It Matters

Frank Bruni told a story on his blog the other day about ordering iced tea at a restaurant only to have the waiter say they’d run out. “How do you run out of iced tea?” he queried. “I ask that question not snidely but earnestly, because I know that this blog has readers in the restaurant business, and I’d be curious for an answer.”

The answers he got were vicious. “Its so hard being a privelidged [sic] customer at an upscale restaurant,” wrote Jason C. “Oh, that I had these problems,” wrote Anna. “If the restaurant has run out of whatever, just order something else and get a life,” wrote VG.

The thrust of these arguments can be summed up by Wanda: “If you want to be in serious debate, read the front page.”

The front page, presumably, is filled with things that matter: soldiers dying in Iraq, terrorists plotting attacks in Germany, Senators seeking sex in bathrooms. These readers are outraged that Frank can be so frivolous: why raise a stink over something so minor? Who cares if the restaurant runs out of iced tea–there are more important things happening in the world!

It’s logic like this that explains why so many people in America eat so badly: “Who cares what I put in my stomach as long as I eat?” It’s a means to an end, a bodily function–food goes in like it comes out–and it’s not a thing to be taken seriously. Hence the outrage on Bruni’s blog.

But what are we fighting for when we fight for freedom? What are we protecting as we sniff out the terrorists? Is it just a matter of life and death? Or is it something more? Aren’t we trying to preserve and maintain the things that make living life worth living?

Sure, whether or not a restaurant runs out of iced tea seems minor in the grand scheme of things, but isn’t that true of anything that’s not a matter of life and death? Isn’t it more a question of which pleasures we deem important and which we don’t? For example, I bet many of the people raging about Bruni’s lack of perspective had strong opinions about the final episode of The Sopranos. Maybe some of them wrote a blog post about how David Chase ruined the franchise, didn’t deliver the proverbial “iced tea” if you will. Isn’t that just as irrelevant to front page news as anything else? Don’t we spend most of our days worrying and thinking about the little things–what to wear, where to eat, how to get there–than we do thinking about the big things? And isn’t that ok?

I think it is. I think these things matter because these are the things that give life substance. If it were your last meal and you were craving iced tea and you went to a restaurant and you ordered it and they didn’t have it, you’d be pretty upset. You’d wonder the same thing Frank wondered: “How do you run out of iced tea?”

And then you’d shrug, order a bottomless martini and drink yourself to oblivion.

Going Back

I’ve defended food blogs many times in the past–I’m practically the Alan Dershowitz of food bloggers–and yet, lately, I’ve become more and more sensitive to a concern that’s often raised about food bloggers and our practices: namely, our tendency to review restaurants after only one visit.

Obviously, food bloggers don’t have the resources that professional critics do. We don’t have a newspaper picking up the tab when we go out to eat, it’d be impossible for most of us to eat our way through a menu without spending half our savings. So we go, our cameras in tow, and snap pictures of the two or three dishes we consume at this one meal and then scurry back to our computers to write it up. If you click “Restaurant Reviews” in my menu bar you’ll see I’ve done this well over 100 times.

I’m begining to understand why this isn’t the best way to go about things. This occurred to me when I returned to Chiles and Chocolate in Park Slope for the third time a few weeks ago. The first time I wrote it up, I praised the flan, shrugged over the quesadilla and dismissed the mole as too bitter. The place, I reckoned, was pretty good but not great.

Then I went back for lunch and had the chile relleno which I really enjoyed. Not only that, paired with the watermelon agua fresca, the fresh pico de gallo and tortilla chips, my lunch was significantly more enjoyable than it was on my first outing. Plus, the service was incredibly attentive: they asked me if I liked the music, they replaced plates and silverware with zeal. It was a rainy day in Park Slope, but it felt like a sunny day at a four-star restaurant uptown.

Then I went back again. And I gave the mole another chance and you know what? I hated it. I hated it more than I did the first time. Its bitter qualities totally overwhelmed the sweeter components; it paled in comparison to the mole I had at La Carta de Oaxaca in Seattle. PLUS–and this is what really did it in–the waitress had asked whether I wanted dark meat or white meat. I chose white meat–stupidly, I admit–and the chicken breast that the mole was served on top of was way overcooked, painfully dry, a horror show.

What do these three experiences have to do with food blogging? Well, if that third time had been my first time at Chiles & Chocolate in Park Slope, I would have written a savage review. If the second time had been my first time, I would have written it a love letter. But since my first time was my first time, I gave it a half-hearted nod and that’s the review that remains in my archives.

That’s a problem. Those three experiences add up to a fuller picture of the restaurant. Now I know that Chiles & Chocolate is inconsistent–a word that professional food critics use all the time. I know what stands out on the menu: the agua fresca, the chile relleno, the flan. And I know what to avoid: anything with chicken breast. If I were to write a review now, it would be more thoughtful, more measured, more complete and ultimately more useful.

The truth is that I often re-visit restaurants and have new reactions. Like Stand, the Union Square burger joint that I two-starred back in May. I went there recently with my friend Jimmy and we had a great experience: the burgers were perfectly done, the buns, this time, weren’t too daunting. I liked it way better than that first time around.

Other times, going back reconfirms what I suspected the first time. Like this place in Park Slope that I don’t want to name because it’s truly adorable and the people behind it seem like really good people, but God help me if I don’t think it’s the biggest rip-off joint on the block. The sandwiches cost $9 and they pile mediocre chicken salad on to seedy multigrain bread, top it with a mealy tomato, and put it in a plastic container. It’s bad and it was bad the second time I went there. Going back confirmed that.

Where does that leave us, then? Food blog restaurant reviews are still defensible in that they share the average person’s experience at a particular restaurant on a particular night. As I told Michael Ruhlman for an article he’s writing for September’s Restaurant Hospitality Magazine: “The average customer doesn’t return to a restaurant if they have a bad first experience, and I think that’s why food blog reviews are important. At their best, they offer very thorough accounts of a first impression of a restaurant and, for many people, that’s useful.”

It’s useful, but it’s not ideal. And I’m starting to recognize that. Food blogs will never displace newspapers because of the newspaper critic’s capacity to be thorough–to go back several times to a restaurant, to sample all of the items on the menu, to examine how a restaurant changes on different days of the week, at different times of the day. Maybe the aptest metaphor is sexual: a newspaper critic gets to sleep with a restaurant over and over again; the food blogger critic gets one shot. So when a reader asks, “Is the restaurant good in the sack?” both perspectives are valid–the food blogger might describe the experience with more gusto, there might even be pictures–but the newspaper critic can answer you much more assuredly. And that, I shall admit, gives the newspaper critic the leg up. Literally.

The Hell’s Kitchen Finale


Young chefs, take heed: reality television offers you two glimpses, this summer season, of chefs who have fallen so far off their pedestals it’s difficult to believe they were ever taken seriously. Rocco DiSpirito’s visit to Top Chef Season III was thankfully limited to one episode, but there he was shilling for Bertolli, his face strangely waxen, maybe from all that cat food he’s testing? His dress, his face, his hair, his voice, are all so presentational you can see the crux of his career crisis right there in his pixelated visage: he’s too in love with his own image to stay in the kitchen. The kitchen is for the Howies of the world and Rocco wants the limelight. Only that limelight will fade, as it always does, and then what? “All right, Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my Bertolli frozen pasta dinner”?

Yet Rocco’s disgrace is tame next to that of Gordon Ramsay. How can a man who held three Michelin stars appear on a show where the two finalists–the supposedly BEST chefs from the entire season–serve a three course meal that would embarrass the lowest chef at a T.G.I. Friday’s? Did anyone see this? I mean, I don’t watch Hell’s Kitchen, we were desperate tonight so we watched the finale and it was shocking. The food was so sub-par that the fact that anyone could believe that these “winners” are the best at anything, let alone cooking, is deeply disturbing. In particular, the blonde woman’s food (I forget her name) was laughably bad: her signature pasta with shrimp looked like it came out of The Idiot’s Guide To Olive Garden Cooking. And her dessert? A chocolate covered strawberry and some cookies. I’m not kidding. This show has as much to do with fine dining as “America’s Top Model” has to do with brain surgery.

And yet, “Hell’s Kitchen” does do something that “Top Chef” doesn’t: it tries to recreate the dynamic of a “real” restaurant kitchen. Sure, “Top Chef” does that in the finale, but that’s what “Hell’s Kitchen” does all season and it showcases how social skills and leadership skills are so essential behind the scenes. And that’s about all the praise I can muster for the show.

Back to Chef Ramsay. Look, money talks, I’m not an idiot. He must be paid up the wazoo for his volatile personality, his mad-dog antics, his showboating sadism. But at what cost? And the same goes for Rocco. What’s your price, young chefs of America? At what point are you willing to become a corporate shill, like Rocco, or a fuming cartoon character like Ramsay? If fame and fortune in the food world are what you seek and you want to maintain your integrity, there’s only one model you should follow and that’s the Anthony Bourdain model. I’m not sure how he does it, but he traverses the world of popular entertainment and the cultish world of foodiedom with ease. One day he’s on “Top Chef,” the next he’s writing on eGullet. Study his example, young chefs of today, and avoid the pitfalls that were so depressingly demonstrated this summer on TV. Now I have to shower for 12 hours to get the stank of “Hell’s Kitchen” out of my hair.

Objectivity, Subjectivity and Food (a discussion)

Last night I wrote a big essay about objectivity, subjectivity and food and then–perhaps ironically–Safari ate it. Maybe, though, that’s for the best. It was a bit long-winded. The truth is that I’d rather have a discussion with you, my readers, than rant and rave like a loon. The prompt for the essay was a story out of “The United States of Arugula”–the story of Dean & DeLuca. Young Giorgio DeLuca’s high school A.P. history teacher, Jack Estrin, said that beauty and truth were not subjective but objective. “All us kids went, ‘No, no! Art is not objective, it’s a matter of opinion, a matter of what you like,'” recalls DeLuca (on pg. 199). The teacher said he “didn’t know what we were talking about.”

Later, when DeLuca met Joel Dean–his highly cultured upstairs neighbor–it was Dean who confirmed his teacher’s message. “I told him what Jack Estrin had told me,” DeLuca continues. “Dean was the first person to say to me, ‘That guy knew what he was talking about. Art is objective. Beauty is objective. Otherwise, you couldn’t agree on who all the great artists were through the ages.'”

Together, then, they translated this philosophy into their eponymous food store: “A lot of this was in reaction to the processed food that America was starting to live on: the Swanson’s TV dinners, the Tang, the fucking WisPride cheddar in a crock,” DeLuca concludes. “Americans were losing their ability to taste. I wanted to show that some things are better than others. Americans are taught just the opposite: ‘Whatever makes you happy. You like Coca-Cola and this guy likes fine Burgundies? You can’t say one is better than the other!’ Can you imagine the absurdity of that? But that’s the underlying philosophy that Americans are brainwashed into.”

I find this subject fascinating, especially because I spent two years in graduate writing school being taught that there were objective qualities to good writing that we should all seek out for ourselves: character, conflict, an escalating structure. All of our teachers pointed to Aristotle. And yet some of the worst writing came from those who tried to cobble together what should have been “objectively better” plays–with schematic, diagrammable plots–but plays that were incredibly uninspired. Objectively, all the elements were there: subjectively, though, they were tortuous to sit through.

A good example of this conundrum is Hung on “Top Chef.” He’s got the objective criteria down pat. Did you hear him last week when he paired berries with something creamy, “Because sweet things and creamy things go well together.” He said it like it was a hard and fast rule. And when the judge criticized his dish for not working, Hung was outraged: “So you’re saying that sweet and creamy don’t go well together?” he snapped back.

I’d say more but I have to head out. What do you think, A.G. readers? Can food be measured objectively? Or is most of it subjective? What will you be drinking with lunch: Coca Cola or a fine Burgundy?

“Ratatouille” & Jewish Assimilation (an essay, with spoilers)

The key moment in “Ratatouille” is not the creation of the title dish, a layered circle of sliced zucchini, eggplant, and tomato perfectly rendered by Pixar’s animators and lovingly sauced by Remy, the film’s protagonist. It’s not the climactic scene of judgment by the film’s primary antagonist, the food critic Anton Ego, voiced by a droll Peter O’Toole. It is, instead, the moment when the father rat, Django–voiced by Brian Dennehy–takes Remy to the surface to show him what humans do to rats. Remy looks up and sees a giant store window filled with rat traps and, more horrifically, his dead brethren strung up with cold, calculated indifference. Taken along with the scene where Remy, in a sewer, overhears a woman complaining about “filthy vermin” the movie becomes–at least for me–a powerful metaphor for the 20th century Jew’s attempt at assimilation.


I used to sleep with two pillows. I’d lay one carefully on top of the other and fall asleep with my head elevated: my dreams took place very high off the ground. And then, one day, I slept over a friend’s house and he only had one pillow to give me. I couldn’t sleep. When I did drift off, my dreams were land-locked and boring. I woke up with a neck ache and quickly ended the friendship.

Soon, though, I got to thinking: maybe it’s bad that I can only fall asleep with two pillows. If I train myself to sleep with only one pillow, then I can be friends with people who only have one pillow to lend me. I can travel the world and stay at motels and hostels and campgrounds where one-pillow sleeping is the norm. People will applaud me for me easy-going sleeping habits and nominate me for public office. I will be a star.

And, pretty much, that’s what happened. I re-trained myself to sleep with only one pillow and now that’s the only way I can fall asleep. I reduced my needs and benefited enormously. For example, these past few days Craig and I have been hopping around like hobos staying at his sister’s apartment, a campground, Rena’s apartment, his parent’s house, and now–finally–a house they rented for the production team. But being flexible makes all of this possible. And it’s a perfect metaphor, I think, for the way people deal with food.

The more needs you have, the less you’re bound to enjoy. Picky eaters convince themselves that they have needs–that they need to avoid anything salty or they’ll get bloated, anything peppery or they’ll choke, anything spicy or they’ll schvitz. Dieters “need” to have three servings of fruit a day, ten glasses of water before they exercise, and forty bites of something green at least 80 times a week.

Needs can be exhausting. And, more essentially, they take all the pleasure out of food. Hypochondriacs will never know the joys of a rare juicy steak. They’ll never experience a frothy egg nog made with beaten raw egg or, for that matter, an authentic Caesar salad. Those who “need” a big piece of meat at every meal, will never celebrate summer with a simple seasonal salad. Those who “need” only familiar foods will never branch out and discover the wonders of Indian or real Chinese (not the kind you find in the mall) or something even more exotic, like Indonesian or Pakistani food.

The less needs you have, the more you’re going to experience. Of course some needs are medical: allergies to gluten or lactose. Others are ideological: vegetarianism, for example. Some are religious: being kosher, say, or giving something up for Lent. But, for the most part, food-related needs are self-appointed. Like the need to sleep with two pillows. Nobody needs to sleep with two pillows–nobody needs to give up bacon. The more flexible you are, the better your life will be. Now my dreams are filled with BLTs and Bucatini All’Amatriciana. Drop your needs and a one-pillowed bacon-filled life is yours for the taking.

In Defense of Food Blogging


A noted food journalist–one of my first mentors–got on the phone with me earlier this year to talk about my future. I told him that I wanted to get a regular job for a newspaper food section. What should I do? “Adam,” he said, “you’ve got to be kidding. What you’re doing right now is what most newspapers are desperate to do for themselves. Old media is on its way out. Your blog is the future!”

Since that conversation, the evidence to support his claim is overwhelming: food critics, food writers, magazine editors, seasoned journalists, cookbook authors, and even cab drivers are all getting into the game, and with fervor. Newspaper food sections are becoming less and less relevant as food blogs are becoming more and more popular. And to that I say: woohoo!

Woo-hoo because I love food blogs. I love reading them. I have about 30 food blogs bookmarked in my browser and many more that I click on throughout the day. Whereas traditional food media (The New York Times food section, for example) often feels fussy and strained, like a college roundtable discussion of “Beowulf,” food blogs feel fresh and exciting–like hanging out with a new group of friends or an old group of friends, depending on how long you’ve been reading food blogs.

And yet, Mario Batali slammed food blogs last week on Eater. In his essay Why I Hate Food Bloggers, Mario wrote: “Many of the anonymous authors who vent on blogs rant their snarky vituperatives from behind the smoky curtain of the web. This allows them a peculiar and nasty vocabulary that seems to be taken as truth by virtue of the fact that it has been printed somewhere.”

As many have noted in the comments of that post, what Mario seems to be ranting about isn’t so much food blogs as restaurant industry blogs that give false reports about his comings and goings (notably, the very site where his rant appears). I find his rant funny because when I met him a few months ago he said the same thing to me: that he hates food bloggers and anonymous people posting nasty reviews all over the web. “It’s the worst thing to happen to food journalism in a long time,” he told me, apparently unaware that he was speaking to the enemy.

But am I the enemy? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that food bloggers like me, who write about food and cooking and the occasional meal out, are allies of good, honest, hard-working chefs who have quality food to share and, perhaps, very few outlets in which to promote that food. David Chang, of Momofuku and Ssam Bar, is the darling of the food blog world (even Jason Kottke, not a food blogger, used his blog to rave) and I would guess that it’s a big boon to Chang’s business. Chang himself is friendly with food bloggers (check out his stuff on Eater) and his young age–he’s only 29–suggests a familiarity and comfort level with the internet that, perhaps, Mario lacks.

What food blogs offer, ultimately, is the democratization of food criticism. In Arthur Miller’s autobiography “Timebends,” the famous playwright recalls the period in 1967 when the Herald Tribune vanished and The New York Times became the sole critical force in New York theater. Miller writes:

Monopoly in anything is not only an evil but an insidious one, and there was actually a moment, in 1967, soon after the Herald Tribune vanished, when Clifton Daniel, then the Times managing editor, convoked a meeting of some hundred authors, newspeople, producers, and actors in a midtown restaurant to discuss what might be done to mitigate the paper’s awesome new power and its unhealthy, undemocratic potentialities. The Times, Daniel declared, did not create this monopoly and did not wish to hold the power it had been handed by history. After some wayward discussion, I suggested that since the nub of the issue was the danger of injustice in a single critic carrying all the immense prestige of the Times, perhaps the solution was to send two or three critics to write independent notices, maybe even on occasion asking an informed theatergoer to write his impressions of a show in a paragraph or two…. Daniel thought for a moment and said that my idea was impossible, and when I asked him his reasons, he replied, “But who would be speaking for The New York Times?”

Miller’s dream of an egalitarian system for criticism–a system that “would broaden the public’s awareness of how fictional, rather than a matter of plain fact, all criticism really is, which is to say, how subjective”–is being realized today, at least in the food world, with food blogs. Because of our varying voices, our palpable passions, and–most importantly–our lack of editorial control, we are the distant drums in the distance growing closer and closer, our torches waving, our laptops poised for posting. Mario will disagree, but I think food blogs are the best thing to happen to food journalism in a long time. To quote a friend and mentor: we are the future.

Scroll to Top