When you sit down for a meal at a restaurant, itself a privileged act, of course, unless one accepts the premise that it’s not colonialism to use one’s undeserved earnings to enjoy a decent meal, would you like to know that it’s worth the price? Then you’re going to have an issue with the nextgen food critics.
2018 was a year of tectonic shifts in restaurant writing. Both the critic and the criteria came under scrutiny. The #MeToo scandals sparked a national reexamination of the field’s food-first values. Media outlets across the country debated how to cover restaurants owned by Mario Batali, John Besh, Paul Qui, and other alleged abusers.
Eater: “Maybe Don’t Review Restaurants Run by Bad People?”
Philadelphia Inquirer: “It’s Not My Job to Pass Judgment on a Chef’s Character.”
In the middle of this headline battle, across an eight-day span in July, revered Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold died and San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer announced his retirement. These events triggered a full-on succession crisis in West Coast criticism.
On the one hand, you were there to have a meal. On the other, how can you eat food from the kitchen of a rapist? Would you buy a painting by Hitler? Okay, bad example, but if you have to give your money to a restaurant, wouldn’t it be better if the chef weren’t a “bad person”?
Fast forward five months, and three young female critics of color had started new positions at major newspapers: Patricia Escárcega succeeded Gold at the Los Angeles Times, Soleil Ho joined the Chronicle, and Tejal Rao became the first-ever California Restaurant Critic at The New York Times — prompting a wave of “next generation” headlines before they’d even published a word.
The sheer pace of change was staggering. On April 1, 2018, Michael Bauer wrote in the Chronicle, “As a human, I condemn harassment [but] when I wear my critic’s hat, I’m not evaluating what happens behind the kitchen door.” Three hundred and thirty-eight days later, Soleil Ho inaugurated her Chronicle tenure by announcing she would not cover compromised chefs in an editorial touting “ethical eating in the age of #MeToo.” In less than a year, the restaurant review had left the Country Club and embraced Cancel Culture.
Is there such a thing as “ethical eating”? More to the point, is it a food critic’s job to be the arbiter of good and bad chefs, not because of their food but because of their perceived actions?
“I don’t see the critic’s task as one of simply deciding if a food or restaurant experience is pleasing,” writes Soleil Ho, “but rather using an aesthetic evaluation of restaurants to tell stories about the connections between people, cultures, and communities.”
Whether you’re the sort of person who cares about what food critics have to say about a restaurant or not, they nonetheless have a significant impact on high-end restaurants. A good review can make a place. A bad one can kill it. This is someone’s livelihood, as well as the job that puts food on the plates of the children of its staff, from sous chef to sommelier. Should the restaurant fail, they’re out of jobs. #ThemToo.
What makes a food critic any more qualified to decide the morality of a restaurant than anyone else? They’re hired to critique the
foie gras quenelle de brochet. Was the consistency of the nantua sauce smooth enough, not whether a waitress accused the chef of grabbing her breast. Are food critics competent to vet accusations made on social media without any evidence because they’ve decided to believe the woman and not the buerre blanc?
Transforming the review into a mouthpiece for progressive politics is the opinion à la mode in food media. “Using food to talk about systems,” Ho argues, “is a way to get people to start thinking about these things that’s a little gentler than a straight political editorial.” “When we talk about restaurant criticism,” contends Korsha Wilson, host of the podcast A Hungry Society, “we need to look at the fact that dining is impacted” by the “same systems of oppression that work in every other part of the country.” In a striking choice of words, the Chronicle announced that they hired Ho as their new restaurant critic to “confront questions of ethics and social justice.”
Will Michelin give out stars for good behavior, or take away stars for bad? Or is a restaurant review not an exercise in social justice shaming, but overcooked veal shaming? As noted by the Chronicle’s announcement when Soleil Ho was hired as food critic, the mandate wasn’t to tell readers whether the food was fabulous or sucked, but whether the restaurant passed the progressive purity test.
Or to put it differently, restaurant critics perpetuate a lie, perpetrate a fraud on the public, that they are judging restaurants based on the quality of their food when they are instead judging chefs on whether their conduct survives social justice scrutiny.
Yet the particulars of the “woke” restaurant review remain hazy. After all, the social justice implications of dining out are dense and overdetermined. The average reviewer, in 700 words, cannot even begin to address how a restaurant’s food is grown and prepared, how its staff is treated and compensated, how the chef and cuisine found funding, and what kind of customer can afford to visit.
Whether a restaurant critic has the palate to judge the quality of food is a problem for her employer to address. Whether that same critic is qualified to be the moral arbiter for the benefit of the rest of us seems beyond the scope of both the critic’s, and her employer’s purview. But now that the new generation of critics lack the humility to recognize that they aren’t society’s morality police, yet can’t review the coq au vin without obsessing about the propriety of the coq, is there any reason for them to exist?