An ecclesiastical history of the food web, the media’s response to online restaurant criticism, and why Mario Batali is an idiot.
Our dining icons - the Brunis, the Bauers and the Golds - have ruled for decades. The monopoly enjoyed by print media has escalated the restaurant critic to demigod - their voices reign down in regular intervals as if from heaven. These titans of traditional media reach millions; rarely have we appealed so strongly or regularly to the voice of experts. If food is our God, they are our clergy.
Before the internet, as in early Christendom, there was no dialogue with the Almighty, except that which was sanctioned by their divine grace. In the past several years however, new communication mediums have enabled the individual to participate in the conversation. A concept begun in print - the Zagat’s guide, which uses user-generated content for its reviews - quickly found its way to the web. A Reformation, focusing on the individual’s relationship with Food, had begun.
The first large-scale implementation of user-generated content was CitySearch.com, launched in 1995. Online food sites have since proliferated, beginning with message boards like eGullet and Chowhound. Yelp.com provided a disciplined, user-friendly environment in which to interact and discuss restaurants. Today, the site serves over two million visitors monthly.
Enter the citizen journalist - the blogger. As independent publishers they offer something that, in many cases, is indistinguishable from traditional journalism. The best food bloggers contribute practiced, in-depth restaurant criticism - often supported by photographs. Polytheism, viewed by many as a pagan belief, may be on the rise.
In the early years, the food blog was somewhat of a novelty - today, Ted Demopoulos, author of “Blogging for Business”, estimates the number of food blogs in the U.S. at 48,000. Traditional media has been instrumental in helping to put them on the map.
As they continue to grow in popularity, with more consumers finding and using food blogs, they will only further impact a restaurant’s bottom line. In an already competitive field (the restaurant industry has the highest failure rate of any business in the U.S.) many restaurateurs, who rely in part on positive press, have grown wary of food blogging. There is a widespread belief that only those with a journalistic background should leverage criticism.
The mainstream media, as if speaking on their behalf, continually oversimplify the landscape of the food web. Abiding by the rules of traditional media they ignore the relationships between content creator and consumer. Blogs are regularly berated - both in print and online. Scott Karp, who discuss the evolution of media on his blog Publishing 2.0 brings blogging into perspective, “How foolish would someone sound in 2007 making a sweeping generalization about what people do with websites? Probably about as foolish as making sweeping generalizations about what people do with printing on paper - and as foolish as making sweeping generalizations about what people do with blogs. A blog, after all, is just a content management system. Blogging, as a phenomena, happened because blogging software is free, dead simple to use, and interactive.”
A story at ABC News touts the fact that High-Powered Chefs Are Forced to listen to the Little Guy, but only as long as he has a keyboard. “The movement has some chefs and restauranteurs angrily realizing that the only credential required to publicly flog even the most well-established hot spot is a high-speed Internet connection.”
The thought that anyone can just write a review and see it have an impact is far from true. It takes years of consistent, high-quality posting to develop a following; even good blogs struggle and flounder. A review by one blogger will not carry the same weight as another - just as a New York Times review will impact a restaurant more than a review in the Post. Readership and quality vary from one blog to the next.
Admittedly, the internet has its share of bad bloggers. As Jeff Harrell remarks cynically, “A great flood of assholes have washed over us, spewing out their vomitous expectorations in a way thats superficially indistinguishable from the great words of the great thinkers - assuming there are any left. The naive respond by believing everything they read - or, God help us, watch on YouTube. The cynical shut their minds to all opinion and thought, acting on the entirely rational assumption that ninety-nine percent of everything they hear is bullshit.” Hopefully, the internet savvy among us are able to find a happy medium. On the whole, the best rise to the top; quality content tends to be much more accessible than garbage (via search engine and links on other sites). When all else fails a human editor may help; I continue to screen all posts before they are admitted to BlogSoop.
On the front page of a March issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, a story entitled: Food Bloggers Dish Up Plates of Spicy Criticism declared the “Formerly formal discipline of reviewing becomes a free-for-all for online amateurs.” This story found a disgruntled restaurateur who blamed his failure on the web. The Chronicle goes on to say, “If you think restaurant critics from mainstream newspapers, television and magazines are tough on the food industry, you haven’t spent much time in cyberspace.”
The Chronicle would have you believe bloggers are hell bent on destruction, when in fact, even a cursory overview of the space proves otherwise. A survey of the 50 most recent posts added to BlogSoop reveals: 35 positive, eight informational (neither positive nor negative) and only six negative reviews. In a sample of 50, only 12% delivered a negative appraisal. In every one of those negative reviews, the authors clearly stated their rationale.
Part of the misunderstanding may stem from the low quality reviews found on Yelp or CitySearch. Because these sites have pre-existing users and carry a great deal of weight in search engines like Google, an opinion may be accorded more exposure than is deserved. Posting a negative review on Yelp is a great deal easier than setting up a blog and spending months or years developing a readership.
Adam Roberts, The Amateur Gourmet, whose greatest triumph (career-wise) was getting Sirio Maccioni to invite him back for a free meal at Le Cirque after he posted a negative review, discusses the democraticization of the food media on his post, In Defense of Food Blogging, “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.” Adam goes on to discuss the tight knit communities of authors and readers. Most food bloggers write not for money or fame, but out of a genuine love of food and the social component.
Taste is, after all, subjective - why take the advice of a professional over an amateur when both are equally passionate? Outside of disciplined fact checking and a competitive hiring process, it’s difficult to distinguish what mainstream critics have that food bloggers don’t. Jonathan Gold began to write about food only after the LA Weekly’s former owner admired a piece he’d written about health insurance. Michael Bauer graduated from Kansas State with a master’s degree in mental health communications. Frank Bruni covered George W. Bush’s campaign before moving onto restaurant criticism.
Yet, the notion that food bloggers are somehow distinct from mainstream journalists persists. Mario Batali, a man whose restaurants have been embraced by bloggers the world over, hates them. He believes, “Many of the anonymous authors who vent on blogs rant their snarky vituperatives from behind the smoky curtain of the web.”
Just who are these anonymous food bloggers? What are they saying? Has Mario even taken a look at his own restaurant’s reviews? Snarky vituperatives?
Batali’s Pizzeria Mozza is the most blogged about restaurant in the last six months; BlogSoop lists 17 reviews, all of which had positive things to say. The same goes for Otto, Del Posto, Babbo and others. This man should love food bloggers, not hate them. And the notion of anonymity? Most bloggers proudly go by their real names: I’ve been in touch with every blogger whose reviews are listed on BlogSoop - many in person.
Why alienate a group that respects your cooking? Why not value their opinions - David Chang has done so from the outset, much to his benefit. We no longer live in an age where a priest is needed to communicate with the almighty. The Brunis, the Bauers and the Golds have started embracing the web. And they still play a leading role in the blogosphere, as celebrities - but not deities - of our food world.