In a column published last week on Esquire.com, Josh Ozersky received a fairly straight forward question from an aggreived chef about restaurant writers. In the letter, John Tesar, the former Top Chef contestant from Dallas, TX, complained that restaurant critics are too political, that they have an agenda, and that they are not interested in offering objective opinions to chefs.
Though straightforward and genuine, the question itself is murky. What is, for instance, the difference between an opinion, an agenda and a preconception? What does Tesar mean by “political”? How could any opinion be objective? Why would one driven by an agenda be any less honest than one not? But as flawed as the question was, Mr. Ozersky’s answer was exponentially moreso.
Mr. Ozersky responded to Mr. Tesar by arguing the primary reason critics are so political is because they are driven by a desire “to look cool, to excite his or her readers, and, most of all, to please the editors who control his or her livelihood.” He goes on to with some nonsense about Danny Bowien and Gray Kunz — talk about opinion! — and wraps up by writing, “the real question to me is why there isn’t more back and forth, more dialog [sic], more disputation, more debate.”
As the restaurant critic for the New York Observer, I naturally take issue with Mr. Ozersky’s cynical attribution of intent as well as the underlying premise of Mr. Tesar’s question. I’m not sure whether Mr. Tesar meant political as in dealing with political issues or simply negotiating the ups-and-downs of best new chefs, but if he meant the former, he is wrong. It is the right, and indeed the duty, of a restaurant reviewer to be politically minded, just as it is the duty of every citizen to be politically minded. His duty isn’t simply to measure the execution of a wood-grilled dorade at a particular hot new restaurant, but to examine the philosophy behind the cuisine and how that philosophy fits within a larger context. This is, by its nature, political and, important. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.”
As for the agenda and whether a critic should or should not have one: Yes, he should, and besides, all do. Critics are not automata, not McKinsey consultants, not gourmands with a Geiger counter. They, like chefs, are people too and have philosophies and that is, I think, what makes them interesting and worthwhile.
This speaks more to whether restaurant reviews are pure service journalism or whether they too can be considered a creative act. I, obviously, vote for the former, but within reason. It is clear that as soon as either ideology or narcissism form too opaque a barrier, the legitimacy of the review is compromised. But to expect critics to be mere data analysts does a disservice to the entire project of critical thought.
The deeper and more substantive objection I have to Mr. Ozersky’s piece is the answer to the question: Who do critics serve? Do they serve their editor? Do they serve chefs? Do they serve themselves? My answer is the critic above all serves the reader. Just as the chef’s duty is to serve the best food he can to the reader, it is the critic’s to serve the best criticism he can to the reader. He is the reader’s guardian and advocate, not the chef’s. It is not for the critic to offer a chef his opinion, whether honest or not, whether masquerading as objective or most honestly copping to matters of taste. It is not for the critic to engage with the chef in a dialog [sic] meant for the chef’s benefit. It is not for the chef to hold back, to show mercy, or to make excuses. It is incumbent upon him to report — as true to his own perception as he can be — the facts. Of course, a critic should not — and I think this was a bit of Tesar’s point — persecute chefs needlessly and heedlessly of facts. But he should prosecute him where appropriate, defend him when necessary and laud him where deserved.
Restaurant critics should think of restaurateurs as opposing counsel. Though this seems needlessly antagonistic, as in the justice system, this sort of adversarial relationship is meant to lead to a more fair, open, and delicious society. It is why critics prize anonymity, and if that’s not possible, distance. It’s why critics, at least the serious ones, try not to pal around too much with chefs they might review. They aren’t the chef’s friend. They aren’t the chef’s enemy. They are the reader’s advocate.
That Ozersky thinks the critic should serve chefs might just be a matter of philosophical difference. But to suggest that a critic serves the editor or simply himself is too base an accusation to credence. It is not only blatantly wrong and disrespectful to an entire profession, it is, importantly for a restaurant critic to note, just in bad taste.