Should Food Critics Critique More Than Just Taste?

The job of critics is to tell people what to eat—but why don't they delve into the ethical reasons for ordering a dish instead of focusing largely on flavor?
Fried chicken and champagne. (Photo: Facebook)
Dec 1, 2015· 10 MIN READ
Wyatt Williams lives and writes in Atlanta, Ga. He is currently at work on a book about meat.

Lately, when I sit down to write a restaurant review, I find that I don’t know what to say about the chicken. This isn’t some kind of problem with adjectives. Calling dry chicken by the right name is the easiest part of my job. So what’s the trouble?

Here in Atlanta, where I write reviews for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, I often find restaurant menus printed with a phrase that reads something like “We are proud to serve local chicken from Springer Mountain Farms.” Or maybe a dish is described as “Springer Mountain Fried Chicken.” You don’t need to know the particular farm to understand the suggestion: Local’s good, right? The farm’s name is on the menu because the restaurant would like you to associate a sort of ethics with its culinary vision.

“Local” doesn’t always mean what we’d like it to mean. Just because a dish is called “mille-feuille” on the menu doesn’t mean the thing that arrives on your plate will contain a thousand layers of airy pastry. A critic’s job is to parse these things, to explain a little more clearly what a restaurant is or isn’t doing. When I read that phrase on the menu about the chicken, I often translate it as “We are proud to serve you the same chicken as Jack in the Box.” See, the trouble is that Georgia is America’s leading poultry producer and one of the world’s epicenters of conventional chicken farming. Most of the restaurants in Atlanta that are “proud” to serve local chickens are serving the same birds that get called “industrial” or “factory farmed” or whatever pejorative people prefer for conventional chicken as soon as they cross state lines. Conventional chicken is no crime—the vast majority of restaurants serve it. I eat plenty of it. Yet the local pride, the suggestion of sourcing something different—a better chicken—strikes me as willfully deceptive, like putting mille-feuille on the menu and serving dense pound cake instead. I always leave the restaurant intending to bring this up in the review.

When I sit down with a glass of wine at home and start typing, the casual moment to broach the subject never seems to come. I trouble over the chicken, and then I remember there’s already so much to discuss in a restaurant review, and a newspaper only has so many column inches.

Restaurant criticism is famously full of guidelines and systems and rules and institutional ethics. We have rules about payment, about reservations, about disclosure, about anonymity, about lack of anonymity. As an industry, critics love to talk about the rules: how we won’t let ourselves be photographed or how those photographs don’t matter, about the lengths we’ll go to eat just like anybody else, about that one ridiculous critic who hands out his business card at the host stand.

Aside from the absurdities, these rules tend to make our jobs easier; they predict and offer guidance in the ethical dilemmas we’ll face. Yet this big ethical question at the center of the critical plate—where did the meat come from?—seems to have an awkward and sometimes nonexistent place at the table. If you bring it up, you walk into a thicket of questions that present no easy answers: not just did the hen come from nearby but how did she live, what did she eat, who were her parents, in what portion was she served? Why stop at the chicken’s welfare? Are the line cooks getting paid enough? What about the restaurateur’s stance on tip sharing? What’s the chef’s food-waste policy? Did a monkey pick your coconut? Doesn’t it seem easier just to not bring it up?

While the paths of ethical concern over issues like animal welfare and the finer points of restaurant criticism seem to lead in different directions, I've often found myself at this critical impasse wondering if there is a way to reconcile the two.

Looking for answers, I dialed up Besha Rodell, the food critic for the LA Weekly. Rodell’s an old friend and a brilliant critic (with the awards to show for it), and whenever I trouble over some problem with food writing, I tend to find she’s been thinking about it for years before me. I told her the trouble about the chicken and asked her if she’d run into anything similar.

She answered with a story about a hip restaurateur, a well-known guy with a lot of popular restaurants, and how, while working on a review, she’d gotten a tip that he sourced everything from Sysco, the multinational food distributor synonymous with conventional agriculture. This wasn’t terribly scandalous—it wasn’t that he’d made his name on being some kind of true blood locavore—but, she said, “I just think people would be surprised, given that he's so, so idealistic in the language he uses around food issues.” In any case, the rumor never went into any reviews. Chefs don’t like to drop names like Sysco on menus or in interviews, and she hadn’t yet been able to confirm or disprove it.

"If I'm writing a restaurant review every week, how much time do I have to spend as an investigative journalist?" Rodell asked.

She has a point. Investigative features, the kind that tell us more about how our food systems function or malfunction, are a more natural fit for the kind of labored examinations of ethical questions surrounding our food—meat or otherwise. To point the finger at a single restaurant serving conventional chicken, she said, had the potential to confuse the subject. “Readers aren't as educated as you and might come away thinking ‘Restaurant X serves crappy meat, I'm never going there!’ without knowing that most places do,” she wrote me later.

Better to put it in a feature story, to address it as an industry-wide issue, than beat up on one restaurant for serving the same chicken as its peers, Rodell said. Many critics occasionally put on the journalist’s hat to do exactly that. (As it happens, I wrote several thousand words about the greenwashing of Georgia’s chicken industry years before I became a critic.) Yet, I can’t help but trouble over the idea of keeping our ethics and our pleasures in separate stories.

•••

Before I started writing restaurant reviews, I thought of them a bit like a voyeur. Even when I was utterly broke, I found I could enjoy eating dinner at a four-star restaurant in New York with Sam Sifton or a hidden Korean joint with Jonathan Gold in Los Angeles. The best critics brought me into the room, into a conversation with them. That conversation tends to be about pleasure, what dish is most satisfying, what part of the room has the best view, what intoxicating beverage pairs best with it all.

One of the guys who can write a review like that is John Kessler, who was the lead critic at the Atlanta Journal Constitution for almost two decades. Back when I could barely afford a cup of coffee, his reviews took me into the kitchens of Guenter Seeger and Anne Quatrano without ever having to spend a dime.

Kessler, who now serves as chairman of the James Beard journalism awards committee in Chicago, was something of a champion for local seafood during his time as a critic. He praised restaurants that served it, made a point of questioning why others didn’t. He told me a story about interviewing Peter Chang, a chef who, with his habit of hopping from one kitchen to another, became something of a Waldo-like figure for obsessive fans of Sichuan cooking. Critics don’t typically do that kind of face-to-face sit-down, but scoring some time with Chang had been something of a coup. At the time, Kessler, along with most of Atlanta, was smitten with Chang’s braised fish and tofu in chile oil. “It was this great big burbley pot of supersoft white fish, soft tofu, so much Sichuan pepper and cilantro just plastered over the top of it in oil,” he told me. “It was just this fantastic dish.”

Kessler remembered asking Chang about what fish he was using in the dish. On the menu, it was just described as “fish.” That prompted some conversation between the owner and chef in Mandarin that Kessler couldn’t understand. Kessler said, “Can I just see the fish?” Chang went in the back and brought out a frozen bag of swai imported from Southeast Asia. Swai is a remarkably cheap, large catfish native to the Mekong delta, but there are several going ethical concerns about serving it—not the least of which is that, at least according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, swai is an endangered species.

But Chang wasn’t serving the fish because it was the cheapest option or because it was endangered, for that matter. It was simply the best fish for the dish. Kessler told me that the braised fish in chile oil he eats in Chicago these days doesn’t hold a candle to Chang’s, because the restaurant uses sole rather than swai. The most delicious ingredient is not always the one that pleases our ethical concerns.

The reverse is more often true, of course. A hothouse tomato will never hold a candle to one grown in season. A pasture-raised chicken will always possess more flavor than a conventionally raised bird. Eating eggs from the backyard for the first time is like drinking whole milk after a lifetime of skim. But every once in a while, a cheap frozen fish filet of an endangered species, flown halfway across the globe, turns out to be more delicious than the one plucked out of a stream just a few miles away.

•••

I briefly entertained the idea that my trouble was a kind of generational thing, that the reason those ethical questions weren’t addressed in the institutional rules and guidelines of criticism is that the critics that came before me weren’t concerned with all of that. Was this some kind of post–Michael Pollan dilemma, the foolish idea that I could love food with the passion of a critic and still trouble over the ethics of it with the same fever?

So, I decided to ask Ruth Reichl for her advice. Which is kind of like having trouble with your jump shot and deciding to call Michael Jordan for some tips. Reichl’s tenure as critic for The New York Times in the 1980s and '90s, and as editor of Gourmet from 1999 until the magazine closed in 2009, changed food writing so deeply that it took me years to understand the extent of her influence. I wrote her an email about all of this trouble, the thought that I’d stumbled into some kind of ethical dilemma specific to my generation of food critic.

She called me back a few days later and said she’d never heard something so ludicrous.

“This whole food movement started as a political movement. Those of us in Berkeley in the ’70s, we had stopped the Vietnam War and we looked around and asked, ‘What’s the next thing we should tackle?’ because we felt so powerful,” she said. The answer they landed on was food. “We started reading about the vertical integration of agribusiness and the industrialization of food. It seemed like something people could really change without going to the government. That consumer power could make changes. People like Frankie Lappé, who wrote Diet for a Small Planet? I mean, Michael Pollan has nothing on her.”

At the time, Reichl was working at a cooperatively owned restaurant called the Swallow in Berkeley. The Swallow’s in-fighting and dysfunction is legendary, mostly because of Reichl’s comic portrayal of the place in Tender at the Bone. I asked if those fights had ever been about sourcing meat.

“No,” she said. “The truth is there were conversations about the ethics of eating meat, the point of using twenty pounds of protein [in the form of feed] to make one pound of beef. We didn’t know about animal confinement facilities and, in fact, they probably didn’t exist in the same way in the '70s. These pig factories we have today, they’re a modern phenomenon. Chickens were already being raised in batteries, but we didn’t really know that.”

It was instead Reichl's Berkley peer, Alice Waters, who grasped the importance of carefully sourcing and proudly identifying the farms that supplied the meat served at Chez Panisse. Waters is, in that way, the person who created the problem this whole ridiculous essay is concerned with. I read recently in Vanity Fair that Waters' style of naming farms on the menu is going out of fashion, that the chef at San Francisco’s legendary Greens thinks that reading all those farm names is “exhausting.” Though it seems ridiculous to think our food system would be improved by informing customers of less.

When I asked about the way those food politics informed Reichl’s move to become restaurant critic at the New York Times, she said, “You know, Berkeley became a gourmet ghetto. The whole focus did change for quite awhile. It started as a political movement, it went into what Alice likes to call the delicious revolution, and the politics sort of got left behind until it was too terrible to ignore.”

She recalled writing a column for the Times in 1996 called “Why I Disapprove of What I Do,” trying to reconcile her radical politics of the '70s with her task to inform the city’s well-heeled diners of the best dishes at the best restaurants. “Working in restaurants was honest labor, anyone could see that. Writing about them for the mainstream press was not; it felt like joining the enemy,” she wrote. While she highlighted the dissonance at the Times, she made it central to the journalism at Gourmet, where the features she started assigning explicitly complicated our understanding of culinary pleasure, rather than simplified it.

“When I took over Gourmet in 1999, one of the reasons I took it was because I wanted to talk about the politics of food,” she said. “My publishers at the time kept saying, ‘People don’t buy Gourmet magazine to find out what lobsters feel when they go into the pot.’ Or to know that Procter & Gamble had been covering up everything they knew about trans fats. Or about slaves that are picking our tomatoes in Florida. By the time I left, no one was saying that to me anymore.”

If the freedom to engage food and politics was one reason, another was Gourmet’s audience. This became clear during a fight over final edits with David Foster Wallace, the author of that famous 2004 essay on shellfish pain and sentience, “Consider the Lobster,” who had threatened to pull his piece from the magazine.

“I said, ‘Look, “Consider the Lobster” is a brilliant piece of writing. Anybody will take it. The New Yorker will take it. The Atlantic will take it. Harper’s will take it. But if you want the people who are cooking lobsters to read this piece, you’ll put it in Gourmet.’ There was this long silence and he said, ‘You’re right.’ ”

“The same is true of a restaurant review. People who are eating in restaurants are the ones who should be facing these kind of moral choices,” Reichl said.

Reichl and I talked for a long time about all of this and we kept on circling back to this point: That restaurants are instrumental to shaping our food systems and that restaurant reviews are our most intimate dialogue with that industry.

“You don’t want to bang on about it in every column. You don’t want people to think, ‘Oh my god, what is this, Mother Jones?’ But I think there are ways to do it. Maybe you bring someone along who knows the politics and you have a conversation about it in the review? There are ways to do it, but it has to be a discussion, not a lecture.”

I felt a bit inspired about all of this, I felt like I was getting closer to resolving that trouble with chicken that had started this whole problem. So I unloaded on Reichl, everything I’d been thinking about trouble with the chicken, all the different ways I’d approached the problem, how it still just didn’t add up. I wanted specific advice on this specific thing.

“Oh no. Don’t keep harping on that. Don’t be a broken record, you know, ‘Oh, here he goes again.’ Just find a place that is using a decently raised chicken and go on for some length about how much tastier it is. Use the flavor hook.”

Well, I thought, at least that settles that.