JK, not really going to write this as a listicle. But Marc Vetri — the really famous, really successful Philly chef, some of whose restaurants I have been to and enjoyed quite a lot — published a tirade today purporting to explain How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread. His point, basically, seems to be that listicles and buzz and hot-new-hotness coverage have supplanted traditional restaurant criticism and thoughtful food writing, and that it's turned writers into insane ego monsters who write for their own glory instead of for the benefit of the restaurant world.
So, my problem here is that he's wrong about all of those things.
We can knock the first thing out of the way pretty easily; it's the same anti-internet Andy Rooneyism that those of us who make our livings via this medium have been dealing with for ages. Yes, there are lots of listicles and there's lots of short-attention-span journalism. No, actually, that doesn't mean there's less stuff of quality being produced. In fact, there's more good stuff out there, more good writers, more thoughtful and nuanced opinions. There may be more noise, but there's also more signal. A decade or two ago, "food writer" wasn't a job more than a dozen people could claim. But thanks to the massive explosion of food as a cultural phenomenon, even media outlets who don't specialize in food coverage are investing in good, smart, rigorous writers to cover restaurants. And there's more and better restaurant reviews and feature-style food writing than ever before, under the banner of virtually every publication. (Just look at what's happening here at Eater: we have three full-time critics who are among the smartest humans on the planet! We're producing long-lead, long-form food journalism with some of the best writers out there!)
As for this idea that writers are no longer writing for the betterment of the restaurant world — this is a delicate thing to talk about. One of the things I love most about working in food is the camaraderie, the feeling that there's reward enough to go around, and that a rising tide lifts all boats. We food media folk cover chefs, we hang out with chefs, we're sometimes friends with chefs. But ultimately, we don't write for chefs. We write for our readers. This doesn't mean we go chasing traffic (if that were the case, the internet would be nothing but kitten-topped kale cupcakes); it means that if a restaurant is bad — or boring — or the chef is a jerk — or literally anything that deviates from the story the chef and his PR team have carefully crafted about him and his restaurant — we have an obligation to cover that.
When Eater's Ryan Sutton gave Per Se a two-star review, people — journalists, restaurant people, readers — came out of the woodwork to thank him for finally saying what everyone had been thinking. Think about that for a second. Everyone knew Per Se sucked, but no one had felt like they were allowed to say anything about it. That's absolutely insane. And that's exactly why restaurant critics don't write for the benefit of restaurants. The fear of tearing down the idols isn't a phenomenon unique to Per Se. Vetri ascribes a maliciousness to restaurant critics that verges on paranoid, citing their "continuing campaign to make the lives of chefs more miserable." But he's getting the angle wrong. Critics aren't trying to make chefs' lives worse. They're trying to make their readers' lives better. Their jobs are equal parts cultural anthropology — what is this restaurant? Where does it fit in? Why does it matter? — and reader service. They're our cultural ombudsmen, a reference point for where to spend our money and how to feel about it. You want to read the opinions of someone interested in promoting the restaurant industry? Read some of the dreck put out by a tourism board.
(He also seems not to understand that if all chefs already knew what critics looked like, and now critics are un-anonymizing themselves, literally nothing will change. If your kitchen couldn't produce impressive food when you knew exactly who it was you were cooking for, what makes you think anything will change now that your knowledge doesn't have to be a secret?)
Look, I understand Vetri's frustration here. He came of age as a chef before the internet came around and ruined everything. He was the crown jewel of the Philadelphia restaurant scene for a long time, and then the city underwent its recent culinary renaissance and he and his restaurants stopped being mentioned in every single story. (You think his jab at a hummus restaurant getting three stars sounds random? You haven't been paying attention to the rocket-like ascent of Philly's new golden boy, Mike Solomonov.) But a story railing against listicles (published in, ahem, the Huffington Post) isn't going to move the needle on anything. If Vetri wants to like journalists again — which is to say, he wants them writing about him, and he wants them writing nice things — all he's got to do is get out there and do something newsworthy.
A final note: The actually most infuriating thing for me about Vetri's screed is this line: "Is there any other form of journalism that continually rates things, judges them and then packages them up in a neat list?" Yeah, there is, it's the exact way men's magazines deal with women, and they've been doing it for a hell of a lot longer than the internet's been around. But I'll save that one for Eater Feminism.