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Northern Virginia Magazine has been without an on-staff restaurant critic since Stefanie Gans departed in the fall after eight years on the job. The coveted and powerful role that helps dictate taste in the region has finally been filled, but not without a small serving of drama that nods at the struggles food critics face when trying to maintain anonymity in the age of social media.
Astute readers may have noticed that the new critic, who does double duty as the magazine’s dining editor, started out writing under the name Hunter Edison. On May 26, the magazine published an article titled “Hunter’s Latest Obsession: A Taste of Burma.” The bottom of the story reads, “For more of Dining Editor Hunter Edison’s top picks, subscribe to our weekly food newsletter.”
When you Google “Hunter Edison,” it returns listings for a “Hunter Lincoln Edison Style Led 52-In Matte Led Indoor Ceiling Fan With Light Kit” instead of links to articles previously written by a food journalist of that name.
Within the past 24 hours the magazine updated the story, without a note acknowledging the change. The headline now reads “Alice’s Latest Obsession: A Taste of Burma” and the call for newsletter subscribers names Alice Levitt as the magazine’s dining editor. City Paper snapped screenshots of the original story. See them below.
Several sources told City Paper this week that Northern Virginia Magazine was allowing its new food critic to write under a pseudonym. The other major food critics in the D.C. metropolitan area write under their real names, but Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema points out there is pen-name precedence. In 1980, Maureen Clancy started at the San Diego Union as the paper’s restaurant critic. She used the name Leslie James when writing her reviews.
“Writing under someone’s name creates this aura of mystery,” Sietsema says. “Is it a chef? Someone we know? An established writer? On the one hand it smacks as a gimmick, but it also allows a critic to be stealth in an era when it’s really difficult to write and eat under the radar.”
Finding a photo of Sietsema online, where he’s not wearing one of his infamous disguises, is practically impossible. “I’m lucky because I’m of a certain vintage and I’ve worked around the country and preceded Facebook,” he says. Levitt appears to be from a younger generation, which makes starting fresh and remaining anonymous more challenging. Moving from a public-facing job in the field of food journalism where you conduct interviews with chefs in person to the more covert critic role is tricky.
The ultimate goal of food critics and the publications they write for is to bring readers an accurate picture of what the food, service, and ambiance are like at a restaurant. If a critic is known to the owners or staff, they could experience a meal much different than the average diner who might have been saving up for months for a special occasion.
Restaurants are known to hide photos of food journalists at the host stand or in the kitchen. Some even include their dining preferences and quirks. Fiola Mare once had a policy where it offered staff members a reward of $500 for spotting a critic or big shot.
“Chefs can’t Google pictures of a critic if they don’t know who he or she is,” Sietsema continues. “But under a real name you know a critic’s bio and body of work, resume, and qualifications … In an era when media is being raked over the coals, it’s even more important to be as transparent as possible.”
Hanna Raskin, the food editor and chief food critic at The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina agrees. She also serves as the board president of the Association of Food Journalists, a professional organization dedicated to preserving and perpetuating responsible food journalism across media platforms. The organization’s page on ethics kicks off with a recommendation that “food journalists should write under their real names, and make their contact information available to the general public.”
“There is a long tradition of critics concealing their identities while dining at a restaurant under review, whether by wearing wigs, paying in cash, or making reservations in names other than their own,” Raskin tells City Paper in an email. “But that’s very different from writing under a pseudonym, which is a violation of the Association of Food Journalists ethics code and good journalistic practice. A cornerstone of responsible reporting is accountability to subjects and readers alike. In this case, restaurant owners and workers have a right to know who’s evaluating them—and how to get in touch with him or her for a phone conversation if they disagree with the published conclusions.”
Readers too have a vested interest in the basics about a critic’s background since it informs their work. Where did the critic grow up? Did they go to culinary school? Have they lived or traveled abroad? What cuisines are they well versed in and where are their knowledge gaps? Which city’s food scenes have they covered in the past? Knowing helps build trust.
This discussion is taking place in a new era of food criticism that’s somewhat less concerned with anonymity and more dialed into identity. Publications are increasingly hiring critics whose distinct points of view and backgrounds are reflected in their writing. They’re not only arbiters of taste in the communities they serve, they’re also shaping food culture and asking hard questions about authenticity and cultural appropriation. Consider Soleil Ho at the San Francisco Chronicle, described by the Washington Post as the “young, queer woman of color who wants to redefine food criticism.” Ho’s review of Le Colonial made an early splash.
“Being anonymous doesn’t mean being a cipher,” Raskin says. “As the AFJ ethics code says, the goal of anonymity is to avoid overshadowing the subject, not to foment confusion. At one time, it was considered cute for food writers to fabricate personas and silly names to go with them. But with public trust in media now so fragile, it’s essential for journalists to be transparent and truthful about their methods and their identities.”
After learning that Northern Virginia Magazine’s new critic was using a pseudonym, City Paper reached out to the magazine’s publisher, Sang Yang, to ask about the hire. “We are thrilled and proud to have Hunter on board as our Food Editor/Critic! We believe Hunter will become a very important resource to our readers,” he wrote. “As NoVA’s dining scene is constantly changing and expanding, we believe that she brings the experience and knowledge to represent our region’s cuisine fairly and with passion. You gotta love food in order to write about food!”
City Paper also asked for her biography. “Hunter Edison has written about food full-time since 2008,” Yang wrote. “She has been a dining editor and critic at publications around the country.”
Neither Yang nor Edison/Levitt responded to City Paper’s questions about the pseudonym.
After interviewing Raskin, City Paper circled back and shared her comments with Yang and Levitt/Edison, offering another opportunity to comment. Shortly after City Paper received an updated biography for Levitt.
Meet Northern Virginia Magazine’s new critic. City Paper looks forward to reading her dining coverage.
“Alice Levitt has extensive experience in food writing, which includes her role as dining editor and critic at Houstonia Magazine and seven years as senior food writer at Seven Days newspaper in Vermont. She also made weekly appearances as a food correspondent on WCAX-TV’s news magazine program “The :30.” She has contributed writing to Vox, The Art of Eating, Gastro Obscura, the Boston Globe, Tasting Table and Culture magazine. Alice’s laurels include an AltWeekly Award for Best Food Writing and Daysies for Best Print/Online Journalist in 2014 and 2015.”
The author of this story wrote for Northern Virginia Magazine in 2015.