Bloggers vs. Chefs

Bloggers vs. Chefs

Networking
NETWORKING: So many have gone into the blogging game they can hold conventions like this one.

In a provocative book published this summer, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen writes, that “what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.”

Does that hit the nail on the head, but perfectly, as a description of blogs that write about restaurants? It does if you listen to the chefs. Chefs seem almost uniformly to loathe the blogosphere. “They have free reign,” cries Chris Cosentino, chef-owner of Incanto, in San Francisco. “They can say whatever they want and all you know is they call themselves garlicboy32.” One of his regular taunters, SFGirl, drives him crazy.

“But Chris,” I say, “You yourself have a blog.”

“I don’t use my blog for critiquing!” he shouts back. Indeed, he uses his blog, offalgood.com, to spread his particular passion and expertise in cooking all the nasty bits of the animals—an example of how Web 2.0 facilitates the opposite of what author Keen claims.

Chefs continue to rail against the inevitable. Mario Batali screamed about it on eater.com in a post that got lots of play in the blogosphere (“Why I Hate Food Bloggers”). Every time I’ve been in a room or a kitchen with Thomas Keller and the word blog is uttered, he invariably closes his eyes, shakes his head and whispers with palpable contempt, “Blogs.”

So what’s going on here? Are the chefs, who come from a work culture where whining is, well, not exactly smiled upon, becoming as whiney as the bitter, ego-starved bloggers, unused to criticism from the hoi polloi after decades of unalloyed chef worship? Are the bloggers killing our food culture with amateurish judgments and shrill opinions? A little of both?

A lot of everything—that’s the internet. Chefs need to stop lamenting the inevitable, ignore crass rude anonymous slams and embrace the blogs that try to practice responsible citizen journalism. While I think a blog’s popularity will eventually be determined by its quality (a combination of good writing, good judgment and responsible opinion), in the anarchy of the internet where opinion and misinformation are rife, bloggers ought to hew to a few common rules.

This anonymity business has to stop. No anonymous slams. Bloggers and commenters on food forums ought to be immediately recognized as cowards and ignored. Second, they should make the conditions of their meals/opinions clear, meaning, how much food did they actually eat? Did they go once, sit at the bar and order two apps, or did they go on more than one occasion with a group of friends? And last, say whether or not you were comped. I understand that no one, and no other newspaper, has the budget of the New York Times, and comping is going to happen (though may God strike down the blogger who lets it be known that he or she expects to be comped). But come clean about it. I don’t care whether you’re a professional journalist or a blogger, getting comped biases you and readers deserve to know it.

Andrea Strong, 38, who has been writing thestrongbuzz since 2003, has been regularly accused of praising the restaurants that comp her (typically by anonymous commenters). In a telephone interview she noted she does accept comps but said, “I would never write something negative because I wasn’t comped. I don’t expect to get comped. My goal is not to tell people where not to eat, it’s to tell people where to eat.”

“That, to me, is the essential flaw of restaurant reviews on food blogs: we’re often limited to our first impressions,” Adam Roberts, amateurgourmet.com, wrote in an email. “We don’t have the resources or the financial backing that a professional restaurant critic has: most of us can’t go back several times, can’t eat everything on the menu, etc. And often times, because we only go once, our initial impression is wrong.

“That being said, … the average customer doesn’t return to a restaurant if they have a bad first experience, and I think that’s why food blog reviews are important. At their best, they offer very thorough accounts of a first impression of a restaurant and, for many people, that’s useful.”

I believe that in the end, quality will win out and the shrill opinion will die away, as the internet moves from anarchy to democracy. —Michael Ruhlman