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The Outing of the LA Times Food Critic: The Backlash Begins

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Noah Ellis of Red Medicine; S. Irene Virbila.
Noah Ellis of Red Medicine; S. Irene Virbila.
Photos: Michael Mina; Red Medicine

Here we go: Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila was outed by Noah Ellis of the Beverly Hills restaurant Red Medicine, and now everyone has something to say about it. Including Virbila herself! Get ready for some serious critic navel gazing:

Virbila Speaks
Virbila seems to think the impact of the unmasking will have little effect on her career, comparing the incident to outings of critics like Ruth Reichl and Sam Sifton. She told LA Weekly:

"Nothing remotely like my evening at Red Medicine has ever happened to me. Ruth Reichl was outed by Wine Spectator before she even got a desk at the New York Times. When Frank Bruni and Sam Sifton took over as critic at the New York Times, there was already a trove of photos easily accessible on the web. The Eater NY blog, though, couldn't resist adding to it when Sifton tweeted he was going to have lunch at KFC. They sent their people and he was stalked and photographed eating a Double Down Sandwich and taking notes. Ultimate effect? Zero."

The Los Angeles Times Talks to Michael Bauer, Stefan Richter
Staff writer Christopher Reynolds and assistant food editor Rene Lynch discuss the notion of restaurant critic anonymity, which Lynch was in favor of yesterday. Today they get others to weigh in: San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer rather vaguely calls the "whole scene...very stupid," and Santa Monica chef/former Top Chef contestant Stefan Richter says "I think people know who the critics are these days." Is anonymity a viable option anymore?

Robert Sietsema on the Sportsmanship of Reviewing
Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema says the incident shows Red Medicine's "uncertainty about the quality of their own food, and also a general refusal on their part to 'play the game,' and accept whatever licks are in store for them." He does, however, admit to not "knowing all the details of her career" which Ellis claims has "caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs."

The Wrath of Yelp
Sietsema also predicts blogger/Yelp backlash against the restaurant for their actions. Are the amateur critics on the same side as the professionals, though? It seems that the answer is a resounding yes: Red Medicine's Yelp page is full of vitriol, with one review vowing "Red Medicine is getting a taste of its own medicine — the wrath of Yelpers." There are a few five star reviews seeking to balance the average, but by and large the reviews are full of rage and, of course, one-star.

The Peanut Gallery Weighs in on Legality
Eater commenter rileymc thinks Virbila may have a legal case, if her career is affected: "It also seems to me that publishing the photo without permission may result in loss of income and adversely impact her future career. If so, there are grounds for a civil suit for damages and possibly defamation."

Who Will Write the Red Medicine Review?
The accuracy of the Times review, which food editor Russ Parsons says is still coming, remains to be seen. Parsons says there's still a chance Virbila herself will write the review and jokingly says, "We may dress her up in a clown uniform...or enlist one of [former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl's makeup artists." Can Virbila give an unbiased review after all of this fuss?

We're Not Done Yet!
It should be noted that the timing of this story breaking right before the holidays has probably hindered the media's response time. Will we see infinitely more analysis come Monday? You can bet on it.

· Food Critic Outed and Ousted From Restaurant [LAT]
· Out, Damned Food Critic! The Case of the 'L.A. Times' [Slashfood]
· Unmasked LA Times Critic Virbila Responds to Red Medicine Fracas [LA Weekly]
· All S. Irene Virbila Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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