Late last year, Los Angeles's food world was upended when the veteran Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila went out to dinner. After 45 minutes of waiting for a table at a buzzy, busy new restaurant, she was approached by one of the restaurant's young partners, but he was not there to seat her party of four. Instead, he snapped a rather unflattering, red-eyed photo of her, dismissed her from the restaurant, then triumphantly posted the image along with a disapproving rant about her writing on their website. In 16 years of being the Times's critic, Virbila had not once had such a photo taken, yet in a single moment, her anonymity had been snatched out from under her. She had been, as the Times dramatically put it, "unmasked."
When a surreptitious camera phone can plaster someone's photo across a Facebook page before they've handed their keys to the valet, it sounds ridiculous that any critic would attempt to retain their anonymity. Last year, The New York Times critic Sam Sifton was followed by the blog Eater after he mentioned via Twitter he was leaving the office to go purchase KFC's poultry abomination, the Double Down. The photos of him eating it were posted promptly, as was Sifton's "review" where he noted the "geek paparrazzi" hiding in Herald Square's landscaping.
Of course, Virbila wasn't truly anonymous either—the people who took her photo at the restaurant certainly knew who she was, as do most chefs who want to stay in business in this town. Her photo and statement have since disappeared from the restaurant's website, but the debate about anonymity continues to ripple through the food writing industry. Newspapers and magazines—mostly American ones—have long prided themselves on outrageous efforts to keep the identities of their critics secret. The reason is that anonymity, ostensibly, equals an experience untainted by special treatment. It democratizes dining.
Anonymity was once an art form as highly prized as good food writing. I remember gasping while reading Ruth Reichl's memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, when I learned that she was forced to dine in New York's best restaurants in a scruffy wig and bad suit. But being treated like a nobody was important for Reichl, since she hoped to investigate the class biases endemic among snotty Upper West Side waitstaff—biases that would ultimately influence the quality of the dining experience. Reichl famously wrote a 1993 review of Le Cirque contrasting the meals she had been served as herself, and as her unrecognizable alter ego. (She still gives the place three stars.)
But it's not 1993 anymore. Most—not all, but most—of the elements of a restaurant review can be accurately crowdsourced. The service conditions that Reichl was forced to test in costume are now being reported on, in detail, by millions of food bloggers. I'm more comfortable making an accurate value assessment for whether my money will be well-spent at an extravagant omakase based on 50 aggregated reviews than I am reading just one review. In my book, the collective experience of 1,000 Yelpers of all ages and backgrounds far outweighs the paltry three visits that one white, middle-aged woman makes (according to a Los Angeles Times article, that's the number of times Virbila will dine at a place before writing a review).
I understand that the craft of preparing food requires criticism in order to push the field forward—I'm not calling for an end to smart, incisive writing about ingredients and technique. I know that evaluating shoddy service and uncomfortable chairs provides a valuable incentive for restaurants to improve themselves. But as a reader, I'm not sure I want my local critic concocting new identities or applying for credit cards with fake names just to trick some hotshot chef into serving them a mediocre meal. I would rather know where a restaurant gets its chicken, why they aren't using local tomatoes, which school garden compost gets their kitchen scraps, and whether they're paying their employees fair wages. And I want my critic to play a critical role in this extremely important public dialogue about food.
In writing a response to the Virbila scandal, Jonathan Gold, L.A.'s Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, sided with anonymity. He concurs with Reichl, and with the L.A. Times food editor, that it's the best way to observe "class resentment" in restaurants. Yet Gold's own appearance was made public, quite dramatically, after his Pulitzer win, when a photo of him downing a super-size flute of Champagne splashed across the homepage of every food blog in the world. It wasn't a vicious unmasking like Virbila's; posting the photo was a way of honoring his win. But I think it was probably the very best thing that ever happened to L.A.'s food conversation.
Now Gold hosts panels on the politics of meat. He has engaged in public debate with his brother, a marine scientist who heads environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay, on the ethics of consuming seafood. He wrote the stirring introduction to Los Angeles's new food policy document and spoke on the lawn of City Hall alongside farmers and restaurateurs dedicated to growing and serving local, fresh food. He continues to review restaurants, as he should, covering mole served at swap meets as thoroughly as he covers molecular gastronomy. But Gold is now engaged, at a very high level, with food issues here in L.A., and it's clear that his opinion matters.
Critics wield such power that a bad review could hypothetically shut down a small business. So why not leverage that power into positive action for the city? Writers who have a broad and intimate knowledge of what food costs, where it comes from, and how difficult it is to prepare could also be the the most outspoken public voices fighting for healthier, fresher meals for their audiences.
This is especially true in L.A., where we are facing many more serious issues around food, including obesity, hunger, and the inability to bring our local produce into most low-income neighborhoods. Critics should focus on one or more of those areas to bring about real change. As a restaurant critic, you also have the platform and the context to criticize the food production industry—why not take on some of the more questionable methods of processing and subsidizing food? Critics can influence the decision-making of chefs, so let's see a public challenge for restaurants to source all their produce locally or serve responsibly-raised meat. Or—as at least one ex-LAUSD employee has called for—how about reviewing school lunches around town in a move to bring some transparency to how the kitchens feeding our public schools actually operate?
In Los Angeles, we can't afford to keep our sharpest voices in the shadows when it comes to our food. So I'll take the critic who is comfortable placing her opinions, and herself, in the spotlight, leading conversations about bringing fresh, responsible food into our kitchens. I don't want anything to do with the one who's hiding in a dark corner, wearing a prosthetic nose, judging some overpriced bisque.
Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?