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.