San Francisco chef Richie Nakano asked the question on Twitter the other day. It made me think how things have changed since the days when restaurant critics were distant and unreachable, insulated from readers by firewalls of anonymity and editorial policy. A decade ago, it would have been difficult to answer a critic. These days critics are mere mortals, vulnerable on Twitter, or assailable in online comments. Is it unprofessional for a chef to do the bitching? That depends on the approach.
One strategy: convincing people that the critic hates you. Pete Wells’s curb-stomp of Guy Fieri in The New York Times became a national story in part because you figured Fieri would have to answer. (Fieri’s remarks on the Today show, casting just enough doubt on Wells by alluding to some vague “agenda,” was classic political spin—you wonder if he bought talking points from a crisis response consultant.)
Another approach: saying you’re sorry. Those crappy meals you served? They will never, ever happen again. Responding to Nakano’s question, blogger Frodnesor linked to an, er, apology, by an owner of Miami’s Acme Bakery, after critic Emily Codik said the pastries were stale.
“I can tell you,” Alexander Ortiz wrote in a lengthy response, “that at Acme we will be reevaluating the way we handle and store our pastries in order to ensure that a guest never receives a ‘not fresh’ pastry, cookie or bread.” Those quote marks around not fresh: sort of a fuck-you to Codik, though muffled just enough to provide plausible deniability.
A third strategy: lobbing shitbombs. I wrote this review of a San Francisco restaurant I hated for a publication I used to work for. Scathing? Yes. Intemperate? Definitely. Fair? You decide. The owner of the company that did public relations for the place kept it classy in the comments:
This is the most uneducated review I’ve ever read in my entire life in any single publication. But I do encourage you to keep printing your paper; sometimes I get caught without a bag when my dog takes a crap on the sidewalk and I need to use something to pick it up with. For that, I thank you SF Weekly
Fortunately, there was just enough firewall left that I didn’t get spattered. And anyway, it wasn’t the chef who did the lobbing.
Chefs can be more direct—like shaming a critic by calling her out on the menu.
Image of “Ratatouille” food critic Anton Ego from Pixar