Just before Christmas the Los Angeles Time food critic S. Irene Virbila was very publicly outed by Noah Ellis of Red Medicine in Beverly Hills. Since then leading newspapers and prominent culinary Internet sites have been raging with a variety of points of view about the event.
On one hand Virbila and her supporters (very often from the world of journalism) believe that her career has been ruined as, without anonymity, she cannot review accurately. She seems to believe that if restaurants knew she was reviewing, they would do a better then usual job just to impress her and receive a more positive but unjustified review.
On the other hand major chefs are voicing their long standing view that in all fairness anyone with the power to review (and sometimes ruin) a restaurant after a single evening’s dining should sign their name to their story and be publicly responsible for what they written. (Imagine if Robert Parker never signed his wine reviews: without a name it is impossible to be reassured concerning the qualifications of the reviewer).
In considering this controversy, it’s important to touch base with both our own American past as well as to think about our culinary cousins across the Atlantic pond. Many US culinary critics past and present regularly sign their reviews. Lucius Beebe was one such critic whose picture even appeared on the cover on Life Magazine – no secrets there.
He wrote and proudly signed his many articles and books, writing about cuisine, style, travel and even trains - a favorite side topic that won him many awards. And though easily recognizable by his elegant attire, his reviews never suffer from his visibility and he helped many great restaurants to become famous and successful.
In Europe many food critics are considered culture stars and are both respected and admire for their expertise and leadership. The Spanish food critic Rafael Garcia Santos is one such individual. Even the stylized French critic Anton Ego in the must-see food movie Rataouille proudly signs his reviews.
Additionally those readers who have worked in professional kitchens know that ‘re-tooling’ the menu for a single diner on a single night is next to impossible. Too many vendors and suppliers would be involved not to mentioned the required retraining of the entire kitchen and floor staff.
Such a point of view also seems to reflect a negative view of an industry that works to be both positive and professional every day. Chefs by nature are creative and stand proudly by what they and their staffs share each day with dining guests.
And as everyone knows, in this day of email and Facebook, a restaurant doing less than its best will soon be known as displeased diners light up the social network with alerts about negative experiences – all faster than any newspaper can be printed. Yet even these often young (and sometimes inexperienced) reviewers sign with their email address when posting their thoughts.
No one contests the power of a published review but perhaps in this era of growing transparency it should not surprise any of us that as Bob Doylan wrote “the times they are a-changing" and perhaps for the better.
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2010