- Elvis and I at the Barfly Awards
With my last food review officially out in the world, I thought I'd say a few words about being a food critic in PDX. So I've decided to write a series of blog posts about it over my last few days here at the Mercury. Are you curious about something? E-mail me and ask a question (there are some things I'll probably not answer). Whether you give a shit or not, I talk about anonymity after the jump.
I believe, based on almost zero evidence, that anonymous food critics are becoming a thing of the past. Frankly, I can understand why. With the increase in rabid foodie-ism and chef celebrity, the dining culture has begun to place more emphasis on breaking news and gossip than on in-depth and readable analysis of what's coming out of the kitchen. Huge amounts of buzz are created around who's moving where, and "what's opening right at this very second that I can't wait to wait in line for". If you're in the know, and breaking stories, then you're getting eyes on your content. This is even truer in a city with a food scene as lightening-hot as Portland's.
Trying to be anonymous and break news is a crazy difficult task. You break news by developing contacts. You develop contacts by schmoozing (or in the case of Food Dude, being around for a long while). Who do you schmooze with when wanting to get the scoop about what's happening in the restaurant industry? Well, for a food critic, it's exactly the people he or she would like to avoid most: servers, chefs, and restaurant owners. And there's the rub.
Very early on in this gig, I stopped attending those all-important networking sessions known as media preview dinners. They just felt too icky to me. Too many PR people saw my face; too many chefs could mark me as the Mercs food editor. So, I stopped going. And the places where I did attend a media preview, I never reviewed. I honestly don't see how any food critic could attend a media dinner and not be biased when approaching the review months later. Maybe those that do are just better souls. Who knows?
Anyway. I'm not trying to put down people who are breaking the food news. I desperately wish I could have been better at it. But let's face it—I had stiff competition. Am I just being a whiny bitch and making excuses? Sure.
But why was I so stubborn with trying to keep my identity secret? The fact is there are plenty of things a restaurant can do to change the experience for a reviewer. They can give the table a dedicated server who is focused only on the critic, they can pull fresher product, they can juggle orders to make sure the critic is served promptly when the food is perfect (perhaps at the expense of other diners), they can fix soups, send out better flatware… etc. Seriously, this shit happens. Did it ever happen to me? Honestly? I don't think I was ever "made".
At the same time, I didn't exactly do that much to remain anonymous. Over the course of a review I'd switch out headwear and glasses, and try to change my style of dress significantly. I'd have my wife pay with her card (with a different last name) or use cash. I'd go at different times in the day to get different servers. I wouldn't sit facing an open kitchen.
My lovely wife is really the hero of my reviews. I'd make her ask to keep menus, take notes for me by pretending to text during dinner, make reservations under assumed names, ask questions for me so I wouldn't seem too curious… The list goes on, and she didn't have the luxury of getting paid for her work.
But I did all of this because I wanted the experience I was writing about to be authentic. I wanted it to be unbiased, and when my readers went into a restaurant, I wanted their experience to match mine as much as possible.
I'm going to be an asshole about this and say I don't think non-anonymous or well-known reviewers can give an unbiased, authentic review. I'm sorry Yelpers and bloggers, that's just the way I feel. You can't be a restaurant critic when everyone knows who the fuck you are, or if you announce your intentions when you walk into a joint.
I know the Mercury isn't the New York Times, but goddamn it if I didn't want to write columns that had a New York Times level of credibility (that's why I wore a luchadore mask, natch). Assail my writing style and opinion all you want (and oh so many did, oh so vocally), but not my credibility.
If I sound like I'm being defensive, I am. My anonymity (or assumed anonymity) was honestly the most contentious issue I had to deal with as a food editor. The fact is I will likely never be a food critic again. My new gig will involve waaay too much schmoozing for me to ever justify walking into a Portland restaurant for critical purposes again. In another city? Maybe. Don't think I haven't already thought about saying I've given up reviewing and then writing under an alias. Oh, I have. But I won't.
I'll just watch sadly as anonymous food critics become a thing of the past.