Sky Full of Bacon

The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions Rematch, Pt. 3: Let’s Hate On Foodies

Continued from Part 2 here. Submit your questions/observations/rants in the comments and we’ll do our best to address them on Friday.

MICHAEL GEBERT: Talking about restaurants is, of course, merely the prelude to talking about talking about restaurants— that is, the whole food media/online foodie scene, which is to say, talking about ourselves. You brought up some good points on Monday which I want to get to, but if there was a big story this year, I think it was the fact that the whole world got together and announced that it was sick to fucking death of foodies already. The media (including our own Tribune just last week) announced that they were sick of their readers being interested in what they write about, and lots of chefs announced that they were sick of people photographing their food and talking about it online, and The Atlantic and Tony Bourdain hated on Alice Waters, and Graham Elliott got mad at me for dissing on a photo of a Grahamwich, and Natalie Zarzour doesn’t like you or anybody very much.

My first thought is, I’ll listen to a newspaper complaining about people obsessing over a trivial part of life the day it apologizes for wasting an entire section on sports for the last century and a half. My second thought is, I’d hate foodies too if I had ever met anybody like the awful annoying people they describe, but as with the Why-I-Hate-Locavores stories that turn up every few months, the straw men that get marched through these pieces don’t bear all that much resemblance to the real locavores or foodies I know, who are generally interested, thoughtful,  and generous with money and praise. And my third thought is, as I said at Ellen Malloy’s place, if chefs don’t like people talking about them online, believe me, it can be arranged and you can see how much you like it then. But what do you think? Are we just in a patch of grumpiness from the people who’ve mostly benefited from the foodie explosion, albeit in ways that can be damaging to the professional ego when ordinary folks get to express their opinions too, or is there some justice in the feeling that the foodie thing has become a monster raging out of control?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: That’s always been the mode of journalism, right? Trumpet the zeitgeist and then right at the peak, trample all over it. That being said, I don’t know that Chris Borrelli’s piece in the Tribune is a “patch of grumpiness from the people who’ve mostly benefited from the foodie explosion, albeit in ways that can be damaging to the professional ego when ordinary folks get to express their opinions too.”

I mean he was pretty even-handed about saying he was a contributor to the problem and that he made his living off the back of the movement. Plus, Borrelli doesn’t even really care about food like half the journalists in town. He’s just a good writer who happened to get the food beat. As a result, he’s generally one of the better food writers in town, because he hasn’t lost himself in the BS and forgotten to tell a good story along the way.

That being said, do you really think these locavores or evangelists are really straw men? I hear you. Most of the people we know don’t fit the stereotype. However, I guarantee Alice Waters, and frankly half of the moms of kids in my son’s peer group -who wouldn’t know a gougere from a profiterole – would be clucking her tongues at me if they saw me taking my son for chicken nuggets at McDonald’s. For those people, I don’t think there’s really a middle ground. Then again, the irony is that Tony Bourdain while dubbing Waters culinary Khmer Rouge or whatever, is also swearing he’ll never take his young daughter for nuggets at the evil empire too.

So, sure I guess there’s some double-dealing, but you know they say the sign of a great intellect is being able to keep both sides of an argument in your head without going crazy. Most things in life are shades of gray, and it’s not necessarily disingenuous to profit from a movement and also be critical of aspects of it – that’s just smart engagement.

I mean the Zarzour quote about me, Sula and Dolinsky not knowing fuck-all isn’t what it seems. I totally get it. I’m sure what she really meant was “no one really knows how hard it is” and that’s true no one does, not even those of us who have supported her along the way. I mean I’m always talking about she candies her own citrus, makes her own marzipan, spends six hours to make 30 cassatine, infuses her own liquors etc….but I don’t really know what it’s like to work as many hours, living in the bakery. I don’t know exactly the struggle that it takes to continue to use expensive product because it’s the best thing you can use, even when using AP flour, tons of sugar, and industrial oils make 90% of the world happy. Yes, a $9 cannoli is absurd, but she was making a statement. If all those mom’s looking down on me for giving my son the occasional chicken nugget didn’t spend all their money on truly bad commodity pastry from “cute” boutique shops and spend the rest of their time bashing Zarzour for selling a $4 cannoli, it probably would have stayed at $4 or 5 bucks and been the best one you’ve ever had and worth every penny. Instead it will now disappear.

The thing is, there are a lot of d-bags out there looking for free stuff who are more interested in rubbing elbows with famous chefs or in raising their level of self-importance than telling a good story or being generally interested or knowledgeable about food. I think if anything that’s what a lot of people are raising their hackles toward now. I don’t think Paul Kahan has a problem with Sky Full of Bacon videos or Hungry podcasts. I think he has an issue with bad Yelpers, people who don’t know how to mute a flash in the middle of nice service, people who expect chefs and restaurants to be their personal servants, and so called writers/bloggers who tweet what restaurant they’re about to arrive at five minutes ahead of time.

GEBERT: Well, I’m not sure that not caring about food would exactly be an endorsement of Borrelli’s position in this piece; it makes it sound more like a cry for help to his bosses, to get transferred. But I do think these kinds of pieces wind up being easy thwacks at straw men. I know tons of locavores of various stripes, and lots of people with weird hippie notions about food, and the one kind I have never, ever met is the one who gets self-righteous about your rutabaga traveling 501 miles to get here. They’re all about, hey, check this out, it’s awesome, not puritanical rules.

Likewise, foodies are infinitely variable, and obviously a lot of folks on Yelp are of the “I know my Chinese food, and Lao Sze Chuan didn’t have any of the classics like P.F. Chang’s offers” stripe.  LTHForum is better, certainly, but it’s not like there isn’t a lot of Twitter traffic mocking posts there, too.  But these colossal foodie jerks— I’ve maybe come to know of exactly one of them, in all these years, and he’s a guy who’s richer than God and believe me, those guys have been throwing their weight around since before Babbage’s Difference Engine. The internet and Michael Pollan didn’t make them happen.

But let’s get back to the local scene. I loved Pasticceria Natalina when it first opened, but if anything, I feel guilt as a journalist rather than as a foodie who failed to live up to Natalie’s expectations, because I was one of those who wrote things which praised her treats so lavishly that they probably encouraged her to think she could do anything (and that people were a-holes if they wouldn’t pay anything for it). And sorry, a bakery is a business, and Andersonville is probably too expensive a place for it, and there are only so many times that I can go into one shop and walk out with one small $30 box with tonight’s dessert in it. And as Kennyz pointed out on LTHForum, she can say that people buy her quality of stuff every day in Sicily or wherever, but that’s because a cannoli isn’t $9 there. (LTH being LTH, the claim was immediately followed by actual citations of recent prices paid in Europe.) So I’m not convinced that there wasn’t some way to make that business work somewhere in Chicago and educate people along the way, but turning a cute little bakery into some kind of anti-consumerist performance art piece probably wasn’t it.

I mentioned my little run-in with Graham Elliott, which was somewhere in the high four digits of most consequential foodie stories of the year and hardly bears repeating, but to me shows a couple of things about the way the world works now between fame-seeking chefs and online voices clamoring to be heard and the professional food media blogs always looking to turn something into A Big Story. Certainly on the one hand Elliott has been very good at being his own best publicist, a larger than life attention magnet.  And Grahamwich got a hell of a lot of opening attention for a sandwich joint, climaxing with all those photo essays of a completely empty, food-free Grahamwich at 9 in the morning of its opening day.  They were like foodie zen— image after loving image of brand new countertops on which nothing resembling a sandwich was to be seen yet. You have to call that a triumph of a chef getting the food media to buy into his myth and follow his every move.

Except a picture of a sandwich did go out at the same time— a snapshot of a spinach-colored veggie wrap, taken by a non-food nightlife blogger. Not to insult her photographic skills, but it was just a snapshot and the thing looked like a wrap from the most ordinary strip mall lunch spot, no GEB magic. And I tweeted to that effect, and Elliott shot back that I was a douchebag hater or something. Which may be true, but still, the one image of the actual food that’s out there is this green log, so you’ve got this complete disconnect between the media rhapsodizing about the coming of Grahamwich and the only reality anyone’s seen (I’m not sure it still isn’t the only photo of a sandwich I’ve seen from there).

So Elliott is great at playing in this world on the level of a bigger-than-life celeb chef who can F-bomb back against bloggers or Chicago Magazine or whatever and only gains in cachet from doing so.  But the next level of being a participant on the scene for your own purposes isn’t just fighting back against bloggers as pipsqueak worms, it’s being cool and strategic enough to turn the current your way.  If he’d called me— or some blogger with better photographic skills— and said, hey, douchebag, why don’t you come see if you can take better photos, I guarantee you there would have been a whole bunch of much sexier shots of the sandwiches out on all the blogs a few hours later.

Which maybe brings us back to something you said on Day 1, about how there are so many outlets now covering the scene: “I think part of the blame is the blog war (and this includes old school pub blogs too – not just the new guys) we got going on. Everyone’s fighting for the last scrap and as a result they feel compelled to cover every two-bit line cook and his or her dream as if they were the next Thomas Keller. Mediocre falafel shacks in the suburbs are given the same pre-opening treatment/gossip as Grahamwich.” Basically, there’s no gatekeeping any more— everything is hot news, everything goes out to the world and makes noise as if it were the most important thing that ever happened since the last most important thing.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

NAGRANT: I’m not saying Borrelli doesn’t care about food. I’m saying he’s not “inside baseball.” He’s not obsessed with the culture or the competition from bloggers and his motivations are likely not about tearing them down, but rather a genuine concern about where this whole thing is going.

There are a bunch of people who think they know everything and they’re making it hard for people who are trying to be original or unique in the marketplace by always tearing things down. There is nothing more odious than the reviewer or the food blog poster who says, “Well I’ve been to Italy and whatever they serve at X restaurant is not a proper piece of agnolotti.”  Such phraseology is a blatant attempt to sound like you’re cosmopolitan or somehow qualified to judge more than someone else and always a set-up for a teardown.  And who cares what Italy does? I don’t care if they were the originators.  I’m not likely to be on a plane to check it out tomorrow.  I want to know what’s good here, right now? Americans make certain types of pizza better than Italy ever did, and that never would have happened if we just tried to match or ape Italian cuisine.  The real question that needs to be answered in these cases, is the thing good, period?

I think Pasticceria Natalina worked. I think it still works, but I don’t think its owners want to continue to operate it given all the hard work and conflict it takes to maintain their standard, that’s all. Sometimes it’s just too tough and you need to move on. Thomas Keller failed in New York before finding a way to make his standard work at the French Laundry. The Zarzours will find something that works for them.

As for Grahamwich, well I had this exact conversation with a local blogger. I said, “Why are you going in at 9 a.m. to take a picture of nothing. Don’t do it.  You’re not being unique. Everyone’s going to do the same thing, so what’s the value?”  This obsession, not even with food as much as the things around food, is the precise problem I think Borelli’s sort of getting at.

We need less worship and obsession and more judicious substantial storytelling. That being said, I’m not saying Elliot’s sandwich shop doesn’t deserve coverage. It does. Just take a look at that website.  While the load times are a little annoying and he decides to play music on it which I think 97% of web surfers hate, it’s a very interesting interactive approach to a food website. Likewise the sandwich options being offered at Grahamwich are likely to be much better than their tired counterparts served elsewhere. I guess I would have liked to see a story on the construction of the menu, how Elliot came up with the flavor profiles he did or how he invented certain flavors.

I don’t think what’s happening is a triumph of the chef as much as a failure of journalism. Then again, the chef has a lot to do with exploiting that failure.  Elliot is smart enough to know that we’re so obsessed with the celebrity that instead of doing a journo preview, he invites celebrity chefs and key tastemaker friends the day before, knowing full well, they’ll send tweets and journos will eat that up.

Of course, what happened is that in doing that, he also exposed that while chef friends and their girlfriends might be great cooks and slick talkers, they’re not always the best judge of quality or the best photographers. Also their coverage can come across as biased and not often informative, and in the case of the terrible photo of the veggie wrap, sometimes detrimental.  I mean Elliot can call you a d-bag, but he knows that picture made that wrap look like a POS.

Then again half the food bloggers operate the same way as those chefs too because they don’t care about quality as much as speed and the scoop or having people listen to them or scoring attention from a particular chef, so really I’m not sure it matters who gets the preview.

That being said I’d still rather get my news from the most disinterested party I can.  Clearly I respect Grant Achatz and what he does. I wouldn’t have begged to work on his cookbook if I didn’t. That being said, I’m not sure what I’m learning from his tweets about local restaurants.  He’s tweeting often about friends in the industry – there is nothing to be gained from saying a critical thing and everything to be gained by being nice to his peers and that’s likely what we get.  Also, if you’re Grant Achatz, everyone in food knows who you are and I guarantee he gets most people’s A game and not necessarily the experience most “normal” people get.

On a different note, but along the same lines, the last page of Food and Wine this month had Stephanie Izard’s hot list or whatever.  One of the things she recs is Black Dog Gelato. The thing here if you’re paying attention is that the owner of Black Dog Gelato used to be one of Izard’s employees.  So, sure maybe she does love Black Dog, but does she love it better than other Chicago options or is she just pimping a friend?   If you really want to learn something from Achatz or Poli or Izard or whoever is talking, you need to know the places they went and didn’t tweet or talk about.

TOMORROW: We take a walk on the low-rent side

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