No more undercover food critics

Social Influence

By Olivia Lee
Medill Reports

It’s 2006 and Jeff Ruby, food critic for Chicago magazine, is being interviewed by the History Channel. In attempts to keep an undercover profile, like most food critics do, Ruby shaves his beard for the first time in 10 years and dyes his natural red hair jet black. To make himself even more unrecognizable, he decides to wear a baseball cap and glasses. Over a decade later, Ruby says the History Channel still airs his segment periodically, usually late at night. Despite his elaborate efforts, he almost always gets a text from a friend suspecting it’s him.

For decades, food critics have donned extravagant disguises to keep their identities anonymous. Ruth Reichl of The New York Times wore big floppy hats to hide her appearance, and Craig LaBan of The Philadelphia Inquirer shielded his face by wearing sunglasses. This was regardless of whether they were awarding Michelin stars or searching for an unexpected Irish-adopted Asian chef now serving the best Italian food at Chicago’s Acadia restaurant.

With the advent of social media, food critics are finding it even harder to be discrete. Five years ago, the late Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize winner and restaurant critic, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “I have OpenTable accounts under many different names, a habit of paying bills — even large ones — in cash and a burner phone account, all in an attempt to keep my identity a secret from the chefs and staffs of restaurants I have reviewed.”

With social media letting anyone play detective, many writers are ditching their seemingly futile efforts. In Chicago, Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune, Jeff Ruby of Chicago magazine, Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader and Monica Eng of WBEZ are among the restaurant critics who have taken off their masks.

“I would dye my [red] hair and shave my [red] beard, and put on some glasses that weren’t mine,” Ruby says. But that didn’t stop restaurants from learning the faces of local critics and even posting their pictures on the walls of the kitchen. “It just started becoming really awkward,” Ruby says. “These restaurants knew who I was. I felt like I was cutting myself off from having conversations with really smart, creative people.”

Eng, a Curious City reporter and host of the WBEZ podcast, “Chewing the Fat,” recalls going to “hole-in-the-wall restaurants” with her children. “My disguise was I was the crazy mom with kids running around the room that nobody would ever believe is a professional,” says Eng, also a former food and culture writer for the Chicago Tribune. She wasn’t in search of the next “Top Chef.” Instead, she wanted to learn about the history of bagels in Chicago — or dinuguan, a Filipino soup made with pig blood and organs.

Whether critics are reviewing to award Zagat-rated status or to find the family-owned Ethiopian restaurant tucked away in a hidden side street, they want to have the experience of the average diner. But many regular restaurant patrons are voicing their opinions on digital platforms like Yelp. “Newspapers no longer have the market cornered,” Eng says. “I don’t feel any more qualified to recommend places than anyone else. Your enjoyment of food is based a lot on your mood that day, and your experience with that food, your taste buds, all sorts of things.”

The first widely known restaurant review, “Almanach des gourmands,” was published in the nineteenth century by Alexandre Balthasar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière. Since then, the act involved when critiquing the cook has become almost ceremonial rather than purposeful. “I just don’t think [keeping your identity a secret] is as important anymore. There is always going to be a place for journalists to write knowledgeably and intelligently about food, and you don’t have to be anonymous to do that,” says Sula, a former restaurant critic for the Chicago Reader.

In fact, according to a 2018 survey conducted by SevenRooms, a market analysis and guest engagement platform for the restaurant industry, about 57% of Americans look to social media for restaurant recommendations. An additional 35% admit to eating at a restaurant because they saw it on social media. Millennials are also twice as likely to order a specific dish because they saw an influencer post about it online. According to influencer marketing company MediaKix, the majority of Gen Zers are even indifferent to influencer advertising, despite compensation.

However, other food critics like Maggie Hennessy, who is a culinary school graduate and writer for Time Out Chicago, disagree with the influence of social media on the democratization of criticism. “I think there is something to be said for a certain level of authority and for knowing what the texture of a cooked piece of fish should be like, or the correct level of saltiness in a sauce, or the proper balance of acidity with other aromatics and flavors and for understanding hospitality,” says Hennessy.

She also raises the reminder that food criticism is not just a service for diners — it’s a service for restaurants. Without feedback provided by a knowledgeable source with an understanding of the industry, Hennessy asks, “How will the bartender realize there is a lag time between when a drink order is placed and when the drink arrives? How can improvements be made?”

Similarly, Michael Nagrant, freelance food writer for Saveur, Food & Wine, Zagat and Food Network, still believes in the importance of an informed opinion, as well as sponsorship-free work and remaining incognito. “I think journalists have the responsibility to try and not reap the benefits. Food writing should be approached with the same ethical standards that would be given to reporting on politics or war,” Nagrant says. “Don’t be in it for [the hopes of a] free meal.”

But influencers aren’t the only ones looking for freebies. “Food critics are using social media as an excuse to reveal their identities in order to become a public personality,” Nagrant says. He even recounts the story of a fellow critic who recently attended a media dinner and did tequila shots with the hosting chef. “How can you then review the restaurant objectively?” Nagrant asks.

Many food critics say their readers seem to want to learn more about the people behind the restaurant or in the kitchen rather than about the food itself. “They want some kind of story, something with deeper meaning than just here are the dishes you should eat and here is what you should avoid,” says Ruby. And he agrees. He says his favorite meals are always the ones with a good story behind them. Chef Trevor Teich of Claudia restaurant, for example, told Ruby about a dish called “Snails in the Woods,” inspired by the chef’s search for snails in the woods as a child. If a dish provides meaning, it becomes more than just a way to impress guests.

“Food is a conversation,” says Ruby. “It’s learning about, even if you’re not talking to, people. You’re eating food from a culture you’re not familiar with, you’re having a conversation with that culture. Hopefully it opens your mind, not just your mind to the food and to the flavors, but to the people and to their history, and to a lot of things you might not know about.”

Through food, culinary artists tell stories and pass down their heritage. Instead of focusing on the interior design of the restaurant, the noise level and the time it takes for a dish to arrive, critics are connecting with the faces behind the fare. In a world with self-proclaimed authorities, food critics are becoming food writers and are listening to the stories created in the kitchen and are asking questions, and offering new knowledge, context and perspective.

Once again, food proves to bring together guests, chefs and critics alike. Perhaps one day, the photos hanging on kitchen walls will be a reminder of a meal that was shared not with a critic, but with a friend — a meal where stories were exchanged face-to-face.

Photo at top: According to a survey conducted by SevenRooms, about 57% of Americans look to social media for restaurant recommendations rather than to printed restaurant reviews. (Courtesy of SevenRooms).