As a writer invested in excavating genuine hospitality experiences outof the morass of contrived, market research-driven concepts, you rarely stumbleupon a paradigm that helps puts things in order. The tangled web of mutual backscratchingthat goes on between fine dining restaurants, public relations firms, dyingprint media, detestable digital “media,” and social media vultures amounts to avortex of vapidity. The humble customer—who saves up money with the hope ofenjoying a succulent tasting menu, who plans many months in advance and travelsmany hours for the pleasure—gets left out in the cold.
For, our cultural elite care little for ensuring every Tom, Dick, andHarry has the experience promised by their advertising copy. They are moreconcerned with broadcasting the right™ opinions regarding the right™restaurants in an effort to reward the right™ chefs. They are more concernedwith boosting establishments so that they may sink their claws into them andensure a steady flow of content for the war of attrition they are wagingagainst 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 monetizeunless you are a wine critic or a total sell out (or both). Expertise—regardingthe technical quality of the food and artistic aims of the experience—is nolonger 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 orientationwill do, just don’t be boring!), combine with 1 “trendy” concept (hopefully ablend of multiple cuisines, but, if you must choose one, it had better be “deconstructed”beyond enjoyment or recognition), blend together with some bullshit beverageprogram (“natural” wine or, even better, wine from “diverse” winemakers willdo), mix in a design firm, professional photographer, social media manager, beattogether—and serve!
Food media picks out businesses they like run by people they can seebecoming stars. Sure, a public relations firm may lend a helping hand, butjournalists work so hard that nobody can blame them for being spoon-feda story! Otherwise, maybe the “journalist” pals around with the chef in theirfree time, maybe someone at the publication is dating someone atthe restaurant. At the very least, it can be assured that the chef possesses allthe right™ opinions on the social issues of the day. From this point, the restis easy!
Working backwards, simply tell the story—and paint theexperience—through a positive lens. Multiply every virtue one hundredfold whileascribing any vice, any fly in the ointment, to a sense of rugged individualismthat’s oh-so-sexy. It doesn’t really matter what gets written anyway. Thestar-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 thedining scene need only see those one or two carefully-crafted photos of dishes consciouslyconceived to go viral. No matter what bastardized mash-up monstrosity itentails, 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 populationwhose understanding of dining has been irrevocably warped by industries muchmore powerful than the media itself. While shows such as Anthony Bourdain’s NoReservations 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 howeveryday Americans eat. This is to say, Americans dipping their toes in thewater of “fine dining” are not standing on terra firma. They outsourcetheir taste to the same authority figures from the same media entities that lieto their face regarding issues of far more consequence. They fall into the webof slick graphics and evocative language—all taken from the same high fashionplaybook that demands models never smile. Because smiling would ruin theillusion 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 assatisfying as a $20 burger, fries, and beer.
Someone has to guide the unwashed masses, and the food media is up tothe task! They only ask that you help pay to indulge their gastronomic habitwhile they heap praise on their friends and talk down to you, dear diner. Whatreally 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 “FoodieMagician”? The latter two clowns, it must be said, don’t waste your timestrutting the pomp and circumstance of their authority before they shovel shitin your mouth. Foodgod and Foodie Magician know they’re attention whores, andthe 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 setof eyeballs that may report on the next culinary meme worthy of a trashy Tinderdate.
Relative to these manchildren, the “esteemed” food publications andtheir peons are always ten steps behind any trend. Weeks or months later, theirsanctioned opinion reaches the eyes of their octogenarian readership. A secondwave descends upon the demarcated establishment, insistent on being served thevery same experience as the estimable critic who pointed them there. Buy theticket, take the ride—but not too fast! No corkscrews or loop-the-loops! Oh, andisn’t there supposed to be a gift shop?
Food media errs when it assumes anything approaching objectivity. Itdoes not matter if a critic visits and establishment thrice or dons a disguise.Hospitality is fundamentally, irrevocably, beautifully, subjective, and to reducea restaurant down to a snapshot—a set of dishes, a set experience—during its firstmonths 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 altogethermore trustworthy accounts from citizen journalists on sites like Yelp. For, discretely,an egomaniacal Yelp Elite™ member may have reason to spin or exaggerate—yet noless than an employed “food writer” whose livelihood hinges on ensuring accessand 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 consequencethan tickling the sycophants that sit atop the publishing pyramid.
Ultimately, what qualifications can most food writers claim? That theyare representative of the population for which they write? That their ownbiases, their own subjectivity align with that of their readership? Fat chance!Wrapping themselves in the authorities of their respective publications, thesewriters adopt a tone of infallibility when describing the fruits of one or twoor three visits to a place that may conjure hundreds of distinct, discreteexperiences in a single evening. Sure, they can pick out a dish that hasobviously been prepared poorly. They can sense an obvious service gaffe—oreven throw a hand towel on the floor (that old chestnut) to see if it getstidied up before their next trip to the restroom. Maybe the smartesttroglodytes among them can read the dining room to note any discrepancies betweenhow they, the “VIP,” and the average joe is treated. Yet, no matter how manytricks the food writer foists from their sauce-stained sleeves, they are foreverdoomed to skim the surface of a given establishment through a tacit devotion tothe primacy of their personal experience.
How, then, does food criticism transcend the essential subjectivity ofits author? It first entails a bit of humility: that they lay their biases andbugaboos bare, that they deconstruct the entirety of their identity and placeit at the feet of the reading public. Only then may one’s nostalgia, personalpreferences, genetic/cultural predispositions, and ultimate aesthetic values beadmitted and accounted for. You would also like to see something of a “systemscheck” 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,” forthem, is “full” for another? What reference points and research (beyond meregoogling) can they claim when judging cuisines beyond the scope of their ownculinary traditions? Such questions serve to help readers triangulate their ownpersonal 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 measureagainst themselves.
This manner of criticism predominates in the world of wine, whereconsumers routinely stake far more money (than a paltry tasting menu’s worth)on the opinions of Robert Parker (now retired), Jancis Robinson, AntonioGalloni, William Kelley, and others. The “Parkerization” of wine has beentreated thoughtfully elsewhere, but here is the salient point. Parker, in hisprime, wielded such an outsize influence as a critic that his tastes began toshape the manner in which wine was produced. Knowing that a high score from TheWine Advocate would drive sales, winemakers aimed to create the juicy fruitflavors and smooth tannins (through oak) the critic reliably rewarded. Tocritics of the critic, this decision to chase high scores often came at thecost of a wine’s fidelity to its terroir. It meant homogenization of all thatmade a wine beautiful and unique for the sake of capturing a slice of Parker’sreadership.
Yet whom do we really blame in this case? One can question whetherwine, food, or any manner of art can be reduced to a 100-point scale, yet thatgenie is already out of the bottle. The amateur wino, back when Parker firststarted his newsletter, desired an easily-digestible paradigm for sorting theprecious bottles from the plonk. Rather than rely on price alone as anindicator of quality (treacherous waters when applied to any luxury good), thepoints system allowed (and still allows) consumers to indulge in purchasing the“best” wine at the most competitive price they can bear. Yes, the systemultimately stands as a crutch and impediment towards developing legitimate consumerknowledge, but can the same not be said about restaurant criticism? Starratings engender trust for diners who may not know how to read the value of atasting menu, the past experience of a chef, or the suite of techniques andinfluences a certain school of cookery might entail. These hierarchies form valuableshorthands for people who want to buy a “nice” bottle of wine to impress theirboss or who want to take their date to a “nice” restaurant. Starting from a placeof little knowledge, these consumers defer to an authority that does the heavylifting for them. With enough experience, the entry-level imbiber or diner maydevelop personal preferences that lead to a deeper, firsthand engagement inchoosing experiences that align with their tastes.
This consumer cannot be blamed for embracing the esteemed praise of a criticwho walks the walk and talks the talk of “expertise.” Nor, you think, canParker be blamed for applying himself to the task of comprehensively ratingwines. As previously alluded to, The Wine Advocate launched as a freenewsletter available to all and sundry. Parker’s ratings system and ratingsthemselves struck a chord with consumers, and the publication grew organicallyover the course of several decades. As far as you can tell, the critic’saesthetic philosophy has remained the same over time: Parker is a big, brashAmerican who has always loved big, brash wines. He maintains that when hetastes a wine, the score simply pops into his head. While such a declarationseems to spit in the face of critical rigor, Parker’s scores are consistentlytrue to style and encompass vintage variation, maturation, and multipletastings 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 theirown taste. A “100 point” Parker wine may only strike so high for those whoshare the man’s taste. Yet there is little doubt that it would be perceived asa well-made wine by everyone, and, all the more, the content of any given pieceof praise or criticism can be “reverse engineered” to inform readers who maynot 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 convenientresource for the consumer who knows absolutely nothing—helping them purchase abottle that, at the very least, is a well-made wine by someone’s standard.Parker also offers an essential benchmark for more knowledgeable consumers whomay not share his style but, nonetheless, can pinpoint the critic’s tasterelative to their own on a spectrum of various constituent parts. Is it anysurprise, then, that winemakers tailor their products to appeal to a certainstratum of drinker who abides by Parker’s points system? They are a knownquantity whom only need to be pleased on their terms, rather than some murkyidea of the “brand consumer” cooked up by market research.
And yes, it is ultimately the winemakers who are to blame for anynegative effects from the “Parkerization” of wine. Of course, you cannot ever castsaspersions on an estate that “floats with the current” in an effort to ensuretheir livelihood (and that of their progeny). Who, really, would have the fortitudeto ignore the “magic recipe” of oak and extraction that can all but guaranteeone’s bottles fly off store shelves. Appreciation? Discernment? Soul? That’sasking a bit much of consumers whose hearts palpitate when they are handed awine list. Such higher ideals are only really relevant for domaines that neednot worry about losing house and home, as well as the deranged iconoclasts willingto risk it all for the sake of their vision.
Drinkers dipping their toes into the water of connoisseurship are likehapless chickadees ripe to be snatched by any number of vultures. There are stylishlabels, celebrity endorsements, schmoozing sales staff, pushy sommeliers, thecritics (with their point scales), and any chance associations regardinggrapes, places, and vintages a given consumer has cultivated. Aspirational finediners are no different. They may have their head turned by celebrity cheftelevision appearances, social media posts (from fellow customers, celebrities fromother industries, and/or the restaurant’s marketing team), “top restaurant”lists, user review sites (like Yelp), “esteemed” print critics, and plain oldword of mouth. In both cases—drinkers and diners—rational consumer choice takesa backseat to an impulsive, heuristic manner of decision-making. The consumeris not weighing “quality” or “personal taste” so much as they are responding tosocial pressure, assumed prestige, and that most painful of all late-stagecapitalistic feelings: F.O.M.O..
Nonetheless, there is an essential distinction between critics of wineand critics of restaurants. The former, when all is said and done, spend someamount of their time visiting winemakers and vineyards. The rest of their timeis spent tasting hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles of wines in comparativeblind flights for the sake of applying an objective technical standard to theircraft. Yes, subjectivity plays a role in the process: a wine may be ranked andscored blindly but have its ultimate tasting note written with full knowledgeof just what it is. In this manner, a winery’s story—its terroir inboth a naturalistic and humanistic sense—is carefully mingled with a rigidassessment of its quality. Neither can be ignored, given that customers do notbuy 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 romanceincreased consumer knowledge entails, must stand on its own. Likewise, a wine’ssubjective elements reveal what it is standing for, and they prime the drinkerfor 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. Weassociate naked pleasure with dessert, with delivery food, with holiday feastsand grandma’s home cooking. You might go so far as to say that Americangastronomy, once the food system developed to an extent that the vast majorityof citizens could be reliably well-fed, has concerned itself almost solely withpleasure and convenience. Not just via fast food, processed food, soft drinks, andcandy bars, but through supermarkets that make sure to stock any conceivable ingredientat all times of year, regardless of “seasonality.” We are a sumptuously spoiledpopulation that expects every comestible to be engineered for his or herpleasure. And we tacitly expect that fine dining—costing ten or one hundredtimes our normal dinner—delivers that magnitude of increased delight.
How does a restaurant critic write for an audience who, like Parker’sdevoted tipplers, seek the highest peaks of pleasure while discarding any preeningabout “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 anddistinction is often used to bolster a disappointing product. Food is to eatand wine is to drink—they seem to say—and to over intellectualize either (letalone needing to do so to find enjoyment) is to defeat the purpose ofdelectation. How does a food writer balance the fine details—that lendthemselves to a restaurant’s distinction—with decadent descriptions that enticepleasure-seekers? Truthfully, you do not think the question ever crosses theirminds.
Food writers view themselves as “chosen people” whose personal tastes shoulddeservedly define those of their audience. Relative to wine critics who catalogcountless bottles, these writers really do not eat much more food or visit manymore restaurants than amateur enthusiasts. Rather, they have networked theirway into positions of influence and use their place in the media to pursueindividual, rather than community-oriented, goals. In their own minds, they arealmighty, infallible tastemakers. “Pleasure” is their pleasure, and the only “stories”worth telling are the ones that tug their own personal heartstrings. They areinstruments, yes, but of a highly-arbitrary nature. Wine critics explore manyexpressions of the same grape and orient themselves reliably with respect todiffering styles of production. Each restaurant, for a food critic, featuresfar more “moving parts.” It resists easy categorization (unless a writer iscomprehensive enough to try every other example in the genre, credit toNick Kindelsperger). So, instead, the food writer latches onto whatever impressionthey can glean across however many visits, seemingly unaware that what strikesthem as salient has little relation to their readership’s range of values andperspectives. They are content to offer the best review they can, to funneltheir personal opinion through the media megaphone, and to play their part indeciding an establishment’s fate as little more than an overgrown (andaltogether uglier) social media influencer.
This is all readily apparent when reading any food writer’s personalTwitter or Instagram page. There is no pretense of objectivity—just personalbranding, just “selling yourself” rather than eradicating the ego as a means ofstriking at varied, essential, and eternal truths. Any expertise these writerswield comes merely from having “earned” their position, from wrapping themselvesin whatever masthead they fall under that year. The only stories they tell, atthe end of the day, are their own. And the majority of readers, for what it’sworth, follow these critics merely as a means to see star ratings and foodporn. Food writers are derelict in their duty to educate consumers, and they donot even do a good job of championing naked pleasure when it appears. Rather,working backwards, they judge the restaurants they review against theirpersonal value system and spit out a snarky soliloquy sure to please the powersat be. Because it is not important that restaurant criticism be accurate or informativeso long as the deaf and dumb public get the message that a certain restaurantis “good” and another is “bad” and that all the writer’s friends and thepublication’s business partners and interests are well-served by thedeclaration.
What this all amounts to—to get back to the point of this very essay—isyour discovery that contemporary food media has more to do with “hyperreality”than reality itself. Hyperreality, as a term, finds its intellectual roots inthe writings of Jean Baudrillard, Marshall McLuhan, and Umberto Eco. But youwill attempt to bring it down to earth.
Hyperreality, in its essential form, is a symbolized representation ofreality that becomes so convincing, so pervasive, that it substitutes for (andreplaces) any sense of the original, genuine, grounded reality. For example, aLouis Vuitton handbag—while ostensibly a physical product that has been handcraftedby artisans—has taken on a life as a status symbol that far transcends anysense of functionality. Consumers pay little attention to the reality of theproduct: the quality of the leather, the bag’s construction, the feel andmovement 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 associationwith the many models and celebrities who attach themselves to the brand.
A century ago, Louis Vuitton’s value stemmed from the quality anddurability (relative to its competitors) of items like trunks. Today, thecompany’s products share a certain price point with other luxury fashionbrands. They are but one “flavor” among a range of options distinguished only bytheir outward appearance. The modern mass consumer, lacking any aestheticgrounding 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 wrapthemselves in the image of the “Louis Vuitton customer,” a shared delusion thatonly 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, aestheticjudgment first be filtered through a recognition of the item’s cost andsupposed “status.”
One more example might be illustrative, and it is often cited intreatments of the hyperreality concept. Disneyland and Disney World, with theirrange of parks and pavilions, build environments that engage the popularimagination. “Main Street, U.S.A.,” the familiar promenade that welcomesvisitors into the park, is modeled after the countless main streets that definetowns and cities across America. While each of these authentic mainstreets—spread throughout the country—offer a different range of storefrontsand services, Disney’s “Main Street, U.S.A.” condenses the best features of allthe real-world examples into a comprehensive, fictional representation of the “whole.”Each individual main street throughout the country—every one of them the distinctproduct of a set people in a set place—is overshadowed by the conglomeratedcardboard cutout version. By bringing each and every symbol of America’s manymain 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 inthe United States. In its convincing comprehensiveness, the symbolized mainstreet strikes visitors as “real” and, thus, becomes “realer” than any exampleof the real thing: a hyperreality.
Restaurant critics, lacking any real expertise and derelict in theirduty to educate their audience, engage far more with the hyperreality of agiven establishment than the genuine customer experience. Writing through apersonal lens—blinded by biases and egos they are unlikely to ever question (letalone shed)—these writers present individual experience as gospel. They takeone or two or three nights’ observation, a snapshot of some seasonal dishes, afew throwaway quotes from the staff, and a tie a ribbon around the resultantpromotional package before sending it on to be published. Such a writer thinksthey represent their readership, but do they ever dine with anyone other thantheir significant other, their industry pals, or themself?
In truth, they loathe large segments of their community. They areconfounded 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” diningtraditions and help usher in a diverse, decolonized, equitable, humane,intersectional, and queer restaurant scene. In short, their calling is to injectpetty personal politics into something beautiful, eternal, and transcendent.Their aim is to wield restaurants as just another cultural weapon to be trainedon those “intolerant” souls who dare disagree with their designs for society. Restaurantcriticism, for these writers, is but one more insidious method of disseminatingtheir propaganda. Talking about food is merely the means to the desired endresult 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 ispalpable? Just serve them the same old shit, and make sure they waste theirmoney at the right™ places.
From this faulty foundation, hyperreality is destined to obscure anysense of the “authentic” restaurant. The establishment’s location, to startwith, is destined to become either a symbol of “gentrification” (if it takes achance on a neglected neighborhood) or some noble “invasion” (of foreignflavors against the austere American food of yore). The chef, it is nosurprise, 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” chefcooking (subverting, deconstructing) “white” food, then all the better! But ifyou are a “white” chef cooking “white” food then you had better watch yourback! “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 topplingpower structures?” they think to themselves. “To simply cook the food one likesand 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 theword “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 anytime 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 toengage in a deep technical analysis of the restaurant’s cuisine. In truth, boththe print and digital models have done all they can to condense criticism tosuch an extent as to make such analysis impossible. Instead, the dishes that photographbest 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 itscombination 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 readermay ask?)
Of course, the ingredients themselves do not get ignored. They are sprinkledthroughout the prose as so much filler, particularly those exotic items writtenin foreign tongues. Their flourish, wielded by the writer, convinces theaudience of their bonafides. But their presence is only ornamental: show andawe for the uneducated masses. The real dynamite, so to speak, that engages inthe deepest hyperreality are those coveted “luxury ingredients.” Truffles, foiegras, abalone, caviar, jamón ibérico, uni, otoro, wagyu beef, and the like meanlittle to the reader. Perhaps they can imagine that truffles have a mild earthyflavor and enveloping aroma, that the beef is distinguished by a certain leveland style of marbling. But can these sensations be adequately imparted in animpotent little review? Can the romance, the magic of nature’s crown jewels besincerely celebrated by critics who, at core, detest the tradition with whichthey have been cultivated and the high prices they command? No, they simplyform 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 wishesto underline the consequence of their high rating need only trot out obliquereferences to these decadent totems. The reader, though never educated in justwhy these ingredients are special, are sure to know they are expensive. Theynod their heads and think “wow!” without exactly knowing what they’re cravingor why.
You do not mean to undermine the legitimate value these “luxuryingredients” sometimes offer. Rather, in the face of a truly fine restaurant thatuses them well, the food critic will find themself cowed. How do they describethe intricacy of a beauty that will never tug their heartstrings (because theyview their profession through the eyes of a partisan hack)? Likewise, in theface of those detestable tasting menus driven more by vanity than quality, thecritic lacks the wherewithal to pick apart the improper, lazy use of preciousingredients. You see, the food writer is just along for the ride, and the haplessreader will never know he or she was wrong until they’ve taken the plunge tothe tune of a couple hundred dollars. The food writer draws on superficial,symbolic language that only serves to confirm preconceived notions about finedining rather than dig deeply into the soul of each restaurant. Becauseexpertise is harder, educating the consumer is harder, and itall—ultimately—stands in the way and is altogether unrelated to the publication’sideological goals.
As you mentioned earlier in this essay, the details really do notmatter. Readers fasten onto the star rating, the picture of the chef, thepictures of the food, and then—perhaps—skim the content for those juicy nuggetsof exposition. Those being the segments that indulge the audience’s lust for food(albeit of the less arousing “erotica” variety relative to the full-colorpinups) or for schadenfreude. You see, plenty of readers loathe the very notionof 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 withtweezers 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 toopen fire! Readers love seeing stinging takedowns of pretentious tyrants (nevermind 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 agastronomic gallows. For a favored restaurant, context and intention matterwith regards to the execution of the food. Any excuse will be made to smoothover the right™ chef’s rough edges. If you find yourself in possession of thewrong identity, however, it is best to batten down the hatches. Good food won’tsave you from the fangs of a fart-sniffing food critic with an ideological axeto grind. Because “food is political,” don’t cha know? And flavor, like allthat is true and beautiful in this world, must be sacrificed before the altarof social justice, if not bent to its very will.
All this amounts to a sort of deaf and dumb language that food writersuse in their communication with the public. “Diversity = good, gentrification =bad,” they seem to say, advancing what appears to be ethical, open-minded artcriticism from a priori political assumptions. But any author, surely,deserves to advocate for their vision of a better world, to use the microphonethey have been granted in pursuit of a higher cause. You will not deny that, butyou must question the use of food criticism, of judging a small business and anassemblage of employees, as a means towards an ideological end. If a givenauthor is honest about their personal values and embeds them within awell-defined system of aesthetic judgment, they can ethically indulge inpolitical advocacy knowing that the public perceives whom they are and wherethey stand and can read between the lines for whatever information may bevaluable to them. In such a case, they form a valuable reference point—likeParker—which one may orient themself against during the course of the critic’scareer.
However, to subversively put one’s political concerns front andcenter—obscured by the allure of photographs and star ratings—is to trade awayany chance at a comprehensive, carefully considered review in exchange forhackery. The writer, sure in the sanctity of their personal beliefs, feels noneed 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 comfortablefitting establishments into that existing schema. No need to probe more deeplyor weigh multiple perspectives. From that point on, it’s all gravy. Decide onyour rating and strike the audience with a deluge of buzzwords. Trade in theshallowest symbols of “fine” food (those sacred luxury ingredients divorcedfrom any sense of value). “Caviar” served at the right™ restaurant is a giftfrom god! “Caviar” served at the wrong one is an obnoxious expression of wealthand privilege. That’s the game! No technical analysis needed. No nitty grittydetails necessary. Eat here because we say so, and don’t ask why! It’s not likewe have the time or talent to engage with the reality of a living, breathingrestaurant. 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 canshow you possess the sort of “taste” that is necessary to get ahead.
Restaurants deserve deeper analysis because, to you, they are notmerely assembly lines. The deepest joy a meal may yield comes not from a seriesof pleasurable sensations or an assemblage of conspicuous consumptive snapshotson Instagram. Restaurants do not trade in food, but hospitality (of which foodforms but one restorative tool). Some chefs trade in the satisfaction of nakedpleasure; others have stories to tell—of people, places, and moments intime—that transcend typical ideas of satiation.
The role of the food writer is one of excavation, of discovering thetruest, most authentic expression a restaurant may impart relative to any otherplace on Earth. That demands the writer humbly bring their genuine self to thetable: the vulnerable, submissive self. When these writers act as marketingmouthpieces, self-branding influencers, or political advocates, they abdicatetheir duty altogether. They close off any path towards understanding the personalitiesand passions that lend a mere dining room its soul. They choose to live in ahyperreal world where a restaurant is just another pin on a map, another entryin a guidebook.
Reviewing restaurants with respect to “reality” rather than “hyperreality”means enveloping oneself in the insecurities of an audience that has little tono experience with “fine dining.” It means preserving the magic, educating theconsumer when necessary, but never letting one’s cynicism infect the experience(let alone the political axes one has to grind). A critic should challengetheir reader without ever blowing smoke up their ass. Everyone can taste whenpleasure has arrived, and it rarely demands one contort themself to meet it.
When a dinner is more “experience” than “meal,” a restaurant criticshould say so. Rather than rely on hyperreal symbolism to carry the day,confide that the food is experimental, it may not satisfy everyone (hell, itmay 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 inpleasure. Dear critics, do not lead them astray for the sake of satisfying yourpersonal proclivities. Your tongue may lie, but your readers’ won’t. Step intotheir shoes, as many shoes as possible. More importantly, recognize that yourown shoes are filled with rocks, sand, and the stink of a lifetime spentkissing ass to climb the journalistic ladder. You are an instrument, not aninfluencer. Your only worth comes from securing the same experience for youraudience 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 tofeel like a scam to nearly anyone).
It is, at heart, a noble task that can only be accomplished on theground, in reality. Hyperreality is the domain of diners who only care to visitan establishment for the “clout” in the first place. Yes, riches await thosewho police food culture in line with what the “powers that be” desire. One can evenmake a tidy career out of dining on their publisher’s dime. But do not foolyourself into thinking you are a critic invested in the advancement of Americangastronomy 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 ofthe greatest number of diners. It is the restaurant that unites, delights, andinspires the widest range of people. Such transcendence has nothing to do with pettypersonal politics, market research, or social media trends. Shallow symbolismsuffocates any sense of the genuine experience, priming and leading consumersaway from forming a personal impression. Because dining, in its essence, is themost personal of all art forms—a dance between server and served. A critic’srole is to help each one of us align our rhythm to that of the restaurant sothat we might revel in the catharsis of a couple hours’ repose. This is therealest pleasure in life.