Thursday, December 23, 2010

Shock! Another dining critic is outed

Posted By on Thu, Dec 23, 2010 at 1:52 PM

Noah Ellis, critic-busting restaurateur
  • Noah Ellis, critic-busting restaurateur
The controversy over anonymity and dining critics has erupted again — this time when the Los Angeles Time's critic, S. Irene Virbila, was recognized, photographed and booted out of Red Medicine, a new Vietnamese-inspired restaurant in Beverly Hills. The photograph was subsequently posted on the restaurant's Tumblr page. Now it's all over the Internet.

Eater NY has the story, replete with the picture and restaurateur Noah Ellis' explanation, which says in part:

Our purpose for posting this is so that all restaurants can have a picture of her and make a decision as to whether or not they would like to serve her. We find that some her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational, and that they have caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs — we don't feel that they should be blind-sided by someone with no understanding of what it takes to run or work in a restaurant.

So far, I haven't found a quote from the restaurant's chef, Jordan Kahn, the precocious native of Savannah who attended Johnson & Wales at 16 and went on to work at The French Laundry at 17. I wonder how he feels about not being reviewed by Virbila or if Ellis consulted with him before kicking the longtime critic out the door.

The Times has published an article
about the incident. It's a comprehensive story with lots of commentary:

That whole scene, said San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, sounds "very stupid. I think it's very short-sighted. If it was a good restaurant, they wouldn't be afraid."

But at the same time, Bauer said, "the whole idea of anonymity is almost a moot point these days. … After you've done it for any length of time, a year or more, your image gets out, especially now with camera phones." Virbila said she tries to keep a low profile, not appearing at food and wine events or establishing a Facebook page.

This issue of anonymity has been discussed several times here. (Besha even did a video in comic disguise.) The fact is that there's not a critic in this city who hasn't been recognized for a long time. When I first started writing Grazing two decades ago, I made this observation even then, and infuriated a few critics. (It didn't help my own wish to be at least low on the radar screen when a CL editor insisted that my picture go on my column.)

Back then, it was mainly a matter of just being around long enough that people figured out who you were. Then, as has been said ad infinitum, anonymity morphed into a game of "let's pretend." It can be very awkward. Imagine that a chef comes by your table. You don't want to assume he knows who you are and he doesn't want to say that he knows. It can become very slapstick.

But even such polite pretense is going by the wayside. Critics regularly teach classes, participate in public seminars and give talks. And, maybe most significant, many newspapers have merged the jobs of critics and food feature writers, as in John Kessler's case at the AJC. It's not possible to write feature stories and maintain anonymity as a critic.

The profusion of blogging foodies has also whittled down the mainstream media critics' significance, so that their judgments are no longer handed down like God's scrawling on tablets with an invisible hand. You can get 50 reviews on any restaurant online.

All of that said, I think VIrbila's treatment was really rude. Critics aren't immune from criticism. (God knows, I know that.) I do think the democratization of the critical voice via blogging is a good thing. I've written about that for years.

But the assault on Virbila was personal and arguably endangers her own employment as much as her writing threatens a restaurant employee's job. Not a word in Ellis' rant addresses her critical skill beyond tone, and the fact is that she’s paid to criticize and he’s paid to feed people well.

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