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#1 Sneakeater

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 07:38 PM

This vaguely ties into the discussion in the "Is Fine Dining Holding Its Own?" thread on the NY board of the food media's role in educating diners.

Last Saturday, I went to a series of symposia put together by April Bloomfield in Williamsburg about food and restaurant culture. From the minute I arrived, I was embarrassed to be there -- but that's another story.

One panel was on the intersection of art and commerce (with restaurant food being presented as something that, like architecture, lies on the cusp). The panelists were moderator Mario Batali, Wylie Dufresne, Jennifer Rubell (a fine artist occasionally mocked here who frequently works in the medium of food -- and who supports her fine arts career with family money), and ?uestove (who as a Serious Pop Music Artist actually does work at the cusp of art and commerce -- and who is also now dipping his toes into restaurateurship).

At one point, Batali discussed professional criticism with ?uestlove. Their mutual incomprehension was telling. ?uestlove is a lifelong music nerd. He grew up reading record reviews and taking them seriously -- learning from them, in fact. He is well-known for obsessively reading and caring about reviews of his own work.

The thing is that Serious Pop Music Fans -- and those who morph into Serious Pop Music Artists -- respect pop music reviewers. The reviewers play the role of Ministers of Propaganda and Information, providing the verbal intellectual justifications for music trends and the sources for new ones. They create a canon.

To be clear, this is a canon only for Serious Pop Music Fans. But, as the Serious Pop Music Fans like to point out, it can become enormously influential over time (look at the Velvet Underground and Big Star).

I don't think there's any chef who looks at any restaurant reviewer the same way. Now that reviewers tend to have no training or professional restaurant experience, I think that chefs tend to look at them as nothing more than glorified audience members. The same could theoretically be said about Serious Pop Music Critics, of course -- but pop music, unlike cooking, doesn't require any training. If you listen to a lot of records, you probably know as much as James Murphy.

So Batali was asking ?uestlove about his famous attention to reviews. But it was clear to me (if not to the participants in the conversation) that the two view reviews in vastly different ways. Batali viewed reviews only as business drivers and neither respects nor cares about their analytic contents, whereas ?uestlove looks to reviews for substantive validation and as indications of his place in history. It was clear that it simply didn't occur to Batali that reviews could be read that way (that the reviewer could have anything substantive to say that Batali could care about).

The thing is, at least in the current scene, I think Batali is right. What food writer is there who has anything to tell a chef? The bloggers mainly are appreciators, nothing more. (I said mainly.) The newspaper and magazine reviewers . . . to me, their reviews are just random data. They don't have discernible viewpoints. They don't have any experience worth deferring to. They don't generate insights worth respecting. They just generate fairly meaningless opinions.

I don't know if this used to not be true. Craig Claiborne had training, certainly (as well as whatever professional knowledge he absorbed by osmosis from Pierre Franey). Was he actually respected by the professional restaurant community? I have no idea. (To be clear, training of course is not enough. You need training plus historical knowledge plus general current knowledge plus analytic ability plus writing skills.) In any event, there's no one like that I can think of writing restaurant reviews -- or food criticism on a broader plain -- right now.

So OF COURSE food writing gets no respect from the professional community.
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#2 Wilfrid

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 07:42 PM

Interesting thoughts, but I have reservations.

 

There are plenty of musicians who regard music critics with complete disdain.  Similarly, there are chefs who read and think about reviews.  Not so clear-cut, is it?



#3 Orik

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 07:44 PM

Batali, artist. There isn't an appropriate emoticon for that.


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#4 Nathan

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 07:53 PM

there are plenty of young cooks/chefs who care about big/deal reviews...just like they really do care about winning Chopped.

(and a lot of chefs really do care about winning Iron Chef....I have direct personal knowledge of a very well-known chef who spent several months prepping for his Iron Chef appearance (they're given a list of 4 possible "secret" ingredients and they prepare a full menu based on each one...so that's basically 20 dishes they create and practice in advance).  and for them (a rung or three below Batali) it's really about validation.  so yeah they care.  same thing for Top Chef.

 

now as to your larger point...I don't get the impression that most (I didn't say all) chefs are especially cerebral or thoughtful (is this really any different than musicians?)....so, no, reviewing as criticism doesn't even occur to them as a concept.  a Times review and Yelp are all on the same continuum.  and...counterintuitively enough, the concept of the chef as auteur may actually be exacerbating this...by changing the power dynamic.


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My opinions are obviously my personal opinions. Not yours. Not universal.


#5 Rail Paul

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 07:54 PM

Wasn't there an ancient eG thread where Batali made many of these points?  He does his thing, and people can like it, or not like it. He is a brand, and people know what they get from him. He's not especially interested in what critics have to say, he said then. [But the savage critical reviews of Del Posto clearly irked him and his business partners.]

 

I have to believe that he's smart enough to see food bloggers, critics, etc taking free food and offering fawning reviews (or no reviews if the place sucks) as another form of whoring.


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#6 Sneakeater

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 07:55 PM

Interesting thoughts, but I have reservations.
 
There are plenty of musicians who regard music critics with complete disdain.  Similarly, there are chefs who read and think about reviews.  Not so clear-cut, is it?


Of course, it's NEVER so clear-cut.

I can only say that my Serious Pop Musician friends like to speak disparagingly about Robert Christgau, but it's clear they really care about his views. And NOT because he can affect their sales.
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#7 Wilfrid

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 07:56 PM

Contrast with the Dan Barber discussion on eG.  It was pretty easy to get him agonising over whether he was doing stuff right.



#8 Sneakeater

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 07:59 PM

there are plenty of young cooks/chefs who care about big/deal reviews...just like they really do care about winning Chopped.
(and a lot of chefs really do care about winning Iron Chef....I have direct personal knowledge of a very well-known chef who spent several months prepping for his Iron Chef appearance (they're given a list of 4 possible "secret" ingredients and they prepare a full menu based on each one...so that's basically 20 dishes they create and practice in advance).  and for them (a rung or three below Batali) it's really about validation.  so yeah they care.  same thing for Top Chef.


Just to be clear, that is EXACTLY the way Batali seemed to care about reviews.

I didn't mean to convey that he didn't care about them. Just that he didn't care about them SUBSTANTIVELY (but only for their potential business effects).
 

now as to your larger point...I don't get the impression that most (I didn't say all) chefs are especially cerebral or thoughtful (is this really any different than musicians?)....so, no, reviewing as criticism doesn't even occur to them as a concept.  a Times review and Yelp are all on the same continuum.  and...counterintuitively enough, the concept of the chef as auteur may actually be exacerbating this...by changing the power dynamic.


In fact, Batali talked about reviews and Yelp! in the same breath.

Of course, the Serious Pop Musicians I'm talking about are the ones who grew up reading criticism. So I guess I'm making the astoundingly useful point that cerebral pop musicians are cerebral. (Certainly ?uestlove is among the most cerebral of the cerebral.)
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#9 Rich

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 08:01 PM

Contrast with the Dan Barber discussion on eG.  It was pretty easy to get him agonising over whether he was doing stuff right.

Understandable since Barber (like his food or not) is a real chef. Batali hasn't been a real chef since his Po days.



#10 Nathan

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 08:07 PM

well, not quite..what I meant was that many young chefs care a great deal about major reviews (they actually do care what Steingarten has to say about their food) for purposes of validation.  I doubt that Batali feels like he needs validation from anyone.


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#11 joethefoodie

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 08:12 PM

 

Contrast with the Dan Barber discussion on eG.  It was pretty easy to get him agonising over whether he was doing stuff right.

Understandable since Barber (like his food or not) is a real chef. Batali hasn't been a real chef since his Po days.

 

Even then (the Po days) I recall having a "discussion" with him while he was sitting on the bench out front (wasn't Anne Burrel his sous) of Po about how I felt a dish or two was improperly seasoned...he told me he tasted everything and that it was all fine - which was interesting, cause he was probably into his 2nd bottle of wine and hadn't been in the kitchen in the past hour.



#12 joethefoodie

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 08:14 PM

well, not quite..what I meant was that many young chefs care a great deal about major reviews (they actually do care what Steingarten has to say about their food) for purposes of validation.  I doubt that Batali feels like he needs validation from anyone.

Once your restaurants/products/etc. are pulling in hundreds of millions and you're employing thousands, you probably don't.



#13 Rich

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 08:21 PM

Picking Batali as the moderator for that forum was equivalent to picking McCain to moderate a peace symposium.



#14 Orik

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 08:23 PM

The thing is, at least in the current scene, I think Batali is right. What food writer is there who has anything to tell a chef? The bloggers mainly are appreciators, nothing more. (I said mainly.) The newspaper and magazine reviewers . . . to me, their reviews are just random data. They don't have discernible viewpoints. They don't have any experience worse deferring to. They don't generate insights worth respecting. They just generate fairly meaningless opinions.


Precisely.


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#15 mitchells

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Posted 19 September 2013 - 08:30 PM

FYI, Batali is a heavy user of Twitter and regularly responds to critical Tweets from customers.



All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusions is called a philosopher.
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