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Why Restaurant Critics Just Don’t Get It

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An excerpt from ‘I Hear She’s a Real Bitch’

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Jen Agg
Jen Agg.
Jenna Marie Wakani

Everything about the restaurant business is made harder by being in it as a woman.

And speaking out about that only makes it worse. I might inherently know this, but I’m repulsed by the thought of staying quiet. It’s been a lifelong thing, this need for constant self-expression, and it comes with a prolific suspicion of authority. In this business, the media is the authority, and anyone who disagrees with that probably has enough media attention that they can afford to think something so ridiculous. But if the media is mostly controlled by a populist perspective, by the idea of giving the people what they want, and that perspective is, for the most part, happy with the status quo, how can we make a better industry? If the people like what they’re hearing and the content is in some way sellable, there isn’t much incentive to change, especially in a once booming media industry that now feels held together by duct tape and hope. Don’t forget how much power editors and writers have over what people want just by virtue of being the ones calling for the stories and doling them out to the public. When it’s a profile, it can be spun in any way the writer wants; once finished it’s out of the writer’s hands, and editors — whose main concern is keeping their medium afloat — have all the control, and they can editorialize and package a profile any way they see fit. Even straight-up reporting, which should be completely objective, isn’t always.

My feelings about critics, from bloggers to professional writers who are paid for their work, range from disdain to indifference, and then to thoughts of glorious cohabitation in a mutually beneficial house of words. The Hoof has, with a few exceptions, been a real hit with the critics, but even though I understand the economic value of a great review, as it was the unmistakable turning point for the Hoof’s quick ascension, it’s a fraught relationship, because most of the time, even if the critics get it, they don’t really get it. And how could they? They are writing about the restaurant, not living it.

The restaurateur-critic relationship is a dance of charm, impotence, and maximum exposure. I feel I’ve, at the very least, mastered the basic steps, if not a few complex lifts. I have personal relationships with a few prominent Toronto writers and count some as close friends. But I’ve always felt there’s an unspoken fraughtness that hangs over any potential for real friendship. Critics are afraid of having their objectivity impaired or called into question by this friendship, and restaurateurs are always a little smug about what critics actually understand about restaurants, since they often have never worked in the industry.

This brings up the question of whether that ought to be a requirement. Fresh-faced, new-restaurant-me absolutely thought, yes, critics should be embarrassed to write about a world they’ve never existed in. But, with some maturity, I realized I was approaching it all wrong. Critics aren’t necessarily writing to impress restaurant people. Although I’d argue that they secretly do want at least a bit of respect from the restaurant community, that a baseline of grudging admiration from chefs and owners is maybe essential to their success as critics, the fact is that they are actually writing for an audience that also has a limited understanding of the inner mechanisms of restaurants. And with that in mind, critics should be approaching dining as an educated “normal.” They should be dissecting the experience as a person who isn’t so jaded by restaurants that they’ve become hard to surprise. As much as I’d like to think it would be a fun job for me when I’m old, and I’m sure I’d come at it with a seriously insider perspective, I basically hate everything, and would be way too harsh.

There is great, benchmark food writing and criticism out there — M.F.K. Fisher, Jonathan Gold, Ruth Reichl, and A.A. Gill, to name a few. But there are plenty of writers whose work is so poor, so malformed that it is almost not worth mentioning. It’s most disappointing when these aren’t just bloggers but actual employed “writers” who get a salary. And as much as it’s enraging, it has plenty to do with the Internet and its constant need to feed on new content — it’s a baby bird, perpetually hungry, even for food that’s already chewed up — which I guess is a small price to pay for complete access to all the world’s information. I suppose I can stomach having to read one more “This season’s ten hottest vegetables” list if it also means I can look up literally anything I want to know and have an answer in seconds.

Journalism, like any field, is full of apathy: writers just phoning it in, writers who should have retired twenty years ago, writers writing about food trends (honestly, if I never see another prediction for the “top five hot food trends” it’ll be too soon). Though our need to eat for survival gives the subject of food a certain importance and urgency, there is a lot of writing about food that is hugely boring and inconsequential. There is no shortage of incompetent writers pitching terrible story ideas, or editors asking for them, particularly in food. It is rare that I read engaged food criticism — writing that elevates simple to beautiful, writing that’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, writing that asks hard questions and makes me think about my food choices — in any of our local or national papers. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t great food writing happening. There is, but it’s growing out of piles of useless muck.

If journalism wants to continue to be a real, respected thing, it had better plug the holes in the dam with strong, smart content because there are so many people saying so much stuff it’s easy to forget who’s getting paid and who isn’t. The bloggers are starting to break through the levees with a reckless, insatiable, unaccountable hunger. And that is not good for the future of paid writing.

….

I believe a great restaurant that connects with a lot of people can survive a scathing review, but Raw Bar didn’t survive [the Globe and Mail’s] nasty review, or itself. Turns out the reason so few fish and oyster restaurants exist away from oceans is because it’s really fucking expensive. The cost to keep it open was astronomical. And I was emotionally attached, while obviously realizing how stupid it is to be emotionally attached to a failing business. But for plenty of reasons, I was. It wasn’t just the aesthetic beauty I was hanging on to, or the fact that I loved the food and the concept and was concerned for the staff; it was undeniably somewhat based in ego, and that clouded my judgment. Hoof Raw Bar was the restaurant I opened right after buying [my old partner] out of the business, and it was partly because of that — I was desperate to succeed, to prove I could do it, on my own.


Adapted from I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg, published on September 12, 2017 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by The Black Hoof Inc. 2017 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by The Black Hoof Inc.

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