Turning the Tables

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 14, 2005

Steven Shaw doesn?t like a lot of food criticism and he?s not shy about telling you why. In his opinionated new book (which, as a NYC food fan, I enjoyed thoroughly), Shaw devotes much of a lengthy chapter to skewering guidebooks like Zagat?s and Michelin, starred restaurant reviews, and the undercover restaurant reviewer. Ruth Reichl, now editor-in-chief of Gourmet, recently recounted her experiences as food critic for the New York Times in her newest book, Garlic and Sapphires. Reichl employed a number of disguises when going to restaurants in order to ensure she didn?t receive special service because of her job at the Times. Shaw believes this approach is flawed and serves to distance restaurants and their customers:

It sends a signal to the public that restaurants are out to deceive us, and that in order to expose them restaurant reviewers must act as undercover investigative consumer advocates.

He prefers an approach akin to other forms of artistic criticism, with the reviewer taking a more active role in being as close to the action as possible:

There is, to my mind, absolutely nothing wrong with a critic having ties ? close ties ? to the community about which he writes. In my opinion, it is preferable from the standpoint of providing the best possible coverage. To me, the primary function of restaurant criticism should not be something so prosaic as reporting on the average meal and labeling it with some stars. Rather, restaurant criticism should parallel other forms of criticism ? in art, literature, architecture, music ? such that critics are champions of excellence who promote the best within the industry while exposing the worst.

This probably sounds like a familar argument to many who follow weblogs and the ongoing conversation about the responsibility of bloggers regarding disclosure of junkets, gifts, free movies, & review copies of books, their relationship to advertisers, who their friends are, and so forth. It?s a question of access vs. independence and objectivity. To get a story, some sort of access is often required, but then the reader might worry about biased reportage.

The key is trust (and I?m sure Shaw would agree with me here). Do you trust a particular source of information to balance her need for access to the story with the desire of her readers for her to remain as independent and fair-minded as possible? I believe that if we want better reviews, we need to be better readers and take a more active role in how we deal with information. Access isn?t necessarily bad, but what individual bloggers/journalists do with that access can be.

And when reading, you should be asking yourself, is the writer being fair here? Have they been fair in the past? If the piece you?re reading appears in the NY Times or the WSJ, how does the political orientation (if any) affect what gets printed in the paper? Are music journalists and bloggers biased in their reviews because they receive free review CDs in the mail? And if so, does that make the reviews completely worthless? If they don?t disclose things like junkets, personal relationships to their subjects, and the like, does that completely negate the review? Or can you adjust your opinion of the reviews to get something worthwhile out of them anyway?

Dealing with information has always been an imprecise science; there?s no such thing as complete objectivity. But as readers, we can encourage the writers whose work we read to be as fair as possible.

Disclosure: I purchased this book in a NYC bookstore with my own money. I have never met Steven Shaw, but I do enjoy eGullet very much. If you click on any of the links to Amazon in this piece and purchase merchandise there, I will get a small percentage (~5%) of the sale.

Reader comments

clintOct 14, 2005 at 4:18PM

I disagree with the quote about deception from restaurants.

I equate a restaurant review with an inspection of sorts, and that should include a sample of the normal, day to day operations from the restaurant.

If a famous, or well-known critic walked through the door to any shop, in my mind, that would only increase the temptation of restaurant managers to veer from their typical day to day operations to make sure the ship was extra tight for the review.

The deception will most probably occur, not during a normal day, but during the critic’s review. Therefore, it would be impossible to ensure an accurate review. For this reason, I can definitely agree with a critic’s decision to go undercover.

unclewillyOct 14, 2005 at 4:26PM

Long ago, in a life now far, far away, I was a music reviewer in Nashville. Although I’m sure things were/are different for some others, I can honestly say that nothing I wrote was influenced by free music I received, and there’s a good reason for that: the unceasing flow of product over my transom was like a river of vinyl and tape (yeah, that long ago). There was no time, even if I’d been inclined, to sort out preferences based on anything but what I heard. Favorite as-yet-unheard music game during that time: giving each song exactly 21 seconds to grab my interest and, if it didn’t, ripping the single or cassette violently away from the playback machine and hurling it against the office wall. Now, that was some satisfaction.

mamalooOct 14, 2005 at 4:45PM

I am a restaurant critic, though for a regional paper. I will sometimes let people know after I’ve paid for my meal, or most often after the review is published, that I’m the reviewer. When the review has been great and the restaurant knows who I am, I sometimes get freebies in the future - a nice touch since I get paid very little.

I would never, ever, ever let the restaurant know I was reviewing their establishment while I was having my meal. If they knew the service would absolutely be better: servers would be smilier and friendlier for certain and I’d never know if my cut of meat was perfectly cooked becasue it’s always perfectly cooked, or if someone warned the chef to make sure my meal came out perfect.

I consider that fair play, given my job. I am unfailingly honest and have a strong tendency toward the constructive end of criticism, which is the part that I think applies to journalism in general: when you are reporting, you must keep in mind that you are serving a specific purpose - you are not merely recording events, you are putting them in context so they can be understood by the reader and used to better society.

mznOct 14, 2005 at 5:13PM

My problem with Reichl’s deceptions is the way she uses them as a means of self-promotion. It makes her job seem more glamorous and exciting and makes her seem like a fascinating person to be able to pull off these performances. Why no similar incredible stories from other restaurant reviewers? I find it hard to believe that it’s because Reichl is the only scrupulous one in the bunch.

But I’m with Clint about the role of the restaurant reviewer. If he or she has a close relationship with a restaurateur or chef and gets special treatment, the public service function of the review is compromised. One expects that a theater, film, book, or art critic experiences the same works as the general public, but if a restaurant critic is served different food in a different fashion from the rest of us, their value as a guide to consumers is greatly diminished. Perhaps we need a distinction between restaurant reviews and food criticism. The former, like movie reviews, demand a certain distance. (We would hope that movie reviewers are not intimate friends of the directors whose films they review, for example.) The latter, like art criticism, can be addressed to a more in-the-know reader and be more about championing excellence (though analyzing the ordinary in a fresh and interesting way would be, to my mind, no less valuable).

Joe ClarkOct 14, 2005 at 5:42PM

Joanne Kates of the Globe and Mail does indeed have many “similar incredible stories” of disguises (and proxy credit cards) she used, and I have seen her on TV actually in disguise.

mznOct 14, 2005 at 5:49PM

Joe Clark,
Thanks for the correction. Going on TV in your disguise would seem to confim my point about the function of disguising yourself only to tell the whole world about it.

John BroughtonOct 14, 2005 at 5:55PM

Why no similar incredible stories from other restaurant reviewers? I find it hard to believe that it’s because Reichl is the only scrupulous one in the bunch.

If you read Reichl’s book (I have), she explains in the beginning why she went to such lengths - because as the main restaurant critic of the NYT, she had the power to make or break restaurants, and the restaurants knew it. And they offered rewards (like $500) to any staffer who spotted her.

Reichl is no more scrupulous than a local food critic who no one knows, and who has less impact - in both cases the critic can experience a restaurant as would an average customer; but Reichl needs a disguise (and a false name) to get anonymity.

The analogy to a music or theatre or other type of critic is flawed - a recognized restaurant reviewer not only gets a totally different level of service, but also, in a really good restaurant, can get a different level of attention with and even different ingredients for the food that is served.

Reichl’s book illustrates another point about disguises - being the critic of the NYT conveys huge power IF you are recognized (as one of her editors, having lunch with her, deliberately makes sure happens, so HE will get super service when he returns to the restaurant for his wife’s birthday). Reichl’s predecessor at the NYT basked in that power, not realizing, until he left the position, that it wasn’t really him that everyone adored. (The point is that critics who get extra advantages from being recognized, and then defend those advantages as neither affecting their reviews nor distorting what they report, may well be deceiving themselves; there certainly is the temptation.)

egaOct 14, 2005 at 7:04PM

Another agreement here with Clint. The difference between food and music reviews is that the music reviewer, while receiving a free “cd” (or whatever - insert today’s digital analogue), hears the same music I do when I buy my copy at Tower Records. I have a family member who is tight with the SF restaurateur community and whenever I dine with him, I see the difference in how we’re treated, and I taste the difference in how our food is prepared, or at least served (always hot when it should be hot and cold when it should be cold.)

It seems to me that something other’s going on with mzm - like the whole disguise thing, or something about Ms. Reichl, hit a nerve. I heard her interview on SF public radio a week+ ago, and rather than seeming self-promoting, I found her rather charming, and appreciative of her great fortune to find a job that she loved. I’m in agreement with John: as the NYT food critic, it’s like being Michael Bauer here in SF; once someone knows it’s you, you’re screwed in terms of ever being able to have a “normal” dining experience again…your influence (in certain circles) is just that great.

essOct 14, 2005 at 10:06PM

Being a reviewer is like being a secret shopper - and it’s so easy for the staff to make the experience of one person much, much better than average.

Once during a dinner with a well-know restaurant critic, the critic was recognized. Special dishes were presented. It was NOT the experience Joe and Jane Blow would have had.

This doesn’t mean the restaurant critic shouldn’t have any involvement in the industry. A reviewer should be able to understand, from the reviewed’s point of view, why choices are made. A reviewer should be able to educate readers about costs, relationships with suppliers, the way trends influence the public’s expectations and how a chef might handle that, etc.

Does anyone who was or knows food critics know a writer who had culinary training? I’ve only met one (although food writers I know have taken classes and hung out in the kitchen and cook at home) and wonder how common a solid background in the biz is.

Aidan MaconachyOct 15, 2005 at 1:44AM

Yes, I think Reichl’s undercover approach is the most appropriate one.

I remember being in a restaurant in Toronto when a food critic from a daily newspaper arrived. The help were falling over themselves to accommodate her and I have no doubt the entre they served up was finessed to the nth degree.

I’d rather know exactly what their day-to-day fare is like, rather than hear about a special gourmet speciality served up in order to get brownie points.

big4guyOct 15, 2005 at 7:19AM

If one is reviewing anything, and if the one being reviewed knows you, without doubt you will be given preferential treatment. As a reviewer it becomes difficult to give an unbaised opinion in such cases. I recently reviewed a software for one of the leading software giants. Just to get good reviews they gave me free this and free that, it was almost as if they were bribing me, just to get a good review.

If you know your job well, you can still very well give unbaised opinions.

Think about it.



Bill SeitzOct 15, 2005 at 9:07AM

Part of the issue seems to be the difference between criticism and reviewing.

The latter is about simply helping the reader/viewer decide whether they want to spend their time/money on a particular offering. Objectivity and usefulness (in helping reader make his decision) are the key goals.

The former is more about exploring the meta context of the offering, as part of a larger trend, etc. Having more inside-info here is useful and actually improves the outcome.

ZachOct 15, 2005 at 11:25AM

Food criticism in general is a fallacy because here are so many variables and factors that change daily in the operations of restaurants. Different cooks on the line yield different tasting food even though they may be following the chef’s “recipe”, managers yield different service depending on their moods, the dish washer may have not showed up, etc. The experience will never be the same in a restaurant as it is watching a movie that is essentially, if you would, static.

There are restaurants that I absolutely l love but sometimes they aren’t “on” that night and the food turns out crappy for unknown reasons a patron doesn’t see. Other nights, the food will be incredible. I take food criticism very much with a grain of salt because its almost impossible to review something that is in constant change.

With that said, explore restaurants for yourself and ignore the reviews and sit down at the table without bias. Hear about the food from word of mouth not from some “Ruth Reichl” character who’s job is too easy to take seriously.

BarryOct 16, 2005 at 12:57PM

I don’t get much out of “food criticism” or restaurant reviews in newspapers and magazines, I must admit, but maybe they’re just not for me.

I get the best tips on where the good food is by reading discussion boards like Chowhound and Mr. Shaw’s own eGullet.org, and to be honest with you I *like* the Zagat books (as a kind of Quality Assurance backstop) to the extent that they offer coverage of places I like to go… they only cover some kinds of restaurants in highly restricted geographies at this point. (Full disclosure: My wife works for Zagat, but we used their guides long before she started working there, and I don’t think we’ve ever actually used a book she has personally edited.)

Barry RitholtzOct 16, 2005 at 7:43PM

Speaking of Zagats — is that not the very worst designed web page from a usability standpoint?

Man, could they ever use some of your fine hypertext products . . .

Mark M. SmithOct 16, 2005 at 10:40PM

I sometimes wish that reviewers did pay for things themselves. I’m not considering that they give special consideration to something just because they got it for free, but instead they have a slightly mixed view of it. When a music reviewer gets a CD to review they’re just going to review the music itself and how they feel about it. What they aren’t going to be including is whether it’s acceptable in spite of the cost paid. In one area they are doing their job: concetrating on the music alone outside of external factors. Certainly this is a good idea, but it also represents something that the consumer will never experience.

mamalooOct 17, 2005 at 12:25AM

Mark, I know my reviews of restaurants include considerations for price. That’s part of the total experience for the restaurant and a reviewer would be remiss not to mention it. For example, it makes a huge difference if the food is mediocre but the price is cheap. A lot of people would want to know about that as it makes things like taking an entire family out for brunch, for example, more likely to happen.

My husband, who reviews music cds and dvds will mention price only if it stands out for a product. For example, we watched a number of Montreux Jazz festival dvds tonight. The performances consisted of rarely more than 10 songs and few had any kind of bonus material. The price point is about $18 CDN and the material available, in comparison with other music dvds for the same price, is not worth the money being paid. The big problem, however, with talking price and cds/dvds is that is varies widely from store to store. A big box store sells at a different price than a mall store, which in turn sells at a different price than an indie retailer and they all sell differently from each other. There are geographic differences, too.

And, while reviewers or critics (whatever a food critic is, they’re just reviewers who think they’re smarter than your average reviewer) in big cities can close a restaurant with a scathing review, we smaller reviewers have no small power, ourselves. I’ve received letters from restaurants who’ve gotten mixed reviews outlining plans of action for improvement, heard secondhand accounts of people trying out places I’ve recommended and even seen first hand restaurants packed a week after a review that were never so packed before.

I can understand why a big city reviewer of note would need to pursue disguises, though it sure does sound ridiculous. Job hazard, I guess.

CelesteOct 17, 2005 at 6:32AM

I know someone who works at a very well know food publication. Going to a restaurant with him is a surreal experience. The maitre d’ gives us special attention. the sommelier gives us special attention. The chef comes out. The pastry chef comes out. Usually there is a special tasting menu, and if not, there are several extra dishes sent to the table. Eating with him lasts for hours and I roll out bloated and too well-fed. When I go to the same restaurants as a civilian, believe me, I do not get the same level of service or food. There is definitely a case to be made for a critic dining under cover—and keeping his/her distance from the people he/she covers. There is just too much room for favoritism, whether real or implied. Where I agree with Shaw is that sometimes the lengths that some critics go to seems to amount to self-aggrandizement.

Cristiano DiasOct 17, 2005 at 8:39AM

This trust-and-fairness problem happened here in Brazil a few weeks ago. Instead of sending the new CD of one artist to the main news organizations Warner Music sent a iPod Mini to their journalists, with the new tracks inside. Pretty much every single one of them gave the album great reviews, even though the album is nothing above average. Some went to extent to say that the music selection was not the best but the singer (the daughter of a famous, deceased, music start of the 70s) was better than the album.

Then the biggest weekly magazine in the country, instead of reviewing the album, put an article exposing the iPod plan. No news as to what happened to the journalists, the “damage” had already been done.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.