Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 food in review

Well, 2010's almost over. 2011 is nearly here. But this schlub always likes to give his takeaways, in movies, books, politics and food.

Let's start with food first (mostly because everyone -- from Adam Platt to Sam Sifton to Eater -- is starting to post their year-in-review roundups). Tomorrow will be politics. Friday will be books and movies.

Chef/restaurant-wise, I think the big story of the year was Michael White. Not that White hadn't been around for ages, but he opened two new restaurants: Osteria Morini (which is spectacular -- Sam Sifton needs to get his head examined) and Ai Fiori in the new Setai on Fifth Avenue (I haven't sat down for a proper meal, but went to an opening party there. The hors d'oeuvres were quite good. And the room was nice.)

In a way, White was poised to be another Mario Batali. The next gold standard for Italian food in the city, opening restaurants at an extraordinary clip.

But after an extremely successful run with Chris Cannon (which also included Convivio, Alto and Marea) they are parting ways. You always wonder how much these sorts of business partnerships relied on each other, (obviously there's no question White can cook... but can he manage a business?). So it will be interesting to see how the aftermath shakes out.

However (and maybe this has something to do with the gossip in me) I thought this was a more interesting year in food journalism than it was in restaurants or trends. I'm thinking of three stories from the hack biz that I thought were far more interesting than David Chang's Ma Peche or Mario Batali's fourth star at Del Posto:

1) The ambush and outing of the LA Times food critic, S. Irene Virbila.

2) Josh Ozersky's wedding story.

3) The fact that Frank Bruni has become a much more interesting writer now that he's not doing reviews.

Virbila's story happened only about a week or so ago: she was patiently waiting for a table at LA's Red Medicine (40 minutes after her reservation) when she was recognized and thrown out. (Apparently, managing partner Noah Ellis doesn't care for her reviews.) And not only was she thrown out, but Ellis snapped a photo of her and posted it on the internets.

In this day and age, the fact that Virbila took pains to keep her identity a secret is commendable. Ruth Reichl used to go to places in disguise -- but by the time Frank Bruni was writing reviews, all you had to do was type his name into google images to find out what he looked like. There are very few reviewers who still make the effort to conceal what they look like (Robert Sietsema and Adam Platt still do).

Ellis' extraordinarily bullying treatment makes him sound like more than just a thug: He sounds like someone who doesn't have much faith in his restaurant to stand up to critical scrutiny.

Ellis has made the weak defense that Vibrila's harsh reviews have cost good people business. Maybe. But that's sort of like blaming your teacher when you bring home a crappy report card. Yes, your teacher could have passed you. But you are supposed to, you know, learn the material. Eating out costs a lot of money. And Virbila provides an extremely important service: She saves her readers from wasting their time and money on a bad meal. Someone said that she is akin to a consumer advocate -- it's true.

And (aside from the drama and the ghastly behavior it involved) the Vibrila / Ellis dustup raised a real question: Can there be a truly anonymous food critic in this internet saturated day and age?

A good case for why anonymity is important was made in Reichl's book Garlic and Sapphires. Reichl's first big review was of Le Cirque. She visited the place once in disguise and was treated like shit -- kept waiting at the bar; put at a meager table near the kitchen; barely acknowledged or attended to. But when she went as herself, she got the deluxe treatment: Not only was every waiter at her beck and call, but the food improved. The raspberry tarts she ordered had noticeably bigger raspberries.

Readers should know this sort of thing. It's a shame that a shmuck like Ellis not only couldn't recognize this but went out of his way to throw a wrench in it.

Josh Ozersky's story, on the other hand, put the journalist on the defensive.

If you don't know the story, Ozersky (whom I've met a number of times -- although I doubt very much that he remembers me) wrote an "advice" column for Time magazine in which he explained how to have great food at your wedding:

Get it catered by Michael White and Jeffrey Chodorow (amongst others) -- like he did in his own wedding. (Now, why didn't I think of that!)

But it would seem that Ozersky left out a critical piece of information: He didn't pay a dime for this food. (It was supposedly a "wedding gift" from these titans of the industry.) Which made the claim that this was practical advice for an average reader planning their wedding utterly ludicrous. And made one slightly suspicious of the fact that Ozersky praised the food at his wedding to the skies.

Robert Sietsema (whom I also know) called Ozersky on this in an open letter in the Voice and explained, point by point, why this was such a terrible breach of ethics. And, in a way, I don't think I can duplicate what Robert said any better than he did, so read it.

I was a little stunned to hear that in the fallout, Ozersky managed to keep his gig with Time. But the incident does raise a critical question for my fellow journalists: Just how cozy should food writers get to chefs and industry people? Ozersky has managed to get various scoops (sometimes great scoops) over the years because he's buddy-buddy with all these people. But can we ever trust his taste on food when we know that he gets these goodies for free? I think the answer is no.

And, finally, one of the most surprisingly good thing to come out of food journalism: Frank Bruni quitting his gig as chief restaurant reviewer.

Not because he was bad at it. (I've written about his pluses and minuses before.) But leaving criticism has turned him into a much more interesting writer. This story he did about a kosher pizza restaurant and wine bar in Crown Heights is one of the better things the Times printed all year.

And, after discussing this with others, it made me realize just how stale the reviewing form is. It's so rare to find a reviewer who breathes life into a restaurant. (Most critics only shine when they're taking a place to pieces.)

It's good to have you away from the restaurants, Frank!