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Turning the Tables

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.