Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Food Media and Restaurant Reviewing 101

BY BRYAN LAVERY





In the confusing and somewhat compromised arena of food writing; restaurant reviewing, food journalism, food blogging and public relations marketing – are different disciplines, that are often mistaken as being one and the same. They are not. Nor should bloggers and hobbyists who position themselves as restaurant reviewers be mistaken for reviewers with credible journalistic intentions.

Most so-called restaurant “critics” aren’t there to give a fair and balanced review. They are employed to create controversy and attract viewers, readers and listeners to various media outlets. We live in a culture that overrates hyperbole and disparagement, underrates intelligent skepticism and constructive criticism, and seems to be unwilling or incapable of making a clear distinction between news and entertainment. Restaurant criticism has become less about food knowledge and more about blood sport and entertainment.

There is not denying the pressures of independent restaurant ownership. The so-called “critics” have little at stake. If they are incorrect or misinformed in their assessments, there are few consequences, but the restaurateur, chef and employees have their livelihoods on the line.  Reviewing restaurants isn't just a matter of a “critics” personal taste or uninformed opinion.  Restaurateurs have the right to expect that the “critics,” and media outlets that employ them, uphold standards that ensure journalistic integrity, objectivity, and accountability. A misguided reviewer’s need to create controversy for sheer entertainment can result in plenty of unintended collateral damage.

To stay abreast of the culinary scene, I meet and talk with restaurateurs, chefs, farmers and food artisans about their businesses, their challenges and successes. When I tell people that I make my living as a food writer and consultant, they imagine a frivolous existence of dining out night after night. I do eat out a lot and in diverse spots for equally diverse reasons. I tend not to dwell on pedestrian dining experiences or unfortunate cuisine. The reality is that food writers are subjected to more than their fair share of mediocre food, disappointing culinary experiences and people, and I rarely feel the compunction to write about it.

No reader wants us food writers to pile unrestrained acclaim on every restaurateur, chef, farmer or entrepreneur.  It’s disingenuous and it gets obnoxious.  I am an adventurous diner and I like to discover new restaurants randomly but listen to suggestions from my readers and a large network of contacts. In my quest to eat well, I have been sent on many a wild goose chase.  In these situations, the crucial caveat being, I can forgive unpleasant surroundings or underwhelming service if the food is exceptional.

We are living through a gastronomic renaissance and more than ever my work puts me in front of the orthodoxy of local food sourcing, business incubators, and food entrepreneurs advancing innovation and regionalism in our food culture. I can’t help but be enthralled by chefs and food producers that support farmers and food artisans and pay close attention to the provenance and authenticity of their ingredients.

Friends and colleagues ask why I do not approach restaurants with a more critical pen. My answer is  that I am a food writer more than a reviewer or critic. There are many restaurants and chefs whose virtues deserve to be recognized without too much hype or derision. I have never been in league with publishers, editors, colleagues, destination marketing organizations or the hospitality industry to hype undeserving entrepreneurs, chefs, restaurateurs and their establishments. I do not feel I need to manufacture controversy to attract readers.  Along the way, I have had to put up some pretty strong fights with publishers and editors so as to not undermine my credibility and voice.  As patronising and trite as it must sound, my personal mission has been to encourage people to dine out, support culinary innovation, independents and small business. I am a local food movement advocate and a long-time advocate of culinary tourism and agritourism.

My columns and articles are not platforms for taking pot shots at restaurants or over-inflated personalities. There are other individuals who feel this is their job. Of course who among us couldn't benefit from a figurative kick in the pants every once in a while. However, this writer attempts to provide a fair and unbiased reporting on the local food scene while keeping his penchant for satire and sarcasm mostly in check.

As I have said in the past, the food media are necessary members of the culinary community. Like any thoughtful patron, I hope that I continually bring appreciation and sensibility to the table. But the food media’s mission goes beyond that. We must pass our unbiased impressions on to the readers while alerting the dining public to the diversity of choice on the culinary scene. Good reporting furnishes you with enough information and insight to enable you to make informed decisions, while helping to arbitrate the standards of dining out. If you don’t have a good, strong food media whether you love them or despise them—you don’t have the same degree of interest, enthusiasm and accountability. it has always been clear to me that there is no way to have just one meal in a restaurant and give a fair and credible critique if  you  are approaching food reviewing with integrity. Three visits, ordering multiple items, is the minimum requirement. 

Food, identity, and culture are closely tied together for many people and inadvertently insulting customs and cuisine you don't understand is offensive.  Even a hobbyist should meet certain journalistic standards when reviewing a restaurant. People who have strong opinions in a given discipline or make sweeping statements — and many of us do — but don’t have the broader knowledge or context that give an opinion merit and weight, are not proper critics. (It’s this reason that online restaurant reviewing by vituperative diners can’t be taken too seriously.) 

The credible restaurant reviewer can’t simply be a euphoric advocate either, someone whose adulation for a restaurant or chef is reduced to innocuous platitudes. The thoughtful and intelligent negative review has its own merits and pays homage to serious chefs and restaurateurs who want to be critiqued with fairness and objectivity, rather than showered with meaningless praise.

One of the greatest things about reviewing and writing about restaurants is unearthing the unforeseen jewel or the diamond in the rough. The unpleasant part is discovering the restaurant that doesn’t live up to their reputation or the complaining owner who forgets that you are there to dine.

Writing about restaurants brings unique challenges. Often I am offered invitations with the underlying implication that in return the invitee will receive an endorsement by me.  Fabricated enthusiasm and lazy hyperbole do businesses no favours. A glowing article about a restaurant, even when it is deserved can set expectations so high they’re difficult to maintain on a daily basis. Sometimes the food may be tremendous, with the perfect calibration of flavours, but the service wanting. Other times the service is top-notch but the food anemic and undistinguished and the experience feels like something that needs to be endured. 

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