In today's digital age—where camera phones and social media make privacy a relic of the past and hordes of hungry bloggers are taking over—why do some restaurant critics cling to anonymity? I talked to some respected critics to see what's up.
Man of mystery. Photo via
In the 80s, being an anonymous food critic was much easier than it is in 2014. How were restaurants or the chefs that inhabited them going to find out about your true identity when the only tools they had were the phone book or a private detective? In today’s world of Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook, remaining anonymous is nearly impossible. I can’t help but wonder why food critics bother to stay invisible.
As a former food critic myself, I never reviewed restaurants in anonymity, because it wasn’t an option. I’d been working as a cook in restaurants for years, so most of the establishments recognized me as soon as I walked through the front door.
Amy Pataki, an anonymous restaurant critic for the Toronto Star, says, “Anonymity is supposed to let the critic have a representative experience.” But New York Magazine’s Adam Platt—one of the most prestigious restaurant critics in the business, and one who has remained anonymous for years—recently unveiled his identity in an article featuring his first public portrait. In his revealing moment, Adam maintained that there is no such thing as anonymity in restaurant criticism in our modern age, a time that is driven by technology.
I asked Adam if revealing his identity had dramatically changed his experiences when dining out. “I haven’t noticed much of a difference,” he says. "As I said in my essay, part of this has to do with the fact that the chefs and restaurateurs in New York have known what I look like all along. The major difference now is that the public knows, although they don’t seem to care very much. Chefs aren’t rushing out to greet me when I walk through the door. I’m not besieged by autograph seekers when I sit down to dinner. It seems to be pretty much business as usual.”
Let’s compare Adam’s way of thinking with the venerated Michelin guides, which began awarding stars of excellence to restaurants in 1926; the source that has always employed anonymous critics. To a restaurant, receiving a Michelin star is like receiving an Academy Award that can result in millions of dollars in revenue from patronage after the review. With stakes that high, anyone could be tempted to buy the critic’s approval. To that end, the Michelin Guides will probably want to maintain anonymous critics to avoid the possibility of bribes.
As the Michelin guides and a few holdouts in the critics’ ring are clinging to their privacy in an age where a digital footprint is unavoidable, bloggers have swooped onto the food scene with an uncensored rapport. Sites like Eater and Grub Street often alert the public to new restaurants well in advance of the newspapers, making them the new voice of authority that rings the alarm before a periodical publishes a scheduled review. In our pre Yelp, smart-phone, era, a critic was considered the final word on restaurants. We needed critics, what, with their expense accounts, to dine for us and give us the hard answers on the newest openings and the rising chefs on their radars. They were being paid to be brutal, honest, and praise-worthy when appropriate. Otherwise, our only other source of opinion would come from word of mouth.
But word of mouth is the most timely, accessible option for getting the first sense of a restaurant opening today, because high-speed internet clicks allow for anyone to slap together a site and call themselves a “food blogger,” who will race to reveal the first glimpses of the hottest new space on the food map. And while critics could argue that bloggers don’t know what they’re doing or that they don’t have the palate or the knowledge to be writing and riffing on the subject altogether, the same could be said of the critics themselves. As Lesley Chesterman, food critic at the Montreal Gazette told me over email, “What about those who write about politics one day and food the next? Ridiculous! And the ones who can't even cook? C'mon! You have to devote yourself to the food beat, not treat it like fluff. There's so much to learn!” She should know: She came to her career after spending years as a pastry chef and culinary school instructor.
In the increasingly fluff-filled world of food writing, we still need serious critics to maintain the voice of authority that their journalistic standards ensure.
Rodney Bowers is a Toronto chef and restaurateur who was recently on the receiving end of a particularly nasty review, the main bitch of which seems to have involved the critic’s kids having to wait an hour for a cheese pizza. “A lot of food critics are just journalists or writers with a love of food, whereas chefs and restaurateurs are neck deep in food,” says Bowers. “I like to think that I know a bit about what I do. It’s frustrating to have someone who doesn’t have any hands-on experience, who has spent no time in the trenches, get to be the one who judges you.”
While both bloggers and critics alert us to the newest restaurants—letting us know what all the best and worst menu items are—good critics visit a restaurant at least three times, taste almost everything on the menu, and execute a follow-up phone call with the chef to ensure that they’ve got everything correct in their final write-up. A good review from a critic in a massive publication can do wonders for a restaurant. A bad critique can ring the death knell for restaurateurs. Even though a blogger’s post might not have as great an impact as say, the New York Times, it does leave a internet carbon-copy for customers to initially stumble upon in their online searches. It may not be always as well researched or written as the master's degree food critic journalist, but it can still have a gargantuan impact, especially if it’s an established blogger who has higher online numbers than traditional newspaper sources. Even Adam Platt admits that the power of the blogger has dramatically shifted, as he considers that, “It used to be the critics who established the ‘hot’ places in town. Now it’s the bloggers who do.”
Bloggers also have another key difference: once they’ve gained a bit of a following, many bloggers are paid by restaurants to write a good review, something a critic would never do because it’s unsanctioned in traditional journalism. Blogging is all about personal opinion and free speech, in a space where the rules of traditional journalism need not apply. For instance, blogger Andrew Dobson has noted in his “reviews” that his meals are comped by the establishments. His usual sign off in blog posts involves, “Special thanks to the team at ‘insert name of restaurant here’ for hosting me as their guest.”
To his credit, he’s forthcoming and unabashed about being a blogger for hire. Last year, I was approached by Fodor’s to update their Toronto restaurant reviews. The proposed assignment involved visiting 75 restaurants, and when I inquired about the budget for dining research, I was told that there was no budget, but I’d be supplied with a letter that I could present to restaurants that would request the establishment comp my bill in exchange for getting a review on their respected website. I didn’t take the gig, although I suggested another possibility to them, someone more up their alley. Andrew Dobson gleefully took the position.
Reviewing a restaurant that has comped your whole experience can lead to some serious issues, especially if a blogger is not as forthcoming about their motives. “Some people are just too easy to impress and we critics, well, the good ones, are not,” says Chesterman. “We are prepared to actually criticize based on actual reasons. In this world of bloggers who will praise any restaurant that offers them a glass of Champagne, we are impossible to buy. I dislike chefs and restaurant owners who think they can be all chummy-chummy and expect a good review because we are ‘friends.’ Fuck that. A good reviewer puts the review before friendship. We speak the truth!”
For that very reason, anonymous or not, critics are vital to objective food journalism. As the world watches food blogging personalities rapidly increase in numbers and popularity, the legitimate critics will find themselves having to adapt to modern times, where anonymity seems to be morphing into a relic of the past.