Welcome to Platt Chat, a column where New York critic Adam Platt talks with Grub editor Alan Sytsma to discuss the dining world’s most pressing issues. This week: Why have New York’s critics started writing about so many restaurants outside of New York?
Alan Sytsma: I want to talk to you about this seemingly growing trend of New York critics reviewing restaurants outside the city. Last week, Pete Wells wrote about l’Arpège in Paris. This week, Ryan Sutton’s writing about Salt Lake City. What’s the deal? Aren’t there enough good restaurants in New York for people to write about?
Adam Platt: I’m a local New York critic, so I’m biased, but you can certainly argue that the city is no longer the fine-dining capital of the USA. You have places like Charleston, or L.A. or Nashville where lots of new things are happening. New York has the great old-dining institutions, and the impressive variety, but when it comes to interesting new restaurants, some years are better than others. I would argue, and my colleagues would probably agree, that so far, 2014 has been one of those fallow years. There’s just not a lot that’s very exciting to write about, and if you’re a restaurant critic for an organization with national aspirations, like Pete Wells, and now Mr. Sutton at Eater, you’re naturally going to want to get out of town, and look around.
So do you think the traditional idea that New York is the center of America’s restaurant world has changed? There’s something more like a culinary diaspora around the United States now?
As with all the other art forms, I think New York is still the country’s, and arguably the world’s, great bazaar, when it comes to restaurant fashions and styles. It’s the place where ideas are promoted, exchanged, and disseminated for national consumption. But thanks to the great, reverberating gong of the internet, you certainly don’t have to come to New York to make a splash in the food world anymore. New York is ridiculously expensive, the competition is fierce, and the city’s eaters are famously hard on outsiders. If you’re a talented young cook, why would you come here, when you can have a successful, slightly less stressful career in Portland, or Nashville, or even the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia? The food culture all over the country is much more savvy and informed than it used to be. The market for restaurants is much more mature than it used to be, which means if you’re good, you’ll be able to do creative things, and eventually, the horde of globetrotting gastronauts, not to mention the producers of Iron Chef, will find you.
New York can still propel a chef into the stratosphere, even if they’ve made a name for themselves somewhere else. Look at Danny Bowien or Andy Ricker. They were both known before opening in New York, but their careers skyrocketed after they came here.
That’s true. It used to be — say in the age of Jean Georges, and even Mario Batali — that great chefs had to come to the city to get discovered and make their names. They had to do substantial, formative time in kitchens around New York, before they were plucked from obscurity by some grand critic. These days, and I think I’ve written about this, that tends to happen less and less. More and more, savvy, ambitious chefs, like Andy Ricker, and Bowien, the guys at Toro, will study their craft, and make their names elsewhere, before braving the great maelstrom of New York. They don’t come here to flame out, or to get “discovered.” They come here, wisely, to get validated, and to find a place on the national stage, and if it doesn’t work out, they can always return to their successful franchises back home.
Okay, back to the critic issue, though. I of course agree that there are a lot of interesting restaurants opening around the country, and around the world. Yet as you say, people are more informed, so many readers also already know about the hot places in Chicago or Paris or wherever. It can feel redundant when a New York critic uses a review to reiterate information that’s already available, especially when there are New York restaurants that aren’t getting reviews as a result.
I suppose you’re right. But it was easier to be a grand, New York city restaurant critic, back in the not-so-distant old days, when New York was the absolute center of the dining world. Craig Claiborne, Ruth Reichl, and Gael Greene held their reader’s attention, in part, because the restaurants they were writing about were undoubtedly the finest, most important places to dine in the entire country. These days, we’re operating in a more diffuse environment. There’s delicious food everywhere, and your readers want to know about it. There’s also always been a voyeuristic element to restaurant writing. Most readers probably weren’t going to fork over $500, back in the day, to dine at Le Cirque, but they wanted to know what it was like. Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, those readers want to know what it’s like to dine at Husk, or l’Arpège, or wherever, even though they’re not necessarily going to hop a flight any time soon to find out for themselves. The flip side of that, of course, is what does a snooty New York critic have to tell anyone about the quality of, say, the fried chicken at Husk Nashville? It’s a fair point, I suppose. But speaking as a snooty New York critic, and an informed citizen of the ever-expanding restaurant universe, I don’t really care. There’s a lot going on out there beyond the Hudson, and I want to try that damn chicken for myself.