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Will Write for Food

Readers are hungrier than ever for restaurant reviews, profiles of celebrity chefs, and gustatory travel writing. But who’s going to pay for it?

(Matthew Hollister)
(Matthew Hollister)

No less than Jonathan Gold, the esteemed Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, has suggested that food now occupies the cultural airspace once devoted to music. So it follows that food critics — and food bloggers, food-source polemicists, and writers concerned with the lives of chefs — would assume the mantle once worn by rock critics. They lead a national cultural conversation, and — more to the point — they have the jobs every other journalist secretly wishes they had.

Consider: The New York Times Pete Wells may be the "first viral restaurant critic," as Slate’s Isaac Chotiner suggested. Wells is certainly the most viral critic at the Times, showing food criticism’s status versus, say, movie criticism.

The Scylla to Wells’s Charybdis is Gold, who in a 2016 documentary can be seen cruising strip malls in his green Dodge truck looking for his next great Southern Thai meal. In Los Angeles, Gold is less a food critic than a civic hero. In the film, one admirer compares his literary vision of Los Angeles to Raymond Chandler’s.

The New Yorker, which began publishing a food issue annually in 2007, now overflows with food writing. Adam Gopnik, Dana Goodyear, and Bill Buford have collected the smudged napkins discarded by A.J. Liebling and Calvin Trillin. The magazine isn’t just turning it monocle on chefs (Yotam Ottolenghi, Damon Baehrel) but on food writers. In the last six months, it has run profiles of Wells and Anthony Bourdain.

For his part, Bourdain, who hosts Parts Unknown, is not just the model of a globe-trotting gourmand. He has pulled off a miracle: He hosts a show on CNN and is not held up as an example of the depravity of cable news.

Years ago, Besha Rodell, who’s now the restaurant critic at the L.A. Weekly, told an editor at Vice (then a mere magazine) that she wanted to write about food for him. The editor was flummoxed: "You are so not the audience we’re going for." Today, you need only toe-dip into the Vice empire to find a story titled, "The Quiet Genius of the Most Underrated Japanese Chef in Paris."

Adam Sachs, the editor-in-chief of Saveur, told me he used to merely nod at a couple of dog-walkers in his New York neighborhood. Then Sachs appeared on the episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table starring Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson. All of a sudden, the dog-walkers got very interested in him. As Sachs recalled, "They stopped me and said, ‘You know Magnus?’"

The same glamour-adjacent pleasures that once drew writers to rock now draws them to food. "It used to be that the cheesy boomer binary was, do you like the Beatles or the Stones?" said Jeff Gordinier, the food and drinks editor at Esquire. "Now, it’s are you Gabrielle Hamilton or Dan Barber? Are you David Chang or Alex Stupak? It’s become the cultural conversation."

Yet when I told Corby Kummer, the longtime Atlantic food writer, that a horde of writers were following his path, he said incredulously, "And they feel they’re going to make money at it?"

This — no pun intended — is the rub. Just as the world has minted enough Bourdain-worshipping, elusive-taco-truck-hunting foodies to create a reliable audience for food writing, it is struggling to pay for it. Music is cheap to stream, and even cheaper to steal. You have to pay $700 for the privilege of panning Per Se. If everyone wants to be a food critic, who’s going to pick up the bill?

"Everybody’s writing about food," said Barbara Fairchild, the former editor of Bon Appétit, "and everyone I meet is a lawyer who wants to be a food writer. It’s really getting kind of freaky out there." Figuring out what happened is like determining which L.A. eatery invented the French dip sandwich. It’s a long, occasionally winding road but entirely worth the journey.

Perhaps the biggest reason food writing has new status is that American food has new status. By the mid-2000s, "you have a confluence of a coherent food blogosphere coming into being," said David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula, "plus you have more and more young chefs and restaurateurs being a little more enterprising."

Mitchell Davis, the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, said the rises of food culture and food media are almost always linked. In 19th-century France, the new middle-class cooking was documented by L’Almanach des Gourmands, which Davis called a "proto-blog" — the Eater of its day. "Otherwise, there’s no sharing of the art form," Davis said. "You can perform a concert in the town square and the whole city can hear it. You can’t do that with food."

The second reason for the rise of food writing is the democratization of restaurants. In 1975, when Jane and Michael Stern pitched their first Roadfood guide to cheap, regional restaurants, they were met with bewilderment. "The editor had a hard time convincing the publisher that there were enough interesting restaurants in the United States of America to fill a guidebook," Michael Stern told me. The Sterns will publish the 10th edition of Roadfood this month.

"The word ‘foodie’ was not yet coined," Michael Stern continued. "In those days, if you were into food it meant you were into French or Continental food. … Writing about barbecue and clam shacks and chicken-dinner halls was just not something people had thought of doing. … What’s happened in a way is that we as Americans have gotten over our culinary inferiority complex."

By 2014, when The New York Times changed the name of its "Dining" section to "Food," the transformation was complete. There’s still plenty of writing about fancy restaurants (look at the bombs Ryan Sutton and Pete Wells set off inside Per Se). But more writers are following in the footsteps of the Sterns or Calvin Trillin, traversing Brooklyn or the Brooklyns of America to discover a new chef or trend.

There are food writers who mourn the changeover. "If it’s new-casual and organic or farm-to-table, there’s a tendency for it all to be praised," said Alan Richman, an award-winning food writer who wrote for GQ and other magazines. "Then there’s these nut-bag trends. Remember the ramen burger?"

Food writing is also sustained by a deeper interest in where food comes from. You can draw a line from writers like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan to a site like Civil Eats. As with every other corner of journalism, President Trump has provoked interesting food writing, from chef Allison Robicelli’s piece about how Obamacare helped restaurant workers to the recent Times feature about a chef who was deported from the United States years ago and is now making Mexico City’s food great again.

In a fully digitized world, food offers the promise of writing about something tangible. "I feel like people are longing for connection," said the writer Jason Tesauro. "We’ve gotten to a place where soul and authenticity and genuineness — there’s a dearth of it about. A lot of food writing just deals with surface — it’s restaurant reviews and hype and ‘Look at what I’ve found that you haven’t heard about yet.’ But peel that back and what you’re really getting is an excuse to write about what’s real.

"Food writing happens to be on everyone’s coffee table," Tesauro continued, "so it’s a great entry point."

L.A. Weekly’s Rodell said: "I would love to think Americans all of a sudden are really interested in pleasure and culture and community. But, really, I think they’re interested in commerce and status, probably." Either way, they’re reading about it.

To sustain food writing, you need swaggering subjects. In 1992, a music manager named Shep Gordon went to lunch with a party that rivaled the Last Supper’s: Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, and Nobu Matsuhisa. These "celebrity chefs" were masters of their art form, Gordon explained to the writer Erin Mosbaugh, but wildly underpaid and almost unknown to the public at large. Gordon compared them to black musicians on the Chitlin’ Circuit.

The next year, a CNN cofounder started the Food Network. Gordon installed his client Emeril Lagasse as the network’s signature star. Food TV spawned more brand names like Mario Batali, Nigella Lawson, and, last and certainly least, Guy Fieri, whose contribution to world culture is to bite into a meatball hoagie and moan. According to the writer Allen Salkin, in 1993 the Food Network was in fewer than 7 million homes; two decades later, it would be in more than 90 million. A typical viewer, Alan Richman said, "has seen more food than I’ve eaten."

As Serious Eats founder and CEO Ed Levine pointed out, celebrity chefs got so big that they solved food writing’s localism problem: A reader in Dallas could get interested in the travails of a New York chef, even if they never visited his or her restaurant.

The new stars of food TV also solved a generational problem. In the 1980s, food TV was a gerontocracy ruled by Julia Child. By the 2000s it was paying attention to younger, more relatable chefs like Wylie Dufresne. "You’ve got 28-year-old chefs and you’ve got 28-year-old food writers," said Mitchell Davis. (Unlike almost any other critical discipline, the chefs were likely to become food writers themselves — see David Chang’s columns in GQ.)

The particular chefs that food TV disgorged also made food writing more subtle than its previous incarnations. "Food writing had always existed in this ecstatic mode," said the writer John Birdsall, "where everything was delicious, everything was amazing. ‘You have to go there!’ Suddenly, we’re reading very nuanced, detailed stories — how dark, troubled people could at times rise to really brilliant food but at the same time drag these heavy shadows around with them." Birdsall pinpointed Larissa MacFarquhar’s 2008 profile of Chang as a piece that showed the possibilities of the form.

Even with their fattened wallets, most celebrity chefs still exist in a journalistically available zone. They’re famous enough to get an editor’s approval but not famous enough to disappear behind an army of publicists. When Gordinier profiled Gabrielle Hamilton, of New York’s Prune, in 2011, Hamilton asked him, "How many days do you need?" Most celebrities — speaking through their publicists — would ask how many minutes.

To snag the Danish chef Bo Bech for a 2015 Travel + Leisure feature, Jason Tesauro simply sent an email to Bech’s Hotmail address. After a few more emails and texts, he collected Bech at an airport in Virginia ("Bo Fucking Bech!"), stuffed him into a car, and set off on a weeklong gustatory adventure.

Once it had the swaggering subjects, food writing needed swaggering writers to set the tone. When Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential in 2000, he seemed to open a new portal for food writing. Though Bourdain insisted to The New Yorker, "I’m not a cook, nor am I a journalist," he nudged both professions into the heroin-shooting, punk-rock zone. "Suddenly, you could say ‘fuck’ in a piece about food," said Birdsall.

Bourdain showed that food writing could be inside-out: as concerned with the sweat in the back of the kitchen as the white tablecloth out front. He was also good at puncturing phonies — a process by which he simultaneously promoted his own brand of truth-telling. (When I interviewed Bourdain in 2007, he called Rachael Ray "evil," a blast I dutifully recorded and which later made Page Six.) In food writing, he also spawned imitators. "It was like the not-as-good Method actors who wanted to emulate Marlon Brando," said Barbara Fairchild.

Bourdain has reinvented himself a traveler. The new food writing has promoted models of that older, disappearing species: the restaurant critic. In an era when the movie and music critics’ power is waning, The New York Times Pete Wells still retains the fearsome power of old. Months after Wells took two stars from Per Se, Town & Country found chef Thomas Keller calling the review "devastating" and admitting that Wells (who compared his mushroom bouillon to "bong water") may have been right. It’s almost impossible to imagine a movie director or musician publicly nursing their wounds like that.

Gordinier, who wrote for Wells when Wells was an editor at Details, said: "That kind of power used to be wielded by rock critics like Robert Christgau. He was a powerful figure, someone who changed the course of cultural history — or at least it was perceived. That’s now true with Pete Wells." A lot of Dallas restaurateurs would grumble the same thing about Morning News critic Leslie Brenner.

More people I talked to cited Jonathan Gold as the best current writer on food, period. If you imitate Gold’s writing, the tell is using his signature "you": "Have you, by chance, tasted tonkotsu ramen?" But as Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan said, "If you’re not imitating Jonathan Gold, you’re not going to do a very good job."

In January, Wells panned the California-based chain Locol, which seeks to serve more healthful fast food, made by people making good wages, in poor communities. The normally placid Gold used his column to call Wells "ungenerous" and ask "why The New York Times was using its main restaurant column to gripe about bland turkey chili in an Oakland burger stand whose mandate was to feed a community with limited access to good, nutritious food."

Both men can be right: Wells that Locol is a restaurant and therefore reviewable and Gold that a review may not be the best place to take stock of the enterprise. The exchange didn’t blossom into a feud (Wells told Gold that everything was "cool"), but it hinted at something exciting: a Pauline Kael–Andrew Sarris tank battle in the food world.

The surge in food writing has been supported by new media. Eater was founded in 2005 and began by tackling the inside dope of the restaurant business. "Eater really transformed that into a conversation akin to sports," said Amanda Hesser, the cofounder and CEO of the website Food52. In 2011, Chang and Peter Meehan founded the magazine Lucky Peach, which was devoted to food writing that was deeper, studded with more curse words, and more welcoming of esoterica. "I’m loath to attribute anything to the work we’ve done at Lucky Peach," Meehan said, "but I feel food writing is a little bit Lucky Peachier than it was six years ago."

Jeff Gordinier interviews chefs Eric Ripert and Jennifer Carroll (Getty Images)
Jeff Gordinier interviews chefs Eric Ripert and Jennifer Carroll (Getty Images)

The introduction of the iPhone made food more easily sharable. Back in the 1970s, Michael Stern would take a light reading with an exposure meter before photographing food with his Hasselblad camera. (Some restaurateurs feared he was a health inspector.) In 2006, Midtown Lunch founder Zach Brooks was still affixing his digital camera to a mini-tripod. From there we have progressed to the inevitable New Yorker cartoon, where a waiter asks a couple, "Is everything OK? You haven’t photographed your food."

Food Instagram is now such a part of our lives that we forget how deeply weird it is. "You can’t eat food through the internet," L.A. Weekly’s Besha Rodell said. "Fashion or art are way more consumable through the internet. Yet those things have not become bigger."

The downside of fetishizing photography, said Saveur’s Adam Sachs, "is that we’re influenced much more by the visuals and structure of something, and maybe the idea behind it, but not the actual purpose of it — the sensual part where you put it in your body. It’s like hearing about a movie but not bothering to go see it."

Yelp may drive serious food writers nuts (more on that later), but it’s also pioneering its own kind of food writing. "From a data science perspective, it’s this enormous source of information we never had before about how people think about restaurants," said Carl Bialik, who left FiveThirtyEight to be Yelp’s data science editor. Bialik said he might use Yelp’s data to explore how locals and out-of-towners view a neighborhood restaurant differently.

Food writing hasn’t just replaced rock criticism in prestige. It scratches the same critical itches. "In my teens and 20s, music was everything," said Brooks. "That was all I cared about — buying records and listening to CDs and going to concerts. In my 30s, all that passion migrated to food. … All that intensity I had for Radiohead and My Morning Jacket was now trained on David Chang and Anthony Bourdain."

Indeed, you can find music writers who became food writers: Gold and Gordinier, for example. Brooks hosts a podcast called Food Is the New Rock. "Alton Brown can now tour like a rock band," said Serious Eats’ Ed Levine. "Think about that."

"Food has become entertainment," Meehan said. As David Kamp showed in The United States of Arugula, a chef like Alice Waters can be a product of 1970s counterculture just like any musician. And Waters is much more likely to be available to talk about her motivations.

"Those of us who have pursued this course are on the pleasure beat," Gordinier told me. "It doesn’t mean we partake of the pleasure the entire time. It means we’re interested in the way culture engages with pleasure, and what the pursuit of pleasure says about us. The defining pleasure of the ’60s was music. To some extent, the defining pleasure of the ’70s was film. The defining pursuit of our time now is food."

Switching genres also deals with a mortality problem. A rock critic on the wrong side of 40 is almost invariably sad. "I don’t want to end up as this 60-year-old going to Metallica shows," Gold has said, noting that music writing is really about taking it to your elders. When the music writer moves into food, and exacts his critical vengeance on restaurants, he is no longer pathetic. He is living the dream. A food critic is a rock critic that has been ripened and aged.

So what’s the problem with the new food writing? "The problem is no one can make a living at it," said the Beard Foundation’s Mitchell Davis. The contraction of newspapers and magazines has sapped the money that once paid for reviews and features.

We shouldn’t romanticize the old days of newspaper food writing too much. In 1980, a report by the Los Angeles Times’ David Shaw found that many restaurant critics — even the one at his own paper — were constitutionally incapable of writing a pan. Some newspaper critics greedily took free meals, or supplied a "review" only when a restaurant bought an ad. The critic Ruth Reichl once said that while working in L.A., "I felt like I had to train restaurateurs not to give me free stuff."

What the old media had was money. Recently, Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport sat down with Andrew Knowlton, who along with Julia Kramer spends six months traveling and eating his way across America to compile the magazine’s "Hot 10" list. Rapoport asked what the bill for this year’s reporting might be, and Knowlton quoted a figure in the "tens and tens of thousands of dollars," Rapoport said. When the editor expressed shock, Knowlton said, "What did you think it cost?"

"I got paid $6,000 this year for a food story I wrote, and I couldn’t believe it was so much," Alan Richman told me. "Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have done a food story for $6,000."

Today, we might venture another question: What food writer wouldn’t write any story for $6,000?

Without the money to sustain a proper critical apparatus, food writers can be driven toward cheap eats, warm appreciations, or both. Richman said: "Notice that every story that you read in a food magazine starts, ‘The best meal I had all last year was in the back room of a gas station on a deserted street in Tupelo, Mississippi …’" With that bite of fried okra or pork barbecue, the writer is sent into a Proustian reverie about their childhood, their first love …

Yelp is the God of diners and the bane of food critics. "I think it’s killed reviewing," said The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer. "Look at how few paid restaurant critics who get their meals reimbursed there are in the entire landscape and entire world. They’re disappearing by the day. It’s because of Yelp."

One effect of the pinch is to drive some food writers out of journalism. "I have to say I don’t miss it at all," said Zach Brooks, the Midtown Lunch founder who’s now the market manager of Smorgasburg LA. "Helping food businesses incubate their concepts at a Sunday market is so much more fulfilling than getting paid $50 to write clickbait."

Another effect can be seen in who gets to write about food. Last month, in an admirable act of transparency, the website Food52 admitted that its staff is 92 percent white, "with enough liberal arts degrees between us to paper a decent-sized bathroom." What happened was that Food52 — a startup looking to survive and grow — was using unpaid contributors, which tilted the pool toward people who could work for free. (The site no longer uses unpaid writers and photographers.)

Jonathan Gold (AP Images)
Jonathan Gold (AP Images)

Debates about diversity now rage across the food media. The anonymous Twitter muckraker @shitfoodblogger tweets, "Any thought piece about the Wells/Locol review that doesn’t start with ‘So a white guy walks into a restaurant’ has nothing valuable to say." Eater’s Amanda Kludt has written about the stupidity of "Best Female Chef" awards when there is no male analogue. A few years ago, Rodell found that male food critics who had masthead positions at their publications outnumbered their female counterparts by more than 2-to-1.

In September, Bon Appétit published a video in which a white chef named Tyler Akin talked about eating the Vietnamese soup pho. The site put a headline on the feature that said: "PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho." Mic called it "peak cuisine Columbusing" — the act of a white person "discovering" something that was doing just fine in its virginal state. The magazine pulled the video and admitted that "we screwed up."

Yet pull up the current issue of Bon Appétit and you’ll find a cover story on the immigrants (and their children and grandchildren) who are innovating American cuisine. "Isn’t this what has always made America great?" Rapoport writes in an editor’s letter. "That we are a country of immigrants, constantly inventing and reinventing?" It reads like both an apologia and a subtweet of Donald Trump.

In the violence of media change, there’s some hope. The old currency of food writing, Davis noted, was recipes and reviews. Both can now be had for free on the web. When food writing no longer has to deliver these things, it’s free to explore more interesting territory.

When John Birdsall felt food writing was groaning with too much Bourdanian swagger, he made it his mission, as he told an editor, "to gay up Lucky Peach." The result was a fabulous 2013 piece (in Lucky Peach’s Gender Issue) headlined "America, Your Food Is So Gay."

Last year, Food52’s Mayukh Sen listened to his editors brainstorm about what holiday piece they should write about fruitcake — a treat that the food media loves to comically attack. Sen, whose parents were from West Bengal, declared fruitcake to be great food. He also explored fruitcake’s long and scummy usage as an anti-gay slur. Instead of being funny and slight, Sen’s piece, "How — and Why — Did Fruitcake Become a Slur?," was enormously profound.

Here were two instances where the new food writing was literate, delivered by a diverse cast, and came with a decent paycheck. At the very least, a food writer can take a slug of local IPA and a bite of avocado toast and pray.

An earlier version of this piece included a caption that incorrectly identified Jeff Gordinier as Pete Wells.