fire. That can be disastrous, especially for smaller businesses that have just opened up – one 2020 study found that an early bad review can turn customers away in the long term, and that reviewing platforms actually have an in-built bias towards popular restaurants.
The only other alternative, it seems, is reading food articles and blogs and hoping to land on an honest critique. But if you’ve ever ventured into the tangled world of culinary criticism, you’ll know these things can be hit or miss. Sometimes a new spot will get stellar reviews only to disappoint once you get there.
Food is by definition a matter of taste, and different people value different aspects of the restaurant experience – the decor, the ambience, the price, the surprise factor – but, according to Slovenian food and travel blogger Kaja Sajovic, there’s actually more to the story.
“We all know that food journalists don't get paid enough to cover the cost of a restaurant dinner, so press trips have become a necessity to do our job,” Sajovic says. “And this creates a lot of ethical dilemmas. Can you really give a bad review of a restaurant you've been invited to, with flights and hotels covered? I think it's difficult, and maybe even a little bit unfair.”
Of course, Sajovic is mostly talking about freelancers and food bloggers. Journalists who get a steady salary and their expenses covered can be a lot freer when writing their review, but they are certainly the exception rather than the rule in the industry.
Food writer Paola Miglio, editor of Peruvian website El Trinche [Spanish for “The Carving”], says she’s always made a point to be uncompromising with her opinions. “If I don't like something, I say so. And I write it down, even when I’ve been invited [to the restaurant],” Miglio says. “In my three years as a food critic at a newspaper, I have only been bullied a handful of times by a restaurant owner or chef on social media. I've never felt the pressure to praise anything or anyone.”
For many other food writers, things aren’t quite as straightforward. Some choose to build their following on sarcasm – think of British food critic Jay Rayner and his book Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights, once described as creating a “ blood sport out of destroying culinary reputations”. This certainly conforms to the stereotype of a food critic. In reality, writers like Rayner are an exception in an industry plagued by celebratory hyperbole and easy enthusiasm.
“There are few chefs who respond well and in kind to criticism,” says food journalist Gabriele Zanatta, who writes for the Italian web magazine Identità Golose (“Glutton Identities”). Zanatta thinks that’s because cooks have historically been mostly hidden figures. It was only with France’s nouvelle cuisine movement of the 60s, which revolutionised international cooking, that chefs have become famous and “even achieved celebrity status over the last two decades,” Zanatta explains. “No wonder they’re intolerant to criticism! They had never been on such a pedestal."
However, Zanatta also thinks this chef-centric approach to food writing is slowly dying out. “We’re now paying more attention not only to the food but to all the other aspects that make a restaurant a restaurant,” he says. In his experience, chefs nowadays are more willing to listen, provided that the criticism they’re receiving is not just a pretext for a food critic to flaunt their knowledge and opinions.
To avoid that, Zanatta says he tends to “give his criticism in private”. This is how many food writers tend to work: public praise and private criticism. But for Chiara Cavalleris, editor in chief of the Italian food news site Dissapore (“Distaste”), this too is a problem. “The sector is burdened by press dinners that are inevitably followed by positive critiques,” she says. The resulting reviews are positive – except in very rare cases – with food writers trying to sneak in criticism without rocking the boat too much.
“Obviously, extremely positive or totally negative reviews work well on social media – they add colour,” Cavalleris continues. But choosing not to praise a restaurant in an article might also cost you traffic to your site. “It is not their duty to share [the piece on social media], but I’ve noticed that, if they don't get a very high rating or a flood of compliments, they never do.”
Cavalleris said that one of the most concerning incidents of food press bootlicking she’s come across happened when her site published a negative review of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in the northern city of Modena, owned by celebrity chef Massimo Bottura. “The review dared to touch an idol, Massimo Bottura, a man who can never be questioned,” she says. “Immediately after it came out, two different newspapers published two positive pieces to try to patch things up.”
Cavalleris believes food journalists are not to blame for the state of things, but rather the food press in general. She believes that news outlets are guilty of colluding with restaurant owners, an issue that has also come up in a scandal involving three-Michelin-star Florentine restaurant Enoteca Pinchiorri. In October 2021, 77-year-old owner Giorgio Pinchiorri was sentenced to four months in prison for stalking a former employee, peeling back the veil on his restaurant’s toxic work culture. None of the mainstream food press in Italy reported on it.
Having personally met many chefs in a more or less professional capacity, I couldn't help but notice how many of them would actually benefit from truly engaging with journalists in the sector.
I talked about this with Matteo Fronduti, chef at Manna, a restaurant in Milan. He thinks that chefs shouldn’t take reviews so personally because there’s no point in seeking the approval of the masses if you are truly convinced your cuisine is a work of art. "If you are really avant-garde, why care about the thoughts of a common person who, by definition, cannot understand the avant-garde?" he asks.
Fronduti’s point might be slightly pretentious, but he’s also, in a way, right. Last September, the New York Times published a scathing review of Swiss chef Daniel Humm’s all-vegan tasting menu, which he introduced at Eleven Madison Park, his New York restaurant. The critic accused the three-Michelin-star restaurant of jumping on the sustainability bandwagon while continuing to serve meat in private dining rooms for his most lavish customers.
Humm is one of the world's most famous chefs, and could have sent his scathing response to the main culinary news outlets in the world. But he didn’t. Instead, he continues to charge €300 per person for his fine dining experience, even though the NYT critic said one of his dishes tasted like wood polish. So much for misunderstood visionaries.