In 2013, Time magazine published its infamous “Gods of Food” issue, which immediately drew ire from food writers who were dismayed by its wholesale disregard for female chefs. Their outrage was justified, of course, but a broader question loomed in our minds: If food media is so quick to jump on the myopia of a mainstream publication, where’s the soul-searching about our own shortcomings and blind spots?
The same could be said of our relationship to the industry we cover: We constantly challenge the makers of food to be better—to serve us better, more sustainable products while keeping prices down; to abolish tipping and address the wage gap in restaurants; to be thought-leaders but never say the wrong thing—yet we rarely turn the mirror on ourselves. If we dock an ambitious chef for putting populist burgers and fried chicken on the menu to prop up the bottom line, shouldn’t we be willing to stop publishing clickbait lists to subsidize longform stories? If we demand more diversity in kitchens, shouldn’t we demand the same in our edit bays?
Food media has felt, for lack of a better word, soft.
Since we launched First We Feast in 2012, we’ve been far from perfect in our quest to build the new paradigm. At first, we added more rappers and more nachos into the conversation. (Started….) But there are only so many ways you can parse the meaning Kanye’s croissant lyrics, and naturally, our sense of what we could (and should) be expanded. We tried to leverage our unique situation at Complex, where we’re surrounded by a diverse staff entrenched in pop culture, to broaden our perspective and tackle stories that other outlets ignored—about the foodways of Compton, or the rise of Harlem’s chopped cheese. At the same time, we fell victim to the same pitfalls as our competitors, often adding to the online cacophony instead of cutting through it in the quest for traffic and quick notoriety.
As we searched for our voice, the food-media landscape around us was in constant flux. Exciting upstarts entered the fray (Lucky Peach, Modern Farmer); big names bowed out (Bittman, Cowin) or were lost (Mr. Cutlets); websites ramped up or shuttered; and most legacy brands panicked and tried to become Bon Appétit. Yet through all the ups and downs, something rankled: Food media has felt, for lack of a better word, soft. The most interesting and challenging stories are told from outside of the industry, and the appealing feralness of early food blogs has been neutered as websites settled into their role as the new establishment.
As a new year begins, we thought it was time to take some of the whiskey-soaked grumblings our food-writing cohorts usually reserve for post-deadline nights at the bar, and have ’em out in the open. Like Jay Z says, “It’s not a diss song, it’s just a real song.”—Chris Schonberger, co-founder and editor-in-chief, First We Feast
Food writers are too scared of losing access to be critical.
For years, Eater NY has published its “Airing of the Grievances,” in which New York City food writers are given a very public forum to anonymously broadcast their dining frustrations. Depending on your tolerance for naval-gazing #FirstWorldProblems, it can be a fun diversion, featuring all sorts of curmudgeonly grumbling about restaurant lighting and uncomfortable stools and the Torrisi Boys and how that sushi place everyone likes is really not that good. But frankly, it’s more than a little depressing that anything resembling real talk in the food-writing world has to be crammed into a listicle that people don’t even put their names on.
Beyond restaurant reviews and hot takes about brunch, food journalism is too content to uphold the status quo, jettisoning the subtleties of what makes things great, crappy, intriguing, frustrating, and just okay in the interest of painting the dining scene as one endless procession of superlatives.
Food writers will argue that they are giving people what they want by writing, say, 25 posts about David Chang’s latest chicken finger, or that they “only cover what they love.” But what they’re less likely to admit is how terrified they are of losing access. Some want to make sure they stay close to their sources to get scoops; others simply aren’t willing to jeopardize how cool they look when a chef sends extra dishes on the house. Accusations of overt pay-for-play are rare (at least since the Great Ozersky Wedding Debacle of 2013), but we’ll say this: the code of ethics in food circles is disconcertingly lax. For some reason, only reviewers are expected to maintain any journalistic distance with their subjects (though you’ll still catch plenty of them ripping shots with chefs at James Beard Awards after-parties), while other writers blithely post Instagram updates of gratis caviar service one night, then file their breathless trend piece about the return of caviar service days later.
As more people realize that they can hear the stories directly from the source (see: the rise of outlets like Chef’s Feed, plus Chang’s cabal of kitchen cronies who dominate Lucky Peach), it’s important for food media to remember that readers want reporters, not fanboys.
The food world is too hungry to tear down its idols—but only when it’s safe.
While food-media outlets are quick to pull punches, they can also be opportunistic bullies at times, switching from boosterism to bashing only when it suits them best. One of the biggest stories to come out of the food scene in the past year was the Mast Brothers Chocolate scandal, based on accusations that two New Brooklyn posterboys weren’t always as “artisanal” as they advertised. We can debate the merits of the claims all day, but either way, the food world’s gleeful embrace of the takedown—complete with hyperbolic headlines and endless Twitter snark—felt insincere.
On the one hand, almost every food publication has contributed in at least some way to the Mast Bros. cult over the years, so shouldn’t the pig-piling also come with a mea culpa to readers if they really think couverture is so terrible? But even more to the point: Why did it take Slate and a relatively obscure blog from Dallas to bring this story to light? Where were all the food writers who claim they’ve always known Mast Bros. was subpar? Only the Food Lab’s J. Kenji López-Alt said anything, albeit on Twitter.
Hopping on the “I told you so” bandwagon is a favorite food-media sport (see: the “populist schadenfreude” that exploded on Twitter in the wake of Pete Wells’ smackdown of Per Se). But firing the first shots? Not so much. By muting opinions until it’s safe to express them, the industry looks more like a follower than a leader. Worse still, by throwing easy jabs at the same subjects it helped prop up, it looks opportunistic.
The gatekeepers are too homogenous.
The single most important thing food media can do to evolve is open up its ranks to new voices. Most food staffs have no shortage of liberal-arts degrees and good intentions, but the sheer lack of diversity creates glaring blind spots in coverage.
Why is it that the same industry that devotes endless column inches to the lack of female representation in food rarely utters a word about similar issues facing black chefs? Why can we we read endless stories about Eastern European culinary traditions but almost none about the foodways of the African diaspora? And why are so many stories about Southern cooking whiter than a Trump rally?
When we asked Black Culinary History founder Therese Nelson why there seem to be so few African-American chefs, she told us to look to newsrooms rather than kitchens for an answer: “To honestly ask the question about diversity in this industry would be to admit that it’s not actually an issue of presence, but of media representation.”
Every time a critic expresses amazement that an Indian dish could be so “refined,” or a trend is awkwardly dubbed “Asian Hipster Cuisine,” or a white chef making shawarma is called a “game-changer,” we’re reminded of the need for real diversity in food media—as editors, critics, on-screen personalities, et al. Without it, the industry loses too much nuance and alienates too many potential readers.
The most important conversations in food don’t take place in food magazines.
The sad truth is, if you want to read long-form reportage about food that’s not a 2,000-word travelogue or chef profile, the last place you want to look is a food magazine. Puff pieces take precedent over investigative writing, and years of atrophying budgets and advertising pressure—not to mention the lack of staff diversity mentioned above—have bred a don’t-ruffle-the-feathers environment where challenging stories are either squashed in their infancy, or never surface at all.
“If you’re interested in the politics of food, you can go to a Mother Jones or something,” Ruth Reichl told us when we had the chance to talk to her for her 10 Dishes That Made My Career feature. “But none of the food magazines think it’s their obligation to cover these issues [anymore].”
The good news is, this type of food writing—the type that folks like Barry Estabrook and Jocelyn C. Zuckerman used to do in Gourmet—hasn’t ceased to exist. It’s just ceased to exist in established food magazines, leaving general-interest publications like The Atlantic and The New Yorker to hold the mantle. That’s a shame, because it means that the media closest to the source can’t be looked to for the stories that matter most. Instead of reporting on the human-trafficking crisis in the shrimp trade, we get another glossy spread of a chef hosting a fake party at a Martha’s Vineyard timeshare.
“There’s no food magazine today that would publish ‘Consider the Lobster’ by David Foster Wallace,” concludes Reichl. And if these publications get focus-grouped any further into avocado toast-dom, they never will. Instead, we’ll look to indie rags such as Lucky Peach and Modern Farmer, as well as increasingly ambitious work from food websites (see: Eater’s report on the foie gras), to sate our increasingly broad appetite for stories about cultural foodways and the ethics of eating.
Readers can’t trust the lists anymore.
Ever wonder how the experts at your favorite food website put together their best of” list? Here’s how the sausage is made:
Step 1. Find a ‘subject of interest’ (read: something you saw blow up on a different site a month ago with huge SEO potential).
Step 2. On Monday, scour the Internet to find similar guides and begin cross-referencing. Bonus points for scrolling past page five of the Google search!
Step 3. On Wednesday, compile a master list skimmed from the top selections of various publications—both high (Saveur, Bon Appétit) and low (alt-weeklies). Always remember to diversify your poaching.
Step 4. Make sure to find one off-piste pick that gives your list credibility. That place in Bay Ridge that only has a few Yelp reviews? That’ll do the trick.
Step 5. Re-arrange your selections so that the rankings don’t exactly mirror any of the other sites.
Step 6. Publish your “field research” on Friday as a comprehensive guide. Give it an authoritative headline (e.g., “The Definitive Guide to NYC’s Best Burgers”).
Step 7. Encourage Internet trolls to tear the list apart, rack up page views. Repeat.
SEO-driven traffic tactics are decried across the media landscape, but what makes them particularly harmful in the food space is the fact that restaurant writing is not an armchair exercise. It’s possible (though maybe not advisable) to listen to every new album that comes out and arrive at an informed opinion without leaving the computer. But vetting a city’s best restaurants requires a real hitting-the-pavement strategy. Slashed dining budgets and crushing deadlines have undermined that rigor. With less spot-checking of old standards and hyped newcomers, these lists get worse and worse by the year—and readers know it.
Food media has a weird relationship with “cheap eats.”
A few years back, we riled some people up by suggesting that it might be a bit racist to routinely spend $20 on bowls of orecchiette, but balk at the notion of spending more than $5 on ma po tofu made with the same quality of ingredients. But the truth is, food media is partially to blame for this rampant bias in the marketplace. In our endless quest to build “Cheap Eats” lists for the frugal reader, we’ve consistently lumped diverse areas like Queens and the San Gabriel Valley under this limiting banner, conditioning audiences to equate “ethnic” with budget.
These days, readers are much more knowledgable about food, and the coverage reflects that—instead of talking about what xiao long bao are, we’re more likely to explore its regional variations, or debate whether they are really even dumplings. Yet food media still plays a fraught role as power broker in the move from cheap eats to trendy. Too often an immigrant cuisine is anointed “the next big thing” only after a certain kind of chef comes to the fore who can check the right media-favored boxes: the white guy who spent a year in Laos and already inked a book deal; the hipster with a five-panel Supreme hat whose trio of kimchi is considered “edgy”; the flashy international superstar with a fine-dining pedigree. Even as our tastes broaden, the way we want those stories packaged—along with whom we deem worthy to play the lead role—is still very selective.
PR has too much influence on what gets covered.
PR has always acted as the middleman, but in an age where media moves lightning fast to publish daily content, editors and writers need instant access and direct lines to chefs who can offer a timely quote or recipe. While that arrangement can be beneficial for both parties, it means that the choice to feature a chef isn’t always based on merit. Journalists will tell you that they never listen to PR, but anyone who’s putting together a “Chefs’ Favorite Pantry Snacks” story on a tight deadline knows otherwise. Which all goes to show that if you’re a chef without representation, you���re at a great disadvantage compared to those who are aligned with PR powerhouses.
Consumers are pretty savvy to the game, often calling out the imbalanced amount of coverage towards certain chefs and restaurant groups in the same way they like to call out our Complex cronies for “being on Kanye’s dick.” But trust: It gets even more absurdist on the inside, especially when you see how “exclusives” have been divvied up into increasingly meaningless slivers: Flo Fab gets the exclusive on the opening! The Robs nab the exclusive on the table-side drinks service! And your fledgling site is left deciding whether to take the exclusive on the hand-made cutlery from Kyoto or be denied any information altogether. Ultimately, everyone’s feeding at the PR-created trough to maintain their place in the pecking order and ensure they get the next inconsequential piece of publicist-scrubbed intel.
The recipes don’t work anymore.
“Google ‘broccoli casserole’ and make the first recipe you find,” wrote Cook’s Illustrated founder Christopher Kimball in his requiem for Gourmet in 2009. “I guarantee it will be disappointing.”
Whether or not you’re trying to make a broccoli casserole (smh), the point is clear: We’ve hit peak recipe, and too many of them are bad. Online, the forces of SEO gaming (recipes are among the most widely searched, geographically agnostic terms in food) and the Facebook-video frenzy have turned our feeds into an endless scroll of 30-second clips of various supermarket-shelf staples being opened, wrapped in bacon, and fried. Everything is “life-changing” or “the best ever.” This is the recipe as meme instead of meal—viewed by millions, cooked by none.
Cookbooks, meanwhile, have been relatively successful in bucking the downward trends of the publishing industry at large, but not necessarily to the benefit of cooks. Back in 2007, Marian Burros wrote in the New York Times, “The prevalence of errors in cookbooks is the publishing world’s dirty little secret.” That problem has only metastasized today, when budgets are far more likely to be funneled into design than rigorous recipe-testing.
Whereas we once looked to home-cooking experts like Diane Kennedy and Madhur Jaffrey—obsessives who steeped themselves fully in a cuisine—we now live in the era of the chef cookbook. These can be many things: Love letters to a six-month stint in Southeast Asia; elaborate business cards for moving to the next stage of celebu-chefdom; objets d’art that look great in an Airbnb photo. But what they’re not, much of the time, are effective home-cooking manuals. The business of retrofitting restaurant dishes to the amateur kitchen is fraught with problems, and too many new cookbooks are little more than vanity projects, packed with elaborate recipes that require obscure ingredients and full brigades to pull off correctly.
Pre-reviews are obscuring the line between hype and criticism.
In the early days our collective restaurant obsession, there was a certain degree of gentility to the way restaurants were covered: Reporters at magazines like New York and Time Out jockeyed for news about openings, working their real-life relationships to get the information; meanwhile, critics generally abided by tacit rules of engagement (a six-week grace period before a first visit, three months before filing a judgment) to give the kitchen and service staff a chance to find their footing.
Needless to say, the Internet made mincemeat out of that system. Yelpers yelped without any need to worry about journalistic standards. Newsletters like Daily Candy and Thrillist anointed the next hot spot before a single Kobe slider had slid through the pass. And blogs rumor-mongered so obsessively that, by the time a restaurant actually opened, readers were already on to the next one.
Now, as the opening-to-review window gets more nebulous than ever, we’ve reached peak food-blog fuckery with the latest online craze: the “first look” review, sometimes filed within hours of a restaurant’s inaugural service. If it’s negative, it’s unfair to the restaurant, like reviewing a theater production during previews. And if it’s positive, it’s purpose is somewhat indistinguishable from the endless amount of pre-opening coverage that these places tend to get anyway.
Contemporary dining is as much about buzz as it is about food, so we use Heat Maps and Power Rankings to gauge not which restaurants are currently the best, but which ones are the most talked about, because that’s part of the fun. But where is the line drawn? To build the hype then review the hype on opening night begins to feel less like service journalism, and more like what Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen so vividly described as “human-centipede journalism.”
Food journalists are better off consulting or running meal-kit delivery services.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. Mark Bittman—who recently called it quits at the New York Times to join a vegan meal-kit delivery service called Purple Carrot—has given us decades of home-cooking knowledge darts, and his more recent turn towards op-ed writing made him an indispensable voice of ethics in food. If he wants to deal directly with the issues he’s been writing about and “put some of those principles in action,” as he told Eater, he’s earned the right to do so. But it’s hard not to read a little bit of pessimism into the defection from the Gray Lady to the food-tech startup.
Ultimately, though, the problem is less about attrition at the top as it is about lack of incentive for the next generation to even begin a career in food media. As Food52’s Amanda Hesser put it starkly in her 2012 elegy for food writing, “Except for a very small group of people (some of whom are clinging to jobs at magazines that pay more than the magazines’ business models can actually afford), it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer.”
Her math is tough to argue with: The days of $80,000–$150,000 magazine salaries and expense accounts are long gone; these days, not only are assistant editors and bloggers starting out as low as $30,000 in New York City, but the march towards triple digits is a slow grind with very little job security. For freelancers, the $2-per-word heyday of print turned into $10 per blog post. Meanwhile, to even get a foot in the door often requires a series of unpaid internships and work for websites that pay “in exposure,” and coming up with story ideas means spending any money you do get eating out, since dining budgets have gone the way of the Blackberry.
Suddenly, it’s not hard to see why most editorial staff meetings look like a Wesleyan reunion, and why even the most seasoned journalists are ditching the Twitter-driven popularity contest for more stable career options.