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Food Writers and Experts on the Spectacles and Disasters of 2013

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Illustration: Eric Lebofsky

Today in Eater's ongoing series of survey questions to close out the year, it's time to analyze exactly where the food world went astray in 2013. About 30 industry experts, seasoned diners, and friends of the site address the spectacles and disasters that amused or disgusted them the most over the course of the year.

As should surprise no one, Paula Deen's many scandals are at the top of the list, as are the Time magazine "Gods of Food" issue and the unceasing mania of a pastry named Cronut. But these writers are also fed up with everything from Michelin hijinks in Hong Kong to the state of the meat industry. Sad disasters include this year's loss of acclaimed chefs such as Charlie Trotter. And still some respondents look on the bright side, applauding positive spectacles such as Roy Choi's MAD speech challenging chefs to do more about hunger. Here's the full list:


Greg Morabito, Editor of Eater NY:

The Great GoogaMooga was a shitshow of the highest order. The vendors did an amazing job. There was some delicious food served by people working their butts off. But something went awry on the organizational end.

Adrian Moore, Paris-based food writer and Mandarin Oriental concierge:

Luckily, us here across the Atlantic have been shielded (thus far) from nonsensical and palate-sickening creations such as the Cronut and ramen burgers, but this hasn't stopped the proliferation of comfort food in the City of Light.

Don't get me wrong, the spread of comfort food and Anglo-style casual good eateries has been one of the highlights of the year (Frenchie to Go and Bar a Vin, Freddie's Deli, and Chez Aline are places doing it well and with flair), but there has been a deluge of copycats and hangers-on muddying the waters and confusing impressionable diners. These places offer up inferior lobster rolls (Lobster Bar), and gut-busting burgers at inflated prices, yet the Parisian bobo foodie crowd are lapping it up. Then again, the French very recently had an unexplainable and collective orgasm when Burger King just reopened after a decade, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised at their lack of taste.

Marie-Claude Lortie, Columnist at La Presse:

Natural wines were often just too natural for me: too cloudy, too orange, too fizzy, and especially too acidic. Also, I had a hard time with some austere Nordic desserts like seaweed ice cream. They made me call home crying for maple syrup!

Charlotte Druckman, Senior Editor at Medium and Skirt Steak author:

Can we celebrate something POSITIVE here? If so, I'd like to give an award to Cherry Bombe for launching. So much more productive than dwelling on say, the mega-disaster that was the "Gods of Food" issue of Time, or bemoaning the tragic SNAP cuts (what's done is done; we need to forge ahead and look for new solutions). And, in terms of losses suffered, I'd like to take a moment for Judy Rodgers, Charlie Trotter, and John Egerton.

Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker:

Bloomberg's last act in office should be to ban hybrid pastries, with a grandfather clause, perhaps, for City Bakery's pretzel croissant.

Janice Leung Hayes, blogger behind e_ting in Hong Kong:

Bo Innovation in Hong Kong getting three Michelin stars — a sudden bump up from one, when the executive chef, Alvin Leung, is hardly in town, and the food is disastrous. The Hong Kong (& Macau) Michelin guide in general is full of consistencies. Where else in the world do stars get given or taken away as suddenly as a flick of a switch? Where else in the world can a dingy, cheap dim sum restaurant be awarded a star and not a Bib Gourmand? There are clearly other factors at play here, and it's about time someone started investigating.

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Paula Deen. [Photo: Eric Sauseda]

Andrew Zimmern, Host of Bizarre Foods:

Spectacle of the Year is the same as Disaster of the Year... It's a runaway in both categories. Paula Deen gets the Icarus Award from me, for sure…not even close. She flew too high for too long with the wrong equipment. Here is a woman who was one of the most popular personalities and influential culinarians of the last decade (like it or not) and she is completely neutered and irrelevant in the blink of an eye. At times this story was amusing, and many plated it up that way in the press. The Today show unravelings were particularly ripe for comedic effect, but the reality is that the Empress had no clothes. It was like the final moments of the Wizard of Oz, Paula was shown to be what she was, and the view from here was very sad.

Alyssa Shelasky, Writer and Author of Apron Anxiety:

Like Anthony Bourdain, I am always and forever #TeamNigella.

Elizabeth Auerbach, food writer and blogger behind ElizabethOnFood:

Spectacle: The presentation of the world's first test-tube burger, even if all that most of us remember now is Sergey Brin's Google Glass.

Disaster: All Twitter/Facebook meltdowns, but Amy's Baking Company in particular.

Ari Bendersky, Director of Content/Editor-in-Chief of AbesMarket.com:

I wouldn't call this either amusing or disgusting [as stated in the survey question], but more shocking than anything else. 2013 was the year we lost one of the greats: Charlie Trotter. Earlier in the year, we saw him unravel in front of the cameras following a disastrous story involving high school students setting up for an art show in his shuttered restaurant in Lincoln Park. He looked disheveled and came off as somewhat maniacal. Then Trotter disappeared, seemingly getting ready to either travel the world with his wife or head back to school, which he said was his plan after closing his namesake restaurant on December 31, 2012. Next we heard about Trotter was that he had died and that sent shockwaves throughout the entire culinary community. He was only 54 and so many people had hoped for him to make a roaring comeback. Sadly when he passed on November 5, we knew an era had truly passed. Trotter influenced so many incredible chefs who passed through his kitchen: Grant Achatz, Giuseppe Tentori, Bill Kim, Matthias Merges and countless others. He may have come off as a tyrant, but when I met and got to know Trotter a little bit in the summer of 2012, I saw a softer, kinder, funnier side of him than most of the public saw.

Kat Odell, Editor of Eater LA:

Ramen burger lines and Cronut knockoffs. Proliferation of juiceries across Los Angeles.

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A real Cronut. [Photo: Raphael Brion/Eater.com]

Peter Meehan of Lucky Peach:

The Cronut thing was weird, right? Do you think people went apeshit like that when Dunkin Donuts introduced the Boston creme?

Sharlee Gibb, Melbourne-based writer and restaurant expert:

Los Angeles food truck guru Roy Choi created a spectacle for all the right reasons at his MAD presentation in Copenhagen this year, challenging the chef audience for ignoring global hunger issues. You can watch his talk here: MAD | Roy Choi.

What a disaster the Gods of Food Time cover was and the ensuing debate over why no goddesses were included. Seriously, what were they thinking… or perhaps a stroke of PR genius? It would have to be one of the most talked about magazine covers this year. Maybe they should have titled it, "Rockstars of Food."

Ben Leventhal, Eater Co-Founder:

Oof, Paula Deen.

Robbie Swinnerton, Japan Times restaurant reviewer and Tokyo Food File blogger:

It wasn't just the foodies: all of Japan was thrilled that the nation's traditional cuisine, washoku, was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible World Heritage.

Most were equally dismayed by the ongoing revelations of menu fraud (mostly substituting cheaper ingredients for high-end brand-name food products) — especially at hotels with names that were formerly trusted.

Helen Rosner, Executive Digital Editor of Saveur:

Was there anything that was more of a thing than Cronuts? They're delicious, but no food on earth is worth that much time spent in line. The real tragedy is that Dominique Ansel — a brilliant, brilliant guy with pastry, an utter genius — has become famous for an overly fetishized, fall-of-Rome frankenfood, instead of any of the dozens of other wondrous things that come out of his kitchen. To be fair, it's entirely possible that this is the first time the national food conversation has been so powerfully dictated by a small-business chef-driven single foodstuff, rather than some focus-grouped corporate whatever, or a Food Network sock puppet, but I'm worried it's creating a perverse incentive for up-and-coming cooks to come up with a one-shot dish that'll make them famous through shock value alone, rather than cultivating their talent in a broader, more sustainable, less short-attention-span kind of way.

Alexandra Forbes, Food Writer and Columnist of Folha de São Paulo:

The greatest spectacle has been the transformation of chefs into mega-celebrities, as famous as Hollywood actors. Three of the top ones were even referred to as gods on a Time cover, and many have kicked off world tours at huge venues to promote their expensive cookbooks.

The greatest disaster is that there has been little or no improvement in polluting and badly managed fish and shrimp farming. The yards where young men work nearly as slaves to produce the toxic stuff sold cheap at Western supermarkets being one of many examples.

James Casey, Founder of Swallow Magazine:

The CronutTM was pretty annoying. Ditto for the controversy over Time's food issue. While it was a massive blot of idiocy on the part of whoever put together such a stupid package, it also brought out all the usual suspects who thrive off this sort of manufactured outrage.

Mike Thelin, Feast Portland Co-Organizer:

The contrarian and aging hipster in me wanted to dislike the Cronut. That said, I ate a Cronut and found it pretty damn delicious. It's clever, reflective of good technique, and was created by a very talented baker, one who will send his kids to college on that recipe. That said, many of the hybrid food concoctions that followed — ramen burgers, etc. — were mostly pretty much shit.

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The woman-free Gods of Food family tree in Time magazine. [Photo: Time]

Kerry Diamond, Editor of Cherry Bombe:

Time Magazine's "Gods of Food" debacle was the disaster of the year for me. Embarrassing headline, embarrassing omissions, embarrassing tone-deaf interview by the editor behind the whole thing, Howard Chua-Eoan. I know a lot of people got fired up, but the entire episode made me sad. It was such a slap in the face to the women in this industry who deserve more recognition. I'm still surprised how many influential people stayed silent throughout the controversy, yet they manage to Tweet regularly about the dumbest stuff. (You know who you are.)

The Gurgling Cod:

John Mariani's trip to Greenville, SC — it was like a publicist working for a single restaurant group roofied Mariani and then led him around to a bunch of boring restos in a subpar dining town, even for its size. And then he wrote it up for an actual magazine.

Kat Kinsman, Managing Editor of CNN Eatocracy:

The two worst meals I had this year were not in NYC, and were from celebrity chefs who probably hadn't darkened the doors of the establishments bearing their names since they'd signed the endorsement contracts and sped away in an armored Brinks truck. Fellas, if your name and giant portrait dominate the entryway, but you're not keeping on what hits the tables, you deserve to be judged for your dopiest flatbreads and most broken bordelaise.

And Paula, Paula, Paula...consider taking Michael W. Twitty up on his offer of a reconciliation talk. Take a history class. Use your kasquillon dollars to underwrite cookbooks or otherwise promote the profiles of the African-American cooks whose culinary legacy you leaned on. Do better, or just fade away — we can't conscience an in-between.

Adam Roberts, Amateur Gourmet blogger and cookbook author:

Everything Nigella. From that terrible scene in the restaurant with her husband to revelations of drug use, these are things I don't want to read about my favorite, hyper-articulate British TV chef. Make it go away.

Amy McKeever, Features Editor of Eater National:

I was especially glad to be on vacation at the apex of Paula Deen's latest scandal this summer. The Time family tree was obviously a disaster, but I was actually heartened to see that the response to it was such a unified expression of WTF. (If you ignore the comments section, at least.) Because women are truly everywhere in this industry, and it's just weird not to see that.

Kyle Nabilcy, Isthmus food writer:

I'm not sure where the much-fretted-over presumed sriracha shortage falls on the "spectacle -> disaster" spectrum, but I am A) unconvinced that it'll be that big of a national problem, and B) not too worried either way. With a little Indonesian heritage in my background, I'm a sambal oelek man anyway. Legitimately more disastrous were the twin genderfails of Bon Appetit ("Dudes Grilling Things") and Time ("The Gods of Food"). Try harder, patriarchy.

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Gwynnett St., Brooklyn. [Photo: Facebook]

Ryan Sutton, Bloomberg News Restaurant Critic:

Gwynnett St. I'll leave others to report and comment on the allegations. But what I'll say is this: those allegations led to the very quick and very public downfall of one of Brooklyn's best restaurants. These guys were serving $120 wine-paired tasting menus down the street from a dollar store. They could have opened a PBR bar, selling artisanal Buffalo wings and Benton's Bacon banh mi sandwiches with fiddlehead fern pesto, and they could have made tons of money doing so. But instead, they sold envelope-pushing, vegetable-heavy fare. They whittled "tofu" out of pistachios. They paired haricots verts with paprika streusel (i.e. homemade bacos!) They were doing the "vegetables seasoned with meat thing" long before it became cool to do so on the East Coast. And, judging by my visits to the packed dining room in late 2012, Gwynnett St showed that you could serve challenging food in a neighborhood that wasn't used to challenging food and you could still attract a crowd by doing so. But now, Gwynnett has lost its chef. And the future is unclear. Sure, it might survive just as Isa did after Ignacio Mattos left, but it won't be the same. In a city serving so much of the same on every street corner, the fall of a restaurant with such a distinct point of view is simply tragic. I only hope Owen Clark lands on his feet and that Carl McCoy finds a way to keep Gwynnett St unique.

Kate Krader, Food & Wine Restaurant Editor:

Here are the words I don't need to hear ever again: Cronuts. Fake cronuts. Ramen burger. Sriracha. Anything to do with Nigella.

As a big Danny Bowien fan, I'm bummed about the abrupt closing of Mission Chinese Food in NYC. Thankful for Mission Cantina.

Adam Goldberg, blogger behind A Life Worth Eating:

Proteins continue to step aside as vegetables take the spotlight. But vegetable-focused dishes are more challenging and need to be developed from the ground up. One of my best and one of my worst meals of 2013 happened at the same restaurant: Per Se. The vegetable tasting priced the same as the regular menu was chaotic. Most of the dishes felt like the protein had simply been removed from the regular version? they left us feeling simultaneously stuffed and unsatisfied. On the other hand, at the Bollinger Champagne dinner a few months later, the standard menu was served in an abbreviated, more concise form, and it was out of this world.

Bonjwing Lee, photographer and blogger behind the Ulterior Epicure:

The Cronut craze was a pretty revealing, and quite frankly, frightening look at the ugly state of our food media and consumers. I can't think of another spectacle from 2013 that so accurately captured the mindless, lemming-like mentality of consumers nowadays, and the media's eagerness to lead them off the cliff of reason. Monsieur Ansel, I respect your work, your talent, and your pastries, but your Cronut has created a monster.

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

The whole meat industry is a disaster, from the way animals are reared, what they are fed, to how they are slaughtered. In Europe, the horse meat scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. The Kansas City Star's yearlong investigation and report "Beef's raw edges" is an incredible piece of real journalism, so rare nowadays. Should be read by everybody.

· All Year in Eater 2013 Coverage [-E-]

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