Shuna In 1998 on a visit to the French laundry I was scolded by a pastry chef there for never having read Jane Grigson. (Ironic indeed.) My heart always lifts when I meet a cook who’s passionate about words and cooking in equal measure and I always remembered her. Shuna Fish Lydon.  I was delighted a year or so ago, maybe longer, to come across her blog, which I admire. She is pastry chef at Sens in San Francisco and she writes for Edible San Francisco magazine and KQED’s Bay Area Bites). So I was delighted to see her name in my inbox last week, and asked her if I could post her complete email.

Hello Michael Ruhlman,

This evening a close family friend of mine gave me this article which you wrote for a magazine. I do not know the name of because she ripped out the page to give to me.

It interests me, of course, because I am both a chef and a blogger. I have been a professional cook for 15 years and a blogger for 3 come March. I am not the only chef blogger, but the truth is that there are few chef bloggers. I’m wondering how Mario Batali feels about us?

At the last Blogher conference I sat on a panel of a few food bloggers. A commenter asked the panel, but directed toward me, about Mario Batali’s recent comments about food bloggers. You know what? I had no idea what specifically the person was speaking of, but somewhere in my body I Knew. I just did. I knew the food blogger he hated, because, on some level, I despise this food blogger he rants about as well.

I became quite emotional when I responded. I let the audience know that when a food blogger hurts one chef/restaurant owner, he/she hurts us all. I spoke to the tiny profit margins restaurants live on.  I asked people not to be cowardly (as you addressed) and speak up when they had an issue with their meal. i said there are plenty of people on staff at restaurants ready to fix, or attempt to fix, problems diners have.

Why am I writing you? Aren’t I just preaching to the converted?

I want your ear for a moment. You have far more readers/commenters and power than I do as a writer and I wanted to run something I’ve been thinking about, because maybe you could pass it on to the people/chefs you know who rail against "all of us food bloggers" without distinction.

Recently I took a job as the pastry chef at a restaurant we just recently opened to the public. One of the reasons I think my voice is important at Eggbeater is because I am a chef and what I can speak to I feel that few others can, and be trusted to do so. I can speak for a lot of chefs and cooks and pastry assistants and prep teams and dishwashers who don’t have the time or inclination to set their stories down. I inspire and validate a lot of folks in whites, male and female, and to this end I keep writing. For us all.

Me, personally, I don’t think TV Cheffing should have the last media word on my industry. It’s far too complicated to be summed up neatly on television, whether cable or prime time.

I began a series when I started with Sens called Opening A Restaurant.

Some of it is personal, some joyful, some excruciating, frustrating, extra ordinary, devastating and on and on. I am trying to paint the whole picture even if it means painting the life mural that it is.

What I have begun to think about is this.

Chef blogging is a kind of underground railroad.

Eric and I used to joke about something at TFL. We were close friends when he and I lived in Napa and we worked for Thomas. But we both knew that the minute each of us went elsewhere, we might never see each other again. If I called him tomorrow and I needed to run something past him, he would be there for me, as colleague and friend, as if no time had passed. I know this. It is true for so many of those I have worked with and for.

This phone exchange is an example of the loyalties we develop. When a cook or a chef comes into the restaurant I work in I treat them better than a movie star. I would trail/interview/stage anyone someone I knew recommended. This is the fierce loyalty I honor. maybe it’s old school, but it’s the code I honor.

Recently I connected with a sous chef from another SF restaurant. He started blogging, I somehow found him, asked him a question about Tonka beans and the week following he was standing in my kitchen with one of his cooks and we were talking shop. He gave me some beautiful ingredients from La Sanctuaire but would not accept payment of any type. Last night I coursed him and two friends out with fanciful desserts, on the house.

This is something you know about but I want to say for the record that this was a meeting facilitated by blogging. Although I might have met him at some point, blogging connected personally and quickly. And now we both have an ally, an ear, a shoulder to lean on– an automatic loyalty is formed.

I know that headlines like Bloggers v. Chefs get readers in magazines, but, even if your article is about how this versus idea is a shortsighted one, this headline reinforces that we are enemies, when in fact, sometimes we are the very same people.

I stand on complicated ground and I think about it every day.

I belong to an industry which would rather put on blackface and dance on TV than spell out the realities of my day to day job, so that it can pretend that glitz is what you get as a reward if you know how to lift a saute pan, hold a knife and button a cotton coat. I know that there are chefs and cooks and pastry chefs who would rather I shut up. No one likes their industry, their intentions, their choices to be critiqued. But the truth is that my industry has been inexorably changed by its recent spotlight. And culinary schools, shiny magazines and TV empires are the only ones benefitting.

I love what I do for a living. Which means I know it well enough to also despise it sometimes too. With the kiss also comes the slap.

Michael Ruhlman, you have a lot of power as a wordsmith of my industry. Please represent all of us food bloggers when you write. Please pass on to Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali and Thomas Keller that there are chef, pastry chef, line cook, culinary student and pastry cook bloggers out there, too, who are attempting, in their own small ways (few of us are represented by The Food Network/ Top Chef/ Iron Chef and the like…) to talk about what it’s really like standing over hot stoves 14-19 hours a day, 7 days a week, like they [once] did.

It is my firm opinion that my voice is an important one. It means that I will never have a million visitors a month because I write about something specific and do it with more emotion than most people are comfortable with. But it does mean that I inspire future and present cooks and chefs all over the world, every day.

And if that means being lumped into a category which is a piece of clothing which neither fits nor suits me and my [blog's] purpose, so be it. I’ll remain a small fry rallying for the other small fries. It’s hot in here, but I can stand it. I’m a Chef.

shuna fish lydon
e g g b e a t e r
cooking, baking & nifty photos

http://eggbeater.typepad.com/shuna/

Edible San Francisco staff writer
KQED Bay Area Bites

and

Shuna Lydon
Pastry Chef
Sens Restaurant
4 Embarcadero Center
Promenade Level
San Francisco, CA 94111
P 415 362-0645

Chef blogs Shuna likes:

http://linecook415.blogspot.com/
Dana Cree on Tasting Menu
Haddock on Knife’s Edge
Lindsey Danis of Adventures in Dessert
Brett Emerson of In Praise of Sardines— his Opening A Restaurant series
David Lebovitz
My most googled piece about being a chef and its inherited responsibilities which few people seems to care about anymore, "What is a Chef’s Responsibility" 

(and don’t miss the impressive ideasinfood and studiokitchen)

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68 Wonderful responses to “Underground Railroad: Chef v? Bloggers—A Chef-Blogger Comments”

  • The Professor

    I read Eggbeater every day and I enjoy it very much. Sometimes it is so emotional that it is painful. Shuna lays her soul bare at times, but she is so honest…her background (family) I would guess is a big part of her writing style. She is great !!!!!

  • lux

    Asking people to state their problems with a meal at the time you’re eating it is problematic for a couple of reasons:

    1) Not everyone is comfortable voicing a complaint face to face in real-time. Confrontation isn’t fun.

    2) The real possibility that the kitchen will exact their version of revenge if they feel the criticism is unjustified. Who wants to eat a meal wondering if there’s spit hidden in your food, or your decaf coffee served with caffeine, or god knows what other forms of subtle revenge exacted on you, because you complained?

  • the pauper

    Is it possible that this whole issue is overblown? I am interested to know of the instances when a ‘powerful’ blogger has facilitated in shutting down a restaurant. I also wonder if these chefs actually really care about bloggers unless prompted; they are busy people running restaurants or cooking or creating an empire. Also, how about the people who opened Wakiya in New York? Do they just hate legit reviewers cuz they got panned EVERYWHERE?

  • Claudia

    As if one blogger could bring Batali – or even one of his restaurants – down. As if a HERD of bloggers could bring Batali down. He’s an empire, fer chrissakes, with an impeccable rep. And to reiterate – Batali was as irate as Jeff Chodorow was when Frank Bruni, the NY Times food critic, trashed his steak house. I keep telling myself that Batali and Cosentino have just been tormented too much by one blogger each, their personal betes noire, who now has both of them swinging like drunks in bar fight at all bloggers, reviewers and journalists alike. Oy.

    Michael, you never reported exactly what Trotter’s comments were regarding bloggers. And I don’t expect you will, now . . . (!)

  • Porsche

    Powerful words, indeed. It’s true that it’s a difficult separation between bloggers and chefs, especially with the reality tv boom. I think meaningful, peaceful co-existence can be made. Rocco DiSpirito had a blog and did Top Chef, and on top of that, he also did the Restaurant, which I think accurately depicted the life of a restauranteur. He’s even doing cooking technique videos now while he backs Bertolli’s Mediterranean style frozen dinners, which really are phenomenal, I might add. Great for those of us busy and on the go, and addicted to blogging (like myself, ha!). Check out some of Rocco’s videos and the new light Bertolli brand. They’re great (I know, ’cause I work with them). http://www.whatsyourmedstyle.com

  • French Laundry at Home

    Aw, I >heart< Shuna. I’m glad she’s doing what she’s doing — she’s one of the best and I can’t wait ’til I’m in SF in a few months so I can spend some time at Sens and hopefully with her. To me, Shuna epitomizes transparency, honesty, integrity and passion in everything she does and says. She was so incredibly supportive of me when I started blogging, and facilitated an introduction to someone else I admire, and for that I will forever be grateful. Shuna rocks.

  • Sara

    If the chefs have time to spit in your food, the restaurant’s isn’t getting enough business, with or without you.

    There are, of course, risks to be taken any time you’re in a restaurant, from what you eat and drink to how you deal with it when it’s not to your satisfaction. Any restaurant worth the food on its menu, though, is able and willing to gracefully handle any number of complains, from an underdone burger to the accidental serving of bad food to a waiter spilling red wine on a white shirt. And no matter how scared you are of confrontation, unless you are a belligerant asshat or someone who write NO TIP on the credit card bill — AFTER the fact — and lists everything you “did wrong” during service (that happened to me once… the kid actually left his phone number, and you better believe every chef and server in the place was calling him all night long [moral of that story: if you're going to insult on the check, don't leave your number]) there is very little chance anyone will remember you or your minor inconveniences in an hour or so. The only thing waiters/managers/chefs remember at the end of service were the people who were so incredibly fantastic you almost want to wet your pants, or the complete asshats who are cruel and vicious and especially difficult. If you fall anywhere in between… you can come back the next day and it won’t much matter.

    Cooking is an craft, a trade, sometimes an art. People want their food to taste the same every time they visit a restaurant, but they also must realize on some level that it’s impossible to duplicate cooking over and over again exactly. It is not a science. (exceptions: really old people and belligerant asshats.) So try not to be afraid of saying something isn’t right. Part of the restaurant business is being able to fix mistakes quickly and well — they happen over and over, all night long.

    Also, I find it extremely offensive and passive aggressive to go to a restaurant, have problems, not tell anyone, and to go home and write a scathing review on a blog. If you bring up your issues and they are either not corrected, ignored, or made worse… blog away. But you should at least TRY to get it fixed. That’s why restaurants aren’t serve-yourself counters with chefs and cashiers. You’re going to tip the wait staff — USE THEM!

  • m. butler at myspace

    thanks for posting this .. its helpful to know there are others out there who feel the same way i do ..
    and to the poster above me .. bravo .. great post thanks :) .. m. butler @ myspace

  • Kali

    So…enough people read restaurant reviews on blogs and base their dining decisions on them to significantly affect business?

    Who knew?

  • Viniveritas

    I don’t understand chefs. I really don’t. I don’t understand why you do what you do; it perplexes me to no end. I don’t want this post to seem like a flame or troll, but since it seems to be vaguely on subject, I’m going to wonder aloud..

    How can you toil and slave and do all the things you love to complain about (especially A. Bourdain) for peole who, for the most part, would call the cops if they saw you and your beat up honda civic in their neighborhood? People who you would *never* dine with you or have you as a friend(other than as servant)? In short, how can you act as a lap dog for the elites? Now, I’m not saying this is true for all restaurants. But if you go to culinary school, chances are you’re probably working at a restaurant you could most likely never afford either before or after the CIA (especially after, considering the price of attending the place). How can you in good conscience serve some multimillionaire dickhead foie gras during a $200 tasting menu when there are people just struggling to put food on the table? Or following Alice Waters as some kind of demigod…a person who discards and won’t eat conventionally raised food–food that many in the world would f’n kill for. Arrogance beyond belief. Truly American. You do nothing more than serve the ruling classes, or, worse yet, those who so fervently aspire to their position that they waste their hard earned money (or credit) on the status bestowing aura of such restaurants. So, don’t complain when master cracks his whip (a bad review) and make sure to smile and say how much you don’t deserve any praise.

    And learn… http://www.dsausa.org/dsa.html

  • lmg

    I don’t blog. I read many blogs. I also talk to a lot of people. I try to gather as much information as is available before I spend my very hard earned money on my favorite past-time – eating out.

    Where is the difference between hearing an opinion at a cocktail party and reading it online? Because blogs are accessible to more people they have more responsibility?

    The internet is now the town square. As consumers we have a personal responsibility to make up our own minds. If a blogger has an agenda, is juvenile, only eats at a restaurant once, is an obvious ass…I am going to treat their opinions as less worthy than someone I know personally or a blogger with a more professional approach.

    This whole argument really feels like a dampening of freedom of speech. If someone is a dick I’m not going to pay attention to them. But I sure as hell am not going to tell them they don’t have a right to voice their opinion.

  • Tags

    It’s not just people who work in restaurants. Some people have this recording of “the customer is always right” always playing in the back of their heads and react accordingly.

    Years ago, a date told me in disgust about a phone call she received (she worked in HR) where this guy just started right in about how “you really have this all f***ed up,” as if she personally reached into his file and performed some sort of voodoo mischief to ruin his life.

    You’re dealing with someone who doesn’t take into account that the person performing a service for them has a life with issues beyond her control and he treats her as the factory farmer treats his livestock – as an “entity,” something that exists without feeling or feelings.

    Maybe he was the victim of this treatment himself, but adding gasoline to the fire invariably results in the guy with the gas can getting burned, unfortunately involving innocent bystanders in the inferno.

    If you can calmly and rationally explain the lapse in service, by all means do so. Failing that, try to enlist a disinterested party (maybe the calmest dinner partner) to represent you. If that’s not possible (or you fear liquid soap in your drink) take it up via email with the restaurant after you cool off.

  • Tags

    That “DSA” website is a lame-ass transparent attempt to link the words “Democrat” and “Socialist”, contained in an obvious troll post. Nobody’s mind is going to be changed with this.

    Most of us here love ham, but we know where ham comes from, so ham hands stick out like a sore thumb.

  • Dianne

    Vineveritas, interesting but odd post. Reminds me of the turbulent 60′s, where anyone who tried to excel in the service industry was immediately put down as catering to “the man”.

    I have a huge respect for chefs. I try my best to cook, and sometimes things work out very well, but I just don’t have “it” — you know, the sense of what goes together, works well, needs just this spice, should be plated just this way. It’s magic to me.

    When I have the money to spend, nothing pleases me more than having a magician make me a beautiful, delicious plate.

  • kc

    If you ask for the food to be taken back, how do you know they won’t spit in it? This obviously depends on the type of restaurant, so let’s say mid-range?

  • Sara

    You know it’s a troll post when… it includes the phrase “toiling for the elite.”

    Tags: Exactly.

  • realitybites

    I don’t think viniveritas is a troll. His/her post speaks some truth whether we want to admit it or not.

    Marxism is a beautiful ideology. But it will never work in the real world. The service industry is all about the haves being serviced by the have-nots. Unless we eliminate restaurants, hotels, airlines, salons, auto shops etc. etc., we will live in a system where those who are well off are pampered by the less fortunate.

    The good thing is that we live in an open system where we can rise above our birth station and become one of the pampered as well. At least this is what we are told to believe anyhow. In reality, it is easier said than done.

  • Doodad

    Wow this thread took a harder left turn than a stockcar.

    And I just knew The Man was on here. I could feel the boot on my back.

  • Deb

    This past weekend, I attended the Gourmet Institute where Ruth Riechl addressed subject of restaurant reviews and blogging at length.

    I am an avid “food enthusiast.” I have attended culinary school on nights and weekends for several years now. I also write a food blog. While neither my cooking nor my blog stem from my profession, I take them both quite seriously.

    During multiple sessions, we discussed the issues of who reviewers are ultimately responsible to as well as blogger (vs. print journalist) ethics.

    Ultimately, Ruth felt that a reviewer is responsible to the publication they write for — not to a restaurant. Their job is to sell newspapers (magazines, subscribers, etc).

    Her concern with bloggers stemed from ethics… if a magazine reporter accepted a free meal in exchange for a glowing review, they could get fired and they lose credibility with their readers. Whereas, a personal blogger really has no accountability to a publisher, so they are able to bend the rules of ethics to suit their needs.

    Personally, I’d never accept a free meal in exchange for a review. In fact, I’d probably write about how the restaurant tried to comp me.

  • Deb

    Further, Mario, like many other restauranteurs, fear bloggers because they have no way of knowing who we are, what is our culinary knowledge base, what are our points of comparison when we write a review. (Personally, I find that every time I take out my camera and photograph a dish — the wait staff gets nervous).

    Now, there are two schools of thought here: First, only a culinary expert should review restaurants (owners like this attitude because there are only a finite number of “experts” out there and they can easily identify them). An expect will have a wide reference for comparison, (hopefully) an established and accepted code of ethics, and a methodology to their reviews.

    The other school of thought is that as a chef/restauranteur, you cook for the public. Therefore, peer-based reviews are more likely to reflect the type of experience the public can expect to have. They do not seperate the writer from the reader — they are peers. Peers are more likely to relate to one another than the public will relate to the newspaper food critic. Blogging provides the public with such a peer-based forum of communication.

  • Sara

    You know what? Bands don’t like people blogging about albums and shows, directors don’t like people blogging about their movies, actors don’t like people blogging about their weight… what it comes down to is that no one thinks anyone else has any insight into their lives/work/process/pet project and therefore they don’t like it when someone who is anonymous and not a “professional” or at least published writer commenting on things that they put a lot of time and effort into. Blood, sweat and tears, if you will.

    However, everyone has an opinion and the internet has given us the ability to publish those opinions, no matter our qualifications. My food blog gets, at best, about 30 or so hits a day (largely, I think, because of you guys.. THANKS FOR VISITING, REALLY!!!). My entertainment/general stuff blog gets maybe 100-200. I am a mere drop in a very, very large ocean. But I’m sure if someone I was writing about found something unfavorable on my site, they’d be pissed. And when I find critical responses to my pieces online, I get upset, too. It’s hard not to. But chefs, like the rest of us, need to be able to step back and realize it’s just one opinion. If your restaurant got 100 bad reviews, and it’s driving customers away… well, maybe it’s time for some re-examination? (Or, y’know… call Gordon).

    What’s up, The Man. Can I have some of my taxes back, please?

  • Bob delGrosso

    Deb
    I accepted a free meal in exchange for a review once. And LOL, I will do it again too but I doubt that anyone is going to offer me the opportunity.

    I wrote what I believed was a balanced critique and the result was that the chef who invited me in won’t talk to me anymore!

    But honestly, I really have no interest in reviewing restaurants and I don’t doubt for a minute that 98% of the people who have ever run a restaurant (as I have) would want a job like that.

    Which brings me to the whole blogger vs chef thing: I think the chefs who complain about bloggers are just like the chefs who complain about conventional restaurant critics. They only complain about them when they don’t like what they write!

    When I was a working chef, I loved it when the Times gave my place 3 stars! Like the next day we were booked three months out and the money poured in like water -but I lived in fear of a bad review. (I don’t remember ever getting any but maybe I forgot them :)

    Okay, it’s throwdown time with Bobby d!

    I challenge everyone to find examples where chefs have complained about any type of critic who has published a good review. And to up the stakes a bit, the complaint about the good review has to be based on the same reasons they complain about the bad reviews.

    The good review is invalid because:

    1) the reviewer only came once
    2) the reviewer has no cooking experience
    3) the reviewer called one thing another (e.g. the grizzly strip steak was really a rib-eye)
    4) the reviewer used bad information about the business or the personal life of an employee

  • FoodPuta

    No offense to all the food bloggers out there. But if choose to go to a restaurant based on reviews, I generally will go with a forum type review, such as Chowhound, etc….

    One persons opinion compared to the mass?

    The mass is always going to have more clout.

  • the pauper

    What’s going on with The Man? I can’t even handle the bourgeoisie. Goddamn. Y’all are all keeping me down. [how the hell did 'The Man' and socialism come up on a foodblog???]

    Deb, does Ruth Reichl ever classify the bloggers out there? I mean, if you take a look at web traffic, it’s easy to see if you take some of the biggest food blogs like amateurgourmet or smittenkitchen or strongbuzz, if they review a restaurant, everyone in the food blogosphere see it. the majority of blogs? and i mean like 99% of them, get very little traffic.

    and honestly, those big blogs out there know wtf they are doing with accepting free meals and telling us about it. i don’t buy this idea that journalists are the only ones with integrity and ethics.

    i hate this idea that criticism should be held at bay simply because restaurant workers’ livelihoods are at stake. talk about lame; shifting the moral burden on the customers who have to PAY to eat at a restaurant? so if i buy something from sony or samsung or a phone from sprint or verizon, then i should just stfu because think of the 100,000 people who work there! oh but wait, we can criticize them because ppl who work for fortune 500 companies aren’t like minimum wage workers. doooooooh!

    it is true, no one likes criticism. however, it appears that the level of tact that some critics want of bloggers are simply too ridiculous given the amount of traffic that 99% of these blogs get.

  • Deb

    Bob,

    I totally agree with you. It is no different in the consumer electronics industry (where I work)… when CNET gives a camera, TV, DVD player (whatever) a great rating, manufacturers rush to put the CNET editor’s choice awards logo on their packaging and in their advertising. However, if CNET is critical of a product, the manufacturer is on the phone with their ad sales rep… or the reviewer… nit-picking the publication’s testing methods.

    However, the one major difference between a CE manufacturer and a restaurant is their advertising budget — a product manufacturer can offset a bad review with aggressive advertising, events, and direct consumer marketing. I believe (not a hard fact) than few — probably less than 1% — of restaurants even have a marketing budget, so they are totally dependant on reviewers to promote their business (and reviewers are beholdant to their publishers and readers first).

    When I write about restaurants on my blog, I take the approach of “experiential storytelling.” I am not making a judgement of the restaurant or the chef — or even a reccomendation to my readers. I purely write about my experiences. I think I’d make a terrible critic. I always go to restaurants predisposed to enjoying my experience. It takes a lot for me to turn a critical eye. So far, my readers like my approach.

  • nika

    No offense to anyone because this is a simple fact but food bloggers are not asking for your permission.

    This Web 2.0 blogging thing is about open source writing and the core of that is that each blogger creates (or does not create) their own credibility or authenticity.

    Meanwhile, the restaurant industry is based around a hierarchical or paternalistic model that dictates defined rules and authority.

    The blogging world is the polar opposite of that and that will never change. If it were to change, blogging would wink out in a moment.

    This is not directed at Shuna or any other specific chef.. its more of a general statement.

    I care that people find their bliss, do what makes them happy. Too many of us are caught in wage slavery and never have a chance to do something they are passionate about (or even identify what that is).

    I do not feel responsible FOR that bliss tho, especially as a food blogger. (and I am most certainly not a restaurant blogger)

    Its a chef-eat-chef world out there but you signed on for the ride.

    I think the pressure cooker atmosphere that publicists and PR firms create around restaurants (FOR PROFIT, nothing more) as well as the extreme social Darwinism of the chef-ly profession is sucking all the fun out of the entire enterprise.

    Lose your sense of humor (perspective) and you begin to believe the hype that the right to eat foie gras is a basic human right or that eating out of season is one of the seven deadly sins.

    Food is at its best when it is served simply and with a humble and loving heart.

  • redman

    the author, in her list of food professionals who have blogs, neglected to mention culinary instructors who have blogs :)

  • ruhlman

    thank you redman, i need to put a list of chef blogs and chef instructor blogs up.

    thank you everyone for these great comments. clearly this is going to be an ongoing discussion.

    i think ruth’s comments about accountability is important. for bloggers to reach the next level, they need to have the same kind of accountability that mainstream media has–in whatever ways that’s possible.

  • Frolic

    I must really be dense, because a smart writer posted this and dozens of others commented with making mention of the title.

    How exactly is blogging like the “underground railroad”? In what way are top culinary professionals like enslaved Africans trying to reach freedom? How does blogging help them escape their servitude?

    Or is there another meaning of underground railroad that I’m not familiar with?

  • Sara

    But how do you achieve accountability, especially in opinion blogging? To deal with political blogging or even online independent reportage is a different story — accountability is built into the system, especially since the mainstream media is watching bloggers very closely in order to either dispute or use their reportage.

    But in food blogging? If I give a restaurant a bad review, and the restaurant feels it is unfair, how would you make me accountable for that? If I mis-report one dish, what do I do? Print a correction if/when contacted and note it in bold on my blog? Great, that’s not a problem, but what if the chef simply disagrees? What if he or she thinks I tasted wrong, or missed the point of a dish? The best he or she can do is write me about it, and the best I can do is publish it on my blog.

    Accountability means you answer to someone, and that means the Internets would have to be owned by a single person, and that is counter to the entire purpose of the internets. And, moreover, even in print publication or mainstream media, accountability in opinion reporting is a grey area at best. A reviewer reviews based on their taste, and the reader is expected to understand that it is a statement of opinion and not fact. Beyond the misstatement of facts (chef’s name, restaurant’s name, movie’s director, actors’ names, album title, band members, etc.) and plagarism, there is not much to hold opinionists to, other than their own honesty.

  • Frolic

    Sorry, my comment should have said “without making mention of the title.”

    Having reread the original letter, I’m equally perplexed by this statement:

    “I belong to an industry which would rather put on blackface and dance on TV than spell out the realities of my day to day job, so that it can pretend that glitz is what you get as a reward if you know how to lift a saute pan, hold a knife and button a cotton coat.”

    What does she mean by calling celebrity chefs blackface performers?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackface

  • Claudia

    Wait – eating foie gras ISN’T a basic human right, Nika? :-D (Easy, villagers. Let’s not start lighting torches now . . . )

  • nika

    Claudia: no! Its a delightful wonderful but optional non-life-sustaining experience :-) I have a pitchfork but I use it to muck out the chicken house. I will not be brandishing it anyone unless they volunteer to help me and then I would give it to them very nicely.

    Now, if you can find me a foie-obligate lifeform that requires some special nutrient in foie, by all means, I would be ready to declare that a basic right.

    Lets just say that I am on the pro-foie side but some days I feel like its all quite overwrought. What can I say, I like harmony and calm.

    Its too late in the day to get any more witty than that :-).

  • Kali

    Yes, frolic, I didn’t understand the “Underground Railroad” or blackface comments either.

    As for accountability and blogging, ITA with everyone who’s said that it’s a good thing blogging is unfettered free speech–no change needed.

    If any blog actually impacts a restaurant business, then that blogger must have earned a lot of credibility with a LOT of readers over a long period of time. IMO that’s credibility and “accountability” enough.

    And if many people are writing bad comments about a place at Chowhound and elsewhere–well, the restaurant in question should probably worry less about bloggers and more about about fixing the problems.

  • lux

    I’m with Sara. Exactly how does one create an accountability system for opinions? They’re by nature personal.

    Here’s a simple example: I write a post about a meal I had and I say that “Dish X was oversalted”. That’s my opinion. Now, if I wrote that in a newspaper restaurant review, my editor might say to me, “are you sure?” and I would say “yes.” That’s about all the accountability you can build into the process unless you want to start adding a whole level of chemical analysis to the system (“We sent Dish X out for analysis and found Y grams of sodium….”).

    Granted, that’s a simplistic example, but as Sara said, ultimately much of food criticism is based on personal opinion. I’d be interested to hear some suggestions for further vetting the process that doesn’t ultimately boil down to a chef saying “Only I can say who is qualified to judge my food”.

  • steveo

    For an individual that loves the written word, she is not as eloquent (or elegant in terms of form and composition) as one would expect.

    As much as I love, respect, and appreciate the culinary industries and personnel, professional courtesies and favors between individuals as mentioned above are in no way unique to this industry. Similar practices can be found in almost any business imaginable.

  • KFC Fan

    That was a great letter. You should be commended for publishing it, as her message was quite useful to many of us.

    As for Batali’s take on things, he is right. Why should some snotty little wannabee with Daddy’s credit card be allowed to undo years of any chef’s hard work ?

  • Claudia

    But how many of us bloggers ARE snotty little wannabees with Daddy’s credit card, and are realistically able to undo years of Batali’s work? Batali did not differentiate between a pest blogger and the vast majority of non-pest ones, nor did he differentiate between the NY Post journalist who ticked him off and the non-accredited non-journalistas who blog, and THAT’S the problem with his criticism. Get real, KFC. No single blogger could take down a chef of Batali’s caliber. But if Batali suddenly started serving rancid testicles at Babbo’s with fennel pollen that tasted like multi-cat clumping kitty litter then it’s only fair that (a) the kitchen be told, and (b) if it isn’t fixed and 20 bloggers ALL then said the same thing, the rest of us be told.

    The irony is that the very people Batali has stated he is pissed off at (Adam Platt, for one) actually said GOOD things about his food – Del Posto’s was “superb.” Batali has gotten a few bloggers who have tormented him and a NY Post jag-off who didn’t do his homework, and is now flailing wildly at ALL bloggers, when it’s really SFgirl (his tormenter) and the NY Post he needs to go to the mat with. And, realistically, how many of us have cancelled our Babbo/Lupa/Esca reservations because of – who? SFgirl? The wanker from the NY Post? (The NY Post is suitable for lining the bottom of bird cages with, or using to scraping off your shoes whatever that nasty substance was you tracked up from the subway this morning. Or helping to start the fires in the grills outside the Caterina de Medici restaurant at the CIA, if you’re Besh or Sanchez. And that’s being kind.)

  • Risa

    I’m the audience member at BlogHer that asked Shuna the question about Batali. My point in asking her perspective was that reading his complaints online (in a blog) really irritated me. I blog about food in a very casual way and do write about places I frequent. It really irks me that people think that bloggers should be “accountable.” To me, when someone is demanding accountability, I usually hear “shut that person up, I don’t like what s/he is saying.”

    First off, let’s not assume that traditional journalists are in any way accountable to the “truth.” I say this as a former journalism student — writers are accountable to editors (who have an agenda), to advertisers, to producers, etcetera. Censorship, whether government imposed or advertiser imposed, is not “accountability.”

    Thomas Paine published his pamphlet on a renegade press. Not in the NY Times, after a long stay in journalism school. He wrote what he was thinking — and it was inflammatory.

    I don’t see any difference between Revolutionary era publishing and today’s blogging. Blogging is a way for the “common wo/man” to be heard. This is a voice missing in contemporary society. Consolidation of media means that the gates to information channels are available to only a select few.

    So, I embrace blogging. And I don’t particularly care if a chef or retailer gets mad. I strive to be positive, and I would definitely embrace a restaurant blogger’s code of ethics. I always ask permission before I take any photos. I try to return several times before I make a judgment.

    I’m accountable to the people that read me. If they think I’m full of it, believe me, they let me know. If I’m pulling stuff out of the air with nothing to back it up, people will call me on it. That’s my accountability, and the democratization of nearly everything via the Internet will ensure that there will always be someone who writes better, someone who is more enlightened, and someone who is more interesting to read. I better keep up if I want my voice to continue to exist. THAT’S how I stay in line.

  • Claudia

    Risa is perfectly correct about accountability for journalists as opposed to bloggers, as well as Thomas Paine (and our boy, Zenger). Blogging is an online conversation, not the news of record, and bloggers have as much – if not more – leeway in expressing an opinion as a columnist writing an OpEd piece. (My only quibble with you, Risa, is that while you are a journalist student, I am a former one, and reporters are NOT accountable to advertisers – although, when you gt out into the newsrooms of the world, you will find your piece pulled from or shortened for a broadcast or an edition for a lot of other reasons.)

  • KFC Fan

    Mario Batali should have stated a majority of food blogs are writtin by wannabees that have failed in one form or another, to become part of the food culture. No column in the paper ? Nobody interested in yur viewpoint ?

    Well, I’ve got an idea ! let’s start a food blog and crucify some chefs for whatever reason, and perhaps the controversy might draw some attention to my sorry little existence. Yeah, that sounds right.

  • nika

    KFC fan: As an impartial observer here, I sense that you have got some anger issues to work out.

    I have one question -

    which is more pathetic -

    a restaurant review blog that has unvarnished things to say about food they PAID for (and, I might add, someone who invested their time in writing that opinion, putting it out on that blog and putting their NAME to that opinion)

    OR

    some anonymous drive-by commenter who has little to add other than negative ad hominem attacks written, from the looks of things, simply to be a bit trollish when what the said commenter had to say could have been said in a much more articulate way.

  • Alice Q. Foodie

    I was also at the Gourmet Institute but didn’t attend the blogging seminar, since it conflicted with Masaharu Morimoto’s demo. There was a lot of buzz about this all weekend among the chefs, journalists and food professionals at the event. Chefs carp that the reviewer is not qualified and just seeking attention – professional journalists carp that they aren’t adhering to journalistic standards like repeat reviews and anonymity (though we also learned that may not mean much after all.)

    I winced everytime I heard the generalized term “food blogger” – because it means so many different things – I’m not sure most people understand that. Some sites are more commercial enterprises than blogs – Serious Eats, Eater, etc. Then there are the multitude of great blogs dedicated exclusively to cooking, baking and musings about food – like Smitten Kitchen, French Laundry at Home and Orangette. Nobody is up in arms about those. It seems the bulk of the criticism is directed toward restaurant reviewers, with an attitude of “Who the heck does he/she think she is?” (One prime target of the discussion seemed to be Restaurant Girl in NYC.)

    Chefs also complain just as vocally about sites like Yelp, Chowhound and the multitudes of others that allow readers to post cursory reviews. They then lump them in with the bloggers, which is a mistake on their part. Those sites are far more anonymous, more influential (with the “piling on” effect they seem to have”) and have far more potential to cause damage than an individual blog. I don’t rely on them b/c I really don’t feel that I know who these people are – but some people view them as the “voice of the masses.”

    The concern about bloggers seems to have a lot to do with the fact that chefs and restaurants are losing control of the flow of information – blogs are written for their readers and have no accountability to anyone else. Information, both good and bad, is reaching a wider audience than ever before. Yes, one bad meal could mean a bad review that gets disseminated to thousands – whereas a professional reviewer likely understands that things can go wrong even in a very good restaurant – and multiple visits mean that isn’t the only shot they get. I understand this, but I don’t think it means that restaurants should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Savvy restaurant customers are out there sharing what they’ve learned, and their readers are – on balance – sophisticated enough to determine what information to trust and what not to. Ultimately I think this is nothing but good for restaurants and their customers. Restaurants get more business based on all the “free press” – and customers get better meals and service, since all this accountability leads to higher standards. (Actually – now that I think about it – maybe that’s what the restaurants are really so grumpy about!)

  • Risa

    For Claudia,

    My apologies for implying journalists are directly accountable to advertisers. I probably meant editors — I have had pieces killed because there was concern as to what the advertisers would say or do.

    Of course bloggers will increasingly have that issue as well.

  • Claudia

    That’s what I thought you meant, Risa. But here’s to a free press, and free Internet speech – and the First Amendment!

  • Nicholas

    I am of the belief that chef blogs can be very positive, inspiring, and an insightful look into a world about which not many people have much knowledge.Case in point, I just happened upon a new blog written by a young chef in Canada.I’ve eaten at his restaurant four times now and each experience has been mind-blowing.Back to the blog,it’s wonderfully written;it allows one to enter the mind of a child prodige obsessed with food, it’s history, and it’s future.
    The address is, http://www.lukesgastronomy.blogspot.com

  • tim

    Haven’t chefs always had a problem with criticism? And blogs are just the latest target of their wrath? Before blogs there were chefs and restaurants owners who would rant on about a bad restaurant review or someone talking trash about them at a party. It seems to me that blogs are now the target for their lack of self confidence. I am not saying this is necessarily negative. People are flawed beings and being a chef is a very hard profession but I find I can’t take a chef seriously if he/she complains about a blogger. Not that he would care one second on my opinion but Batali lost many points with me after his irrational bashing of “bloggers” (even tho his target was really a journalist).

    Focus on your cooking, focus on running your restaurant, focus on your customers. The rest takes care of itself.

    As for bringing problems up to a restaurant during a meal – I’ve had mixed success with this. On one hand you have a owner/chef more than willing to make it up for the fact that their fish special tastes like mud that night and on the other hand I have experienced anger for daring to mention something is wrong. Then you have those owners that come to you and ask “isn’t everything just fantastic?” and I just want to say “no” out of principle.

    /rant

  • Claudia

    Yes, I’d had made that point originally about bloggers frequently being a “force for good”, not necessarily the “enemy”, when the Batali blogger issue first came up – not just restaurant review bloggers, but “regular” bloggers, who certainly come to love a restaurant and word-of-blog it till it’s so popular, you can’t get in.

    And, ironically, my birthday bash this year will be at Babbo’s (scheduled a while ago), so I’m definitely not taking Batali personally. More in sorrow than in anger.

  • sam

    Everyone always forgets the flip side. Restaurant review bloggers can also do a great deal of good for restaurants – it’s not all about saying bad things, you know. There are places I’ve eaten at only because of what bloggers said:

    - WD50 in NYC (Wilie apparently hates bloggers, but I read enough intriguing reviews of his place on blogs, I couldn’t not go there on my first visit to NYC)

    -Babbo – yes it was food bloggers who helped me choose wehre to celebrate my 40th birthday – one that was a bit important to me. Hello – Mr Batali – because of food bloggers recommendations I CHOSE BABBO FOR MY 40th and took my whole family there (we flew in from San Francisco, Dublin and England) and we loved it – but I ain’t going to write a nice review cos you hate me! (Except Mario – you didn’t actually mind when you posed for a photo with me when I bumped into you at the Fatted Calf stand last year and when I asked you if you would mind if I put it on my blog you were all smiles and oh yea, sure)

    -Cyrus – I went there because of what food bloggers said about it – and thankfully they insisted I try the caviar cart which I did.

    -Manresa – even before I knew Chez Pim, and before she was dating Mr Kinch, I’d read enough about Manresa to make it a must-visit caused by blog reading. I’m gearing up now for my 4th visit next month.

    These are just a few examples, but I think they suggest that there is balance.

    I will be visiting Shuna’s restaurant soon but I won’t be writing any review of it at all, I suspect…

  • Snoozer

    I don’t have my own blog, though I comment on a few. But being candid, I know that I have learned so much in just the last five years about food and cooking, and my tastes have changed as a direct result of what I’ve learned. I appreciate many things that I would not have appreciated before. And I know I have so much more to learn and try. My mind is certainly more open now, but I am still sure that in the future I will be a better, more educated judge of what is put before me than I am today.

    Thus the $64,000 question. Are the anti-blogger chefs, at least in part, upset because people who don’t really have the knowledge to fairly judge their food are posting reviews?

    Is that valid, since one doesn’t need a CIA diploma to dine in a 5-star restaurant? Or perhaps is the issue that the readers need to know the credentials of the REVIEWER so they can decide how much weight to give their opinion?

    BTW, I totally agree that a diner with any class or manners at all will politely speak up if there is a problem. And at several excellent establishments servers have noticed when I was not eating my dish and proactively asked whether there was a problem, and offered a replacement. This never ceases to impress me.

  • jim miscedra

    One of the problems with internet posting in general (blogging or otherwise) is this “shorthand” method of writing we all have seemed to adopt.

    Additionally, blogging is not a position earned on merit or skills necessarily; many times bloggers are self-appointed experts. Michael and Anthony are excellent writers who do not have to be controversial to gain or maintain readership.

    Further, when comments are allowed to be posted in response to a blog, we as participants are allowed a nom de plume. A costume name that allows many to be much harsher than they would dare be, should their name be attached. It is bad enough to read a negative blog about yourself, but then to explore the comments section and hear anonymous parties name calling can be downright frustrating.

    Just this very week, Michael had to ask people to pipe down as they took a tongue in cheek comment about Andrew Knowlton and used it as an opportunity to bash the guy. Based solely on edited TV footage. I don’t know thing one about Mr. Knowlton, but what I have read on this site. Was I to assume every participant in the Knowlton bashing as an “expert”, than I would have no choice but to dislike the guy.

    That being said, I never take comments seriously from those who will not truly stand behind them.

  • Charlotte

    Seems to me the problem here is the inconsistent and imprecise use of the term “blogger.” The “food bloggers” who I’ve seen slammed by Mario and by Michael Bauer at the SF Chronicle seem to be the kind who blog as restaurant “reviewers” and who have been criticized for taking distracting flash photos at table. As a group they’ve been known to use anonymity as a cover to take cheap shots at restaurants because outrageousness gets you attention. But that’s just one kind of food blogger — chef blogs like Shuna’s (the Jane Grigson ref *is* confusing in that opening para — Shuna’s never named, there’s just a link), or blogs like mine where I write a lot about food but almost never about restaurants, or even Ethicurean where they write about food and ag issues are all “food blogs”. But what we’re doing feels different enough from the sort of writing that is annoying chef/personality/writers like Mario that personally I don’t feel like I’m being painted with that same broad brush. Maybe I’m a pollyanna — but it all comes down to good writing — if those of us writing about food on blogs out here produce enough good and interesting and vibrant prose, then well, the trolls will just be trolls.

  • fiat lux

    I have a hard time wrapping my brain around why it is that food bloggers v chefs is such a heated topic.

    Seriously, what it is about chefs that makes the fact of blogging so hard for so many of them to accept? It’s not like they’ve never dealt with criticism, fair or unfair, before.

  • Sara

    That was a wonderful letter, and I think this part was key:

    “I asked people not to be cowardly (as you addressed) and speak up when they had an issue with their meal. i said there are plenty of people on staff at restaurants ready to fix, or attempt to fix, problems diners have.”

    ALWAYS be interactive in your meal. Waitresses and Waiters and managers may look tired or fed up, but believe me they will do whatever they can to fix it for you. And the willingness of a staff to step up and correct problems should FAVORABLY influence any review you give of a restaurant. They aren’t psychic, though, and they won’t know unless you’re honest (and that’s all you have to be: honest. NOT abrasive, people; you don’t need to get mad at us. Just be honest about how your food is, and be polite). If the service staff fucks up even more.. fine, go write a bad review. But at least give the restaurant a chance to win you back.

  • Stephanie M. Clarkson

    I wonder where I’d fit in here; I mean, I also run a food blog (http://fud.sleepingcat.com), but I review roleplaying games (Intergalactic Cooking Challenge) and discuss my abyssmal attempts to make meringues for a diabetic friend with Splenda, and document the work I’m going on Wikipedia to create valuable entries on chefs (who will be deleted in a snap for not being notable if you don’t make them shine from the start). It’s complete geek good blogging. It’s the sort of food blogging most food bloggers do, BUT…it’s not the corporate sponsored stuff that gets the piles of followers and minions. I get a comment or two an entry, and I feel great for that.

    I wonder if chefs wouldn’t feel better about food bloggers if they came down and saw what the ‘little people’ are doing; reviews of the local pizza place and liveblogging The Next Iron Chef and generally just revelling in food.

  • Frances

    If I didn’t love my job, I’d quit immediately. Because it’s killing me.

    Thanks for sharing Shuna’s email and the insight therein.

  • Claudia

    Excuse me, SHUNA’s open letter. (That’s what you get for trying to read three links at once. At least I now remember to put the cappuccino down first before reading, in case Bourdain has guest-blogged . . . . Jesus.)

  • Claudia

    In his piece on why he hates bloggers linked above, Mario Batali specifically cites a NY Post JOURNALIST as the source of the report about Del Posto being in violation of their lease. While I agree with Batali that the NY Post is a tabloid, a total rag masquerading as a mainstream daily paper (sorry, Bourdain – I know you love it for its lurid stories and ganglang killings), the fact is, it was an accredited journalist, not a blogger (with or without a following) that got Mario’s ire up.

    Further, in the story below, Mario’s ire was once again stoked (this time by Adam Platt)- and not because Platt verbally trashed his restaurants, but because, in comparison to Babbo, it wasn’t exactly “revelatory”. It still was a critic’s choice, and he still called the food “superb”.

    http://nymag.com/daily/food/2007/05/batali_and_bourdain_argue_over_adam_platt_the_egg_thief_and_much_more.html

    Now, here comes the “soft-spoken” but eloquent Jan Grigson, who makes a strong but calm argument for bloggers, reasonably and fairly. Even if she had not been a chef to boot, she gently but persuasively lays out her arguments for bloggers as a force for good. Thank you, Jan, for a well thought-out and persuasive open letter, and Michael for posting it – and here’s hoping Mario will unbunch his cargo pants and calm down a little on this topic. I, for one, think the world of Mario, and am somewhat dismayed that he has unilaterally lumped the trolls and the hacks with both fair-minded and intelligent bloggers as well as with those hardworking journalists who DO do their homework and ascertain the facts, as they should.

    On the other hand, maybe Mario is just seeing bull-in-a-china-shop red because of this OTHER NY Post story. I know he’s repeatedly denied he’s leaving IC, but I guess we’ll know after November 18:

    http://www.nypost.com/seven/09062007/news/nationalnews/tv_chef__dont_stick_fork_in_me.htm

    Mario really needs to consider legal action against the Post, if he feels they’re libeling him – not work himself into a frenzy about bloggers per se.

  • Neal L.

    It’s humbling to hear from someone with that much passion and love for what they do. I only have passionate contempt for my job.
    If only I had a million dollars and a gun.

  • Sharon

    Mario Batali is also blogging over at Serious Eats. I don’t think he has a problem with food bloggers so much as bloggers with a large following who visit a restaurant and give it a bad revue. A bad review from a well known blogger could be very hurtful to a business. There is a big difference between blogging about food and being critical about others food.