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The Politics of Food

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I'm not sure if you saw recently, the one page advertisement in the NY Times from Jeffrey Chodorow of China Grill Management, to the Editor of the Times regarding Frank Bruni's review of Kobe Club. The gist of the message was two-fold: 1) That the Bruni owed the employees of Kobe Club an apology because the review was more about Codorow than actually the quality food that the employees were creating; and 2) That while Bruni is an accomplished writer, Chodorow suggests that he is not qualified as a food critic.

Clearly, in this world, the politics of people affect most everything. It affects government, it affects industry, it affects the way we think about issues, etc. Ultimately, though, politics is driven by people, and frankly good marketing. So who do we believe?

This little tiff between Chodorow and Bruni reminded me of the single star that Bruni gave to Morimoto. From what I heard through the rumor-mill, New York and Philadelphia restaurants and restaurateurs don't get along. Hence, because Morimoto is a Starr restaurant, Bruni seemed to give Morimoto a review based on, like Chodorow is suggesting, the restaurateur, rather than the food. Disregarding Bruni's review and wanting to be in the presence of an Iron Chef, I decided to take several different friends there on several different occasions. Every time I went, I got the Omakase and have to admit, some of the dishes weren't great, but were nowhere near a one star rating. Not to forget the fact that Morimoto is an Iron Chef!

This time, though, Bruni's review did have an impact on me and I haven't gone to Kobe Club, despite my affinity for steak. However, who's to say that Bruni's opinion is the end-all, especially now that I know that he's not a "trained food critic." Chodorow makes a very important point here. How is the NY Times restaurant critic, with one of the largest readership bases in the US, not someone with a food background. Instead, as Chodorow points out in his letter, Bruni wrote about politics in Italy before coming to the US. Clearly, as Chodorow once again points out, Bruni is an excellent writer (in his last review he used the word: pulchritudinous, which I had to look up and means: Characterized by or having great physical beauty and appeal. He clearly is a good writer for using a world like that) but how can I now trust his taste buds when I know they are no longer trained in the subtle art of taste distinction? I feel cheated now want to see Bruni's resume.

What did I learned from this entire episode? Go and try it for myself, and see what I think!

What did you learn?

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  1. i doubt that many food writers are "trained in the subtle art of taste distinction." how on earth could something like that be taught? in any case, this is probably a topic for not about food or food and media news.

    1. oes on go about getting trained as a food critic? Does one actually go through a formal training to be an MFK Fisher? There is, of course, the talent for writing, but how does one train the palate and more importantly translate the palate's sensations into word? R. W Apple was a writer befor he became a food critic, Calvin Trillin was a writer, Jeffey Steingarten was a lawyer. There is no such thing as a "trained" food critic. You eat, you appreciate, you gain knowledge, and then you learn to put what you tasted and your food knowledge into words. Chodorow is asking for too much if he is asking for a trained food critic. Perhaps he means to ask for an unbiased food critic. That is different, but similarly imposible.

      1. Bruni lived in Rome for some years. What better training is there?

        3 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          only a churl could cavil.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Living all over the world would be much better training if being able to understand the diversity of cuisines is an important attribute.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Living in Bologna.

            2. hmmm. certification for critics but not for restaurateurs. yes, your friend jeffrey would like that.
              reminds me of when when doc daneeka, in heller's "catch 22," examined himself and declared he was not fit to be drafted.
              daneeka was outraged when the draft board didn't buy his argument.

              1. I read the letter and I don't believe that Chodorow asked for a "trained" food critic per say. I believe he wrote that, in his opinion, a food critic should have a "food background". But as I recall, he didn't get much more specific than that. So, yes, I agree with other posters here that traveling around the world and educating one's palatte at the same time could, potentially, impart upon a person a background sufficient with which to embark on a food writing career. A talent for writing is always nice too.

                But I have to differ with the original poster on another point. I don't believe that the use of "big" words automatically confers upon a person the status of being "clearly a good writer". All that takes is knowing how to use a thesaurus.

                1 Reply
                1. re: flourgirl

                  I think this is actually an old argument re the NY Times restaurant critics (or maybe about food criticism in general; I don't know) - IIRC, Ruth Reichl wrote in her memoir about being criticised for not having a "food background." I think it's pretty common for restauranteurs to try to discredit critics as good writers, or entertainers, or storytellers, rather than as serious about food.

                2. A big problem is individual tastes, not just quality or lack thereof. I worked alongside Michael Bauer for several years (editing, not reviewing) and found that we agreed on some restaurants, not on others. But restaurant reviewers, to serve the widest audience, tend to be rather picky. They also tend to look for the latest trend. Some reviewers seem to be more impressed by decor and oversize flatware and the wine list than the food. Readers need to evaluate critics, and see if their tastes match.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: mpalmer6c

                    Rather than evaluating critics, I think that it would be more imperative for people to evaluate restaurants for themselves.

                    1. re: limster

                      Most people don't have the time or money to try enough restaurants to decide which is best. Hence the appeal of restaurant reviews (whether in print, blogs, or sites like Chowhound and Yelp). If you find that somebody's taste is similar to yours, it's a safe bet that you can trust their recommendations.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        To figure out if your taste matches someone else's, you'd need be eating the same dishes at the same restaurants, otherwise there isn't much comparison to be made. That time and effort doing that might as well be used to eat at a restaurant of one's choosing. Chowhounding isn't about following someone else's written word, to quote the FAQ:

                        "Chowhounds spurn established opinion to sniff out on their own secret deliciousness. The places they find today will show up in newspapers two years from now and in Zagat’s in four, when they’ll undoubtedly have grown crowded and overpriced."

                        1. re: limster

                          Over time I generally will have eaten enough of the same dishes at the same restaurants to know whether I trust the recommendations of a particular critic or Chowhound regular.

                          I do a lot of leg work and find the occasional good "secret" place that way, but I'm not going to turn my nose up at good food just because Michael Bauer raved about it. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

                  2. chodorow came off as a big baby. he has a history of hit-or-miss, and seems to do best with over-the-top concepts.

                    in his poorly written *letter*/ad, he offered his eating out since he was a little kid as his food background. he also vaguely offered that other critics loved the place when in fact that's not the case.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                      Yes, I also didn't care for Chodorow's constant refrain of how rich he is.

                    2. As a follow up, in the March 5 issue of the New Yorker, under Talk of the Town, Lauren Collins apparently talked to both Chodorow and Bruni. The illustration is quite entertaining.

                      Some high lights:

                      Chodorow thought Bruni was being too nit picky:The potatoes weren't too gluey, they were just right, fresh! etc.

                      Chodorow thought Kobe Club deserved two stars.

                      Apparently this is n't the first time that the NYT critic had been excoriated in an open letter. Frank Rich and Alex Witchel had been written to by David Mamet, Michiko Kakutani had been called out by Leib Goldkorn etc.

                      Chodorow wrote his letter on the plane ride to Italy on the laptop of one of his subordinates. It took five drafts before it was accepted, with Chodorow threatening to publish it in the Post if the Times didn't take it. Ok, that last bit just goes to exhibit 1 against Chodorow. He seems to take joy in pronouncing that everyone can be as crass and as big a putz a he is.

                      Bruni said that he doesn't usually read criticism of his criticism. ("It can be sort of ickily onanistic.") Now that is a long word for you. Clever one too.

                      Chodorow said that the next restaurant idea is based on a Pacific Northwest theme, and that he will pay for a trip to Seattle for any one of his minions if they physically blocked Bruni from entering. While Bruni promoses that he will not let this affect the way he will review Chodorow's next project.

                      Oh, the unfortunate restaurant that got reviewed in Bruni's column the day of the infamous letter? David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Phaedrus

                        I always find it funny when restaurant owners complain that the bad food a critic ate was good.

                        If a critic says the potatoes were gluey, they were. Somebody in the kitchen used the wrong variety of potatoes or beat them too much.