Food writing has not been fun for me for some time. My recent food conversations with restaurant friends seem stuck on “repeat.” The topic that comes up most often is the current state of food writing in Chicago. Some I talk to feel let down by the writing community because there isn’t enough critical writing about the state of the Chicago food scene.
Why is every new restaurant opening on a HOT list? Perhaps until enough new ones open to push it off? Writing a 2-3 star review is the tepid, limp norm for most reviewers today. How many more times can next get a four star review? They deserve it, but perhaps that time and money can be spent at new places or re-reviewing old spots. I loath the “Best New…” list because invariably someone is left off because of a timing error or it’s to inclusive. I’m tempted to even challenge certain reviews where I know the chef and writer are friendly. I can’t possibly give certain places a realistic review because I am a friend of the chef. How can others be impartial or feel their experience is the “norm” when in the same situation? They can’t.
Don’t even get me started on those who don’t fact check or have an axe to grind with certain restaurateurs or groups. I’ve been on the wrong end of a 2 star review that read more like fiction! It’s beyond infuriating. For what it’s worth, the food writing in Chicago is worthy of 1 star at best. I feel like most food writing I read lately sounds like “our menu is meant to be shared.”
Here is a clear example of the current malaise – the chef at Boardinghouse has been nominated for a James Beard Award – she has to date NEVER been reviewed locally! She took over the kitchen as the Executive Chef over a year ago.
Restaurant people want there to be a continuum of achievement. Imagine if everyone was nominated or won a James Beard award for their food writing, simply because they participate in the craft and had $100. We need to stop with the wishy-wash of words that leave the reader wondering, “did they really like it or not?”
Early in my cooking career, I was blessed to be around amazing people who educated me on flavor and technique. You can blame them for the pain in the ass I’ve become. I drank the restaurant Kool-Aid and loved it. When I left the industry, I felt a void in my life because I wasn’t sharing conversations about food every day.
I began writing to share my stories. The personal emotion I have from food is what drives my posts. I’m under no illusion my writing is better than anyone else’s. I feel as if I sit in some weird middle ground between restaurant people and those who write about them. My old restaurant friends, when I first started writing, were cautious around me until they realized I wasn’t about to write every salacious piece of gossip I overheard. I was leery of my new writing friends because of that fantastic, 2 Star review.
This middle chasm I exist in became clear a few years ago. I was at a dinner with a bunch of food writers when news of a chef leaving his job, again, came out. I immediately thought, “This guy is a ^&$%! jumper.” I started getting a few texts from chef friends saying the same thing. When the table of writers discussed the news, no one saw it the same way I did. Every writer viewed it as the opportunity to move on to a new, better opportunity. I tried to explain in the restaurant world the cooks stay a year, a chef de cuisine minimum eighteen months to two years.
It didn’t seem to register with any of them that these were commonly held, general principles in most restaurants, especially the kitchen. How long you stay in a job is important. It is a sign of commitment and respect. At that moment, I felt like a man with out a country. I was no longer in the trenches working service each night, but I also didn’t feel like a part of the writing community.
The writing in Chicago hovers below a juvenile reading level. We spoon feed, write for clicks or it seems to be about writer’s ego! When I read SEO inspired titles – “the cost of coffee around town” or “the 8 hottest openings in (insert any month)” – I wish I were illiterate. This is what we’ve come to? A dollar difference in coffee cost from one end of the city to the other – econ 101 is a post? And why 8 openings? Probably because there weren’t 9! By the way, what is your favorite Oreo flavor? And don’t get me started on how some think pastry isn’t a necessary part of a restaurant review.
When I see places being fawned over that are truly mediocre, my gut reaction is I don’t want to be the only one, AGAIN, being contrarian. If everything is good, or middle of the road, than nothing is good! I don’t trust the “press dinner” and rarely if ever go any more. I know it’s a contrived event, the equivalent to an open book exam. This isn’t a normal experience and if I go it’s because I know the chef or owners well enough that I would never “sneak-in” any way.
The thoughts floating in my head, the “voices” I hear today are those of shitty, food writers. Their prose goes around and around in my head and I get emotional. I question and wonder how they came to THAT specific conclusion. It’s the same process I go through in wondering why a chef made certain decisions regarding a dish. I still have a passion for food and I really do want to understand others opinions and how they got to their conclusions.
Today’s Editors should be the Executive Chefs of their literary world and hold their writers experiences to certain standards! With fewer food writing outlets and budgets being thin, the grading curve has skewed sadly toward the inedible. You write a food blog and had a tasting menu – I give you the slowest clap. Anyone wanting to write about food should eat A LOT. They should eat often, around the city, the country, if not the world, before they ever think to write.
Why? Because then they can write, critically, based on personal experience.
At a minimum, ANY food writer/blogger should at least eat seriously, around town, as long as it takes a cook to become a sous chef! THEN and only then, should your opinion be unleashed on the world. If you’re not sure how long that takes, go and find out.
We should all accept in today’s world no one is anonymous because the “good” restaurants “Google the book.” If this seems crazy or a restaurateur says they don’t do that, they’re lazy and the experience in their restaurant probably reflects that. Or perhaps it’s time the old, RECOGNIZED writing guard stepped aside and allowed newer voices to be heard.
I’ve met some great writers on this side of the fence but they seem to be the exception not the rule. Personally, I hope writing becomes fun again, but today I sit doubled over with my head in my hands.
Note: If you think you’re a food writer because you Yelp or recreate restaurant dishes at home, I don’t have enough words to tell you how much you don’t get it.
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter or instagram @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at email@example.com
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