Why Professional Food Writing Is Just as Important as Ever

When Chicago Tribune restaurant reviewer Phil Vettel accepted a buyout last month, it left the nation’s third-most populous city without a full-time food critic. A few weeks later, Detroit Free Press dining critic Mark Kurlyandchik also took a voluntary layoff, leaving that city without one of its food writing mainstays. 

These departures are just the latest high-profile examples of a trend in food media that’s been accelerating over the past few years. As local newspapers across the country have cut costs in the wake of severe advertising shortfalls and declining subscription rates, their food sections, which can be expensive to produce, have been decimated. Many newspapers no longer have a dedicated restaurant critic, and some alt-weeklies that were mainstays of local criticism, like the Boston Phoenix, the Village Voice, and Seattle Weekly, are out of business or no longer publish articles about food. And while there are plenty of food influencer Instagram accounts, paid bloggers, and Yelp reviewers, few are serious independent journalists who have the big picture on the city’s restaurant scene that helps provide context for their opinions.

But even as the media landscape shifts, professional food journalists still provide an important service to their readers and enhance the cultural life of a community, even if their role is in flux. A recent article in Eater Chicago, commenting on Vettel’s departure, described a food critic as an “arbiter of taste” whose role is to “champion places that return value for your hard-earned money and keep you away from the spots that would fleece you.” But during a panel discussion this morning hosted by Eater Chicago, two prominent critics disputed that view, saying that food writing has expanded to wrestle with issues in American culture through the lens of dining, not just recommend or pan restaurants.  

Tejal Rao, a restaurant critic for the New York Times, mentioned “Black Lives Matter” as a cultural movement that has informed multiple pieces she’s written over the past year. “There’s this idea of restaurant criticism about being at a table tasting something and giving a bunch of adjectives. It has to be more than that or it’s really boring,” Rao said.

Devra First, restaurant critic for the Boston Globe, added that restaurants, many of which have closed or shifted to takeout operations, have been a huge story during the pandemic. She believes that part of her role is to “support and uplift” the industry, not just decide which restaurants are worthwhile. “In the moment that we’re in now any restaurant that is managing to muddle through is a four-star restaurant,” First said.

Rao’s colleague Pete Wells agrees. In an article in the New York Times last week, Wells said that with takeout and outdoor dining during the pandemic, his job has changed but the essence of his food writing remains the same: telling people about where to find great food. When he discovered a restaurant that was bringing New Yorkers joy while keeping them healthy, “I didn’t want to just report on it. I wanted to bang a drum so people would pay attention,” Wells said.

Journalists who write about food can take their reporting in many different directions. Freelance writer Korsha Wilson, who was also on the Eater Chicago panel today, pitches stories to publications about voices who aren’t already at the table. She says her mission is to “highlight the amazing work that black and brown chefs are doing in this country.”

Rao said she’s written several stories about food policy, as well as “weird” essays like the one about all the smells she encountered during a day. Other writers highlight important trends that are affecting local businesses. In one example this week, the Los Angeles Times reported on a “dine and dash” scam in which some customers are ordering takeout using fraudulent credit card numbers, or disputing charges made through delivery apps (who often side with the customer rather than the restaurant). One such scam helped put a Korean restaurant called Spoon by H out of business.

Closer to home, local food writing, in publications like the Seattle Times, Seattle Met, and Eater Seattle, helps inform readers about changes in the local dining scene. Sometimes these writers also offer their opinions about recommended spots. Just this week, I’ve learned about a restaurant that one critic thinks is the best pizza in Washington State, about a historic Japanese restaurant in the International District that’s evolved its izakaya menu to include Nashville-styled fried chicken and a teriyaki-inspired cheeseburger, and about a Syrian food cart on Vashon Island.

While there aren’t as many restaurant reviews as there used to be, and even the ones that exist don’t usually come with star ratings, local and national audiences depend on these independent voices to help them understand how the food world is changing. When social media is dominated by advertising and influencers, it’s critical for readers of all backgrounds to have trusted sources who can give them valuable information and put them at the heart of their efforts. And these food writers – even if they’re no longer just arbiters of taste – can still make recommendations on where you should spend your dining dollars.

What I Ate: Roasted beet salad from Joli

Food writing done by professionals helps enhance the cultural life of a community

The Rise of Influencer Culture and Maintaining Reader Trust

The thoughtfully researched, provocative book No Filter, which I finished reading in January, chronicles the rise of Instagram over the past decade and its role in shaping modern Internet habits. Notably, author Sarah Frier chronicles the rise of influencer culture and the ways in that tens of millions of Instagram users earn their living as lifestyle, travel and food influencers by posting on behalf of brands and other companies. According to the author, millions of Instagram accounts have more followers than the New York Times has paid subscribers. Go ahead, read that last sentence again. Wow.

Frier describes how Instagram, although originally resistant to the concept of its customers making money from their accounts, recommended that they keep their interactions on behalf of brands “meaningful and genuine,” because engaging in self-promotional behavior on Instagram would make people who have shared that moment feel “sad inside.” Despite these admonishments, many Instagram users pursued riches on the app, buying fake followers by the thousands and gradually altering their own realities to make their photos, and even their own experiences, more “Insta-worthy.” The founders’ original concept of Instagram as a location for beautiful depictions of daily life was gradually subsumed by an ultra-competitive marketplace in which users competed for likes and followers, with predictably harmful consequences.

The world of travel and food writing is plagued by similar conflicts of interest. When travel or food influencers post on behalf of brands who are paying them to promote their products, it’s simply impossible to provide an opinion that’s worthy of their readers’ trust. This is true whether they’re receiving cash of any amount, or getting gifts in kind such as a free night in a fancy hotel or a new blender. Readers who value independent criticism want to know that the experts they rely on are providing their own opinions, not ones that are colored by the desire to please a client. (Even choosing not to write about a negative experience degrades your readers’ trust, as it prevents them from seeing a full picture of your experiences, both the good and the bad.)

Related: Why People Say There’s No Good Mexican Food in Seattle

As I begin this blog, I’m stating from the outset that the opinions within are my own, and are not at all influenced by any financial relationships with the brands or businesses I choose to write about. Like any author, I have personal preferences, and what I choose to highlight is shaped by my experiences and media consumption habits. But I will always aim to be transparent about where I’m coming from. My hope is that over time, you’ll start to gain a fuller picture of my tastes and interests, and that you’ll begin trusting my expertise and recommendations as a food journalist who you can rely upon for insight. At the very least, you’ll know that anything I write — however wrongheaded it may be — isn’t because someone paid me to say something nice.

What I Ate: Toulouse pork sausage from Beast & Cleaver on a toasted, buttered roll with stoneground mustard and onions

Some food influencers get paid to promote products, but I just thought this was a delicious sausage