In his January review of Williamsburg’s produce-centric Semilla, New York Observer critic Joshua David Stein asked, “Is it possible to sufficiently chronicle the throbbing gristle of the New York food world as a vegetarian?”
Stein surprised many readers by using the column space to announce his decision to adopt a “veggie-forward” diet—meaning he would only eat meat incidentally, despite the apparent conflict of interest this might pose for his duty as a reviewer. But his public anti-meat proclamation also brought up broader questions about the role of critics, and the degree to which their personal convictions should factor into a review.
Typically, we think of restaurant critics as impartial observers who do their best to leave their baggage at the hostess stand. Since the days of Craig Claiborne, the presumption has been that they’ll carry out their duties anonymously so as to better represent the interests of the average diner (although the recent coming-out parties of Adam Platt and Jonathan Gold suggest the veil is starting to lose favor).
This high regard for impartiality is uniquely American. Speaking on behalf of his more vitriolic British cohorts, outspoken London critic Jay Rayner dismisses the notion that a professional can approach a restaurant without bias. “Objectivity in journalism is a complete myth. There is no such thing as neutrality,” he once told The Caterer.
As a restaurant critic, deciding only to talk about how the food tastes or what the scene is like or if it’s a hot spot—that’s an ethical decision not to talk about other things.
Stateside, we expect our critics to mute their eccentricities for the benefit of greater objectivity. If the goal of service journalism is to help consumers make smart choices about how to spend their money, then personal ethics shouldn’t interfere with a review, right?
“Every decision a consumer makes is an ethical decision,” counters Stein. “So, as a restaurant critic, deciding only to talk about how the food tastes or what the scene is like or if it’s a hot spot—that’s an ethical decision not to talk about other things.” Stein wants to position the question of “where should I eat dinner?” in a wider frame, bringing the policy page into the culture section.
Stein believes that it’s in his purview to “promot[e] dietary habits that are salutary for our physical or moral selves as well as for the planet.” But where do we draw the line for other hot-button topics like sustainability, gentrification of food, and cultural exploitation? All are important touchstones in the larger conversation about food, but are these issues the province of critics?
Photo: Liz Barclay, Observer
“I think it’s probably a requirement that a critic have a conscience,” says Hanna Raskin, The Post and Courier critic and author of the Association of Food Journalist’s Code of Ethics. “Because your primary responsibility is to contextualize culturally and culinary everything you are encountering.”
A critic, in her eyes, has to consider more than just food and service—there is a responsibility to ensure that the experience is beneficial for everyone involved, including back-of-house workers like cooks and porters. If a critic is aware of anything that might violate labor laws and social justice, it’s certainly within her rights to let readers know. Any concerns over human decency are fair game and shouldn’t be pigeonholed as political issues. “It’s all along the spectrum of humanity. I think that has always been a part of reviewing restaurants,” she says.
To avoid eating half of what a restaurant is doing in the name of taking an ethical stance feels like you’re doing a disservice to the restaurant and readers.
It gets murkier when the problems are less universally abhorrent. Restaurants are shaped by consumer demand and realities of our food system—if customers want cheap meat and we haven’t gotten to the point where sustainably raised beef is affordable for all businesses, can you really pin that on the restaurants?
“I think as a critic you have to judge a restaurant for what they are,” says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jonathan Kauffman. “If sustainability and concerns about meat are part of the lens through which he is judging a restaurant, then you can choose to do that. But to avoid eating half of what a restaurant is doing in the name of taking an ethical stance feels like you’re doing a disservice to the restaurant and readers.”
“It’s not my role to carry my baggage into each and every restaurant,” Raskin adds. “I can’t be in the business of laying one value against another. If I go into a pho shop and they’re certainly not using grass-fed beef from the next county over, yet this is giving an immigrant family the opportunity to feed their children, who am I to say what matters?”
Which brings up another point: the tendency of critics to focus on ethical issues for only certain types of restaurants, without applying this same code to others across the board.
I’d say that a lot of the things we’re talking about are relatively complex and I don’t tend to go into them if it’s a review where I’m trying to do 25 other things.
“That’s one reason I have not…made [low-brow restaurants] a primary principle of my reviewing,” says New York Times critic Pete Wells. “Because there are places that I want to be able to write about that are so concerned about price because of their core customers, that the idea of spending twice as much to get organic vegetables, or three times as much to get responsibly raised meat, completely undermines their whole business.”
Exceptions for certain foods are made, perhaps arbitrarily—or at least not without value judgements. Jonathan Gold of the L.A. Times has publicly denounced Bluefin tuna, a fish that’s been drastically over-fished over the years. In his 2012 review of n/naka, he wrote, “Nakayama does cook with way more Bluefin than any conscientious chef ever should. As good as it tastes, the species has been hunted nearly to extinction.”
Kauffman stopped eating Bluefin during his tenure as a critic. Raskin says she won’t indulge either, arguing that it’s just so clearly something we shouldn’t be eating.
“I will say in my review they’re serving Bluefin tuna, which they should be called out for, and I didn’t try it,” Raskin says.
Bluefin, however, is not the only species that is under threat. In February, Bloomberg critic Tejal Rao wrote about experiencing uni fatigue. A scientist told her the increasing demand for the spiny sea creature’s roe has outpaced the species’ ability to reproduce. If Bluefin is absolutely off limits, it’s worth asking why other ingredients that carry serious environmental baggage aren’t as well.
“I’d say that a lot of the things we’re talking about are relatively complex and I don’t tend to go into them if it’s a review where I’m trying to do 25 other things,” says Wells. “I would try to save them for a non-review piece that I would still consider restaurant criticism. I don’t have an issue at all with people eating meat. But I do have issues with people eating sustainability. Then again, sustainable means eight million things. You don’t want to throw that around unless you’re prepared to be specific about what it means.”
For Stein, it’s more clear-cut: “If I really do believe—as I do—that it’s morally and ethically just to eat less meat, I should try to embody and affect that change through my work.”
Whether others will follow his lead remains to be seen. But with more noise than ever in restaurant criticism, it can’t hurt to separate from the pack.