Friday, December 24, 2010

The Naked Truth About "Anonymous Critics"... & The Restaurants' Relationship With Them

Just this week, another huge "outing" scandal emerged when a Beverly Hills restaurant, Red Medicine, not only refused to seat LA Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila... But then proceeded to post a photo of her as well!

So yet again, the debate rages on about the role of reviewers and the purpose of criticism... And of course, the need (or lack thereof) for "anonymity".

Gustavo Arellano at OC Weekly thinks Red Medicine crossed the line in outing Virbila...

I have never cared much for Virbila's writings, either, but the actions of the restaurant is the height of douchery: honestly, you can't take what someone may think of your restaurant, so you won't even allow them to try it? It's your right to do that, but expect everyone to ridicule you.

But their taking and posting of Virbila's picture is a different monster.

Anonymity among food critics was once a much-treasured illusion--we all know the stories of Ruth Reichl putting on wigs, and critics making reservations under different names. But with the advent of social media, should food critics even bother for anonymity? I still believe in that, but I remember speaking at a UC Irvine class earlier this year where a student food blogger maintained that letting people know you're reviewing them does nothing to change how they're going to serve you, a disturbing thought that, like fraternity initiation rituals and streaking, I attributed to his young age.

But is it really that big of a deal? Mr. TLV (Mike Dobranski) offered another take after the outbreak of our own critic controversy here in Las Vegas.

So let’s talk a wee bit about “food journalism.” How can a journalist give a proper story when they have relationships with the chefs? My argument is how can they not? Do readers want industry news through the eyes of what a news room tells them, or through the eyes of someone who witnesses it in the real world? Why do you think these embed reporters during the war were so popular? Because they were showing you shit the way it happened, not through some filter of a news room and a bullshit journalism class.

If more writers spent some time in kitchens as well as talked with people in the industry after hours, there is a perspective of reality that is born that is invaluable. How many facades of how restaurants work are continued to be propped up by “journalists” that don’t experience the real world? That’s why John Q. Public actually thinks Wolfgang Puck is still baking bread and that the guy in freshly starched chef’s whites that come out to shake your hand actually cooked your meal. It’s a false, glamorized view of the reality of a restaurant that is purveyed by these “proper journalists.”

I can’t help that I get recognized when I go to restaurants. Anyone who’s seen me in real life understands that I’m not the most difficult fellow to pick out in the room. But I never ask for special treatment, and I certainly never announce I’m going somewhere if I haven’t been to the restaurant several times unannounced. And when I do announce I’m going somewhere, it’s only in the sense that I usually just try to get my Twitter followers to come hang out in real life. I’ve NEVER called a place ahead of time to tell them I was on my way.

So is it that big of a deal that S. Irene Virbila's identity was revealed? Most likely not, since Red Medicine had obviously already figured that out.

But was it wrong for them to treat her the way they did? Absolutely IMHO! That's just not the kind of "hospitality" any restaurant should show any paying customer. PERIOD. And by resorting to personal attacks on Virbila as they kicked her to the curb and proudly beat their chests about it on Tumblr, Red Medicine just looked incredibly petty... And afraid. Seriously, why wouldn't they let her eat? Were they that afraid of her finding their grub unsatisfactory?

Still, despite all the safeguards S. Irene Virbila put into place, she got outed. And maybe it isn't all that big of a deal.

That whole scene, said San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, sounds "very stupid. I think it's very short-sighted. If it was a good restaurant, they wouldn't be afraid."

But at the same time, Bauer said, "the whole idea of anonymity is almost a moot point these days. … After you've done it for any length of time, a year or more, your image gets out, especially now with camera phones." Virbila said she tries to keep a low profile, not appearing at food and wine events or establishing a Facebook page.

If anything, this seems to prove the point Mike Dobranski made last month about the death of "anonymity" among food critics. So why should local critics like John Curtas be chided for not hiding who he really is? Are food critics really ineffective if they're not "incognito"? And in this age of Facebook, Foodspotting, and Foursquare, is it even really possible to be "anonymous" these days?

Without a doubt, this raises questions of whether 20th century restaurant reviewing standards can really be applied in a 21st century techie foodie world.

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