The big news coming off the Time Out Chicago presses this week is an epic roundtable bringing together the three corners of the current culinary world: critics, chefs, and bloggers.
Representing for their respective categories were the Tribune’s Phil Vettel and Monica Eng, chefs Philip Foss (of Lockwood and also of recent mussel technique fame) and Graham Elliot Bowles (of the eponymous restaurant graham elliot), and two “bloggers.” We’re putting that word in quotes because while the two delegates from that category, Hungry Mag’s Mike Nagrant and LTHForum’s Gary Wiviott, are undoubtedly prominent names in the internet edition of the Chicago food world, they are not actually bloggers as such. But we’re not here to wonder why our invitation to participate got lost in the mail. Nor are we bitter. No sir. But they are internet critics, so that is fine. And the whole shebang was moderated by TOC’s David Tamarkin and Heather Shouse, who sort of straddle the blog/print fence, and thus were ideally suited to keep the discussion in line.
We have actually been sitting on this for well over 24 hours, and we still have no idea where to begin. The full transcript paints a picture of an engaged, multifaceted discussion about the changing face of restaurant criticism and the chef-critic dynamic, which is something we’ve historically had a lot to say about.
The whole thing is wicked long, but it’s worth a read. We’ve filled a couple of pages here with notes, though much of it is retreading ground we’ve covered before. On the whole the discussion is illuminating and funny, for sure, but more importantly it’s inspiring — while ostensibly the point of this summit was to hash out the growing pains of internet criticism, the role we really see it playing is as a reminder that we’re all just people. Yeah, cue up the kumbaya, but it’s awfully easy to hide behind something — a computer screen, a kitchen door, a critic’s veil of anonymity — and complain about the state of the world without giving too much thought to the fact that there are real people on the other side.
Right up at the beginning, Monica Eng said “I think bloggers are changing the way we do our jobs. They—and all competition—spur us to be faster and better.” That’s the real moral of the story here: Not that bloggers are uniformly wonderful people whose every line of keyboard spew should be cherished as a tiny miracle; but rather the notion that the more voices there are, the louder and better everyone has to be. The internet challenges established reviewers to stir the pot a little, get off the bistro-and-Italian beat and start expanding the notion of what qualifies for a review-worthy restaurant, and challenges chefs to keep innovating and not rest on their laurels.
Of course, they go on to other topics — the internet rears its head in unexpected ways. Take this vicious circle: The rise of the internet leads to the slow decline of print media, which means slashed newspaper budgets, which means slashed reviewing budgets, which means print reviews can’t quite tackle things with the scope they used to, which means there’s a vacuum for internet reviewers to fill, which means there’s more reason to turn online for restaurant reviews. Mike Nagrant points out that one of the ways critics work around this is by shedding their anonymity and hoping the restaurants will comp their meals — never mind that coming out from behind the mask changes the timbre of the entire reviewing process.
All in all, the entire thing is worth a read. Go read it.