Fine dining, as it stands at this moment in America’s cultural history, has never been more democratized. That this shift is occurring during the twilight of print media’s prominence cannot be brushed aside as mere coincidence—even if discussing the medium’s death, something of a trope throughout the past decade, begins to feel rather trite.
You, certainly, are as guilty as anyone of waiting in the wings—fly unzipped—ready to empty a bladder full of bile onto the graves of the dilettantes whose stinking self-importance and snobbery proved the single greatest impediment towards the deepening and broadening of all citizens’ appreciation for food. For, once the grand history of American gastronomy is written, the names of the Fourth Estate’s cognoscenti will long be forgotten—you’ll make sure of it.
When it comes to the dining section, the “expertise” wielded by newspapermen and women (almost always in journalism—the prefabrication of tired narratives aimed at broad appeal—never in art criticism) is illusory. Those poor souls who work for magazines are even worse off: they operate only as auxiliary public relations professionals who pimp their page space out to stem the drip, drip, drip of bleeding subscriptions.
And what about television “critics” like the Hungry Hound? You think that oaf’s omnipresent press photos have extinguished ten times the number of appetites that his programming ever whetted. Dolinsky has long been a walking ethical nightmare whose double dipping as a “media training” consultant and regional chair of William Reed’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” promotional vehicle undermines both his and their legitimacy. Of course, you must admire how a mere pimple on the face of Julia Child was able to milk a decades-long career leeching off of Chicago chefs.
WGN’s Chicago’s Best perpetuates Dolinsky’s sad tradition—though, as best as they try, you doubt Elliott Bambrough and Marley Kayden will ever quite succeed in being as nauseating as the Hungry Hound was. (Alpana Singh, as the moderator of Check, Please!, shines as the city’s lone exceptional figure of class and competence in a televised format. By juxtaposing average guests’ experiences, the show strikes as close to “objectivity” as can possibly be conceived).
Yes, televised food “criticism” presents the same pitfalls as print—though you must concede that one associates the visual medium more with entertainment than that of the austere written word. Long gone are the days of Siskel and Ebert—masters of their respective domain across several forms of media and conduits between “high art” appreciation and the public at large. Now that Alden Global Capital has sunk its hooks into the Tribune, once home to Gene’s writing and producer of the pair’s show for a time, Chicago can only dread the coming last gasp of any eminent critical discourse. (Just this very week, the paper shed yet one more member of the food section!)
When you’re not busy consuming Disney-related food content on YouTube, fate sometimes leads you towards some morsel from one of Siskel and Ebert’s old shows. In one rousing segment, the pair decried how bowing to political correctness, “wanting to be liked,” and “wanting to go along with the group,” spells death for any critic. Siskel’s call to arms—“you have to summon up the courage…to say what you honestly feel”—is one you have taken to heart.
And while such an aim does not provide the writer with carte blanche to engage in any undue nastiness, does Chicago count even one “critic” or food writer who handles new openings without the aid of kid gloves, baking mitts, and an extra layer of latex to boot? God forbid that the given establishment has wrapped itself in the banner of diversity, social justice, or philanthropic pursuit—just who has the mettle to charge that citadel and judge art purely as art?
Nevertheless, two “old white men” whining about political correctness—even if they are bonafide Chicago icons and titans who acted in humble service of a distinctly Middle American audience—carries little currency these days. From top to bottom—the esteemed editors of the Tribune all the way down to the pits of the city’s self-important, independent critics—it is taken as gospel that diversifying the sort of chefs and concepts covered will somehow rescue the role of the critic. Some of the wackier writers on the coasts even fancy themselves warriors for workers’ rights and the rehabilitation of “toxic” restaurant culture.
Surely, each writer and reader within a given community is free to prize the pursuit of “social justice” to whatever degree they so choose. And you certainly take it for granted that the Fourth Estate—if it looks to live up to that name—will challenge entrenched powers in a bid to give voice to the voiceless. But to award “points” for diversity or fidelity to one’s own pet political beliefs—to privilege social justice when deciding upon critical relevance (to say nothing of judging “quality”)—is to engage in the soft racism of lowered expectations.
A critic’s duty is towards the cultivation of artistic appreciation within their community—to equip consumers to make informed decisions, carry confidence in their tastes, and reward local craftsmen and women adept in satisfying them. A critic’s “true north” is found in a set of aesthetic principles that transcend the identity of any given artist. Contextualizing an establishment within its neighborhood or propagating a chosen chef’s personal story is to preclude the artistic expression standing on its own merits. It’s a means of putting one’s “finger on the scale” in aid of those judged incapable of competing on a level playing field.
And that, mind you, is not the “playing field” of opportunity or access to resources on which social justice claims to do battle. True talent will—must—find a way to shine out from the most oppressive darkness—and latent potential is easily smothered by the cloying words of writers desperate to ensure their publication features the “right kind of person” on its pages. For featuring the “right kind of person” yields the “right kind” of social currency, and that might just stem the bleeding a little bit longer before the publication’s eventual, destined collapse.
More importantly, prizing “diversity” (or even mere “novelty”) would seem to punish the quiet chef who plies their trade without any concern for the wider currents of culture. It rewards and incentivizes businesses who can afford to devote resources towards a protective phalanx of tokenized employees, who can engage in an approved manner of political messaging to keep the social media lynch mob off their back.
To the iconoclastic critic—who, lacking expertise, thrives only on constructing controversy—such sloppy attempts at social commentary are incredibly important. For a restaurateur with resources to throw towards public relations firms and a whole cottage industry of diversity consultants, it is but a trivial box to check. Small businesses—innocent enough to think they need only focus on offering good food and hospitality—are stretched ever-thinner, or sometimes actually squeezed, by a class of do-nothing drama queens. Social justice—if the deluge of sickly corporate wokeness hasn’t clued you in—weaponizes the pantomime compassion big business dons so easily against the independent operators who form the heart and soul of every city.
The goal is a steady stream of shallow content—a flavor of restaurant for every marketable identity—that ignores the infinitely harder work of deepening the community’s sense of taste. By putting citizens into tidy boxes and prizing a performative manner of consumption, such publications abandon the fundamental role transcendent art plays in connecting humanity across its lines of division. Reaching that hallowed ground—where the breaking of bread reveals itself to be the common touchstone upon which the full array of human relations may orient—is hard work. It demands of the critic an all-encompassing artistic sensibility, a rigorous evaluative process, a command of language, a wholehearted denial of the individual ego, and a humble servitude towards that all-important role as conduit for the tastes of all members of their community.
So long as social justice occupies a false high ground, its pervasive influence in food criticism will obscure the fact that it impedes a pure evaluation of art—the pure evaluation of art that carries with it the potential of restoring our broken social fabric. Those who pigheadedly persist in repeating the mantra that food must be approached politically are the most wayward of all. If we cannot let our guard down and join each other—in good faith and innocence—around the table, we will soon find each other’s steak knives at our respective throats.
“Critics” and food writers who yield to the sugar rush of so-called “activism”—rather than take a stand, here and now, in defense of tradition—will find themselves engaged in a race to the bottom. The French culinary canon, upon which American fine dining was largely constructed, has already been construed as “oppressive.” Inclusivity does not demand a rejection of cultural heritage, for techniques, recipes, and forms stand distinctly apart from their creators (as all art, by way of its transcendent quality, does). And such a legacy—though once wielded as a barrier against social advancement—still forms a vital touchstone in the popular consciousness.
Quality, of course, has little to do with food’s fidelity to the French tradition. However, like the comprehensive canons of China and Japan, such an intricate codification of techniques forms an essential foil. It empowers the rooting and decoding of novel techniques through the lens of a shared grammar. It grounds efforts at abstraction and subversion that—unless a given chef is gifted enough to conjure some nakedly pleasurable combination of flavors and textures that has never before been seen (a task that, today, demands the use of artificial intelligence)—fall flat for want of any nostalgic, relatable dimension.
Further, while activist food journalists expect the public to grovel at the feet of token diversity, Americans are far more stubborn. “Authentic” Mexican cuisine demanded decades of Taco Bell and Chipotle marketing—not to mention homegrown translators like Rick Bayless—before penetrating popular consciousness all the way through to the heartland. These, no doubt, caricaturized expressions of the cookery set the table for a deeper appreciation of our southern neighbor’s humble craftsmanship. They worked to develop popular taste, bit by bit, by speaking the native language. The process, though surely frustrating for those who championed “authenticity” from the start, spawned a distinct Mexican-American tradition that—like the hyphenated Chinese- and Italian-American offshoots—might actually possess its own separate value.
The only other alternative seems to be shaming the public towards patronizing chosen expressions of novel cuisine. The gambit seems to go: prove you are not xenophobic by diverting money towards what’s novel (rather than what’s pleasing). The publications get to pat themselves on the back in celebration of their “enlightened” taste while leaving their audience high and dry when disappointment slides down their gullet.
Not that “novel” is either good nor bad in the abstract. Rather, a critic develops trust by not cheerleading for every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a marketing niche. They apply equal rigor within American or Americanized genres so that the rare, exceptional, totally “out-there” establishment receives praise that rings true. For, physiologically and psychologically, bad dining experiences remain far more salient than good ones. And any critical missteps—however good the writer’s intentions—may actually work against their implicit aim to prize wider representation.
That, in a nutshell, forms the poisoned chalice of “woke” restaurant reviewing. Writers might lie—or they might sincerely be deceived through faithfulness to their seemingly noble intentions—but the tongue does not. So long as some members of the food media’s audience find little value in the added dimension of “diversity,” publications’ criticism will be blinded by an essential bias.
Championing a chosen political cause strikes you as adding a rather unnecessary subjectivity to the eternally difficult equation of gustatory evaluation. One must already grapple with genetic differences in flavor perception thresholds, not to mention untangling one’s personal history and nostalgia. One must attain and weigh the many reference points used to triangulate this or that dish against all its doppelgängers. One must surpass and subvert the fistfuls of money used to shape the public’s (to say nothing of the media’s) latent perception of a given concept.
Thus, to clearly position oneself on any side of any social movement, cause, or issue—to abandon, in some sense, the effort to as best as possible become a “tasting robot” for the sake of a supposed and inherently partial esteem—is to cease being a critic altogether. It is to become a puppet who prostitutes art and besmirches its awesome power to enliven us all.
Siskel and Ebert imparted yet another piece of wisdom, which—beyond your concern with social justice seeping into criticism—captures are far more pernicious trend. In measuring their influence on the moviegoing public—and, in a sense, describing their calling—the latter member of the duo admitted that the average viewer is much more willing to go to a “midstream” movie than stomach a truly good one. Ebert used a rather salient dining analogy to cast the mass public’s mindset in others terms: “I don’t feel like going to the French restaurant tonight, I just feel like burgers.”
The crux of this thought—which rings true for film and for the gastronomic comparison being made—is that the public has been conditioned by a pervasive marketing paradigm that prizes profit maximization through broad, lowest common denominator appeal. Superhero movies and fast food alike aim only to satisfy humans’ most basic urges.
In entertainment, that means surface-level racial “representation,” ham-fisted forms of sexual “empowerment,” cameos, cheap thrills, special effects, and a candy coating of worthless romantic subplots. The fundamental narrative never changes: the many-flavored embodiments of perfection are destined to defeat a two-dimensional expression of “evil” after engaging with some trivial form of resistance. The audience—who, in all likelihood, thinks themselves above the average Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Seagal aficionado—knows deep down that the studio would never dare kill off one of their cash cows. (Or, at least, until Robert Downey Jr. is ready to move onto some other form of employment and gets written out).
In food, this paradigm expresses itself through the same surface-level racial “representation.” One need not look any further than the Travis Scott, J Balvin, and BTS bullshit that suddenly made Ronald—once the evil emperor of American obesity—cool again. Sure, the trappings change. Perhaps barbecue sauce gets puts onto a burger or the dipping sauces see some new tinge of flavor. But the menu merely repackages endless variants of crispy, fatty, salty, and sweet. (Or, at least, until a critical mass of changing public perception forces the company to remove artificial preservatives from their nuggets and sneak milk and apples into their Happy Meals).
Ebert’s point is not to say that “midstream” movies should not exist—that audiences do not have the right to unplug and indulge in mindless pleasure. Likewise, though you stand gobsmacked by Ronald’s nine lives, you are no McDonald’s hater. The restaurant’s broad appeal, its value, and its offering of a “third place” between home and work strike legions of consumers as essential. Building a better consumer does not mean banning this or that but privileging moderation—as well as education—across all facets of society.
And that is what any critic, in their mission to cultivate taste within their chosen community, must endeavor to do. Unfortunately, those surviving food “critics,” the wider range of food writers, and the vanguard of social media influencers have absconded that solemn duty. Showered with access, exclusivity, and free samples, the sword against rampant consumerism their platforms provide remains tucked within its scabbard. Faced with the extinction of their very livelihood—an inevitable consequence of alienating themselves from a cohesive community through pursuing the glory of political activism (as well as plain old fleeting “fame”)—these writers seek only to keep their gravy train rolling just a wee bit longer.
They are no longer critics or journalists fighting the good fight to engage every citizen towards a deeper, thoughtful manner of consumption. Rather, they have become promotional tools, craven cogs in a human centipede style excrescence that passes prefabricated marketing drivel from restaurant to public relations firm to the unsuspecting public. Having long abandoned any pretense of expertise—for it is far too hard to tenderly educate one’s backwards readers without devolving into snobbery—food publications become brokers of prepackaged content. Unable to earn their bread by way of subscriptions, food writers have become mere brokers for corporate concocted nonsense.
They have become addicted to the flow of new openings, viral dishes, celebrity chef non-troversies, and TV competition recaps. They are derelict in their duty to lead their communities from above the fray—eyes always trained on a grander vision of American dining that naturally rewards the right chefs for the right practices. Rather than stand against the shallow, mass marketing paradigm, they beg for scraps underneath the table. They pal around with the demographic the have sworn a duty to judge for the sake of their readers. They conspire against those that are tasked with defending—all due to a bit of flattery and the ability to eat on somebody else’s dime.
One expects this kind of conduct from the rat’s nest of “foodies” on social media. But professional food writers—faced with the decision to die standing for something or chase a readership that is already long gone—have debased themselves in order to attain one last, sweet hit of self-importance and ego-stroking.
What worth can there ever be in the opinion of a Chicago “critic” who only visits Ever, or Mako, or Kyōten just once? How in the world can the Tribune stand by parroting Alinea’s status as the “#1 restaurant in Chicago” without exhaustively auditing its quality year after year? How can they ignore what a shining beacon—as mentor and custodian of native terroir—John Shields represents to the city? The food section should be shouting his praise from the rooftop each and every week!
When is the last time the Tribune really took aim at one of Chicago’s big dogs for the sake of defending the tastes and wallets of the public? Pete Wells might have meanly skewered Guy Fieri for little apparent reason, but he did also put Per Se’s arrogant extravagance in its place. Michelin, clearly, has little problem stripping away stars when they feel like it.
Will the Chicago food press always wait limply by—groveling before perceived power—while Bibendum tells us what to think once a year? Phil Vettel might have been an industry lapdog, but he has been replaced by two poodles.
The Tribune’s new critical double billing of Chu and Kindelsperger was surely the best choice they could have made. But two nor three nor ten food critics can stop the rot. Print media is poisoned at the roots. The Tribune leverages exclusivity to hide breaking news behind its pay wall. The food section maintains an information advantage, for now, while abandoning any pretense of incisiveness or insight. They and the city’s other malingering “professional” food critics no longer exist as such.
In reaching for social media relevance (no better represented than the cringeworthy “Watch This Eat That” gimmick), Chicago’s food writers have become nothing more than overgrown influencers: content creators wearing the guise of once-revered publications, writers donning a skinsuit of respectability so that their bosses may squeeze just one last stream of lucre out from their decaying brands.
Each of the city’s residents, today, surely has at least one “foodie” friend. They are, no doubt, saturated with all manner of native and contrived content driving them to this or that restaurant—towards this or that trend. They hold, on Yelp and Google Maps, an aggregate of information that better reflects their community’s views than one or two or ten critics could ever succeed in doing with their essential subjectivities and paltry space.
Chicago’s food writers chase the same restaurant openings as legions of independent diners with much less to lose in writing a bad review. For the “critics’” publications can barely afford to keep them employed, and the figures themselves are so desperate merely to continue on in their careers that they become the pawns of those whom they cover. How can they possibly compete with chefs touting “media training” consultants and full-fledged public relations departments guiding them? What “journalist” can resist telling the story that has been neatly packaged and tied with a bow? Why resist prostituting the food section to indulge the present political climate? Why critique the dish that—because it photographs so well—is sure to become a viral media sensation?
Food writers, critics—whatever they term themselves—are mere playthings of their city’s movers and shakers. Feting and flattering “the press” becomes just another box to tick—a bit of good exposure, carefully placed, to put the wind in a new restaurant’s sails. The writer—deluded in thinking they are somehow serving their “community” through coverage alone—prizes featuring a “good story” and some pretty pictures that comprise only a surface-level relevance. They champion chefs’ identities—the lowest level of engagement with art—more than their ingenuity. They hang their hats on a softball interview that yields a few cherry picked quotes.
Because they’d rather tout a different flavor of experience for each and every marketing demographic rather than engage in the impossibly harder work of educating and coalescing readers around a shared, transcendent, definition of quality.
By ignoring tougher questions of execution, distinction, and technique, they outsource the true critical “heavy lifting” to Michelin’s impenetrable process—essentially allowing interlopers to define Chicago’s dining scene at the highest level. By refusing to revisit or thoroughly audit sacred cows such as Alinea—perpetuating the lie that Achatz runs the city’s “best restaurant”—they lead their community towards the culinary slaughterhouse: a confusing, overpriced experience meant only to tickle travelers who care nothing for the expression of singular, Midwestern cooking. And when those travelers also find that Alinea is nothing but a bunch of hot air—well, Chicago, represented by its feckless “critics,” looks rather stupid.
What aesthetic principles do Chu and Kindelsperger stand for? From where is their trust developed? Yes, the former can tout that she palled around with Anthony Bourdain, and the latter—you must respect—has compiled exhaustive lists ranking the city’s most popular casual fare. But how does that equip them to potentially deflate a titanic establishment like Ever, should Duffy and Muser’s lust for Michelin glory come at the cost of pleasing Chicago’s diners? Will they undermine national press fawning—and the promise of culinary tourism it contains—for the sake of protecting their community from a meal that falls short?
In a bid to put a diverse coat of paint on Vettel’s stolid, sycophantic coverage, the duo has abandoned any claim the Tribune has to being the elder stateman of Chicago’s critical food discourse. The wider community does not need help locating great barbecue—word of that travels quite quickly. They do not need to be advised on hotel restaurants at Navy Pier. Nor do they have any care for sycophantic coverage of a watermelon and feta salad that—as far as your experiences of it were concerned—was in dire need of dressing. (Kindelsperger, you’re sure, just couldn’t resist touting such a “perfect” summertime delight).
Chicagoans need defenders against those who seek to define the city from without, against local chefs who abuse their platforms to sling cookware while sending native diners out for hot dogs after dinner in search of some satiation. Locals need writers who champion a shared sense of Midwestern, Illinoisan, and Chicagoan identity against those who look to transform the city into a New York-style smorgasbord of market research, trend report tripe.
There are countless influencers touting establishments that are merely “novel” every day—for social media’s visual bias is tailormade for that crap. A Tribune critic—or any “esteemed” critic for an existing publication—need speak to what is enduring, what speaks to the way their particular region eats. They must not grovel at the feet of any new development that promises all the superficial excitement of a flash in the pan, soulless concept. For native tastes need not be led in the direction of any rootless business detached from what, in this city, has come before them.
A food critic must be on the frontline of shaping their city’s dining scene. And that only sometimes has anything to do with chasing new openings. For while they offer engaging content—and a tidy little star rating to be plastered on websites and Tock pages in perpetuity—enduring relevance is often missing.
The Tribune has chosen a bottom-up—rather than a top-down—approach to defining Chicago dining. In possession of the Windy City’s biggest platform, its critics trawl the city with a promotional, “playing nice” tone that is always the chef’s best friend. They write from a position of insecurity—as if Chicago has no standards worth defending and the city is merely lucky to have an inflow of restaurants at all. They never ask themselves: why did fine dining die here in the first place?
Your advice to Chu and Kindelsperger? Stop playing buddy-buddy with business owners. Think more of your esteemed publication and positions than to use them as a launchpad for every proprietor with a marketing budget. Take an honest look in the mirror and ditch any idea that you might attain social media relevance.
Food critics are not supposed to be cool. They’re not supposed to be liked, but rather feared. That does not mean courting controversy. Instead, stoke the flames of Chicagoans culinary passion. Provoke the sort of conversations that drive the city into distinct camps. For those who may not see eye-to-eye in matters political might find themselves marching hand-in-hand when it comes to matters of taste. (They surely do when it comes to pizza crust and hot dog toppings).
Go scorched earth and rewrite the ranking of Chicago’s “greatest” restaurants starting from square one. For, by propagating his list year after year without the requisite number of return visits to accurately assess enduring quality, Vettel merely reconfigured Michelin’s own rankings. The Tribune, if anything, should stand as a beacon of how local tastes distinguish themselves from international rankings and traveling influencers. No fine dining restaurant should coast on a newspaper review from its opening year forever. And Chicagoans—to say nothing of our Midwestern brethren—should not be left to trust Michelin’s word alone when it comes to spending big bucks in their own city.
Be mean—but witty. Get nasty when you smell somebody pandering or playing down to the tastes of this glorious city. A middling review makes you no different than the hundreds of clout chasers plastering the web with their shallow drivel. When a place stands head and shoulders above its competition in a given category, you owe it to the public to let them know. For most aspirational fine diners do not have the money to waste on those lemons, and stoking competition between chefs is a sure way to cultivate greater expressions of flavor. (Such a practice also ensures diners stop seeing endless variants of the exact same dish around town).
Negative reviews—filled with verve and ample flourish—do not undermine a city’s dining scene. By ditching a confectionary promotional tone, they actually invigorate the audience. They might give a voice to the voiceless diners who have so often been burned by “hype” as to stop trying new places altogether. An acerbic evaluation—as best as it acknowledges the critic’s own biases and subjectivity—can actually drive those diners who possess the opposite predilections to rally around a given restaurant. When an astute comparison is made to competing restaurants that surpass the object of a particular review, traffic might be driven to a whole host of forgotten establishments.
The critic—as best epitomized by those who rate wine—forms a benchmark upon which each individual diner may orient his or herself and better seek out their own gustatory Valhalla. Kindelsperger, surely, has shown a great instinct for parsing burgers and beef sandwiches in such a way—but does he have the mettle to take the gloves off and take on restaurants whole hog?
Merely “featuring” a new establishment on the basis of one or two conspicuous visits is of no worth to the community. Thinking like a “journalist,” weaving a narrative that might pique the local population’s interest, amounts to a quasi marketing campaign. Consistency is what matters most to the average consumer, along with “stress testing” that ensures an adequate level of hospitality to gracefully correct the many missteps that might befall a given establishment over the course of its operation.
Providing primacy to a wider racial/social “context,” to fancy centerfolds and interviews with the chef might make for an appealing package. But such a piece necessarily swims in shallow waters of analysis for the sake of playing nice. By thinking nearly every establishment is “good enough” for its audience, publications ignore the erosion of public trust that got journalists into this mess. Readers want writers to take a stand—for standards of taste, not tired political slogans. The greater number of critics that distinctly do so, the richer the conversations carried on by the public grow.
Negative reviews—tinged with a modicum of venom—force chefs to reflect and either retool their offerings or double down on a vision they know will one day pay off. Nurturing Chicago’s dining scene does not mean coddling it. For whatever weakness a local writer feels for a chef in their community will surely not be felt by the city’s interlopers. By being bigger and badder in their criticism than the hired guns from afar, the Windy City’s own aces might work to inoculate native talent from the sting of those who have no predisposition to praise what goes on here.
The Tribune will never be nimble enough to compete with social media influencers. It’s silly to even try. The worth of the publication’s name comes from the weight of its recognition. Its writers need not worry about being denied access or exclusivity—for they’re the only game in town. Rather than gorge itself on the easy stories contrived by public relations professionals, the Tribune must play the skeptic. It must abandon any temptation towards being the “first” to offer information—anyone can copy-paste a press release—and aspire towards offering a definitive, challenging opinion that raises the stakes for any business seeking to become a part of the city’s dining scene.
Food “critics” must not be doormats for any restaurateur looking to cannibalize some further piece of the market. They must not provide an advantage to those who make their job easy, who deliver the kind of prefabricated pieces that make what should be a grueling, conscientious job seem glamorous.
In doing so, they become mere content creators who spread their legs for any pretty new concept. They incentivize style over substance and shape a dining scene betrothed to those more adept at marketing fantasy than crafting food. They sail along at a superficial level of consumption where every “gorgeous” new venue and “viral” dish might overshadow the mom and pop cooking earnestly to please. And that pervasive “sin of omission” journalists now so often commit stands at the ready to round off any inconvenient rough edges.
By providing intelligent analysis and embodying the art of dining, a critic inspires their readers to do the same. Humans are mimetic creatures par excellence: they will ape the supposed snob whose love of food jumps off the page (and will stoop to the level of the sycophant, should such a style of coverage become the norm).
If the Tribune charges forward towards the clickbait model of food journalism—the shallow, ever-present engagement that has rotted the public’s mind over the past decade—it will stand derelict in its duty towards Chicago. Prizing a perpetual flow of “content” means entering into a symbiotic relationship with those whom you must fairly cover. It spells the abandonment of any critical high ground, the restraint and dignity that decides (with ample, well-grounded discrimination) what is worth the audience’s time.
Chu and Kindelsperger must decide if they will stand on the shoulders of giants—affirming for future generations that Chicago is the city of The Pump Room, Le Perroquet, Le Francais, and Charlie Trotter’s—or if they will merely embalm the dwindling remains of the Windy City’s glorious past.
The critic’s role is to stand against the tide of culture when it threatens to wash away what remains valuable. It is to be a beacon through which chefs raise their game and readers refine (or define) their tastes.
The content creator is but a pimp and parasite. For reasons political or personal, they trade away the heritage others have carefully nurtured. They profane the legacy with which they have been entrusted for a fleeting taste of mass relevance, and they leave their city at the mercy of craven business concerns rather than stand for some transcendent vision of culinary art.
Content creators behave as such to game the system of their chosen medium. Critics working for a 174-year-old publication have no reason to sink to such a level. Should they choose to do so, Chu and Kindelsperger will sully generations of Chicago chefs and diners.