The Empire Strikes Back ... the organised food media and food bloggers

I came across some interesting stuff on food writing on the net recently.

You first had an expat chef at Mumbai crying about the fact that everyone was in a hurry to review his restaurant here. No one gave him the 'trial period' that reviewers in the civilised world give.

Well, I am sorry but as far as I know there are no discounts diners get for being your guinea pigs while you get your act right.

The Chef, Alex Sanchez, then pooh pooh'd everyone who wrote about him and ended with a fervent hope that Rashmi Uday Singh would review him. Hers is the definitive word on food in Mumbai according to him.

Sanchez wrote the post a while back so I hope his wish of an original Rashmi Uday Singh review was fulfilled since then.

Mangal Dalal wrote a rejoinder to Sanchez's article. Over there he wrote about food critiquing and then qualified it by saying that none of that applied to bloggers.

He wrote this on a web site where Sanchez ironically writes now too. Posts where, among other things, Sanchez vents about how we treat chefs as servants at Mumbai and how we deserve the level of shoddy service that we get.

All of this came back to me when I came across a blog post from Australia which Rushina tweeted.

"@Rushina MG How wrong you can be about food bloggers! RT @fnbrilliant @grabyourfork: Weekend Aust article"

The article was an Australian blogger, Helen Yee's, defence against an Australian journo, Elizabeth Meryment, who took off on food bloggers saying how food bloggers have no business writing as they are not 'trained', they don't ask questions that are technical enough, that they are taken in by fads, they eat free food and write nice things about that. I have paraphrased the article here but you can read the actual article yourself and decide.
When I read these posts I did a quick check on the Finely Chopped Facebook page to see if people would prefer 'technical, expert like factual' articles on food versus those which have a personal take. The vote was in favour of the latter. Though the market researcher in me must point out that this is a biased sample of people who do enjoy reading blogs.

The Australian article refers to restaurant reviews which of course is not what all food blogging is about. Whether journalists are 'technically trained' enough on food to critique it is a question for another day.

And, in case we forget, we are talking about food here and not, er, rocket science.

The question of 'expertise' or understanding the art has been the crux of the critic versus creator debate in various fields. Movies, literature, art. Not just scrambled eggs or chop suey .

It is for the readers to choose what they want. An 'expert' who knows whether a creme brulee has been baked in the right oven at the right temperature with eggs laid by a chicken with no existential issues. Or someone who tried a creme brulee for the first time and just wants to write about how he or she found it. Maybe something as simple as "I prefer brownies. This is not sweet enough."

Yes, bloggers don't have to go past editorial control but they are also operating in a pure free market economy. People will read you only if they like you, find you relevant AND credible. Unlike journalists, bloggers are not riding on the back of publications. This is survival of the fittest in its ultimate form.

Bloggers meets & junkets are getting popular in India too, but to dub all food blogging content to be a result of this would be very ridiculous. The chances of a mass media editorial feature being a paid one is much higher and, at least in India, this is rarely disclosed.

I pay for the stuff I write about. I pay for the brands I buy at shops I might mention in recipe posts. Exceptions are when friends treat me. In those cases they do not have a stake in the restaurant in question. At the most I might feel awkward as I might not want to hurt the feeling of a friend who was generous enough to treat me to something which didn't turn out to be good for no fault of theirs. Would be bad manners or churlish if I did so. Plus it's personal and I do not really need to share it with the world at large. So I keep quiet about it.

If I have been hosted by a restaurant or business establishment then I mention that. I just wish that journalists would do that too.

The article questions the 'love of food' which all food bloggers apparently claim as their motivation for blogging. Well of course it's not true. People blog for various reasons - from sharing experiences and getting feedback  to working towards goals which could vary from landing a job or a book deal or promoting a business. Let's not do readers a disservice by saying that they can't read through this.

As for me, I begun blogging three and a half years back as I was bored with most local mass media content which seemed like staid advertorials to me.

Meryment quotes A A Gill and says "A.A. Gill, who was in Australia at the same time as White, is more direct. “I don’t read them; I would never read them,” he asserts. “As if I have the time.” "

Having tried to read Gill's book when a friend gave me his book all I can say is that the feeling is mutual.

Guess it's 1984 all over again.

 PS: Interestingly one can post a comment in response to the blogger's post but not to the magazine article .

That's the difference between blogging and mass media if you were to ask me. Interactivity versus the voice of God.

Here's the discussion on the Facebook page:

Finely Chopped: Debates on blogs vs publications made me wonder do you prefer reading a factual description of a restaurant or a reviewer's personal take?

Shubhranshu Das personal tale ... facts are passe

Finely Chopped Hmm I have been reading some POVs on how bloggers can afford to write what they want while publications need to be objective, factual, well rounded, 'owes it to the reader' etc. Most read as advertorials to me. Guess this debate would apply to other critics too - music, cinema, sports, books

Poli Gupta I would always go for the personal review

Shubhranshu Das What applies to the publication applies more so to the blogger, they are immediately identifiable and can be held directly accountable for deviations in experience, reccos etc...

Finely Chopped My take Shubhranshu is that people catch on if you are fake or if your tastes don't match that of the reader so guess you are right. Plus you identify with the style of the blogger/ writer

Pallavi Sharma Personal take for sure.

Finely Chopped Must admit that we are a bit a biased sample here as we read blogs. My problem is with media reviews which sound disturbingly close to advertorials


Moonshine said…
Well if we needed technical, we would buy a recipe book!!!!!!!!

Its the joy of reading the story around fod.. experience you call it.. good story telling I call it :) Food is not just about food!!! It is the "happy experience"... or "story" if you may please"!!!
Sameer said…
Your blog makes for excellent reading - I visit your blog every single day. And that's the thing - a person's writing speaks volumes about his/her knowledge of, and passion for, the subject. Hence, people keep coming back only if you're really good.

We love your food stories and food adventures. Just keep writing. All the best!
Anurag Gupta said…
I agree with Sameer. I read your blog because I like the way you weave stories around food. In a free world, everyone has a right to express their opinions and if the journalists and restaurant owners dont like it.... then too bad!
Saradhi Rajan said…
Blogs are all about personal opinion and that is the way it should be. Sanchez has a point about professional reviewers in India though - all they do is right about portion size and value for money (with one or two exceptions)
Marie said…
I would vote for the personal touch in the review. That's why we read blogs.
Scarlett said…
This is such crap. If I wanted technical, I'd read a food magazine. Blogs are supposed to be about PERSONAL opinion & experiences.
Scarlett said…
And seriously, like you said if we have bad food/experience at restaurants we don't get a discount. So what are chefs cribbing about anyway. They need to get it first time right b/c eating out in cities like Mumbai is expensive.
Priya Sreeram said…
the post put things in perspective - I prefer a personal review spiked with their own experiences rather than the technical crap !
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Moonshine: There is nothing more than bland than food descriptions in my opinion too

@Sameer: thanks man and great to see a biker and a food lover connect :)

@Anurag: thanks a lot. And yes social media is very democratic. I think that's what worries people. Too bad

@Scarlett: remember that torrid time we had pali village cafe? people did write in to me later, trolls, I guess, saying do you know how hard it is to set up a restaurant etc etc
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Priya well that's what I look for too
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Priya well that's what I look for too
Scarlett said…
You know what, it may be very hard to open a restaurant but if you're going to do it, you HAVE to get it right b/c people are paying money for eating at your restaurant. It's a fact of life, chefs & restaurant owners need to suck it up.
Kurush F Dalal said…
hmmm ... where the f*^k do i start??!!
1. there is no such crap as a trained critic
2. if u cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen
3. if you arent proud of what u serve ... dont serve it!
4. as for the expat gent ... did we ask u to come here? wtf is wrong with your food u idiot. dont vent on critics ... yes some are harsh and many are unfair ... so what?
if your food is good and honest and not some overpriced frou-frou crap .. it should sell ... if not u shud be a) wondering where u screwed up or b) decide u've done your best and throw in the towel
5. its a free country and everyone is entitled to their opinions ... this isnt a fascist state with a has been prima donna chef/restaurateur designated dictator for life
6. every chef/kitchen/restaurant screws the pooch once in a while (yes even the best ... including the maison blah de blah with 3 michelin stars) ... the right thing to do is find out what happened, own up - mea culpa, apologise and offer to replace/not charge/send something complimentary/make up for the faux pas next time/all or some of the previous.
7. blogging is here to stay learn to live with it
8. bloggers invited to a do and not paying have a right to tell it like it is whilst being gracious to their hosts ... if they arent true to their calling their public will denounce them when they find out otherwise
9. cant hurt bloggers and chefs/restaurateurs to come off their respective high horses either :) .... guys we dont own the moral high ground unless we walk the talk.
Reposting here as you requested, Kalyan..

I did read what Sanchez wrote and all I honestly felt he is like a sulky child. As long as I am paying for my meal I have every right to like it or dislike it and tell that to whoever I like.

That apart, as you rightly asked, why should the paying public be guinea pigs while he gets his act together?? We run a food business ourselves and if a client is ever dissatisfied we take it very seriously indeed and very often waive the charges completely.

If you're not confident of the food you're serving get out of the food business.
ecofatigue said…
A. I'd rather read and believe a person whose opinion I like reading and recommendations suit my taste, than an appointed 'expert' who mostly may just be another celeb with no real credibility.

B. The attitude towards customers also reminds me of a response by owners of a posh Mumbai restaurant here dated March, 2011.

Even after the bad actual restaurant experience, I would've gone back, had it not been this quite appalling and arrogantly defensive attitude of the owners.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
This is what friend and former HT food reviewer Soumik had to say on the FB page on this: "this community PR dining exercise has always been a joke. Food shud be experienced individually or with friends, rather than with a bunch of pen and agenda pushers, who are trying to exchange notes and score brownie points for the next free meal"
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Maithili: Just went through the link you sent. Wow. Reminds me of the Tripadvisor forum. You are left so confused that you don't know what is genuine and what is competitive spamming

Talking of rude behaviour...I went through that at Pali Village Cafe and took that very personally

@Kurush & Rhea: your views are particularly interesting because you are in the business AND are bloggers too
Gaurav said…
KK,interesting post. Have been gone for a while so just catching up on my reading.

I for one dont go to new restaurants around launch time anymore for the precise reason that there are chinks to workout and there is little need to scoop anything.

But to actually see someone whine about not having enough time to get their act together is quite something.

Folks in Bombay can be unforgiving but i think its foolish to open doors when you arent confident.

i think its ludicrous to think that people will give you months to work out your dishes and sort out front of house while they continue to pay for the restaurants mistakes.

As for bloggers not being trained critics, it is a fair point. However i think bloggers offer a very personal view point on a meal that they pay for and reviews they write out of passion.

It might not be expert opinion but its personal opinion and it strikes a chord with a lot of readers and food lovers alike who like the voices that come from these blogs.

In a city where restaurants open frequently yet, dining out frequently belongs to a certain strata, bloggers fill a gap that newspapers cant seem to (for whatever reason, lack of expertise, lack of readership or simply coz they are cheap)

While the food at Table wasnt bad, their service was weak and their prices were RIDICULOUS !

I would recommend Alex, not depend on friends and family because they are rarely honest enough at sensitive times and also maybe your next restaurant should be in the city of brotherly love and not in the Bombay Jungle.
Khushboo said…
Heading here from Twitter. I watch a lot of phoren food shows and I have to say, all their stuff about the uniqueness of the flavors, some french technique, the amalgamation of the spices is kind of Greek to me. And who says you need technique to cook? AFAIK Indian food is respected the world over and we cook based on intuition than technique but still manage to make some amazing food.

I read a Vir Sanghvi article in HT Brunch a while back which spoke of a Michelin star chef who said that no Indian knows how to cook because we don't handle our food with respect, we don't have chopping skills and we just cannot cook meat. Sounds ludicrous to me!

Of course I do not agree with The Australian about people turning to blogging 'cos they cannot find a job. I am a full time self employed writer and I write about food because I love all aspects of cooking. Since when did that become a crime?
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Gaurav, good to hear from you, one of the earliest restaurant review bloggers at Mumbai. Yes, even I don't share the craze to check out the 'latest'. We are talking of food here after all. Not movies for God's sake

@Khushboo: anyone who says that Indians, of all people, do not respect food is a nut case
A tad late, but here's my re-post as requested:

I agree with Rhea Mitra-Dalal. What kind of silly concept is a grace period for restaurants, anyway? If you wanted to try things out, you should have done a trial run behind closed doors. If you've opened your doors, be open to criticism as... well.

And I'd definitely go by a food blogger's review. Any day. Like you said, it's not rocket science; it's food! And if there's a foodie out there whose views I associate with and whose taste I think is similar to mine, I'd rather make my decision based on his/her experience rather than reading a sold-out journo's article. Hmph. :)
Culinary Muse said…
Brilliant post! made for an excellent read and answer to the Sanchez-kind. Before getting into food blogging I read alot of blogs like yours & Rushina's to know what I was getting into ].I think food bloggers are much more credible because a)they dont get paid to this they do it out of their passion and love for it b)they are the more serious ones and those that are not get filtered out cause they wouldnt feel like posting after a point of time due to again point a). So I think it's hightime Chefs and restaurants take us seriously. Or not even that as a blogger I don't care if I meet the chef or am treated like God the way the Rashmi Uday Singhs are treated at a restaurant or not. I just want to eat and give an unbiased opinion/account. And am free and entitled to do so as per my fundamental right of freedom of speech!