Last week in Jeremy’s blog, he noted the challenges posed by the nature of the Beard Awards’ voting system and how hard it is to get it down to a science. It is maddening, but each year or two, they keep tweaking away. I am eager to hear ideas from anyone on how it could be made more efficient and more representative of awarding excellence. It is tough to figure out. And until they decide to go with a full-time panel of paid reps who fly around the country eating at all the nomination-worthy restaurants in the U.S., no one will ever be happy. Sign me up! Sounds like a good gig. Hey, I’m frustrated, too, but I think it’s as good as we can get it.
Iggers then asked the question that has been asked a lot these days and has been addressed by me both in print and online, but I wanted to open up the idea to this group of readers. Are professional restaurant critics obsolete? Iggers does not come right out and say it, but he seems to be leaning toward saying, “yes, they are going the way of the dinosaur.” He notes that professional critics are expensive to fund for a newspaper or magazine; consumers are becoming better educated about food and, therefore, have less need for ‘experts’ to explain the gastronomic universe to them; and because of the digital revolution, you can instantly ascertain what the last few thousand customers at Porter & Frye thought of the place if you look on the right website. He accurately points out that yes, although one or two people can have a great meal or a bad one, when you look at a larger sample group, you can see a clearer picture of overall quality. That is, if you trust the Average Joe(s).
Here’s my take on this fascinating topic: First, we will always have the need for expert opinion. What Iggers fails to mention is the utter lack of credibility some of the popular dining columnists have in this town because they don’t understand food or how restaurants work, and I think readers want to know what Rick or Dara think about food because we have come to know them through their work—both as experts and, more importantly, as personalities. These are funny, smart people who we want to eat with; we trust their takes because throughout the years, we have come to zero in on what they like that we like and vice versa.
I think Average Joes get to vote with their feet and wallets, and restaurants need to make them happy first and foremost. And most do. I call it Kincaid-itis, so named after a restaurant that I don’t care for one iota but remains doggedly popular with the masses. No one needs an expert to explain that place. But I think people do want to know if the more-popular food writers like it, too. The media is in the business of selling personality in cases such as this; very few entities are in the business of simply selling facts when it comes to movie, theater, or restaurant reviews. But they can sell columnists and their personalities. I think newspapers are slowly going the way of the horse and buggy, and the better food writers will simply find new homes in digital media, and their audience will follow.
I do, like Iggers suggests, think that we need experts to help us put restaurants that challenge convention into perspective. I could care less what anyone thinks about the local grilled salmon and flatbread place. I am probably more influenced about dining by location, hours, convenience issues, and the like. But as dining becomes more and more aspirational, as my dining dollar stretches shorter distances, I want to know what my favorite dining columnists and critics say because I trust them and their expertise.
The one trend that Iggers mentions (but I was sorry to see him pass up the opportunity to explore further) was about judges for the JBA and how rare it is for someone to have eaten in two nominated restaurants in different states in the service category, for example. I agree, but I also think that as we move through the years, we are going to rely more and more on writers with true national and global experience. I remember when Chambers Kitchen opened here a few years ago. I was really eager to see what the restaurant was like and was anxious to see how it measured up to other JGV restaurants in NYC and other cities around the world. When I wrote about my CK experience, I made sure to include that info because I had the frame of reference that some other writers did not and wanted our readers to benefit from that. I think that media companies will always want that type of expertise in their stable for the simple reason that in today’s digital age, even the most casual food fan knows about chefs such as JGV and wants to know if their local outpost is anything like one of his NYC or London eateries. As the food world grows explosively, and the ‘information of the many’ clutter our browsers, we will always need experts to help us sort through the piles of opinions, perhaps even more than we do now.