Between calls for racial justice and an industry-devastating pandemic, the traditional role of critic is adapting to the times
The image of the traditional restaurant critic — an older white man, surreptitious in appearance yet hearty in appetite, issuing snobbish judgments from behind a white tablecloth— was out of date long before the pandemic hit. White men aren’t the only ones who have worthwhile opinions on restaurants; upscale iterations of French or Italian cuisine aren’t the only foods worth talking about; and anonymity, the sacred shield of the restaurant critic, doesn’t necessarily work the way it used to. (As the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic Soleil Ho put it, “I am a millennial and I’ve been on the internet for 15 years — it’s really hard to cover up my tracks at this point.”)
Such shifts in the world of criticism and food writing broadly were already underfoot; then came the pandemic, which rocked the entire restaurant industry (not to mention media) to its core. So we invited Boston Globe restaurant critic and food writer Devra First, New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao, and food writer and host of the podcast A Hungry Society presents Boundless Horizon Korsha Wilson to discuss how criticism has changed in the past year and where it’s headed.
Below are lightly edited excerpts from the conversation, part of our Eater Talks event series, as well as a full video recording. For more ways on how to help the restaurant community, check out Eater’s How to Help guide.
COVID-19 pushed food writers to move beyond traditional restaurant reviews.
Tejal Rao: “Around March, I had a conversation with my editors [at the New York Times]: Should I keep filing weekly reviews? Should I rethink the restaurant review? And I decided I didn’t want to write straightforward reviews at all. So I did more, like, weird essays and policy reporting and just a mixture of pieces — like first-person stories about how to think about takeout in this moment, or how my relationship with cars has changed. Just looking at it from every possible angle.”
Devra First: “At the beginning, when indoor dining shut down and it wasn’t clear what was going to happen, I was like [to my editors at the Boston Globe], ‘Hey, what if we do a daily newsletter about cooking right now?’ And we just banged that out into the ether. We didn’t know what to do or how we were going to cover it; for the first month or so, it was a lot of guesswork and figuring out what what does it all mean for restaurants and for us. It was pretty tumultuous, but it’s settling in now. Where I work, at the Boston Globe, they’ve also really deeply sympathetic to the situation with restaurants. We started this thing called Project Takeout just encouraging readers to get takeout as much they’re able to. It’s been an interesting see us do sort of like boosterism on behalf of the [restaurant] industry, which was a stance that we never would have taken before.”
The pandemic accelerated the shrinking of journalism budgets.
First: “It was really sad to lose Chicago Tribune dining critic Phil Vettel and Detroit Free Press restaurant critic Mark Kurlyandchik this year as voices — both Phil and Mark have been such important voices for their cities. I think it’s frightening for Chicago and frightening for the Midwest, but also, it’s a bellwether for what the country might look like down the road, because so few publications are investing in this kind of coverage. It is expensive to do.”
Wilson: “When the pandemic started, there was this very scary constricting of freelance opportunities, because people [in media] were unsure about ad budgets and if they even have freelance budgets going forward.”
Rao: “The loss of alt weeklies and blogs and a lot of those spaces — I am just forever devastated about that. Those spaces are so vital for local reporting, but also, for me, that was my journalism school. I wouldn’t have I wouldn’t have become a critic if I hadn’t gotten a job at the Village Voice.”
As restaurants and media change, more diverse voices are emerging within food writing.
Wilson: “I have the very fortunate position as a freelancer of being able to look at the [food media] landscape and say, ‘Okay, what stories do I wish existed in the landscape right now?’ and then pitch those to the places where I think it makes the most sense. That’s the same thing I do with my podcasts… For me, it’s really important to highlight people of color that don’t get a lot of attention. So it’s been a refocusing or a doubling-down on what I cover already, which is: really talented folks who are adding a lot and not getting the attention they deserve.”
First: “I think that we need to look toward different pipelines. I do think that the people writing nationally who get information from local critics on the ground have cultivated other sources as well, and maybe more different kinds of voices. I hope in some ways that that pipeline, while getting constricted in some ways, will then broaden in a different way to make up that difference. Certainly, we’re going to see fewer and fewer restaurant critics around the country. So I guess we need to ask what that means, what readers want, what the public needs, and how do we look towards the future and think about how are we going to get this to people going forward?”
Wilson: “For [restaurant coverage] to be dynamic, a lot of different people need to have their voices included. You know, America isn’t just white men. That’s not a newsflash. But for a long time, restaurant critics have been cisgendered white men. So what perspectives are left out of food criticism when that happens? In order for restaurant criticism to continue to grow, different voices have to be at the table and talking about why restaurants matter, and why their food is good, or the service is good. As restaurants change, the people covering them needs to change too.”
With more voices involved, restaurant critics are covering far more ground.
Wilson: “An Eater Chicago op-ed about the loss of the food critic there referred to food critics as ‘arbiters of taste,’ and I disagree with that a bit. I think food critics are journalists, essentially, and they’re covering the food beat in whatever region that they’re in. And then national food critics are looking at the landscape of America’s restaurant scene and talking about the changes and important players and different cuisines that are available. I think looking at it holistically like that — instead of just ‘this is good, or this is bad’ — is really where criticism needs to go.”
Rao: “Should critics consider all the vital issues of their moment, like labor, inequities, exclusion — all the forces that we don’t immediately see and how they shape our culture and our restaurants and all the spaces we move in? Like, yeah, that has to be part of the job, even if it’s not part of every single story. That has to be part of what’s driving the work. I don’t think of myself as an ‘arbiter of taste.’”
First: “It’s really important for critics to continue to point out what needs to change, where there are weak points, where culturally there are problems — to really wrestle with the issues of American culture through the dining lens.”
Rao: “So much of what has been illuminated this past year wasn’t new, it has been around for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — the racial injustice, the physical costs to workers, the structural inequalities running all along the supply chain, the environmental costs. Our food system is so broken and so dysfunctional, and people are suffering because of it. And I think criticism can serve many roles, including continuing to shine a light on these issues.
That’s not its only role, but I’m thinking a lot about the power of that attention now. Like, where do I keep the reader’s attention when I have it? What do I want to make them think about? Pleasure is a way in, this delicious food is a way in, hopefully good writing is a way in — and then you have the reader’s attention, and what are you gonna do with it?”
Watch the entire panel conversation: