No wonder food critics are feeling introspective.
Between publishing's industrywide troubles, the ever-increasing speed (and seemingly decreased value) of online information, the mushrooming presence of food blogs, and the unexpected closure of foodie bible Gourmet Magazine, the future looks like one big question mark -- or, for someone like me who's navigating the busy intersection between old and new media, a moving target.
Restaurant reviewers around the country are wondering aloud about their role.
Last month, New York University's Institute for Public Knowledge hosted a by-invite-only discussion of "Taste and Authority: The Restaurant Review." A recent dissertation by James Beard Foundation vice president Mitchell Davis, entitled "A Taste for New York: Restaurant Reviews, Food Discourse, and the Field of Gastronomy," was featured in the discussion.
Francis Lam covered the event for Salon ("Restaurant Critics Stare Into the Abyss"), sounding quite pessimistic but making no conclusions about what kind of food writing (trusted professional criticism or handy amateur review) readers really want to consume.
In a recent article for Columbia Journalism Review, "Everyone Eats . . . But that doesn't make you a restaurant critic", Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema detailed the history of professional restaurant reviewing to make the case for food critics' continued importance.
The public's desire to dine out as a form of entertainment -- and to do so at the newest, hottest places -- is "creating a boom-and-bust cycle for restaurants, in which novelty and buzz are valued above excellence," he wrote. Reliable professional critics are all the more necessary, in Sietsema's view.
Meanwhile, New York magazine's Grub Street blog included Daniel Maurer's challenge: "Sietsema Looks at the Past, But What's the Future of Food Media?" According to his predictions on the direction of food media, reviewers will collaborate with chefs or go into the restaurant biz themselves, and bloggers will play an ever-growing role in how menus are shaped and how diners experience restaurants.
Are professional restaurant critics on the verge of extinction? For me, the immediate answer comes every other week, in the form of a direct deposit to my checking account, along with health insurance. I'm too busy writing to think much beyond that.
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Although I do expect the boom times to continue for food blogs and social media that feed infotainment to an insatiable public, it's not necessarily a threat to journalists like me -- actually, it gives us more to write about. People still seem to crave the professional critics' opinions more than ever, if only as something to compare and contrast with their own.
But who can really say? Maybe these are the good old days and we just don't realize it yet.