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Food Writers and Experts on the Year's Untold Stories

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Illustration: Eric Lebofsky

Following discussions on the best meals and best dining cities of 2012, Eater's year-end survey series continues today with an exploration of the important stories that maybe didn't get enough — or any — press over the last twelve months. Here now, journalists, friends of the site, and seasoned diners from around the world talk about the issues they hope will get a little more love in the future. Major issues include food safety and labeling (Andrew Zimmern's choice), hunger in America (Charlotte Druckman), neighborhoods devastated by Sandy (Ryan Sutton), and the unsung heroes working in kitchens around the world (Per-Anders Jorgensen). The full results:

Andrew Zimmern, Host of Bizarre Foods:

Food safety and food labeling need more press and so many angles to this issue remain untold — the threat to our individual wellness and to the existing parts of our food production system that are working well is very real. Recently the food labeling issue has bubbled to the surface again because of the reports that markets and restaurants are mislabeling fish. Well, it happens all the time with meats, poultry, even bread! So many restaurants buy commercially prepared frozen par-baked breads and offer it as home-made. The product quality is sometimes good, but that's besides the point. It's the culture of deception that it reveals at every stage of your meal. Fakery and falsity sit front and center on so many restaurant menus these days that it's appalling.

Ryan Sutton, Bloomberg News Restaurant Critic:

I wish we saw more continued and mainstream coverage of how Sandy impacted restaurants in communities like Long Beach, East Atlantic Beach, Lido Beach and other towns on the South Shore of Long Island. In Long Beach, where I spend every weekend, some of our most important bars and restaurants, like Swingbelly's, remain shuttered nearly two months after the storm hit. This isn't a criticism of the media — we journalists have all been burning the midnight oil with Sandy coverage. It's just that there are so many stories to tell, and we all need to be especially attuned to those great neighborhood spots that don't have publicists or 10,000 Twitter followers. We need to tell those stories, too.

Ian Froeb, St. Louis Riverfront Times Critic:

It might have been the constant election-year back-and-forth of 'The economy is improving!' and 'No, it's not!', but I think we in the food media have undersold the recovery of the restaurant sector. In St. Louis, openings over the past year or so have vastly outnumbered closings — and some have been very ambitious openings, especially for a city that doesn't have the upscale-friendly demographic of NYC, Chicago, SF, etc. There are upscale, tasting-menu focused restaurants where dinner for two, with drinks, can run $200, $300, or more. In the six-plus years I've been reviewing restaurants in St. Louis, now is by far the most exciting time for new restaurants.

Matt Buchanan, BuzzFeed FWD Editor:

I wouldn't say it's untold — you've seen a lot of cocktail coverage in the media lately — but it certainly struck me how pervasive cocktails have become; they are everywhere, and I don't think that's been articulated exactly? Even moderately mediocre places now feel the need to have a mediocre cocktail program to complete the mediocre picture. There are upsides to this — I love cocktails, so being able to walk into solid places and know I can get a solid cocktail, which wasn't always true — and downsides — lots of shitty cocktails, everywhere. But worse than the shitty neon blue cocktails at TGI Friday's, people are tricked into thinking these are what actually good cocktails are supposed to be like.

And I never really want to stop beating the drum on the fact that 99.9999 percent of all restaurants serve horrible coffee. If I had my way, every restaurant review would very critically consider the coffee at restaurants where it is logical that people might drink coffee — at a dinner place, it's the last thing you drink and it's almost always awful. This can and should change, and it's somewhere critics could have an impact, I think.

Edmund Tijerina, San Antonio Express-News Restaurant Critic:

Austin deservedly gets a lot of press for its restaurants, but the story that needs more telling is the explosion of Houston's food scene.

Helen Rosner, Saveur Senior Web Editor:

Having wines and cocktails on tap got plenty of press for the sheer novelty value of seeing things that don't usually come out of spigots actually coming out of spigots (omg), but I think as a trend it's about something beyond the delivery mechanism: We're starting to treat wine and cocktails with less preciousness. It's less of an insider's club and more about the sheer pleasure of drinking things that taste good. It's okay to order a carafe of the house red, or to get a Fernet and coke from the bar gun. For a decade or more, the cool thing in drink culture has been over-intellectualization, trying to find meanings and measures and history in everything. That's not to say there aren't large swathes of the wine and booze world that don't merit that — but it's nice to see the return of what is basically the well drink, albeit a well drink pre-selected by a bartender or sommelier with very good taste.

Alyssa Shelasky, Grub Street NY contributor and Apron Anxiety Author:

Unsurprisingly, it seemed I was the only one obsessed with the chef in the "cock-cage."

Amber Ambrose, Writer and Former Editor of Eater Houston:

To steal from Mike Thelin's response to yesterday's topic: "upmarket everyman" concepts. Just one example from my city (Houston) is Underbelly (which actually got plenty of press), from chef Chris Shepherd. It's the go-to place for out of towners, celebrities, and food writers, as well as someone that lives just around the corner in the neighborhood. You'd be just as comfortable in jeans or shorts as you would a three-piece suit, and I feel like that's the vibe in a lot of independent restaurants opening up all around the country. Not sure if it's a result of younger chefs looking to bring in a broader audience, if a broader audience is demanding a more casual atmosphere, the sluggish economy or simply a trend, but the accessibility can only be a good thing. I'm a fan of jeans myself.

Mike Thelin, Feast PDX Festival Co-Organizer:

Not sure about more press, but the Guy Fieri review spectacle got too much attention. An entertaining read perhaps, but it's not like he opened up a restaurant in the West Village. He's in Times Square — just a few short blocks from Applebees and Chevy's — and across the street Olive Garden. What did people expect? Now I want to go so I can find out what Donkey Sauce tastes like. I should hurry.

Regina Schrambling, Food Writer:

Most days I feel as if all food stories are so over-covered they're smothered. I do believe no one is really connecting the global dots. What's happening in Europe thanks to the austerity measures instituted to keep the banks at bay is having ripple effects, for instance.

Sharlee Gibb, Melbourne Food & Wine Festival Organizer:

For Australia, it's the thoughtful use and inclusion of indigenous ingredients on the menus of top restaurants. Chefs are working with the local aboriginal communities to learn about the history and provenance of native ingredients. Ben Shewry at Attica has a wonderful dish on the menu at the moment (Flinders Island Wallaby, Bunya Pine, Ground Berry) that evokes the story of the animal and does away with the clichés of native Australian ingredients.

Adrian Moore, Mandarin Oriental Paris Concierge and Food Writer:

The Japanese undercurrent in French restaurants. Practically every Michelin-starred kitchen in Paris has Nippon stagiaires and a surprising number of new bistros d'auteur have popped up this year offering unique and exceptional cooking.

Ben Leventhal, Eater Co-Founder:

I think it was a really tough year for New York from the standpoint of creativity. The most exciting meals I had were far afield. After a stretch where too many guys got killed trying too many different things, Blanca and Atera notwithstanding, New York did what it does best: cook good and focus on atmosphere. Speaking of Atera, the other story, maybe, was that it was the rare year that out-of-market guys had some success in New York.

Per-Anders and Lotta Jorgensen, Editors of Fool Magazine:

Mainstream food media largely ignoring the environmental aspects when it comes to food and food production. The people that work so hard behind the big chefs deserve more credit and attention!

Kat Kinsman, CNN Eatocracy:

I owe it to myself in 2013 to pursue more stories about restaurant labor — lauding those who are treating their workers (at every level) ethically, and calling out those who are taking advantage of a group of workers in a vulnerable position.

I'd also love to commend chefs who are taking a risk and serving invasive species as an attempt to normalize that to diners. More of that in 2013, please.

Charlotte Druckman, WSJ writer and Skirt Steak author:

Every story that wasn't about 1) The Usual Suspects, 2) PDX, 3) Cocktails. What deserved more press? The rest.

Specifically, though, for those of us who do our job in NYC, 1) That ignored part of the food and restaurant industry that has been gutted by Hurricane Sandy — the businesses, owners and employees. 2) Hunger in this country. Obesity's one thing, and it's a problem. So is hunger. Not the same. 3) Agribusiness. Ew. Fracking. Also, ew. How hard it is to operate a small farm, and one that puts sustainability first. Not fair. 4) Pastry, the lost art, and those who practice it and are constantly challenging themselves to modernize and innovate in that area. 5) Oh, and, you know, women chefs. I'm not going to say they deserve more press; I'm going to say we owe them BETTER press than we've given them in the past.

The Gurgling Cod:

I think on some level, the idea of caring about what you eat, which seems to be pushing some folks into a kind of artisan food fatigue, has a positive effect on more lowbrow eating places, in that two fratty bars in the college town where I live have gotten more serious about food, and offer legitimate and well thought out specials that don't come off the Sysco truck. So, artisan/local trickledown in the boonies could use more press.

Robbie Swinnerton, Japan Times columnist and Tokyo Food File blogger:

After the disaster of 2011, the story is that Japan is very much back up and running. And as a side story, the outside world still needs to discover that there's great eating to be done outside of Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka.

Adam Goldberg, blogger behind A Life Worth Eating:

The San Francisco Bay Area is quietly becoming the country's most interesting dining destination. Young chefs like Josh Skenes are focusing on maximizing and intensifying flavor using fire and aging techniques instead of butter. Christopher Kostow is bringing the excitement back to California cuisine.

Katie Parla, food writer and Parla Food blogger:

The untold story of 2012 and many years before it is the agriculture emergency facing producers in Italy. Biodiversity is being crushed by globalization, convenience-driven consumers, agribusiness, and EU regulations. The decay of Italian food production (not just produce of course, but in other sectors, as well) isn't a new or popular story to tell but it needs attention.

Bonjwing Lee, photographer and blogger behind the Ulterior Epicure:

I'm certain that I don't have any intel that Eater doesn't have about the restaurant and food world in 2012, so I will only tell you that, in my heart of hearts, I wish that the untold story of 2012 was the secret desire among chefs to expire the 'nature as food' movement. I don't exclude the possibility that this form of cooking/presentation can be done well (in fact, I've had many good examples of it). But, I think there's far too much imitation without understanding (much like what was happening with the second, New World, wave of 'molecular gastronomy' a half decade ago). My primary objection to this style of cooking/presentation is the amount of manipulation involved. More often than not, the ingredients have been over-handled, compromising their integrity. In an age when chefs have access to some of the best-quality ingredients available in our modern times (and, get boastful and preachy about it), it confounds me why they would want to turn them into something else. I think a lot of people are missing the point on terroir; I'm more interested in tasting it than seeing it.

Also, I've noticed that the in-depth, almost academic, fascination with botany and horticulture in the culinary world is merging the food and beverage industry with other industries and disciplines, like fashion and design. That will be an interesting trend to watch.

James Casey, Swallow Magazine:

The tragedy that was the closure of the West Village's El Faro. Another glorious middling (read: pretense free) restaurant bites the dust.

· All Year in Eater 2012 Coverage [-E-]