Last month, Marc Vetri, a Philadelphia chef, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post blasting modern food journalism. He looks back on the “old days” when newspaper restaurant reviews held significant weight and sharply affected business, when one good review would leave the restaurant booked full for months. Now, with a variety of shorter format blogs and sites out there, the information is too plentiful for a reader to be swayed by one review, or so Vetri claims.
Food journalism is certainly in flux. It’s not like the days where there were only 5 critics in all of New York, but this doesn’t mean it’s “stale” at all. There are so many more people who are passionate about food today, who want to geek out over different ramen joints or merely want to have fun with the whole restaurant-going concept. Their writing isn’t necessarily made for one particular audience, but for a diverse group of readers that crave equally diverse content.
A renaissance of sorts is in progress, where instead of looking to the Sunday paper, Eater has interactive lists for every type of restaurant in the city of your choice. If you want to read features with beautiful design, pick up a copy of Lucky Peach. If you want to read a trustworthy restaurant review, Pete Wells can still guide you. There is something for every reader and every purpose. In fact, the abundance of interactive, media rich content online is only adding life to the world of food journalism.
Of course, the inherit tension between food criticism and chefs will still always exist. However, today the world of criticism and diner feedback is much more dynamic. Before, the word of one critic once had enormous weight for the success of a restaurant; it meant that one’s fate as a chef could lie in the hands of a single diner. Nowadays, many chefs and restauranteurs have the chance to engage with their diners in a whole new way, via Facebook, Instagram, Yelp and so much more. There is no longer a strict veil behind the chef or the critic.
Take Noma for example, rated one of the top restaurants in the world by critics, which has over 50,000 followers on Instagram; their account saturated with photos of staff meals, dispatches from the kitchen and snapshots of the trivialities of restaurant maintenance (i.e. spritzing the plants with water and changing light bulbs). We are no longer trapped in Vetri’s bubble of influence, where chefs, critics, journalists and diners exist in distinctly separate spheres.
Just because people want to know about David Chang’s love for Bud Light or Rene Redzepi’s whereabouts doesn’t mean we don’t want to read stories and engage in a dialogue about food on a deeper level. The dynamic nature of modern food journalism allows people who from diverse perspectives to come to the table and discuss.
Food journalists are still journalists, they write for an audience and they write well. Sites like GrubStreet, Eater, and Food Republic are comprised of writers and editors who are passionate about food. Likely just as much as the Mimi Sheratons and Jonathan Golds of Vetri’s romanticized journalistic past. They are still writing important reviews, and features and long form stories, but they are also writing to a new audience. An audience that is wider and has much more access to information.
We aren’t finding out about restaurants in the Sunday paper anymore. Like Vetri, you are allowed to be bitter about the slow death of print journalism and the loss of beloved food magazines like Gourmet, but this doesn’t mean that you can look at your Twitter feed and see a “11 Best Boozy Brunches in Philly” article and call it the death of food journalism. Just as much as food journalism has expanded to appeal to the “listical” readers, it has expanded to become more adventurous, raw and groundbreaking.
Sites like Eater and Vice have actually expanded their investigative and long form journalism sections. Both Eater and GrubStreet have some of the top respected restaurant critics (Robert Sietsema and Adam Platt) under their wings. Munchies has taken the smart yet gritty Vice voice to the world of food, daring to delve into important subjects that would have previously scared away an older generation of gourmands.
People who know food know that reviews from reputable critics hold more weight than the average Yelp fiend. People also know that if 5 out of 10 yelp reviews mention something about poor service, the place may have poor service. What Vetri misses is that modern eaters are smarter than ever before. We aren’t blindly reading one poorly written review on Urbanspoon. Apps like Yelp and Urbanspoon would actually help point tourists in the direction of restaurants like Vetri’s if they find themselves in a new neighborhood.
There are so many tools at our fingertips to find great food. In this explosion of information will always come misinformation. Someone is going to be misled by a Yelp review. Someone is going to see an Instagram of a meal that looked way better under the veil of the “Valencia” filter. This is the result of technology and change, not a complete crisis. If anything, food journalism is fresher than ever, which to some chefs is a scary thought.