Pro food critics who know nothing about a cuisine - helpful or harmful?
- rworange Sep 6, 2007 03:28 PM
I'm a little sensitive about reviewers who write about Eastern European food in the SF Bay Area.
There's not that much available and, for the most part, what is here is mediocre at best.
Yet becuase of its exotic nature in the area, the reviews of the few mediocre places usually are enthusiastic. This recent review set me off, primarily because it starts out factually inaccurate. There are four or five Russian restaurants in the area and a Polish Deli across the street. All of those places are better, IMO, than the joint reviewed.
What annoys me is that by writing positively, people might be turned off entirely by a particular cuisine ... if that's the best there is ... we don't like Polish, Russian ...etc cuisine.
I can verify that the cabbage rolls here are bland and the bread was stale. They even had a few moldy loaves on the shelves.
On the other hand, maybe some attention is better than none at all. Also, this might be the way people unfamiliar with the food might react to tasting it.
That's not to say this deli is without merit. They have sausages and cold cuts from Chicago. However, the prepared food isn't the strong point here.
I know I get enthusiastic trying an unfamiliar-to-me cuisine. When I learn a lot more about it, I often cringe and my initial positive posts. However, this is not my job, just an interest. I'm not getting paid. Shouldn't we expect more from a professional?
IMO, at the least if someone is getting paid for a review they should bring along someone with them who knows the cuisine and is qualified to say if it is a good example or not.
I have found the "professionals" are often lacking in knowledge.
When reading reviews, I usually don't follow their recommendations, based on my experiences over the years. For a while there was a wine writer and a restaurant reviewer whose tastes were similar to mine, but that was the exception
I have learned most of the short term media is often wrong, a college instructor told me, the validity of the information is tied to the time the publication lasts (or something similar), meaning radio/tv is the most unreliable, books are the most reliable.
Have you ever been at something that was covered in the news, I have and would wonder where the media got their information. I didn't see the media there, and their descriptions of what happened were inconsistent with my experiences.
Not to get too geeky here, but you're describing McLuhan's depiction of "hot" and "cool" mediums and his infamous "the medium is the message" theory. In a nutshell, a cool medium is harder to learn from than a hot medium because cool mediums require more participation. Back in the day, TV was considered a hot medium and books without pictures the ultimate in cool. Most base communication courses go over this as if things are always hot or cool, but this is a disservice to the theory that gets into the amount of information presented - in 2D it gets down to characters per square inch (McLuhan would be rolling in his grave at the thought of PowerPoint and would still probably mulling over the impact of HDTV and news channel scrolls). Unfortunately most lecturers boil it down to "hot media is produced quickly and cool media takes time" to simplify.
To the review - I think while McLuhan was alive, he would have considered the majority of the newspaper "cool" since it was all about the typeset, number of photographs and articles were longer (the comics would have been largely "hot"). In today's USA-today style simple graphics, larger fonts, shorter article requirements and the need for reviews to come down to a graphic (number of stars) would bolster the idea that reviews are diving into "hot" territory and lessening the need for the reader to interact with the article. A 4-part series on an ethnic food type that included photographs would definitely be a "cool" section that would engage more individuals.
Geek moment over, my apologies to everyone, but I couldn't resist.
The theory Alan408 describes isn't about hot vs. cool, it's about a correlation between accuracy and the length of time a work is intended to last.
Newspapers and talk radio are "cool," while 24-hour cable TV news is "hot," but they're all disposable.
Books are "cool" and movies are "hot," but both are often made with the intention that they should last for generations, or forever.
I think in the USA that's currently secondary to the reality that even media that stick around indefinitely are often produced with little regard to whether the content is accurate and comprehensive.
Factual errors in a professional publication are a problem, but that doesn't have anything to do with food knowledge, rather, that's about being a good journalist (or having a good editor, depending on where the fact checking responsibilities lie).
Excepting the last paragraph of the review which was poorly written and hyperbolic (ok, same thing), the review didn't gush over the food. The writer recounted the dishes he or she ate and lauded one of them as being quite good (the pelmeny). I didn't see anything in the review that actually purported to know a lot about Russian food, really. It read to me more like someone giving something a try and generally liking it, but not trying to write anything authoritative about it. The statements about Russian food were really more statements about why particular sorts of foods embody Russian cuisine.
Ultimately, I see where you're coming from as far as a critic being able to say whether something is a good example of a cuisine...but, bringing someone else along doesn't really work; as Tom Sietsma in the Washington Post notes whenever someone asks him about his dining companions' opinions "I'm being paid to give my opinion, not someone else's." Further, it seems good that the writer didn't try to render an opinion they can't have, ie, whether the food was a prime example of authenticity.
I feel like any professional critic these days should have a fairly good knowledge of all the major cuisines, including Asian cuisines, but if there's only a few restaurants of that type in your area, it's not always possible. But it really seems like a question of palate -- couldn't anyone figure out if food was bland or stale whether they know about the cuisine or not?
It seems like there's two different considerations: Is it authentically and properly prepared, and do you as a diner like the way it tastes. A good critic should be able to address both the majority of the time, I would think.
I faced this problem when reviewing a Chinese restaurant. I said the chow mein was tough and inedible, impossible to cut with chopsticks, cold and greasy. Numerous commentors snottily told me "it was supposed to be that way." Fine, but it was gross. At least in that case, the restaurant in question has been throroughly raked over the coals by everyone ever since.
Sounds like one qualification for food writers should be, "Must have a UN of acquaintances." The alternative seems to be writing only about cuisines with which you or your friends have an intimate familiarity. I've always felt it helps a food writer to have traveled a bit, but this seems a rather high standard.
Obviously it's preferable to have the writer bring some in-depth knowledge of a cuisine, but I also believe it's possible to write a creditable, useful review without it -- as long as you don't pretend to expertise you don't have.
Isn't there some value in bringing some academic homework to the party, an inquiring palate, and a broad range of dining experiences -- even those not directly related to the subject cuisine? Clearly that's no substitute for first-hand knowledge as a native, or child of immigrants, or even a tourist, but at least the writer can relate the experience of discovering the cuisine, and share with readers what s/he found exciting about it. I'd hate to have to shy away from reviewing Afghan restaurants because I'm not personally acquainted with any Afghanis, nor have spent any time in Afghanistan.
As someone who was a Chowhound first and a semi-pro food writer second, I sincerely hope that a sense of adventure and joy (and maybe some writing chops) compensates occasionally for a culinary education that is geographically diverse but often shallow and admittedly riddled with holes. Damn my parents for not being wealthy State Department lifers!
re: MC Slim JB
I am assuming you are not getting paid for writing about restaurants.
I have no problem with Chowhounds or any food forum posters talking about their experiences.
However, when anyone accepts that check for writing a review, it is my assumption they have done some homework and have some knowledge. Otherwise why should I read them?
One of the best food writers I have ever read, Jonathan Kaufmann, often wasn't familiar with a cuisine but he was up front with that info and also spent some time doing research.
When someone passes themselves off as a professional, there should be a different standard. I can deal with a mistake or two .. we're all human. But when I read error after error, why should I waste my time reading something that the writer hasn't taken their time to research.
In this case, the simplest google would have turned up a number of area Russian restaurants. Heck, keying "russian" and San Jose, Ca in Yelp would have turned up a number of Russian restaurants. That is sloppy and inexcusable.
Doing a quick search of food forums would have given the writer an idea of what the good dishes might be.
I haven't tried it yet, but based on my visit the Pelmini, might be the thing to order here as they are made locally. A quick trip to the other nearby restaurant, Renata, would have revealed tastier versions of every other dish this joint sells. Renata doens't sel Pelmini, but another restaurant that is close by does ... and has superior borscht.
(I actually do occasionally get paid to write restaurant reviews. It's an avocation, not how I make my living. I never thought to do it; local editors reached out to me after reading my posts on Chowhound.)
On factual matters, I absolutely agree: anyone who gets paid to write about restaurants needs to adhere to journalistic standards, and be as factually accurate as possible. It's particularly galling in the Internet age when a writer gets basic facts wrong.
But that's a different standard than the one I thought your original post suggested, which I read as, "If you're not already an expert in the cuisine, or can't bring an expert along with you, don't bother writing about the place." This implies a qualification for writing about restaurants that I really hope is not true.
re: MC Slim JB
Nope. Didn't mean that at all ... only if you are a pro. Delicious is delicous whether authentic or not. That's sort of why I wonder the value of someone who is a pro writing about an unfamiliar cuisine. That writer might just represent the ordinary joe encountering the cuisine for the first time.
The Contra County TImes, a local paper, drives me nuts with their reviews which are ... well, awful. However, they cater to a suburan audiance who probably would have the same reaction as the reviewer to the food sampled. That isn't as food snobby as it might sound ... I worked for years in the area, did a lot of business lunches with coworkers and getting people away from Applebee's was a challenge.
But I still think it is valuable to educate people as well. If you bring along someone who is familiar with the cuisine, you can say if this is a good representation or not.
On Chowhound, often I read why someone thinks something is delicious. I have never tried chicken feet. However, reading reports on the SF board, I know how to eat them, what to expect and why they are delicious to some people.
If ordinary people who don't get paid to write can do that, I would expect no less from a professional ... especially given the wealth of easy knowledge available on the web.
This restuarant serves sucky Russian food and it is too bad that people reading that review might think that's what Russian food is all about ...especially since there are oher better opitons nearby.
This is an interesting distinction about professionals vs. amateurs.
Among pros, I think there's a continuum at work, with the poles being Joe Whose Favorite Restaurant Is Burger King, and Javier Who Grew Up in Peru and Professionally Cheffed There Before Moving to the States. One clearly has more to bring to a review of Peruvian restaurants than the other.
But what about the guy who maybe has spent a little time in Peru, traveled around South America, and eaten in a bunch more Peruvian restaurants in the States? Might that writer's perspectives still be of interest/value to readers, if not quite as expert as Javier's? That's arguably a thin level of expertise, maybe even enough to give readers some impressions of Peruvian food that a native might scoff at. But would that lack of depth utterly disqualify that writer?
I offer the extreme case of Jonathan Gold, who started his professional career as a journalist, but not a food writer. To what do we attribute that Pulitzer? I think it's many things, but I doubt he started out with his very broad knowledge of, for instance, Asian cuisines.
Were his early restaurant reviews worthless? Did he get much better as he went along? I don't know -- I haven't read his early stuff -- but I suspect his intangibles (writing talent, gusto, curiosity, bravery, insatiability, relentlessness) have counted for more over time than what he knew about Korean food when he started out.
I don't think it's a deal breaker one way or another; as chowhounds, we're here more for the chowtips than for an authoritative treatise.
But it would be good if food critics did their fact checking thoroughly -- while not an everyday occurrence, it's not surprising to find factual errors in the some of the reviews when critics talk about the cuisine. I think that's just good journalism; I expect that from the foreign correspondents, so why not the food column?
It's unrealistic to expect any food critic to be familiar with every single regional cuisine out there, but full disclosure about what they know and what they don't would be a service to their readers. It would also be nice if at least we had an idea of roughly how a place stacks up to other places in the same area serving the same cuisine.
Because we all have different food histories, a naive palate and perspective can be refreshing, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the background of the cuisine or dish. To illustrate with a hypothetical example that is trivial and extreme, someone who complains that a beef tartare dish was undercooked is probably not doing a good job.
At the end of the day, all I want to know from a review is that a place exists, serves X cuisine (and I assume that woun't be too hard to get right). I'm happy to try it for myself.