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It wasn’t until Ruth Reichl stopped enjoying dressing up as characters did she retire from her gig as food critic at the The New York Times and start editing Gourmet—may it rest in peace. She joyfully wrote about her wigs and make up in Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, in fact, I’d declare that half the book detailed wardrobe and half the book described food. That is how much anonymity mattered in food reviewing.
Most recently, however, veteran Los Angeles Timescritic S. Irene Virbila was thrown out of a restaurant, but not before a manager could snap her picture and let it fly across the Internet. The restaurant’s defense: “Irene is not the person any of us wanted reviewing our restaurant.”
Like the weather, the anonymity questions seems to be heading East. Last week during the The Washington Post food critic’s weekly online chat, Ask Tom, a chatter brought up spotting Tom Sietsema while dining.
Q. MCLEAN, VA: I saw you at a restaurant recently and the owner (an important culinary figure in DC with tons of restaurants to his name) obviously knew who you were and chatted you up. Is that a worrisome situation in terms of your anonymity? Os [Or] is it just impossible to expect perfect anonymity?
A.: TOM SIETSEMA: Is this the same restaurant where the manager said LOUDLY to everyone at the bar that I was in the house? Grrr. (A friend of mine was drinking at said bar. Thanks, Will. )
I’ve been covering the local scene for more than a decade now. It’s very hard to dine out at Big Deal Places without someone on staff recognizing me. I don’t like it, but what can I do?
Being recognized simply requires me to focus even more on how others in the restaurant are being treated. Keep in mind, I visit places multiple times and I sometimes manage not to be noticed at least once, or mid-meal, or whatever.
But one chatter wouldn’t let Sietsema get away with that answer.
Q. NOLO, DC: …Uh, quit and let someone else do the job? That’s a glib and fairly (but not entirely) tongue in cheek answer. You’ve been getting this question more and more often, and you consistently respond that there’s nothing you can do about it. And that’s simply not true.
A.: TOM SIETSEMA: Happy Wednesday to you, too, friend!
Well, yeah, I could quit, but I’m not ready to do so. Also, I think the question I’m getting from (a few) folks here is more about how anonymity (or the lack of it) influences how I do my job.
Sietsema keeps his reply short here, not delving into a bigger question: Must a critic remain anonymous to accurately review restaurants?
Food magazine Saveur (how to pronounce) recently announced it would start reviewing restaurants both in the United States and abroad. The magazine refuses to hire one person and instead will enlist a roster of well-known food writers to review, not critique, favorite restaurants. Eater asked editor-in-chief James Oseland how such “recognizable” people could perform the job:
You know, it’s not 1975 anymore, and sure, a restaurant critic or reviewer can use a false name under which to make a reservation. But service is so finely-tuned in so much of fine dining — not only in America but the rest of the world — there are some pretty crack front-of-house people who can kind of do instantaneous Googling and researching and figuring out. I think those days of absolutely anonymous reviewing have maybe come to pass.
I’d have to agree with Oseland. Just because a critic (or blogger) walks in doesn’t automatically elevate the food. Sure, better service can be given to VIPs, but it’s not as if a whole new kitchen staff with superior ingredients will be magically in place when someone important walks in. A kitchen can only do so much. What’s more important, as Young & Hungry contributor Scott Reitz pointed out, is how a critic can “shape a diner’s perception, expectations, and, ultimately, their dining decisions.”
So for now, I’m still on Team Sietsema.