As a writer invested in excavating genuine hospitality experiences out of the morass of contrived, market research-driven concepts, you rarely stumble upon a paradigm that helps puts things in order. The tangled web of mutual backscratching that goes on between fine dining restaurants, public relations firms, dying print media, detestable digital “media,” and social media vultures amounts to a vortex of vapidity. The humble customer–who saves up money with the hope of enjoying a succulent tasting menu, who plans many months in advance and travels many hours for the pleasure–gets left out in the cold.
For, our cultural elite care little for ensuring every Tom, Dick, and Harry has the experience promised by their advertising copy. They are more concerned with broadcasting the right™ opinions regarding the right™ restaurants in an effort to reward the right™ chefs. They are more concerned with boosting establishments so that they may sink their claws into them and ensure a steady flow of content for the war of attrition they are waging against every other outlet seeking a few paltry seconds of engagement. You see, criticism, exposition, and education take time. They demand expertise, and expertise is both expensive to cultivate and almost impossible to monetize unless you are a wine critic or a total sell out (or both). Expertise–regarding the technical quality of the food and artistic aims of the experience–is no longer necessary to put customers’ asses is seats.
Instead, to prepare one “award-winning restaurant,” simply take 1 “diverse” chef (female preferred, but any “underrepresented” ethnicity or orientation will do, just don’t be boring!), combine with 1 “trendy” concept (hopefully a blend of multiple cuisines, but, if you must choose one, it had better be “deconstructed” beyond enjoyment or recognition), blend together with some bullshit beverage program (“natural” wine or, even better, wine from “diverse” winemakers will do), mix in a design firm, professional photographer, social media manager, beat together–and serve!
Food media picks out businesses they like run by people they can see becoming stars. Sure, a public relations firm may lend a helping hand, but journalists work so hard that nobody can blame them for being spoon-fed a story! Otherwise, maybe the “journalist” pals around with the chef in their free time, maybe someone at the publication is dating someone at the restaurant. At the very least, it can be assured that the chef possesses all the right™ opinions on the social issues of the day. From this point, the rest is easy!
Working backwards, simply tell the story–and paint the experience–through a positive lens. Multiply every virtue one hundredfold while ascribing any vice, any fly in the ointment, to a sense of rugged individualism that’s oh-so-sexy. It doesn’t really matter what gets written anyway. The star-chasers will see the rating, the woke liberals will run to see the “diverse” chef (like a caged animal in a zoo), and imbeciles wholly unengaged with the dining scene need only see those one or two carefully-crafted photos of dishes consciously conceived to go viral. No matter what bastardized mash-up monstrosity it entails, novelty (with the benefit of a food stylist’s and Photoshop’s sheen) is certain to make the yuppies go apeshit.
In some sense, food critics have been damned to write for a population whose understanding of dining has been irrevocably warped by industries much more powerful than the media itself. While shows such as Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Chef’s Table on Netflix have worked to demystify gastronomy, Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives cuts closer to the bone of how everyday Americans eat. This is to say, Americans dipping their toes in the water of “fine dining” are not standing on terra firma. They outsource their taste to the same authority figures from the same media entities that lie to their face regarding issues of far more consequence. They fall into the web of slick graphics and evocative language–all taken from the same high fashion playbook that demands models never smile. Because smiling would ruin the illusion that the customer isn’t “good enough” to associate with a given brand, and it would undermine the big lie that a $200 tasting menu is ten times as satisfying as a $20 burger, fries, and beer.
Someone has to guide the unwashed masses, and the food media is up to the task! They only ask that you help pay to indulge their gastronomic habit while they heap praise on their friends and talk down to you, dear diner. What really separates the top dog on the masthead of a Food & Wine, a Saveur, or a Bon Appétit from social media fools like the “Foodgod” or the “Foodie Magician”? The latter two clowns, it must be said, don’t waste your time strutting the pomp and circumstance of their authority before they shovel shit in your mouth. Foodgod and Foodie Magician know they’re attention whores, and the public tolerates it for the sake of having their own pocket taste tester. No, not a taste tester (for neither has met a nosh they don’t like), but a set of eyeballs that may report on the next culinary meme worthy of a trashy Tinder date.
Relative to these manchildren, the “esteemed” food publications and their peons are always ten steps behind any trend. Weeks or months later, their sanctioned opinion reaches the eyes of their octogenarian readership. A second wave descends upon the demarcated establishment, insistent on being served the very same experience as the estimable critic who pointed them there. Buy the ticket, take the ride–but not too fast! No corkscrews or loop-the-loops! Oh, and isn’t there supposed to be a gift shop?
Food media errs when it assumes anything approaching objectivity. It does not matter if a critic visits and establishment thrice or dons a disguise. Hospitality is fundamentally, irrevocably, beautifully, subjective, and to reduce a restaurant down to a snapshot–a set of dishes, a set experience–during its first months of opening is to embalm it. Food publications hand down their “official” reviews from on high, repeating what has been said on social media for months (just in a “jacket-required” parlance). They piss into an ocean of altogether more trustworthy accounts from citizen journalists on sites like Yelp. For, discretely, an egomaniacal Yelp Elite™ member may have reason to spin or exaggerate–yet no less than an employed “food writer” whose livelihood hinges on ensuring access and advertisers. However, in the aggregate, Yelp (and other crowdsourced) reviews speak to an average of many subjectivities. No restaurant can please “everyone,” but pleasing a diverse range of everyday people seems to be of more consequence than tickling the sycophants that sit atop the publishing pyramid.
Ultimately, what qualifications can most food writers claim? That they are representative of the population for which they write? That their own biases, their own subjectivity align with that of their readership? Fat chance! Wrapping themselves in the authorities of their respective publications, these writers adopt a tone of infallibility when describing the fruits of one or two or three visits to a place that may conjure hundreds of distinct, discrete experiences in a single evening. Sure, they can pick out a dish that has obviously been prepared poorly. They can sense an obvious service gaffe–or even throw a hand towel on the floor (that old chestnut) to see if it gets tidied up before their next trip to the restroom. Maybe the smartest troglodytes among them can read the dining room to note any discrepancies between how they, the “VIP,” and the average joe is treated. Yet, no matter how many tricks the food writer foists from their sauce-stained sleeves, they are forever doomed to skim the surface of a given establishment through a tacit devotion to the primacy of their personal experience.
How, then, does food criticism transcend the essential subjectivity of its author? It first entails a bit of humility: that they lay their biases and bugaboos bare, that they deconstruct the entirety of their identity and place it at the feet of the reading public. Only then may one’s nostalgia, personal preferences, genetic/cultural predispositions, and ultimate aesthetic values be admitted and accounted for. You would also like to see something of a “systems check” conducted for each writer’s sensory apparatus: how salty is too salty? How bitter is too bitter? Can they distinguish a “simple” wine from a “complex” one? What and how do they eat when they’re not “on the job”? How “full,” for them, is “full” for another? What reference points and research (beyond mere googling) can they claim when judging cuisines beyond the scope of their own culinary traditions? Such questions serve to help readers triangulate their own personal taste vis-à-vis the writer’s. Rather than a two-dimensional claim to “authority,” the audience finds a three-dimensional persona to latch onto and measure against themselves.
This manner of criticism predominates in the world of wine, where consumers routinely stake far more money (than a paltry tasting menu’s worth) on the opinions of Robert Parker (now retired), Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni, William Kelley, and others. The “Parkerization” of wine has been treated thoughtfully elsewhere, but here is the salient point. Parker, in his prime, wielded such an outsize influence as a critic that his tastes began to shape the manner in which wine was produced. Knowing that a high score from The Wine Advocate would drive sales, winemakers aimed to create the juicy fruit flavors and smooth tannins (through oak) the critic reliably rewarded. To critics of the critic, this decision to chase high scores often came at the cost of a wine’s fidelity to its terroir. It meant homogenization of all that made a wine beautiful and unique for the sake of capturing a slice of Parker’s readership.
Yet whom do we really blame in this case? One can question whether wine, food, or any manner of art can be reduced to a 100-point scale, yet that genie is already out of the bottle. The amateur wino, back when Parker first started his newsletter, desired an easily-digestible paradigm for sorting the precious bottles from the plonk. Rather than rely on price alone as an indicator of quality (treacherous waters when applied to any luxury good), the points system allowed (and still allows) consumers to indulge in purchasing the “best” wine at the most competitive price they can bear. Yes, the system ultimately stands as a crutch and impediment towards developing legitimate consumer knowledge, but can the same not be said about restaurant criticism? Star ratings engender trust for diners who may not know how to read the value of a tasting menu, the past experience of a chef, or the suite of techniques and influences a certain school of cookery might entail. These hierarchies form valuable shorthands for people who want to buy a “nice” bottle of wine to impress their boss or who want to take their date to a “nice” restaurant. Starting from a place of little knowledge, these consumers defer to an authority that does the heavy lifting for them. With enough experience, the entry-level imbiber or diner may develop personal preferences that lead to a deeper, firsthand engagement in choosing experiences that align with their tastes.
This consumer cannot be blamed for embracing the esteemed praise of a critic who walks the walk and talks the talk of “expertise.” Nor, you think, can Parker be blamed for applying himself to the task of comprehensively rating wines. As previously alluded to, The Wine Advocate launched as a free newsletter available to all and sundry. Parker’s ratings system and ratings themselves struck a chord with consumers, and the publication grew organically over the course of several decades. As far as you can tell, the critic’s aesthetic philosophy has remained the same over time: Parker is a big, brash American who has always loved big, brash wines. He maintains that when he tastes a wine, the score simply pops into his head. While such a declaration seems to spit in the face of critical rigor, Parker’s scores are consistently true to style and encompass vintage variation, maturation, and multiple tastings of the same wine over time. The critic, then, is not a vinous “Sherpa” so much as a well-calibrated instrument against which readers may orient their own taste. A “100 point” Parker wine may only strike so high for those who share the man’s taste. Yet there is little doubt that it would be perceived as a well-made wine by everyone, and, all the more, the content of any given piece of praise or criticism can be “reverse engineered” to inform readers who may not align with the Parker style.
In this manner, a critic like Parker not only serves his community (who are kindred spirits stylistically). Rather, he offers a convenient resource for the consumer who knows absolutely nothing–helping them purchase a bottle that, at the very least, is a well-made wine by someone’s standard. Parker also offers an essential benchmark for more knowledgeable consumers who may not share his style but, nonetheless, can pinpoint the critic’s taste relative to their own on a spectrum of various constituent parts. Is it any surprise, then, that winemakers tailor their products to appeal to a certain stratum of drinker who abides by Parker’s points system? They are a known quantity whom only need to be pleased on their terms, rather than some murky idea of the “brand consumer” cooked up by market research.
And yes, it is ultimately the winemakers who are to blame for any negative effects from the “Parkerization” of wine. Of course, you cannot ever casts aspersions on an estate that “floats with the current” in an effort to ensure their livelihood (and that of their progeny). Who, really, would have the fortitude to ignore the “magic recipe” of oak and extraction that can all but guarantee one’s bottles fly off store shelves. Appreciation? Discernment? Soul? That’s asking a bit much of consumers whose hearts palpitate when they are handed a wine list. Such higher ideals are only really relevant for domaines that need not worry about losing house and home, as well as the deranged iconoclasts willing to risk it all for the sake of their vision.
Drinkers dipping their toes into the water of connoisseurship are like hapless chickadees ripe to be snatched by any number of vultures. There are stylish labels, celebrity endorsements, schmoozing sales staff, pushy sommeliers, the critics (with their point scales), and any chance associations regarding grapes, places, and vintages a given consumer has cultivated. Aspirational fine diners are no different. They may have their head turned by celebrity chef television appearances, social media posts (from fellow customers, celebrities from other industries, and/or the restaurant’s marketing team), “top restaurant” lists, user review sites (like Yelp), “esteemed” print critics, and plain old word of mouth. In both cases–drinkers and diners–rational consumer choice takes a backseat to an impulsive, heuristic manner of decision-making. The consumer is not weighing “quality” or “personal taste” so much as they are responding to social pressure, assumed prestige, and that most painful of all late-stage capitalistic feelings: F.O.M.O..
Nonetheless, there is an essential distinction between critics of wine and critics of restaurants. The former, when all is said and done, spend some amount of their time visiting winemakers and vineyards. The rest of their time is spent tasting hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles of wines in comparative blind flights for the sake of applying an objective technical standard to their craft. Yes, subjectivity plays a role in the process: a wine may be ranked and scored blindly but have its ultimate tasting note written with full knowledge of just what it is. In this manner, a winery’s story–its terroir in both a naturalistic and humanistic sense–is carefully mingled with a rigid assessment of its quality. Neither can be ignored, given that customers do not buy wine “blindly,” nor do they–as charming as each estate’s story may be–drink “history” or “heritage.” The end product, removed from all the romance increased consumer knowledge entails, must stand on its own. Likewise, a wine’s subjective elements reveal what it is standing for, and they prime the drinker for the increased pleasure that comes from emotional resonance.
As Nicola Perullo explains in his excellent Taste as Experience, there is a distinction to be made between the “naked pleasure” any taster can appreciate and the sort of engaged pleasure that comes via comprehensive consumer knowledge. With respect to Robert Parker, the “hedonistic” style of wine he so likes–filled to the brim with sweet, smooth fruit flavors–is rather sure to deliver naked pleasure to the American drinking public. In contrast, a more elegant, idiosyncratic wine (say, something from Burgundy) may not offer the same obvious pleasure. Instead, it tells the story of a tiny plot of land in a particular place, emphasizing the shades of grey that separate it from its neighboring plot and the decisions of the neighboring winemaker. A “hedonistic” Parker wine prizes pleasure, and it will embrace any technique in pursuit of that goal (even if those techniques cause it to resemble other “great” wines). The opposite sort of wine values distinction at all costs: the winemaker surely wants to make a pleasurable drink, but only as an expression of the uniqueness, the singularity of their particular soil. Pure pleasure, in this sense, is not worth erasing personality, and the wine invites the sort of customer who privileges its special place relative to any other product in the world. Such discernment and consideration of subjective, “soulful” qualities is undoubtedly tied to consumer knowledge. Though, it must be said, plenty of knowledgeable consumers share Parker’s tastes, and they may engage with the background information on their favored wines all the same.
Does this dichotomy hold true for restaurants? For “fine dining”? Surely, we associate naked pleasure with genres like the steakhouse, oyster house, pizzeria, rib shack, red sauce joint, fish fry, wiener stand, and buffet. We associate naked pleasure with dessert, with delivery food, with holiday feasts and grandma’s home cooking. You might go so far as to say that American gastronomy, once the food system developed to an extent that the vast majority of citizens could be reliably well-fed, has concerned itself almost solely with pleasure and convenience. Not just via fast food, processed food, soft drinks, and candy bars, but through supermarkets that make sure to stock any conceivable ingredient at all times of year, regardless of “seasonality.” We are a sumptuously spoiled population that expects every comestible to be engineered for his or her pleasure. And we tacitly expect that fine dining–costing ten or one hundred times our normal dinner–delivers that magnitude of increased delight.
How does a restaurant critic write for an audience who, like Parker’s devoted tipplers, seek the highest peaks of pleasure while discarding any preening about “soul” as pretentious hullabaloo? It is not that this audience is “uncultured.” Rather, they have likely come to find that all this talk of virtue and distinction is often used to bolster a disappointing product. Food is to eat and wine is to drink–they seem to say–and to over intellectualize either (let alone needing to do so to find enjoyment) is to defeat the purpose of delectation. How does a food writer balance the fine details–that lend themselves to a restaurant’s distinction–with decadent descriptions that entice pleasure-seekers? Truthfully, you do not think the question ever crosses their minds.
Food writers view themselves as “chosen people” whose personal tastes should deservedly define those of their audience. Relative to wine critics who catalog countless bottles, these writers really do not eat much more food or visit many more restaurants than amateur enthusiasts. Rather, they have networked their way into positions of influence and use their place in the media to pursue individual, rather than community-oriented, goals. In their own minds, they are almighty, infallible tastemakers. “Pleasure” is their pleasure, and the only “stories” worth telling are the ones that tug their own personal heartstrings. They are instruments, yes, but of a highly-arbitrary nature. Wine critics explore many expressions of the same grape and orient themselves reliably with respect to differing styles of production. Each restaurant, for a food critic, features far more “moving parts.” It resists easy categorization (unless a writer is comprehensive enough to try every other example in the genre, credit to Nick Kindelsperger). So, instead, the food writer latches onto whatever impression they can glean across however many visits, seemingly unaware that what strikes them as salient has little relation to their readership’s range of values and perspectives. They are content to offer the best review they can, to funnel their personal opinion through the media megaphone, and to play their part in deciding an establishment’s fate as little more than an overgrown (and altogether uglier) social media influencer.
This is all readily apparent when reading any food writer’s personal Twitter or Instagram page. There is no pretense of objectivity–just personal branding, just “selling yourself” rather than eradicating the ego as a means of striking at varied, essential, and eternal truths. Any expertise these writers wield comes merely from having “earned” their position, from wrapping themselves in whatever masthead they fall under that year. The only stories they tell, at the end of the day, are their own. And the majority of readers, for what it’s worth, follow these critics merely as a means to see star ratings and food porn. Food writers are derelict in their duty to educate consumers, and they do not even do a good job of championing naked pleasure when it appears. Rather, working backwards, they judge the restaurants they review against their personal value system and spit out a snarky soliloquy sure to please the powers at be. Because it is not important that restaurant criticism be accurate or informative so long as the deaf and dumb public get the message that a certain restaurant is “good” and another is “bad” and that all the writer’s friends and the publication’s business partners and interests are well-served by the declaration.
What this all amounts to–to get back to the point of this very essay–is your discovery that contemporary food media has more to do with “hyperreality” than reality itself. Hyperreality, as a term, finds its intellectual roots in the writings of Jean Baudrillard, Marshall McLuhan, and Umberto Eco. But you will attempt to bring it down to earth.
Hyperreality, in its essential form, is a symbolized representation of reality that becomes so convincing, so pervasive, that it substitutes for (and replaces) any sense of the original, genuine, grounded reality. For example, a Louis Vuitton handbag–while ostensibly a physical product that has been handcrafted by artisans–has taken on a life as a status symbol that far transcends any sense of functionality. Consumers pay little attention to the reality of the product: the quality of the leather, the bag’s construction, the feel and movement of its zippers. The bag’s value is not ascribed to its reality as a “bag” but, rather, its hyperreality as a signifier of “wealth,” “taste,” and association with the many models and celebrities who attach themselves to the brand.
A century ago, Louis Vuitton’s value stemmed from the quality and durability (relative to its competitors) of items like trunks. Today, the company’s products share a certain price point with other luxury fashion brands. They are but one “flavor” among a range of options distinguished only by their outward appearance. The modern mass consumer, lacking any aesthetic grounding of their own, sees the bag not as a bag among a multitude of receptacles. They see and want the “status symbol;” that is to say, they pay to wrap themselves in the image of the “Louis Vuitton customer,” a shared delusion that only exists in the world of advertising copy. To wit, the predominance of the “LV” logo on the brand’s range of products ensures that any independent, aesthetic judgment first be filtered through a recognition of the item’s cost and supposed “status.”
One more example might be illustrative, and it is often cited in treatments of the hyperreality concept. Disneyland and Disney World, with their range of parks and pavilions, build environments that engage the popular imagination. “Main Street, U.S.A.,” the familiar promenade that welcomes visitors into the park, is modeled after the countless main streets that define towns and cities across America. While each of these authentic main streets–spread throughout the country–offer a different range of storefronts and services, Disney’s “Main Street, U.S.A.” condenses the best features of all the real-world examples into a comprehensive, fictional representation of the “whole.” Each individual main street throughout the country–every one of them the distinct product of a set people in a set place–is overshadowed by the conglomerated cardboard cutout version. By bringing each and every symbol of America’s many main streets together, Disney’s rendition is sure to strike every visitor as “authentic.” However, by the very nature of its all-encompassing assemblage, “Main Street, U.S.A.” bears no relation to any discrete, extant, individual main street in the United States. In its convincing comprehensiveness, the symbolized main street strikes visitors as “real” and, thus, becomes “realer” than any example of the real thing: a hyperreality.
Restaurant critics, lacking any real expertise and derelict in their duty to educate their audience, engage far more with the hyperreality of a given establishment than the genuine customer experience. Writing through a personal lens–blinded by biases and egos they are unlikely to ever question (let alone shed)–these writers present individual experience as gospel. They take one or two or three nights’ observation, a snapshot of some seasonal dishes, a few throwaway quotes from the staff, and a tie a ribbon around the resultant promotional package before sending it on to be published. Such a writer thinks they represent their readership, but do they ever dine with anyone other than their significant other, their industry pals, or themself?
In truth, they loathe large segments of their community. They are confounded by the tastes of the “average American,” and they view them as “problematic” to boot. The food writer’s calling, thus, is to demolish all “backwards” dining traditions and help usher in a diverse, decolonized, equitable, humane, intersectional, and queer restaurant scene. In short, their calling is to inject petty personal politics into something beautiful, eternal, and transcendent. Their aim is to wield restaurants as just another cultural weapon to be trained on those “intolerant” souls who dare disagree with their designs for society. Restaurant criticism, for these writers, is but one more insidious method of disseminating their propaganda. Talking about food is merely the means to the desired end result of revolution. No wonder they have nothing of note or substance to say! Why become good at one’s job when one’s distaste for the reading public is palpable? Just serve them the same old shit, and make sure they waste their money at the right™ places.
From this faulty foundation, hyperreality is destined to obscure any sense of the “authentic” restaurant. The establishment’s location, to start with, is destined to become either a symbol of “gentrification” (if it takes a chance on a neglected neighborhood) or some noble “invasion” (of foreign flavors against the austere American food of yore). The chef, it is no surprise, will be distinguished by their identity. If you are a “non-white” chef cooking “non-white” food, that’s good. If you are a “non-white” chef cooking (subverting, deconstructing) “white” food, then all the better! But if you are a “white” chef cooking “white” food then you had better watch your back! “Does the city really need more bland ‘white’ food for boring ‘white’ people?” the food press might remark. “Why isn’t the chef invested in toppling power structures?” they think to themselves. “To simply cook the food one likes and try to be the best at one’s craft without any concern for social justice,” they seem to say, “is a mark of white privilege.” Oh, and if you are a “white” chef cooking “non-white” food, you are dead to us. (Now, simply replace the word “white” with “male” or “straight” or–if you really hate yourself–“heteronormative,” and you will be able to decode any media description of a chef without wasting any time reading their drivel).
From these pillars alone–location, concept, chef–the food press already has a good idea of whether they like a given restaurant or not. Addressing the beverage program with any depth would demand knowing something about wine, beer, or spirits. It’s much easier to label the bottle list as “too expensive for the neighborhood” and the cocktails either “too plain” or “exciting” depending on how photogenic the mixologist is. Beer? Oh yes, you almost forgot beer. Beer is “white” and “racist” and not worth devoting any special time to as an artisanal product. That being said, including a “fun” European brew as part of a pairing will merit extra points. Just nothing too local!
The food is just the same: no critic has the talent nor temperament to engage in a deep technical analysis of the restaurant’s cuisine. In truth, both the print and digital models have done all they can to condense criticism to such an extent as to make such analysis impossible. Instead, the dishes that photograph best are simply selected to be featured. “You eat with your eyes,” as they say! No matter what might be on the plate, the combination is “delightful” in its combination of “unctuous,” “toothsome,” “tender,” “luscious,” and “umami” flavors. The end result always being, of course, the catchall term “balance” (balanced by whose scale, calibrated to what standard, an intelligent reader may ask?)
Of course, the ingredients themselves do not get ignored. They are sprinkled throughout the prose as so much filler, particularly those exotic items written in foreign tongues. Their flourish, wielded by the writer, convinces the audience of their bonafides. But their presence is only ornamental: show and awe for the uneducated masses. The real dynamite, so to speak, that engages in the deepest hyperreality are those coveted “luxury ingredients.” Truffles, foie gras, abalone, caviar, jamón ibérico, uni, otoro, wagyu beef, and the like mean little to the reader. Perhaps they can imagine that truffles have a mild earthy flavor and enveloping aroma, that the beef is distinguished by a certain level and style of marbling. But can these sensations be adequately imparted in an impotent little review? Can the romance, the magic of nature’s crown jewels be sincerely celebrated by critics who, at core, detest the tradition with which they have been cultivated and the high prices they command? No, they simply form the sprinkles on the cake, the “LV” logo stamped into the leather. A “fancy” three- or four-star restaurant need serve “fancy” food, and a writer who wishes to underline the consequence of their high rating need only trot out oblique references to these decadent totems. The reader, though never educated in just why these ingredients are special, are sure to know they are expensive. They nod their heads and think “wow!” without exactly knowing what they’re craving or why.
You do not mean to undermine the legitimate value these “luxury ingredients” sometimes offer. Rather, in the face of a truly fine restaurant that uses them well, the food critic will find themself cowed. How do they describe the intricacy of a beauty that will never tug their heartstrings (because they view their profession through the eyes of a partisan hack)? Likewise, in the face of those detestable tasting menus driven more by vanity than quality, the critic lacks the wherewithal to pick apart the improper, lazy use of precious ingredients. You see, the food writer is just along for the ride, and the hapless reader will never know he or she was wrong until they’ve taken the plunge to the tune of a couple hundred dollars. The food writer draws on superficial, symbolic language that only serves to confirm preconceived notions about fine dining rather than dig deeply into the soul of each restaurant. Because expertise is harder, educating the consumer is harder, and it all–ultimately–stands in the way and is altogether unrelated to the publication’s ideological goals.
As you mentioned earlier in this essay, the details really do not matter. Readers fasten onto the star rating, the picture of the chef, the pictures of the food, and then–perhaps–skim the content for those juicy nuggets of exposition. Those being the segments that indulge the audience’s lust for food (albeit of the less arousing “erotica” variety relative to the full-color pinups) or for schadenfreude. You see, plenty of readers loathe the very notion of a hundred dollar tasting menu (let alone two or three hundred). To them, profane, pathetic food will never be “art,” and those chefs prancing around with tweezers are only one step removed from shilling for the Fyre Festival. So, when a restaurant fails to tickle a critic’s culinary itch, it’s fair game to open fire! Readers love seeing stinging takedowns of pretentious tyrants (never mind the legion of livelihoods at stake all the way down to the dishwashers). No establishment, of course, is above criticism. Yet nuanced takes never sell, and reviews, thus, alternative between gushing praise and something akin to a gastronomic gallows. For a favored restaurant, context and intention matter with regards to the execution of the food. Any excuse will be made to smooth over the right™ chef’s rough edges. If you find yourself in possession of the wrong identity, however, it is best to batten down the hatches. Good food won’t save you from the fangs of a fart-sniffing food critic with an ideological axe to grind. Because “food is political,” don’t cha know? And flavor, like all that is true and beautiful in this world, must be sacrificed before the altar of social justice, if not bent to its very will.
All this amounts to a sort of deaf and dumb language that food writers use in their communication with the public. “Diversity = good, gentrification = bad,” they seem to say, advancing what appears to be ethical, open-minded art criticism from a priori political assumptions. But any author, surely, deserves to advocate for their vision of a better world, to use the microphone they have been granted in pursuit of a higher cause. You will not deny that, but you must question the use of food criticism, of judging a small business and an assemblage of employees, as a means towards an ideological end. If a given author is honest about their personal values and embeds them within a well-defined system of aesthetic judgment, they can ethically indulge in political advocacy knowing that the public perceives whom they are and where they stand and can read between the lines for whatever information may be valuable to them. In such a case, they form a valuable reference point–like Parker–which one may orient themself against during the course of the critic’s career.
However, to subversively put one’s political concerns front and center–obscured by the allure of photographs and star ratings–is to trade away any chance at a comprehensive, carefully considered review in exchange for hackery. The writer, sure in the sanctity of their personal beliefs, feels no need to reflect on (or challenge) their first impression of a given restaurant. They are sure they view the world the right™ way and are more than comfortable fitting establishments into that existing schema. No need to probe more deeply or weigh multiple perspectives. From that point on, it’s all gravy. Decide on your rating and strike the audience with a deluge of buzzwords. Trade in the shallowest symbols of “fine” food (those sacred luxury ingredients divorced from any sense of value). “Caviar” served at the right™ restaurant is a gift from god! “Caviar” served at the wrong one is an obnoxious expression of wealth and privilege. That’s the game! No technical analysis needed. No nitty gritty details necessary. Eat here because we say so, and don’t ask why! It’s not like we have the time or talent to engage with the reality of a living, breathing restaurant. Take the sliver of experience you are served (filtered through the right™ lens) and be grateful! Grateful that, for the cost of admission, you too can show you possess the sort of “taste” that is necessary to get ahead.
Restaurants deserve deeper analysis because, to you, they are not merely assembly lines. The deepest joy a meal may yield comes not from a series of pleasurable sensations or an assemblage of conspicuous consumptive snapshots on Instagram. Restaurants do not trade in food, but hospitality (of which food forms but one restorative tool). Some chefs trade in the satisfaction of naked pleasure; others have stories to tell–of people, places, and moments in time–that transcend typical ideas of satiation.
The role of the food writer is one of excavation, of discovering the truest, most authentic expression a restaurant may impart relative to any other place on Earth. That demands the writer humbly bring their genuine self to the table: the vulnerable, submissive self. When these writers act as marketing mouthpieces, self-branding influencers, or political advocates, they abdicate their duty altogether. They close off any path towards understanding the personalities and passions that lend a mere dining room its soul. They choose to live in a hyperreal world where a restaurant is just another pin on a map, another entry in a guidebook.
Reviewing restaurants with respect to “reality” rather than “hyperreality” means enveloping oneself in the insecurities of an audience that has little to no experience with “fine dining.” It means preserving the magic, educating the consumer when necessary, but never letting one’s cynicism infect the experience (let alone the political axes one has to grind). A critic should challenge their reader without ever blowing smoke up their ass. Everyone can taste when pleasure has arrived, and it rarely demands one contort themself to meet it.
When a dinner is more “experience” than “meal,” a restaurant critic should say so. Rather than rely on hyperreal symbolism to carry the day, confide that the food is experimental, it may not satisfy everyone (hell, it may not even try). The consumer deserves to know this. For better or worse, they will always associate a high price point with an associated increase in pleasure. Dear critics, do not lead them astray for the sake of satisfying your personal proclivities. Your tongue may lie, but your readers’ won’t. Step into their shoes, as many shoes as possible. More importantly, recognize that your own shoes are filled with rocks, sand, and the stink of a lifetime spent kissing ass to climb the journalistic ladder. You are an instrument, not an influencer. Your only worth comes from securing the same experience for your audience that you, despite your “experience,” biases, and bugaboos, have met. (Or, from saving your dear reader from the disappointment of a meal that is sure to feel like a scam to nearly anyone).
It is, at heart, a noble task that can only be accomplished on the ground, in reality. Hyperreality is the domain of diners who only care to visit an establishment for the “clout” in the first place. Yes, riches await those who police food culture in line with what the “powers that be” desire. One can even make a tidy career out of dining on their publisher’s dime. But do not fool yourself into thinking you are a critic invested in the advancement of American gastronomy or “art.” You are the shepherd delivering their flock to the wolves, and you work to degrade the fundamental meritocracy of flavor.
The greatest restaurant is the one that pulls at the heartstrings of the greatest number of diners. It is the restaurant that unites, delights, and inspires the widest range of people. Such transcendence has nothing to do with petty personal politics, market research, or social media trends. Shallow symbolism suffocates any sense of the genuine experience, priming and leading consumers away from forming a personal impression. Because dining, in its essence, is the most personal of all art forms–a dance between server and served. A critic’s role is to help each one of us align our rhythm to that of the restaurant so that we might revel in the catharsis of a couple hours’ repose. This is the realest pleasure in life.