My Critical Condition

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In the introduction to John Lahr’s 1996 book “Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre” he writes, “Criticism, of course, is a kind of performance, but with this difference: the artist puts his life on the line, the critic only his words. This is not to minimize the significance of the activity, but to place criticism in its proper context. Criticism is a life without risk; and, therefore, it behooves the critic to honor the craft.”

This quote, which I recently discovered, comes at the perfect moment for me. I’d been trying to think and re-think my position about reviewing restaurants on my blog, and Lahr’s quote fully articulates my conflict. There’s no question that restaurant reviews are a big part of what makes my blog popular: you can see a huge archive of them in the menu bar above you. But now that I’ve written a book, I’m suddenly in the position of having my own work out there in the public eye. And, as Lahr says, my whole life feels like it’s on the line: if a critic were to trash my book in a big public forum, calling me a first class idiot, I’d be ruined. On the other hand, if Michiko Kukutani calls me a genius in the Sunday Book section, my career will be made. It’s all so unnerving.

As a food blogging critic, the key issue right now for me is responsibility. It was one thing, when my blog started, to write restaurant reviews for the 50 or 60 people who read me on a regular basis. Now those numbers have changed significantly. Not only that, I’m constantly surprised by how far my words go when I hit “post.” For example, remember that entry I wrote a few weeks ago praising Mark Bittman’s TV show? A few days later I got an e-mail from Bittman himself saying, “Well, thanks.” Today I put a link to The New York Times Judith Jones article in my Daily Specials and a few hours later her publicist wrote me and offered to set up an interview. This blog has become a pretty powerful platform; and to quote Uncle Ben to Peter Parker in Spiderman: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

It is the responsibility of a critic to review a restaurant fairly. To me, the fairness factor is directly correlated to the size of one’s audience. So, for example, when you go to the new bistro that opened up down the street, vomit from the onion soup, and e-mail your best friends telling them never to go there, you don’t have the responsibility to call the chef to find out what might have gone wrong. You don’t even have the responsibility to disclose the fact that you drank castor oil and ate raw eggs beforehand like that kid from “Stand By Me.” It’s unethical, true, but the ethical breach is minimal at best: you lost the restaurant three or four customers tops.

Whereas, if Frank Bruni goes to a new Mario Batali restaurant, orders a bowl of pasta, tries one noodle and then writes a scathing review, he has more to answer for. He’s going to make a serious dent in the lives and livelihoods of all the people working there; he is, in fact, going to affect the fortunes of hundreds of people–from the valet out front to the florist who supplies the flowers–and he must, if he is ethical, eat more than one noodle to render a review. He must eat across the menu; he must go multiple times; he must study the wine list, he must try to remain anonymous (so as not to invite special treatment), he must do all he can to evaluate the restaurant in the most thorough way possible. That is the responsibility of a well-read critic and that, my friends, is where I’m conflicted.

I am now, most certainly, well read. Only I don’t have the capacity to go to a restaurant multiple times, I don’t have the capacity to eat my way across a menu, and, because of all my pictures and videos, I am incapable of remaining anonymous. That latter issue hasn’t really been an issue yet: I’m rarely, if ever, recognized by anyone at any restaurant in New York. But, then again, just yesterday at a Park Slope eatery the waiter asked me how my book was doing. My capacity to be a fair critic is diminishing.

The other day Craig and I wanted burgers and so we went to a new place down the street that has an ambitious menu and ordered two burgers medium rare. They came out super well done and the meat was gamy and gristly. It was a bad scene and the old me would’ve written it up instantly. But I didn’t–I won’t even tell you where it was–because, to be fair, I should go back on a different day and try them again, along with other items from the menu. I should find out as much as I can how the place operates, where it gets its meat, how it preps the meat, and why our burgers on this particular day were so off. In other words, I should do everything I can do render fair judgment and, unfortunately, unless a newspaper’s going to pay me to do it that’s just something I can’t do.

And so, where does that leave us? I’m not sure–as I said, I’m conflicted. There are many people who tell me that restaurant reviews are their favorite part of my blog. If I give up reviewing restaurants, will I lose half my audience?

Well, in all actuality, I have basically given up reviewing restaurants and haven’t lost half my audience. In case you haven’t noticed, the blog is almost entirely, now, a series of essays, videos, stories, and recipes that behoove not a food critic, but a food enthusiast. And that’s the title I’d like to have for myself: “food enthusiast.” So, if I go out to eat and have a spectacular meal, of course I’ll tell you about it. I don’t see the harm in that. And if I go somewhere and hate the food and hate the experience in such a severe way that I must tell you, I probably will also. But for the most part, I’ll stick to what I do best: sharing my love for food. It’s time I left the criticism to the professionals.

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