When food writing becomes a bully pulpit…

Last week, a prominent Houston food writer penned one of the most scurrilous posts I’ve ever read. In it, he upbraided a leading Houston legacy restaurateur with a venom generally reserved for the missives of jilted lovers.

In a world where content comes increasingly cheap and where even full-time food editors are paid barely livable wages, why is that the content creators employ such vitriol and stinging hostility in their writing? What’s to be gained other than clicks, ill will, and a degradation of the food community at large when a writer attacks a restaurateur or chef with such churlishness?

And why do the content creators have such little regard for the impact that their writing will have on the restaurateurs and their employees?

After all, it’s not a matter of defending or questioning President Trump’s wisdom in exiting the Paris Accord or imposing a travel ban on Muslims. Evidently, the stakes are higher.

The episode made me think back to my early years in New York when William Grimes — a writer I admire greatly — became the restaurant reviewer at the Times in the wake of Ruth Reichl’s departure in 1999.

In one of his earliest reviews, he panned the newly opened Colina at ABC Carpet, a high-concept and high-profile “rustic” Italian, giving it the paper’s lowest rating of “satisfactory” (“A Rural Italian Stage, a Complicated Script”).

A few short months later (and this was a few years before the Tragedy of the Twin Towers, when the New York restaurant scene was still booming and growing rapidly), the restaurant closed and all of its employees and investors were sent packing. Millions of dollars and years of planning down the drain.

By November 1999, Grimes had downgraded the rating for some of the city’s most beloved dining destinations.

“Mr. Grimes gave three stars to Daniel Boulud’s $10 million reincarnation of Restaurant Daniel,” wrote Frank DiGiacomo for the Observer at the time, “compared to the four stars that Mr. Boulud had been given by Mr. Grimes’ predecessor in the job, Ruth Reichl. On Oct. 20, Mr. Grimes demoted Charlie Palmer’s Aureole down to two stars from the three that The Times‘ Bryan Miller gave Mr. Palmer in 1991. In between, Mr. Grimes has awarded a flurry of one-star reviews — which have long represented mediocrity in this town — to such luminaries as restaurateur Drew Nieporent and Michael Lomonaco, chef of Wild Blue and Windows on the World.”

No one, it seemed, would be spared Grimes’ critical ire. And it was a watershed moment for food writing and restaurant reviews in the U.S.

Grimes told DiGiacomo:

    “Ruth hated the star system and was on record as not believing in it and therefore did an end run around it,” Mr. Grimes said of Ms. Reichl, now editor of Gourmet magazine. “Basically, one star had been abolished, and all sorts of restaurants were getting two stars, and the whole thing became sort of meaningless.”
    Mr. Grimes said one of his New Year’s resolutions was “to reinstate a valid star system in which the stars meant what they said and said what they meant. The one star’s purpose in life is to reward the good, solid neighborhood restaurant that’s operating at a high level, but is never going to be a Daniel.” At one point in the conversation, he characterized himself as “administering tough love.”

Grimes’ “tough love” ushered in an era of the self-righteous and morally puckered food critic in our country, when writers seemed to feel charged with and empowered by an ethical responsibility to unmask mediocrity to readers who couldn’t recognize it on their own.

But the waning of print media and the rise of the blogosphere and user-generated content in the years that followed the financial crisis marked the onset of winter for such high-handed arbiters of culinary excellence.

Scarcely a decade after Grimes’ review of Colina, Adam Martin wrote for The Atlantic: “the role of food critic has morphed from the kind of job one holds for decades, with increasing local power and seniority, to the kind of job one holds for a few years, before going off and doing something else.”

(I highly recommend Martin’s piece, “The End of the Career Food Critic,” to any aspiring food writer. It gives much needed historical perspective on the rapid evolution of food writing over the last two decades.)

In a world where there is no career for the “career food critic” as Martin put it, why do content creators still cling to such self-righteousness and self-fulfilling and self-propelled pseudo-moral authority?

What was there to gain when the Houston writer so aggressively assailed the restaurateur with little regard for journalistic standards or integrity? What purpose does food writing as a bully pulpit serve?

The answer beats me — literally and figuratively. And it’s one of the topics I’ll be covering for my seminars on food writing across the web at the University of Gastronomic Sciences next month in Piedmont.

6 thoughts on “When food writing becomes a bully pulpit…

  1. Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle would be an excellent case study for your seminar. He’s been the restaurant critic since about 1990 and his reviews have a very influential sway over the fortunes of Bay Area restaurants. He’s also seen as slightly corrupt because of his s.o.’s business ties to the restaurant world.

  2. I think you should go ahead and name the the “writer” to whom you refer. It is Eric Sandler, no? He has no “journalistic standards or integrity”. He outed me, he is sloppy and shoddy, and he can’t write. His need to ridicule and be “snarky” stems from a severe case of low self-esteem, a condition that is difficult to shake, especially when one knows one is a fraud, as he probably does. He’s not bad with a press release, and he never misses a chance to make a jab, but that’s about it when it come to his abilities where his job is concerned. It’s time CultureMap take a serious look at canning him and replacing him with someone who actually knows food. He has in the past made lewd approaches to women, has been barred from restaurants, asks for special treatment, and loves to throw his, ahem, weight around. You would think by now that given his time at CM he would have taken the opportunity to learn and grow. Seems he has done neither, at least as far as his knowledge and food and cooking go. (He has grown, that is for sure.) Does Houston deserve better? My colleagues and I think it does. That he has this job at all says a lot about the state of food “journalism” in Houston: much of it is not worth reading

    • Wow. What a bunch of utter nonsense, as is this entire post, really. Thankfully, the thousands of people who read CultureMap every day can see through the rantings of a publicist who’s upset about an honest assessment of his client’s place in Houston’s food scene.

  3. The writer is Eric Sandler of CultureMap. The guy who got his start with snark filled commentary, copied press releases as articles, and wrote “articles” from information shared on chefs and bartender’s private Facebook for Eater. He’s a hack who loves the attention and fawning of others over his “work”. Work that is nothing more than press releases, refurbished lists, and sad attempts at investigative journalism. But where was his “work” on his buddy’s Treadsack when the $%^ hit the fan? No where but everyone else covered Treadsack’s shady business. Mr. Loves All the Attention’s need for fawning probably stems from overcompensation for his obesity and sloppy appearance. I have been in his presence a number of times at events and he’s so big that much of his feet hang out of his shoes. My partner was appalled. I suspect the women he brings to these functions are only into him for access and free food. Alison, is right on the money too regarding Mr. Sandler’s special treatment. He believes he is such a big shot. Thank you for calling him out.

  4. I myself have not the highest regard for Eric Sandlers writing, more because he lacks the basic food knowledge, excesively uses rethoric elements such as hyperboles (which the sole mention of it on another thread motivated him to defriend me on Facebook) and is too friendly with certain restaurant owners and ignores others for whatever reasons (culturemap was the last media outlet with a food focus to report on Ortegas James beard award, while all reported on Monday CM took till Thirsday to break the news, wonder where the pressure came from), but:
    – he does not work for a renown publication, its a free online only pamphlet that is entertaining to read but thats about it
    – as Parzen pointed out, food journalists these days make very little and have to achieve a lot per day making it almost impossible to gain better insight into food and the restaurant world, ultimately relying in to what is provided by the restaurants in forms of releases.
    – and the community is somewhat tiny, so critiquing is a risky business.

    The article on Tony’s is in my opinion not as negative as when he wrote about Marks closing where he really trashed the name of one chef and mentor to so many.
    Or the time when he would label himself the perez hilton of food journalism

    However as sad or entertaining Eric may be, and as insulting or snarky he may write, all those pointing out his obesity as a negative on him and his work just fell unto the same step on the ladder at which, according to them Sandler sits.
    To mock that man for being fat and having ill fitting clothing is not honorable at all.

    I know from own experience that Eric is extremely sensitive to critique of his work and qualities but yet knows, like everyone else, that anytjing we do, will draw criticism of others, after all we are no goldcoins to be loved by all, but the criticism should be to his doing as a writer and not to his appearance, religion, race or gender

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