In Defense of Food Blogs

city of gold

I recently watched City of Gold which is a documentary about the Pulitzer Prize winning food critic at the Los Angeles Times Jonathan Gold. I loved the movie. Tons of food porn and celebrity chef commentary. Gold is a food poet that highlights the diverse cultures that link the sprawling city of Los Angeles through the cuisine of his neighbors. He is just as interested in the best taco truck Guerrilla Tacos as he is Ludo Lefebvre restaurant Trois Mec. Here is the preview to the film. It is in limited run right now but I hope you have the chance to see it.

Of course the best movies also have elements that make you think and I have not been able to quit ruminating about a scene where the filmmaker basically equates food blogging with Yelpers. To be fair, most of the commentary (not from Gold) seems directed to Yelpers that overly use words like Amazing! But then there are a flood of images from Yelp mixed in with popular blogs like Gluten Free Girl, David Lebovitz and local Austin blog Fed Man Walking.

This is where I take an exception. I have my own issues with Yelp. It has a history of holding up restaurants for suppressing bad reviews and many users have found that they can score a free meal by threatening to or posting a negative review. But Yelp is trying to clean up their act with revised policies and it is as easy to spot a biased review as a clickbait ad. Yelp is still a useful tool for exploring a new town as long as you learn to read between the lines.

Not all “professional” food critics live up to Gold’s standards either. Remember the viral Olive Garden review from Grand Forks? I have family that live in a small town in Texas and know how big of a deal it was when McDonald’s came to town to compete with Dairy Queen. My parents who do not even have email now frequent a local barbecue food truck. Not every city is as diverse as Los Angeles or New York but do not look down on small town America for embracing diversity in whatever form it takes there.

There has been a struggle between mainstream critics and food bloggers since the platform began to change. Bloggers have been looked down upon as being unprofessional but it is really a more complex question of an evolving guideline for a new media. Bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to mark any blog or social media as “sponsored” posts including free media previews. But newspapers routinely accept ads for their restaurant sections that appear on the same page as reviews. I am not saying that a reputable paper would accept an ad for a positive review. But assigning a reviewer to cover a place that results in a positive review surely increases the chances the restaurant will advertise in the publication with no disclaimer required by the FTC.

Gold mentions that reviewing the best food in the city on somebody else’s dime is a dream job. Most bloggers have limited to no financial support for their reviews. Part of the reason I have been silent on my blog for so long is that Austin is booming with high-end restaurants that I would love to review but becoming freelance has severely limited my resources. Sometimes the only opportunity I have is a media preview that I am sometimes blessed to be invited to. I clearly indicate that my experience is not that of a typical diner and if I really love it I try to go back for a more thorough review.  I definitely understand and agree with transparency in blogging. It helps increase the reliability and trust that truly dedicated bloggers strive for. But do not criticize me for not making several “anonymous” visits when I do not have an expense account I can charge it off to.

Instead of insulting all new media I think the topic would be best served by recognizing new forms of expertise just like they honor the cuisine of diverse cultures. Although many have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon, Gluten Free Girl is a leader in recognizing a genuine need for a specific diet for many and is also a James Beard award-winning cookbook author.

David Lebovitz has been a professional chef since the age of 16 including a stint at Chez Panisse, authored several award-winning cookbooks and is one of my pastry icons. His recipes and culinary insight for the dining scene in Paris are undoubtedly that of a consummate expert not to mention a pioneer in the blogging platform.

Fed Man Walking is authored by Mike Sutter who was actually a food critic for the Austin American Statesman for several years. One of my favorite lines from his lyrical reviews refers to a local restaurant that was more flash than substance as “I.M. Pei’s favorite Applebee’s.” Is he less of a critic now that he is not published in print?

Jonathan Gold’s insight to modern cuisine and melodic prose help the reader connect to the culture as well as the taste of the food in Los Angeles. I think his views are a guide to the future of professional critics. But don’t discount the rise of the new media. The views of the blogger should not be considered as competition to the singular voice that has ruled the restaurant scene but a complement to a wider view of the culinary world.

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