Sky Full of Bacon

The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions Rematch, Pt. 5: Outed Critics, PR Conspiracies, and Brunch

Continued from Part 4 here, not to mention parts 1, 2 and 3.

MICHAEL GEBERT: It’s our last day, and we have a couple of questions from the commenters (thanks, folks) as well as every other subject that has anything to do with food to cover here before I run out of pixels. So let’s buzz through them, although of the things everyone will expect us to cover, there are at least two that I just can’t work up any energy to talk about again— Michelin and food trucks. But don’t let my ennui stop you.

Let’s start with another very recent and much talked-about controversy‚ a restaurant called Red Medicine in Beverly Hills outed the L.A. Times’ S. Irene Virbila in a particularly nasty fashion— posting her picture (of which all I can say is, my mom should go eat in Beverly Hills, she looks enough like her to get great service next time) and refusing her service. I’m firmly of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t care if Hitler comes to eat at your restaurant, it’s not good business to get known for embarrassing customers in public, especially in a place like L.A. where many of your richest and most powerful customers are, indeed, famously loathsome. There’s a way to fight back against critics with panache, and treating customers rudely isn’t it. (For instance, it would be hilarious for some restaurant to publish a review of the reviewer’s behavior at table, written in mock reviewer-ese.)

But I’m not entirely sorry if the fiction of anonymity for such long-running reviewers took another hit. I saw at one restaurant the board with all the major critics’ mugshots on it that’s right as the servers exit the kitchen, I’m sure you’ve seen similar.  Recognition must happen all the time, at least at the high end.  But as we talked about last year, it’s just one part of how the whole review system is sort of stuck in the past.  There was an example of that this year that really struck me. When it was announced that Mike Sheerin was leaving Blackbird, Phil Vettel let it drop that he had been to Blackbird recently, presumably for an upcoming review of Sheerin-era Blackbird— the first review of that most important and influential restaurant in over a decade.  Which now wasn’t going to happen, obviously, since the chef it was about was leaving.  What, you couldn’t have blogged a couple of things you really liked in the interim, Phil?  You sure can’t write that review now.  This idea of sitting on your visits to Blackbird until you can craft the perfect comment on it for the ages— it’s so out of step with the speed the food scene moves at these days, as indeed it proved in this case with the chef change.  (Just imagine if he tried to review Va Pensiero!)

NAGRANT: Most of the people who’ve argued that pursuing anonymity is worthless or silly or antiquated are people who never seriously pursued it in the first place. They are people who often derive their self-importance from being insiders or doted upon by the establishment. These folks who often know in their heart that they are freeloading sycophants and so they wish mightily that the establishment would justify their actions by declaring anonymity dead.

There is a question as to whether anonymity should only be the burden of the “critic” and it’s tough to argue that features writers could do their best job by staying home, so I suppose I agree with that.  However, the number one defense people use to take a free meal or moon for the glamour shots in the local glossies is “But, I’m not a critic.” This is fine, but when one of those folks, as they did last week, goes on TV and says they’re a “food critic”, well you know, which way is it?

I’m not arguing that it’s possible to maintain iron-clad anonymity for long. It’s not, see Sifton et al, but it’s still an endeavor worth pursuing and not entirely a fiction as you paint. There is no question, based on my own experiences, that all the rumors are true, things change, you get nicer everything when the jig is up.

Still, even if anonymity is sometimes a ruse, there are more cooks in this city who don’t recognize Mike Sula, Phil Vettel or Jeff Ruby than there are that do.  As such those guys still have the opportunity to provide a unique valuable service, one Grant Achatz (see our earlier discussion), or Steve Dolinsky and his mug shot (who undoubtedly has raised the bar for TV journalism and who I truly admire for not pulling punches when he doesn’t like something) can not: the everyman experience.  Is there a bigger question about how often Vettel could be writing or whether he should be rotated in to a different role after say 5-7 years like most of the New York Times critics?  Sure.

From a very personal standpoint, I am a charming bastard (if I do say so myself). I honestly believe only being a public voice and not a public face has impacted my writing career to some extent. People have a tough time connecting only with a piece of paper – they crave a face, a voice, a personality, and while I’m not the Brad Pitt of food journalists, I know if I went on TV or created a very public persona, I think it would probably allow me to promote myself more effectively.  However, while I love in depth or long form features and interviewing, the market for that seems to have dried up faster than the market for criticism. In the last few years, I feel editors have passed on incredibly interesting stories in favor of the juicy news item I could give them far more than they had in the past.

Criticism still seems to be somewhat in demand and frankly I enjoy it just as much as the features and I’m also good at. I generally want to be the best at what I do, and I think being the best critic, for many of the reasons I’ve cited above includes being an anonymous figure.  Call me a dinosaur, but my great career aspiration is to one day have Sam Sifton’s job at the Times or to take over for Pat Bruno or Phil Vettel and bring a fresh critical voice to Chicago’s major dailies – one that blogs, records, and does holography (if that’s what gets the message across) as well as write the weekly review.  This is not why I keep my anonymity, I would were I writing for the Whitney Young High School newspaper, but it is part of the bargain of being in those positions.  As such, I’m doing more work these days as an e-commerce consultant instead of pursuing some “personal brand” strategy to be a food writer at any cost.

As for the Red Medicine/Virbila incident. It is what it is, a heinous childish action by petty second rate owners.  What are they so afraid of?  I guarantee they’ve given free meals to journalists who’ve still written unfavorable things (and a bunch who wrote just what the owners wanted) – why don’t they expose those people too? Because they control them. I mean of course I’m probably wickedly generalizing, but the actions of those owners feels like the work of a group of guys who fed their friend a 100 shots of beer on his birthday, duct taped him naked and threw him in a lake and were lucky their friend didn’t die. Now it’s 10 or 15 years later and those same guys have some money and a restaurant and they still think their frat boy pranks are funny. As a side note, if Hitler did come in to my gin joint, knowing he was a vegetarian, I still might serve him some offal with a wink and a nod.

GEBERT: But I’m not a critic… I suppose that’s the first reason we have a different attitude about it.  Obviously if you’ve looked at my blog I post reviews of whatever I’ve eaten lately, but that’s as much a way of taking notes and organizing my thoughts as anything; I don’t think I’ve been paid for anything like a review in well over a year, it’s all been feature writing of some sort, which is more interesting to me.  I understand why you say that the market for that has dried up— certainly at the moment the full-time jobs that have been open have all been for the inside news blogs, Grub Street, Eater, Feast, etc. firing off short newsbites all day  But I think that’s a short term function of the advertising environment as much as anything— they can get lots of hits in a day, and keep people coming back to see what’s new day after day.  But that can’t be the only model for food content online, it’s too narrow and now-focused to be the only kind of food writing there is; people want other things too even when there’s no successful content model that proves the fact (except, maybe, books, which remain unkillable no matter what technology throws at them, proving there’s a primal need for intensive one-on-one engagement with a writer, even with the reader’s own money).  But we could just as easily have a different model tomorrow that sells whole articles for 25 cents for the Kindle, or in which Grey Goose Vodka sponsors them or something, and then the longer, meatier piece will be more marketable again.

And I think for journalists, you need to go not only where the traffic is but where your strengths are; the review is devalued because everyone can do it, for free.  (Do it, not do it well, of course.)  But the in-depth piece of reportage— a blogger can do this, but it’s exponentially more legwork (I stopped telling people how long it took me to put together each Sky Full of Bacon video, because I was tired of the “And you’re not getting paid for that?” look), and benefits from having the institution behind you in terms of getting your calls taken, and so on.  Anyway, I’m convinced that if the market’s dried up for longer, more interesting pieces, it’s not because there’s no market, it’s because the market and the demand are still sorting each other out, and now’s the time to be one of the people inventing the new forms.

Okay, let’s take a question from the comments.  Kennyz posited his views on the malign influence of PR firms on Day 1:

2010 was the year of the Public Relations professional. Last year’s chatter was all about who would win the food media wars – traditional outlets or bloggers and discussion forums. Meanwhile, as those peons were battling their esoteric arguments out, PR firms were figuring out how to take control of it all, and they succeeded big time. As we enter 2011, whether it’s a random LTHForum poster writing about a great dinner at Ampersand & Ampersand, a Michael Nagrant tweet to hundreds or thousands of followers, or a feature article in the Chicago Reader, there’s a damn good that it emanated from a carefully orchestrated campaign put together during a brainstorming meeting in some corporate office with a whiteboard and a tray of Corner bakery sandwiches in the center of the table.

My feeling is we really answered this on Day 3, talking about Grahamwich.  I don’t think there’s anything sinister, or even moreso, that there’s anything new about PR people pitching stories to publications; the publications seem to have the upper hand on what they go for or not and even when they go for a pitch, the ability of the PR firm to direct it from that point is so minimal.  I’m working on something right now which started with a pitch from a PR rep, but other than keeping me up to date of the restaurant’s progress toward opening, the PR person has had nothing to do with the shape of the story.

The real change, I believe, is that chefs are taking over the process— and they’re much more likely to be mercurial about how access is granted.  I think it’s worth remembering what happened with movie journalism in the 80s.  A few stars with ties to a few big agencies like CAA became so central to magazine covers that produced newsstand sales that they got the upper hand and were able to say, you bring up Scientology in your Tom Cruise piece and you not only never get Cruise again, you don’t get all these other stars I represent either.  And they gutted magazine movie journalism in that decade; Premiere started out as a glitzier Film Comment and ended the decade as Us (and soon died), and they blacklisted certain writers, and all kinds of things. That’s way more intrusive than anything that ever happened with Sidney Falco pitching J.J. Hunsecker an item for the column at Sardi’s.  (The difference is, this time there will still be blogs out there like cockroaches, surviving and publishing everything.)

NAGRANT: Well, I like KennyZ. I’ve appreciate his posts on LTH and to some extent, he’s right, PR people do have more tools at their disposal to push their messages and they’ve found backdoor channels to push their messages. I mean, yes I do sometimes RT chefs directly or to a lesser extent, PR people. While he can’t see the lust in my heart – let me assure him that I only RT things I’m generally interested in and not because I’m trying to curry some favor.  I’ve been critical of Graham Elliot this year and I even made a joke at Rick Bayless expense regarding the old BK commercials – that’s not something you do if you have some kind of calculated need to suck the teat of monster PR.

That being said, yeah, the Chicago Reader does have a gossip column which is no doubt fed by PR in some way – even if it’s backdoor unconscious stuff.  Still, no there is no PR firm in the world that I know of which represents dudes making sausage in their backyard or opening black market taquerias in their garage. Sula’s coverage is still some of the edgiest craziest shit, stuff so esoteric that frankly it would be suicide to pursue if he weren’t such a good storyteller.

GEBERT: And of course Ellen Malloy’s new model is the opposite of the PR person carefully planting stories, it’s to create a place where chefs can nail stuff to a wall for journalists to find and get inspired to do a piece by.  It’s hands off, giving the chefs an open field to prove to be interesting, or not.  (Which does mean that the chef with lots of innate personality who makes good copy becomes more important than ever without a PR person smoothing the path for them.  We’ll see in ten years if that meant the food got better, or merely that the chefs got more famous.)

Another question from the comments.  An anonymous commenter asks:

What are your thoughts on the Chicago brunch scene? It seems our city more than others has valued the trendy brunch place in the past. Solidly entrenched tradition, or fad on its way out?

Here we’ve run into one of my areas of ignorance; my kids get me up early enough on Sunday morning that by the time those trendy restaurants roll out of bed and start serving mimosas at 11, we’ve been fed for two hours already.  Your thoughts?

NAGRANT: I definitely don’t get to brunch as much as I used to. However, I can say the real solid contenders in the category the last couple of years like Meli Cafe, Stax in Little Italy, Publican, and Jam have really focused on high quality either classics or solid gourmet twists over trendy Butterfinger candy bar larded pancakes. Then again I still love me some Bongo Room (South Loop location) as much as the next guy.  I mean I think as long as you have Sex and the City movie sequels, hung over people, old people with no kids and lots of money and time, and young Chicago transplants who never went to bed the night before, there will always be a demand for brunch.

GEBERT: Final question, same as last year: tell us something fantastic to go eat right now.

NAGRANT: Todd Stein’s caramelle pasta at Florentine. If you’re adventurous, the maatejeering (i’m sure this is spelled wrong, but I’m too lazy to brush up on my Dutch) shot at Vincent, and for good karmic measure, everything in the pastry case at Pasticceria Natalina.

GEBERT: Florentine, I hear that place has an atmosphere like a glorified airport lounge/faux library/garage sale art gallery, but the pastas are good.  My recommendation, which it has been to everybody for the last couple of months, is Taza Bakery in a sketchy little strip mall at 3100 W. Devon.  They have the best beef shwarma in town at the moment, but they also bake all kinds of stuff like spinach or potato pies, and they make these great big puffy breads called tannur that are dirt cheap and great to use like Boboli as a pizza crust.  Check it out.

Thank you for joining me here again to solve all the food world’s problems; thanks to all our commenters for their intelligent and pointed observations, to everybody who linked it, and to all the readers and Twitterers we picked up along the way.  Read Michael Nagrant in New City every week and Chicago Social.  As for me, you’re already here, but be sure to read (Julia Thiel) and watch (me) the Reader’s Key Ingredient every week; the latest one (Paul Virant and spirulina) is here. And there will be a continuation of the Grahamwich-photo kerfuffle on Monday… come back and see.

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