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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Weighing in

A headline on the front page of the SF Chronicle last weekend read:

Food bloggers dish up plates of spicy criticism:
Formerly formal discipline of reviewing becomes a free-for-all for online amateurs

It argued, essentially, that paid writers –aka real journalists- have editors and are therefore more ethical and objective than rampant barbaric bloggers with only fifteen bucks a months to Typepad for a soapbox on which to stand and shout into the void.

Wow. What a revelation! Can we possibly print a more tiresome argument than this? I read it and, frankly, couldn't even be arsed to respond. Then my friend Sam's post this morning got me going for a minute. She was threatening to quit food blogging altogether as a result of that silly article. Now, it took me a few minutes to realize that today is April Fool, and her post was but a smart April Fool's joke. The post made me go read all the bruhaha and snark that came from that article anyway. Besides that yawn-inducing argument, there were also snide comments –in Mr.Bauer's subsequent blog post and the comment section- about bloggers misusing their 'fame' and demanding better treatment and freebies from restaurants.

That argument is just so silly I can hardly muster up the energy to respond, yet I am but an idle blogger with no better things to do so I will anyway. First of all, not all journalists are created equal, and not all bloggers are cut from the same cloth. Speaking of them as though every journalist has the same respectable ethics and all bloggers behave with the same objectionable behaviors is just plain ignorant.

The article pointed out a frequent critique on the issue of bloggers vs. journalists -that bloggers are ill-qualified when compared to journalists in the field. I'm not sure if I buy this one. Is it always true? Frank Bruni got his lofty job with merely an ability to write engagingly while having no apparent qualification in the field of gastronomy. Notice I said 'apparent'? Having not made acquaintance of Mr.Bruni himself nor his qualifications, I am in fact ill-qualified to judge either of them. For all I know he is the best home cook in the world or has the superhuman taste memory of the Emperor of Wine Robert Parker –said about- himself. When Marlena Spieler wrote a piece on the restaurant L'Arpège for the Chronicle Food Section, the meal she reported was her very first wide-eye experience at the restaurant. I've been to L'Arpège more times than I care to remember in the last few years. Doesn't that make me essentially more qualified than Ms.Spieler to write about the restaurant, even if I had to pay for the meals myself and I had no editor to speak of but my Spell Checker?

Apology to both Mr.Bruni and Ms.Spieler, I didn't single them out to pick on them. I was merely illustrating the point that the question of qualification was perhaps harder to judge than one might think. Having gone to culinary school doesn't always make one a good cook or give one a better understanding of food than someone who hasn't done it. If it were so there would not be a bad restaurant. Plus, two of the best chefs in the world, Heston Blumenthal and Alain Passard, are autodidact. Having cooked in a restaurant or worked in one also doesn't automatically make one an authority on food. Nor is being paid to write or having an editor.

Another point of critique has to do with objectivity. Journalists like Mr.Bauer pride themselves in their ability to be objective. But objective? Seriously? Anyone who thinks s/he can write a truly objective review of a restaurant is misguided at best. There is no such thing as a purely objective review. A question of taste is almost inherently subjective. Certain flavors and combinations might appeal to you while not to others. I don't dispute that there are objective criteria one can use -this piece of fish is fresher than that one, for example. Or if we are speaking of a classic sauce, a critic can –more or less- objectively comment on whether it has been prepared correctly. But when it comes to judging the dish itself -how the piece of fish was paired with what sauce or accompaniment- one must venture into a subjective, that is to say taste-based, territory. A style of food, formality of service, and many other factors contributing to a good or great meal are often judged subjectively.

Am I arguing, then, that all restaurant reviews and reports are subjective and therefore useless? No I am not. To me, the value is not in objectivity. It is in consistency and transparency which form a context for any subjective restaurant review. And in this a blogger can be on par with any journalist. (Notice that I didn't say all bloggers here, right? Let me repeat again, not all bloggers are created equal, and -you know what?- neither are all journalists.)

It's not a question of how many three star restaurants I've eaten in or how many times I've flirted with death eating strange street food à la Tony Bourdain. I can go one counting the stars until I am blue in the face and all but a few of my readers will care. It's all about context. Anyone can read what I've said on the subject of cooking and eating right here chez moi and make up your own mind about my qualification. My bias, prejudice, and relationships are laid out for all to see. My archives are easily accessible, going way back to the old days my blog wasn't even about food. My blog is my context -that’s the nature of blogs. Read it and make up your own mind.

Building an effective context requires social investment on the part of the readers themselves, and some forms of media make the context more visible than others. A review written by a Joe Schmoe on Chowhound is worth less to me than one by, say, Melanie Wong, whom I know and whose taste I understand. Especially since the new Chowhound interface doesn't exactly make finding other reviews written by that Joe Schmoe easy, and things get even worse when a user is largely free to register with whatever name(s) s/he wants. Blogs, in this case, are better at context building because the blogger is almost always visible. The same goes with big time newspaper reviewers. Having followed Michael Bauer's reviews for years now, I've also developed a good context to judge whether I'd agree with his call on a restaurant.

Ultimately, it comes down to power in the hands of the people themselves. It's the readers who get to judge whose voice they will listen to or whose recommendation they will choose to follow. If I abuse my –or my blog's- meager influence, I will eventually lose whatever credibility I've managed to build with my readers. How many times can I send people to a crap restaurant before they stop reading my blog? In the end it's up to the readers and not those of us espousing our subjective opinions about restaurants. And it's not worth getting our knickers tied up in a knot over who is holier than thou. It's hardly up to us anyway.

A while back I came across a funny remark (by someone who called herself Bloviatrix on the food forum Mouthfuls) which gave me a good laugh

..Having eighty years of experience reviewing restaurants means nothing except that [one is] old.

Of course the comment wasn't to be taken literally, but there's certainly enough truthiness in it to give me a smile.

Speaking of transparency, let me clear up a few things people have asked on email. I don't think that any of this will be completely news to my regular readers here, but it's probably worth repeating again.

The question of Manresa

It shouldn't be news to you that my partner is David Kinch who is the chef/owner of Manresa. When David and I began dating, I naturally stopped writing about Manresa. I was no longer a dispassionate observer of the restaurant, so my review or report wouldn't be useful to anyone. The silence lasted about a year. Then when David and I moved in together, he became a part of my life and not writing about him at all on the blog became difficult. I now mention Manresa on the blog, but I don't review the place or the food, nor do I compare them to any restaurant I talk about. What I write about are activities in our lives like the garden and the recent Alain Passard dinners, which I think are all fair game.

Do I take freebies?
No, not really. I don't take free meals. I always pay for my own meals (ok, sometimes David pays for them.) I've never asked for or been given a free meal at any restaurant because of my blog. I've had two free meals with David, but the restaurants were treating David the chef and Pim the arm-candy and nothing at all to do with Pim the blogger. I did not write about either meal. I don't ever want to find myself in a situation where a restaurant can claim that I didn't write a nice post about them because they didn't give me special treatment or comp my meal. So, the rule is, easy enough, I don't write up free meals. Period.

I've sometimes been given extra dishes, but they almost always happen at restaurants where I am a regular. If this happens at a restaurant I do not know, I always raise the tip so it covers whatever the extra cost was for the freebies. It's good restaurant etiquette anyway. (At restaurants where I'm a regular I am likely to over-tip anyway.)

I've been given a few books by publishers whom I have met, but never under the condition that I must review them. I've only written about one of them, and I mentioned the fact that I got the book from the publisher. I don't accept random solicitations of free books on email. I don't accept solicitations from food producers either. My mailbox is always cluttered with those, and I just don't reply to them.

I was invited to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen last year. I thought it was fun so I took up the magazine on its invitation. I wrote a few posts about it and made clear to everyone that I was there as a guest of the magazine.

Do I announce myself when I visit a restaurant, or do I make people give me a reservation because of my blog?
No. Very often the reservation is not even in my name. Lest you think I am so delusional in my fame that I am compelled to conceal my identity, I should explain that it's basically because I am lazy and why should I be arsed to call for a reservation when my far-more-enterprising friends are always happy to do it?

The only time I scored a reservation because of my blog was at Zuni last summer. I had friends visiting from out of town and we decided on a short notice to have lunch at Zuni. As we were a large table of 8 (6, actually), we couldn't get a table at our desired time. The restaurant offered to take our reservation for an earlier table. I agreed, and politely asked if they would be willing to take my name and phone number down so that they could let me know if a later table opened up. I gave them my name and mobile number, as would anyone else. I received a phone call from the restaurant an hour or so later, informing me that we could, after all, have a table at the time we wanted. The receptionist then asked if I was the Pim of Chez Pim, and let me know that he enjoyed my blog. That situation was hardly, I am The Pim of Chez Pim and You Must Give Me My Table When I Want It. That the person at the other end of the line happened to recognize my name was not exactly my doing.

Come to think of it, the only time I've ever referred to my blog when making a reservation was at Pierre Gagnaire a year or two ago. I normally use an unusual reservation route, having to do with knowing someone there and nothing at all about Chez Pim. On that occasion, we needed a reservation on a short notice, as David was with me in Paris for just a few days. My usual means of reservation was out of town, so I was left to deal with the normal reservationist on email. Since I am a regular of sort at the restaurant, I was hoping that if he saw the pictures on my blog he would recognize me, yes, as a regular and again not anything to do with having a blog at all. It wasn't even successful. We managed to get in for lunch but not for dinner as we wished.

P.S. I forgot to mention that the bean guy Rancho Gordo at the Ferry Plaza market often gives me his beans for free, but I should tell you it's only because I watch his stall and sell his beans while he takes a pee break.


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