Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Food Journalism and Criticism Under The Microscope

I knew some folks wouldn't like what I had to say about "Eating Las Vegas," the new book by three leading Vegas food critics. But still, wow.

In this week's Las Vegas Weekly column, I took aim at the strange spectacle that John Curtas, Max Jacobson and Al Mancini made of themselves unveiling their book naming the city's 50 most "essential" restaurants. The reason I did so was because it was an only-in-Vegas event; it is very abnormal for serious food critics to be personally handing out awards to restaurants or posing for photos with chefs.

Food critics typically try NOT to draw attention to themselves, hoping to approximate the experience that real diners would have. It's a simple concept. It's also one of the guiding principles of the Association of Food Journalists.

Well, holy hell. The blowback has been fascinating. I ended up in a Twitter feud with a fellow whose work I had really enjoyed, admired and promoted until he came at me on Facebook not with a measured, mature response but with the ridicule and haughtiness that are his standard.

It went downhill from there until these moments of professionalism:

What brought all that on? Well, this blogger/Tweeter believes that food critics will be recognized anyway so they ought to soak up the sun. That critics all over the country do what they can to guard their identities so that they can be a proxy for the public is a "ruse" to him. (Aside: These are the extent to which food critics work to protect their identity in other places.) The entire rest of the food criticism world are populated by "idiots" and how clubby, provincial Vegas does it is the only sane method.

Beyond this classless fellow's inability to disagree respectfully -- he asked someone who wanted us to stop arguing why she had to "step on [his] balls" -- he also claimed he was recognized in Vegas restaurants after just two months of doing his blog. That's simply too ridiculous to take seriously; restaurants on the Strip are actually some of the easiest to slip in and out of without being noticed as a reviewer because they're huge, the staff changes so frequently and they see thousands upon thousands of different faces every month.

Only a select few critics warrant the sort of effort that would go into figuring out who they are and tripping alarms when they're around, and this vainglorious blogger is absolutely, positively not at that level. As I've said, I admire(d) his work and believe(d) he could get there some day. But not now. Neither, incidentally, am I. I have absolutely no problem going to restaurants without anyone knowing who I am, and I've been responsible in past years for selecting eateries for the Conde Nast Traveler Hot List.

So this rang false to me, and I called it. Either it's untrue or this fellow's doing something to draw attention to himself. Those are the only choices that make any logical sense. Either way, his completely deranged response showed a person who has little self-control. I'd hate to be his waiter.

Meanwhile, fellow Las Vegas Weekly scribe John Curtas, the city's eminent foodie, responded with a more mature version of that guy's commentary. And here is what he said:

I haven't been anonymous in Las Vegas restaurants for almost ten years (except in Chinatown, where I could be on the cover of Time magazine and no one would care), and neither was Frank Bruni (or Sam Sifton - his successor at the NYTimes). That anonymity myth was exploded years ago in the Big Apple and something journalist Freiss should know.

For better or worse, the days of the stealthy, journalist/critic are gone. The best I can do is tell my readers when I pay for a meal and when I don't...and then call 'em as I see 'em after that.

Steve makes a good point about sucking up to publicists -- something I refuse to do...much to the dismay of many a flack in many a Strip hotel. If I suck up to anyone, it's to the hard working chefs who put out the world class food that has made Vegas famous in the culinary world.

Fine. That's the other point of view, that celebrity is unavoidable and does not taint the experience.

We all know that the second part's not true, though. We need look no further than a passage in "Eating Las Vegas" in which Al Mancini talks about giving Nove at the Palms a very bad review and then being spotted there and allowing the chef to fawn all over him until he changed his view. Just because the chef takes extra care for him and, perhaps, tailors things to Mancini's particular palate, doesn't mean that he'll do the same for you. In fact, he won't.

It's a conundrum, no doubt about it. But there are two legitimate points of view. My side is that food critics ought to err on the side of trying not to make spectacles of themselves. The effort to conceal identity is honorable and, if it even works half the time, it's worthwhile.

Meanwhile, oddly, there was this sighting of me, courtesy of Mr. Curtas' Facebook:

Sorry, pal. I was right here at home last night, after doing the first wave of Thanksgiving Day shopping. I've still yet to go to Lakeside Grill. Perhaps we can go together and carry on this argument there. I bet we get awesome service.

P.S. Big kudos must be offered to the Weekly for even printing my piece given that Curtas is the resident food critic. I bet you all a dollar that neither Mancini's Las Vegas CityLife nor Jacobson's Vegas Seven will print anything seriously critical of the book.


Anonymous said...

I think John meant that he was letting YOU know that HE (Curtas) was at Lakeside Grill. Not that you were there. He's just being the same smartass Curtas he always is.

Anonymous said...

I believe Curtas' Facebook post is from him letting you know that *he* was spotted there, not that anyone say you.

"John Curtas wants Steve Friess to know that he" with 'he' being John, not you.

JeffW said...


Upon your recommendation I tuned in to one episode of TLV podcast. I found it crude and, frankly, boring. Now that I see his tweets, my impressions are confirmed. He even ripped off The Strip's format - imitation/flattery for certain.

Please keep up the good work. Enjoy the columns/podcast/blog.

And you are not even paying me to suck up. Ha!


yeah, i see that now. oopsie

ShortWoman said...

Wow. Sorry to hear about the flamewar!

The funny part about this "should the reviewer be a superstar or anonymous" argument for me is that we've been mistaken for restaurant critics, and we regularly get asked "but you're in the business, aren't you?" by our servers. Nope, sorry.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that people take any food critic seriously. Everyone has a different palate and I never take the advice of any one critic. I have actually gone to restaurants BECAUSE the reviews have been so brutal just to see if it's as bad as they say. Kind of a silly argument, if you ask me.

R Schiffman (Brownbag) said...

I have been out to eat with John Curtas where I've previously eaten more than once. The only difference in the experience was a little something extra sent out during the meal. My food has was no better, or worse, than my previous experiences. My meal with John at the last place was not the best meal I've had there.
I was a judge for one those "Best of State" awards you see proudly displayed in many places. We were told to let the owner know we were there so they could shine. I visited many places I have been to many times as joe public. The food may have been more plentiful, it may have been higher ingredients cost, but rarely was it better than I normally received. In some cases, the place tried so hard the food just fell apart. Having spent times doing both and getting to know Mr. Curtas, I don't see the big issue. The question is if the reviews can help me get a good meal.
I initially contacted John via e-mail many years ago (Long before podcasts and ELV) to give me a recommendation on where to eat. I gave parameters, and he gave me a recommendation. The recommendation was on the proviso that I give him my unvarnished opinion of what I thought afterwards. I've never been steered wrong. It's always been a good meal. Whether it's as good as he gets, I sorta know. My experience dining with him says not exactly, but I'll still get a good meal.
The best meals and extras I've ever received has not been as a food judge. Most of my best meals have been at places I go to regularly and where I tip very well. Good food and service always follow good tips on previous visits. That's assuming the restaurant has the fundamentals down.
If you go to places from the book that don't match the write-up, let the writers know. They are easy to contact. I have no doubt that with a bunch of negative experiences being shared about the same place, it will not make the next edition. These people are not trying to be snake oil salesmen. They really do want you to get a good meal, and I know that John's favorite reward is a person telling him that he gave them a good recommendation.

John said...

I was sorry to see that nastiness/profanity (from the food blogger, not Steve), because that kind of vitriol (like hard-boiled, myopic political diatribes) does nothing to illuminate the debate...and lessens, rather than enhances the credibility of he who stoops so low.
As to Anonymous' point(s): Take us seriously or not, all an experienced critic asks is that you respect the fact that he is immersed in his/her subject matter much more than the layperson, and draws upon that wealth of experience before rendering an opinion.
As to dining out with Steve: I'll find us a place where they wouldn't recognize us if we were O.J. Simpson and Barack Obama.

Dan Short said...

I find tastinlasvegas's blog excessively vulgar and rude, especially his treatment of his wife, which is vaguely Howard Sternish, and we know what happened there. Dropping the F word periodically, as Miles and Tim do (they even have a drinking game on FHBM) is great but to make it part of your vocabulary is totally unnecesary.

His interviews can be pretty good, but the general feel for the podcast doesn't match yours. And yes the spousal chatter between the two of you can get somwehat heated, Mike's wife jsut seems to take it in stride, not unlike an abused wife.


Kerry said...

Dan, you are more than welcome to criticize the TLV podcast – both in content and language. However, associating our interactions with any form of abuse is incredibly ignorant. “Ballbreaking” is certainly not everyone’s style, but there are plenty of people who share our sense of humor. Anyone who knows us or has listened to the podcast is very familiar with the way we joke around with each other. Have you not heard me breaking his balls in a similar manner? I really don’t need you to try and analyze the relationship I have with my husband with inappropriate assumptions. I realize that trying to explain this to you serves no purpose if you simply don’t have an understanding of this style of humor.

Frank in Halifax said...

Your friend just interpreted the above comment as an accusation of spousal abuse. Some people are so desperate to keep their 15 min going. Pretty funny how he doesn't know what an embarrassment he is to himself. I agree, Steve, he makes stuff up. This is the latest, and it's right here in white and black! Dan was just saying that he's cruel to his wife and she takes it happily. That's not the same as what he twisted it as, but it again exposes his sad life and view.

Frank in Halifax said...

Your friend just interpreted the above comment as an accusation of spousal abuse. Some people are so desperate to keep their 15 min going. Pretty funny how he doesn't know what an embarrassment he is to himself. I agree, Steve, he makes stuff up. This is the latest, and it's right here in white and black! Dan was just saying that he's cruel to his wife and she takes it happily. That's not the same as what he twisted it as, but it again exposes his sad life and view.

Anonymous said...

I love how these guys admit taking free food. As soon as you take anything free, you're compromised. Perception is everything. And I got news for Vegas food critics who blithely take freebies: NYT resto reviewers do not accept free meals. Period. And they guy out of their way to conceal their identity when dining. They're not always successful but they do try to dine anonymously.

Bay in TN said...

I hope this controversy is dying down; however, I have to say that I'm glad Steve Friess is reporting on this kind of biased "critiquing." When I purchase a guidebook, I want an impartial review. I'll be skipping the "Eating Las Vegas" guide.

Maybe the Michelin guide really is the best book available.