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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Do We Serve a Purpose - Or Are We a Pox on the Food World?

A fellow food blogger turned me on to this piece recently.

Chefs and restaurant owners do not like food bloggers. One would think that people in the restaurant industry would not have the time to waste reading the blogs of ordinary schmoes. If I were Mario Batali, I don't even think a food blog would be a blip on my radar screen. It seems that I was wrong. These people are reading our blogs, and they aren't enjoying them.

They have some very legitimate reasons for not enjoying our blogs. I will admit that. I do also think that their criticisms of food bloggers are often too harsh. I want to go over some of these points and what I agree with and disagree with.

Point #1: Food Blogs are bad writing

One of my favorite quotes about blogging is that "Blogsites are just ego trips for people who can't get their material published elsewhere." Most bloggers aren't professional writers. Many would like to be. I think many people believe that if you are a good writer, you would be published. Writing can be bad because bloggers have no editorial restraint. No one is going to clean up the grammar and spelling errors.

I will admit that this blog is hardly brilliant. I'll read through some of my posts and think to myself, "I can write better than that." If critics only read my blog and none of my other writing, they would probably think I was a terrible writer. I write this blog for my own pleasure, not to report important things to the world. I'm not expecting anyone to come on here and criticize my writing. I don't think I'm alone in that sentiment.

In bloggers' defense, I don't think most of the writing is that bad. Sure I see a lot of misuse of "lie" and "lay" (although Alton Brown is guilty of the same crime in his show), confusion of when to use "me myself and I", and confusion of when to use "less" and when to use "fewer," but bloggers as a whole are fairly literate people. Just because you do not choose to make a career out of writing, doesn't mean you can't write. People generally enjoy doing things they are good at. If someone fails high school English class, chances are he's not going to make a hobby out of writing.


Point #2: Bloggers Don't Know What They Are Talking About

No one is going to fact check. Bloggers often write on topics they have little knowledge of, and unlike professional writers, do not bother to research. I think this is a valid point. I'm not going to rewrite a chef's biography or spread rumors just because I don't like a particular chef or Food Network personality. But many people do. I don't think that's right or it's fair. Blogs are ripe for slander at worst and at best can spread a lot of misinformation.

I still defend the cluelessness of bloggers somewhat. I'm not going to tell Bobby Flay the right way to grill a salmon and I'm not going to tell Emeril Lagasse how to make the perfect gumbo. I'm not a chef. I'm not a professional food writer or food anything. However, that doesn't mean that I don't know what I like or what I enjoy. I talk about what tastes good to me and what tastes bad to me. I write about experiences I enjoy and don't enjoy. My opinions on these things might differ from true food professionals from time to time, but I think we can all agree that well-prepared, high-quality food served promptly with a smile is a universal pleasure.

Point #3: Bloggers Are Mean

When a blogger doesn't like something, she really doesn't like it. We bloggers have no restraint when it comes to discussing the negatvies. There are no editors or legal departments telling us what we can and can't say.

The lack of restraint can be harsh. It's one thing to criticize Rachael Ray's sloppy kitchen habits and poorly-executed recipes. It's another thing to rail on her because of her bad fashion sense or because she's short and funny-shaped. (I'm short and funny-shaped. There is nothing I can do about it and it has little to do with how well I can cook, so I don't see why someone has to criticize Rachael Ray for those things she can't control.) The anonymity of blogs means we can say all kinds of horrible things we would never say to anyone's face. I'd imagine if you are a chef who reads food blogs, you would have to have a very thick skin because bloggers can say some pretty horrible things.

Despite the meanness, I think these amateur criticisms should exist. Chefs and restaurant critics know how to deal with each other. Politics can be involved. Restaurant critics may focus on different aspects of a meal than a blogger would. If restaurant owners and chefs are really reading these blogs, I think that they can be a real eye opener.

For example, I read this piece, which mentions how a blogger trashed Le Cirque. The owner was very hurt by the critique, but ended up making up for the diner's bad experience by offering a free meal with a premium table and excellent service. Restaurants sometimes need to learn that they need to treat all customers equally, and not just kiss up to the wealthy regulars. They also need to know they can't coast by on their reputations. The word will eventually circulate among the masses that dining at the finest restaurant in the city is not all it's cracked up to be and the next thing that restaurant knows, it's out of business.

I feel that if one has a legitimate beef with a restaurant, it ought to be aired publicly, and done in a way that is different from how a restaurant reviewer would do it. Professional critics have a format to follow and are likely to be treated differently in restaurants. Bloggers will talk about their experiences frankly, and discuss the things that are specifically important to them personally. A good chef should read a few blogs to understand what the average person considers important to a meal.

A few years ago I had a very bad experience at the prestigious San Domenico in New York City. I wanted to shout from the rooftops just how unpleasant the experience was. The food was underwhelming and overpriced and the service was abysmal. I posted my review of Epinions.com and was highly criticized by their obnoxious senior members because my review didn't fit specific parameters and was more of a rant. Well, I'm not a professional reviewer. I don't follow anyone's format but my own. I merely wanted to warn others away from this restaurant so that no one else would have such a horrible experience. I could only comment on the things that made an impression on me personally (how can I evaluate the wine if I didn't drink any?)

In the end, my rant wasn't meant to personally insult the owner or chef of San Domenico. It was to help correct the mistakes the place made. If Tony May were to read any of my online reviews of the place, I would not want him taking it personally. I would want him to use them constructively. If people are being that negative about your restaurant, then maybe it's time to start thinking about making some changes. One of the most disappointing things about San Domenico is that I know Tony May can do better. Several years ago he owned a restaurant in Port Chester called Tony May's Hostaria. The food and the service were excellent and priced accordingly. Plenty of restaurants could be wonderful almost every time, but aren't. A good shove in the right direction from people who have been disappointed can help them maintain a consistent level of excellence.

Maybe chefs and restaurant owners and bloggers need to make a pact. Bloggers need to promise to show some restraint, be specific with the things they are complaining about without making personal attacks, and make sure they have their facts straight. In return, restaurant owners should promise to read the blogs and take legitimate criticisms to heart. If too many bloggers have a bad experience at your restaurant, then it's time to rethink your operations.

Remember, food bloggers who have a good experience are going to talk about that too. See my previous blog for proof.

1 comment:

Sue said...

I don't like nastiness either in general (except sometimes when it's funny and I'm the one being nasty). And knowingly posting erroneous information about a given place is just wrong.

I think that the reason that food bloggers often take such pleasure in being so gleefully critical is because they resent being mistreated or mal-fed, while at the same time paying mightily for the privilege. Proprietors don't complain when their restaurant becomes the newest hot thing, in part because of bloggers.

Having said that, I think it's important for each individual blogger to try to hold her/himself up to the highest possible standard of truth and that includes admitting when you don't know something and NEVER NEVER passing off anyone else's words off as your own.