The visible face of restaurant criticism

Note: In April of 2012, I published a story on the subject of anonymity amongst restaurant critics.  It was presented on a now-defunct website called OpenFile. The story included interviews with Passable’s own Melissa Buote and former NYT critic Sam Sifton. Unfortunately, the site is now down, and so the story was no longer available online.  Since its publication, anonymity has become less and less used by restaurant critics, with most recently New York Magazine’s Adam Platt plastering his face on the cover of said magazine.  I thought it would be interesting to republish the story and ask once again: what is the role of anonymity in restaurant criticism today?

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In 2005, Ruth Reichl published, “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life Of A Critic in Disguise” about her experience as restaurant critic for The New York Times. In it she details the myriad ways – wigs, costumes and makeup lessons – she worked to make herself as anonymous as possible.

But is it possible to be anonymous as a food critic when social media and our increased online presence has changed the way we – and let others – view our lives? Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we curate our private lives. For most people, this is a non-issue, but for food critics, staying anonymous has always been a major concern.

“I think that the reader of a restaurant review wants the person to be an everyman (or everywoman) who gets the same treatment they do, and nine times out of ten, that experience is an anonymous one,” says Melissa Buote. Melissa is the food critic for The Coast and has been writing about food for the past two and half years. (Full disclosure: Buote and I also write for the same food blog, Passable.ca) To maintain her anonymity, Melissa has made changes in her life. She strictly limits access to her Facebook profile, even using a pseudonym, and her Twitter profile shows the image of a cat. “There is an idea that privacy doesn’t exist anymore, but that’s only true insofar as you let it be true,” says Melissa. “Yes, it’s impossible to be completely anonymous. But that has always been true to some extent. You will always meet people or be put in social situations where a friend-of-a-friend knows who you are, or someone can point you out to a stranger, be that a server in a restaurant, a chef or just a random person on the street—and that it’s-a-small-worldness is amplified in smaller cities like Halifax.”

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Sam Sifton, former critic for the New York Times (Image via Food Republic)

And that’s the key here. In terms of population and dining options, Halifax is a relatively small city.  It’s not like New York where restaurateurs will do everything in their power to find out what food critics look like. Sam Sifton should know. He recently finished his two-year stint as restaurant critic for the New York Times.  “I always reserved under a false name,” he explains.  “My cell phone numbers were fake, or only led to my line through proxies. I had credit cards registered under more than a half-dozen names, and I changed all these regularly. I had a few disguises, though these rarely worked more than once.” Sifton even found himself hounded by photographers when he announced that he would check out KFC’s Double Down.  Although he found the attention a little strange, he still believes in the importance of anonymity, or at least, as much as it is possible in today’s world. “Anonymity is going to be increasingly difficult to achieve, given the popularity of Facebook and other social media outlets that allow people to post pictures of themselves,” he says.  “You can disable these accounts if you want to become critic. But the security’s porous. The Web’s wide. Photos are going to get out. It’s best just to follow our rules and hope for the best.” But what happens when your image does get out there? Does such a thing matter in a place like Halifax?

Some would argue that Halifax is too small for such things to matter. Kristen Pickett has been writing her blog With Bite since 2008, and has also written restaurant criticism for The Coast.  She’s also worked with people in the restaurant industry. While she was writing for The Coast, her image was available on her Twitter profile. However, Pickett says that she made arrangements to minimize the risk of her being known. “For the most part, any of the restaurants I was reviewing were places that I had never been to before, or it was brand new,” she says. “So I hadn’t had any interaction with those owners or their staff.” As for her image being easily found, she points out that, “I didn’t think people would take notice of it. You see plenty of pictures of people and how often do you recognise them.”  Bill Spurr agrees. The critic for The Chronicle Herald writes approximately fifty reviews a year and has been dining out for seven years and “45 pounds” he laughs. Spurr got a bit of local attention [on a now defunct message board – edit] when he was spotted doing video news reports for his newspaper.  “We talked about it whether I should do [the videos],” he says. “And I said, “I have been told it’s impossible for me to be anonymous, and I’m not sure anyone cares.” Spurr jokes that Ray Bear had his picture up in his restaurant, but that in general, people didn’t recognise him. “I went back to a restaurant for a second time, “ he recalls, “and the husband and wife were saying ‘I will recognise Bill Spurr when I see him’, as he was serving me my meal. If you see someone’s photo in the paper or on TV you don’t always remember.” Spurr also mentions that he is winding down his career as critic, citing his recent diagnoses of diabetes, and the fact that one of his constant dining companions, his son, will soon be headed to university. “I am just writing about a family that is going out to eat,” he says. “I don’t really kid myself in saying that I am not expert by any stretch.”

As for the idea that restaurant criticism in this city is as powerful as it is in others, Spurr sure doesn’t think so. “There was a documentary recently about the new Le Cirque,” he explains. “So you’re talking about a multi-million dollar effort, and they were sitting there, refreshing the computer every five seconds waiting for the New York Times review because it will make a big difference in their life.  In that instance it is important for the critic to be anonymous, because he has to make sure he gets the service that everyone else does.”  Pickett agrees with the sentiment. “If I gave a crappy review to a restaurant, people are going to want to see for themselves,” she argues. This is not to say that critics do not hold some sway in this city. Spurr mentions the fact that many of the restaurants that receive favourable reviews usually see immediate increases in their business.  But what about those who don’t care about anonymity when dining?

Ben Boudreau is the community and marketing manager for Yelp, a review site that allows people to post their reviews of everything from gyms to stores to restaurants.  Restaurants make up about twenty two percent of their reviews. According to Boudreau, anonymity can be seen as a detriment to a review. “When you look at Yelp reviews, people being accountable for their reviews just helps and puts more weight behind that individual review.” Boudreau points out that the people who access Yelp view reviews with a grain of salt, since anonymity – and the freedom to praise or trash a place – is too easy. “It’s the difference between a faceless profile saying, “Love this place” and somebody with a face and a name that you can get to know and whose opinions you can kind of weigh with what you know about them and the places they like and the places they don’t.”

But for those who write restaurant criticism as work, anonymity is still viewed as necessity, albeit an increasingly difficult one. “It’s not about perfecting the notion of anonymity, it’s about attempting to fly under the radar, and not bringing unnecessary attention to yourself,” says Melissa Buote. Buote also points out that unlike Sifton, who worked strictly as a food writer and restaurant critic during his tenure at the Grey Lady, most restaurant critics in this city hold other jobs. “Kristen Pickett and I both have 9-5 jobs. Bill Spurr is a features writer who also reviews restaurants. All of those other work commitments require a flexibility that will always undercut the ability to be really, truly anonymous in a storybook kind of way. It’s not like any of us are Ruth Reichl. Nobody here has a full-time job of Anonymous Food Critic.”

But it isn’t always gastronomic glamour in the world of food criticism.  Ruth Reichl has talked about the problems her job fostered, and Sifton’s predecessor, Frank Bruni, discussed his own issues around food and his job in his book, Born Round.  When asked, Melissa gives advice to future food critics. “If someone truly loves food and really wants to celebrate it, and at the same time they want to build a public profile or persona for themselves, I just think “Why do you want to write reviews?’ Just write about food. If you’re a good writer, you don’t need any other reason beyond loving the subject.”

 

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