Photo via Flickr user Jing Qu
More people probably hate me than I realize. It's not because I'm a bad person—although I am— but instead it's because of my being a food writer. Chefs hate food writers and they are right to hate them. Most of their reasons are good ones; here are nine of them. By the way, these apply to all food writers, but to critics in particular, who are objects of special loathing to chefs.
1. Who Watches the Watchmen?
Adam Gopnik, writing about gastronomy in the New Yorker in 2005, made a statement of such clarity and force that I sat up straight in my bed: "All artists in all fields despise all critics all the time." As a writer, there was nothing that made me seethe like the patronizing feedback of bad writers who had managed upward into an editor position. "I think what you're trying to say here…" is no worse than "an uninspired ramen shows hardly any effort whatsoever." And it doesn't have to be an officially sanctioned critic. Anybody who can type can write critically about them, including mooks they wouldn't let clean the bathroom.
2. The Hit
To add injury to insult, restaurants take a bigger hit than most people realize when they have a food writer come in. The three remaining expense-account critics in the country have the power to inflict more damage, but they at least pay their own way. 95% of the other writers—soon to be 100%—get comped. The cost of the food is the smallest part of the comp. The restaurant loses the table for at least a turn, which means they lose all of the money that table would spend. And if the writer lingers, orders big wines, or gets there late, the pain only gets worse.
3. You Have To Be Nice To Them.
Everybody I meet as a writer is nice to me, and I was for many years weak minded enough to actually think that I was, at long last, popular and well-liked. Far from it! The more a chef is forced to feign warm delight at a writer's appearance, the more he or she will hate them. It's only human nature to rebel, violently, against such mummery. Just think of all the angry breakups that follow long periods of false harmony.
4. They Literally Have No Idea What They Are Talking About.
One of the biggest and most obnoxious fallacies of food writing is the way the whole thing revolves around the writer's perspective. A restaurant, to the Writer's Gaze, appears simply as a series of plates that appear on the table, delivered by friendly young people. The enormous effort behind them is totally out of sight, as is the fact that the dish the writer eats is one of dozens made that night, all of which vary slightly in quality. Add to this most writers' near-total ignorance of restaurant economics and staffing, and the restaurant is in the position of being subjected to the prejudices of an unwelcome and unformed mind.
5. Their Entitlement
Because writers have so much unearned power, and because they are so used to everybody kissing their ass, they begin, inevitably, to take such treatment for granted. A whole nosegay of privileges that would be unthinkable to a civilian diner—primo reservations on short notice, chatting with the chef, getting as much time as you want with the wine guy, getting things out of order, or in cut portions—are merely the basic terms of the relationship between writer and chef. How can that not rankle?
6. Their Fickleness
Even if a writer isn't prejudiced and misinformed, which they nearly always are, their worthless opinions are rarely even held strongly by themselves. They pick up some random object of their fulsome praise, and then drop him into permanent obscurity as soon as the next pretty boy comes along.
7. What Phonies They Are
Writers are big phonies. They tell you how much they loved everything, and how awesome you are, and then either never write about you, or write slightingly. Faint praise is in its way even more maddening that out-and-out hectoring, if only because the latter at least gives a chef the full attention he thinks he deserves.
8. They Have Power, Even the Bad Ones
Writers have power to help or hurt restaurants—even the weakest and least qualified of them. Any asshole with a platform can do more to help or hurt his business than even the most loyal of customers.
9. They Are Dumb
Many writers are dumb and, like all dumb people, they think they are smart because they are too dumb to know otherwise. These people are grenades primed to explode if their infant minds are rubbed the wrong way for any reason whatsoever.
Chefs—and by extension GMs, owners, line cooks, and everybody else who depends upon the restaurant for their livelihood—are typically men or women of spirit, and frequently artists in their own way. Nothing could be more natural than for them to feel a powerful antipathy to their would-be judges. Unfortunately for them, there's nothing they can do about it. I feel for them.