Plat du Jour Thursday May 23, 2013: Writing on the State of Food Writing
Food writing and writers have been the topic of choice this week for an industry that usually focuses on what’s on your plate or in your glass. Layoffs have been everywhere in this continuing to downsize and outsource economy. The media is no exception, including food and drink print media. On this pre- Holiday weekend Thursday, we have two bits of good news about the state of food writing and then the…not so good news.
What better way, however, to celebrate food writing than to acknowledge one of the true maestros in this profession, the Pulitzer Prize winning Jonathan Gold. His “Essential 99 Restaurants” guide with the LA Weekly was an annual obsession for the Los Angeles dining audience, as essential as the restaurants themselves.
Now for the first time since joining the Los Angeles Times roughly a year ago, Mr. Gold has released his Best Los Angeles Restaurants for 2013 (paywall alert to read the article). This time around, the list is ranked in order and he’s added to more to his essential collection.
It is fitting for one of the food and restaurant community’s most eloquent present day storytellers to release one of his crowning achievements this week, at a time where the common answer to young food writers asking how to break into the industry is, “you don’t want to be a food writer.” Yours truly personally broke into the profession in the Los Angeles area and Jonathan Gold was at the time and still is the dean of the Los Angeles restaurant writing world. He is the authority, where his opinion will make you or break you. Most importantly, he’s a writer full of so much brilliant character who happens to write about food. Most of us forget that first and foremost to be a good food writer, you must be…a writer. What’s that you mean?! Grammar? Vocabulary?As far as the list goes, from Santa Monica to Whittier to Santa Ana to Tarzana, nobody will fully agree with Mr. Gold’s choices. I agree with Providence in first place. Michael Cimarusti’s Providence is exquisite and has none of the attitude much of its colleagues in the LA spotlight present (see #3, Spago).
What is so wonderful about Gold’s previous lists and this current list is how they are not collections of the most expensive, ambitious restaurants in the city. It is gauging how impressive a restaurant is doing at what they aspire to do. In economic terms, how many utiles do you receive from the effort of this restaurant? How is the quality and creativity versus the price and ambiance? Is there personality? Is it unique? Do servers smile? Is Harrison Ford treated the same way as Barbara Weisman of Brentwood or Joe Smith in Alhambra? Is it consistent day to day, month to month, or wavering if the chef is on tv or not (that’s a huge one)?
Places like Lucques, “Mozza, etc.” (I always vouch for the Pizzeria over the Osteria), and Mélisse certainly deserve spots as much today as they did when they opened years ago. New classics Baco Mercat, Ink, Animal, and Rivera are already part of this complex city’s DNA. When we look back years from now on Los Angeles restaurants circa 2013 like we do on Michael’s and Spago in the 1980’s, they will be referenced heavily.
Having just recently been to the new Michael Voltaggio restaurant Ink and very new Hinoki & the Bird, I would almost have both in the top 10.
Then you ask, what about a food truck like Kogi and a Thai restaurant like Jitlada as 5 and 9 respectively? That’s the beauty of this list. It’s also the beauty of dining in Los Angeles. You don’t need the James Beard Awards love when you have places like those two and 99 others to enjoy, even if New York doesn’t fully approve of their merits.
Regarding Kogi, it sparked a revolution on wheels. And the tacos are pretty special to boot. For Jitlada, it’s an eating experience that is hard to replicate with the sheer volume of intense flavorings and spices, all blended into a seamless lunch or dinner that debunks every myth of Thai cuisine being not much more than pad thai. O.k., I had a first date there, dared her to eat the fish eyes on a whole turmeric scented sea bass, and she just chuckled and dug in. Jitlada makes all fall in love…with food.
My one critique having just been to Church & State in East Downtown (#30) would be to re-visit there. It’s not where it should be, nor close to what it was two years ago with Walter Manzke. In other words bluntly, it’s not one of the city’s best restaurants right now.
Other than that, everything would be nit-picking. Maybe Alma should be higher? Maybe Squirl should be higher? Maybe put Spice Table lower? Instead of asking questions, Los Angeles should embrace the writing of Mr. Gold and the hard-working people behind these wonderful establishments. For those outside Los Angeles, don’t be envious for the traffic it takes to get to these restaurants, but do be envious of the diversity and quality this city has for its eating scene.
In other food-writing news, congratulations to the 2013 Association of Food Journalists Awards finalists unveiled today.
The list reminds us that despite the cut- backs and changes in the food media industry, there is still lots of great writing out there. In fact, now is the opportunity to save food writing. It takes more than just writing, unfortunately. The money isn’t there for many newspapers and magazines to be what they used to be. That means writers need to be innovative with their mediums. Newspapers often can’t risk to be innovative.
Speaking of the aforementioned Los Angeles Times, the second largest American city’s principal newspaper barely even has a food section and now charges for its articles online after a certain limit.
Is charging online via paywalls the answer to saving food and drink writing? No. It’s life support.
As has been pointed out often today, two nominated writers are no longer even with their newspapers/magazines because of layoffs and resignations. Last week, the Seattle Weekly cut critic Hanna Raskin (nominated for best story on food issues/policies). Earlier this week, New York’s The Village Voice released critic Robert Sietsema after two decades in favor if freelancer bloggers to cover the New York restaurant scene. Good luck making a dent in that city’s coverage like that.
Then The Village Voice‘s other highly- regarded critic Tejal Rao (nominated for best restaurant criticism) resigned this week protesting the paper’s layoffs.
What’s next? We’ve seen in magazines how Gourmet folded and Bon Appetit has completely changed its style to be more about how celebrities eat in Aspen. You have the whole online blog community (this blog likes to treat its work as if it was a newspaper or magazine, but yes, it is indeed a blog) that really isn’t professional food writing. But, it is food writing and the professional industry is certainly threatened by it.
Then you have Yelp, which isn’t writing or anything intelligent really, but it’s there and you have to deal with it. You have Twitter, Facebook, and the whole social media canon. That’s not going away soon for instant information.
Cities like Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon have thrived without an authoritative critic (Portland now has Michael Russell at The Oregonian). So, where is food writing now? Do we need critics to learn about a food scene?
It seems as if the shift certainly is veering from full time critics writing long form, thorough reviews. If you don’t know what these are like, just read any review by Patric Kuh at Los Angeles Magazine. Each review is a work of art.
The need for instant information and the short attention span of readers now makes it so most restaurant coverage is about openings and closings, or a quick summary of the dishes that are good and the dishes that suck (with little or no rationale why said dishes are great or terrible). This is certainly the direction Seattle Weekly and Village Voice are going. It certainly echoes the direction of restaurants themselves. For every mid- scale and above opening in major cities, there are dozens of trucks, pop-ups, mom and pop neighborhood restaurants, and other restaurants opened on shoestring budgets, or those from corporate chains with no ambition of quality.
It’s a lot easier for newspaper to pay to cover those bargain restaurants. Besides, newspapers cover the news, right? William Randolph Hearst wanted to hear from Capitol Hill, not the Capitol Grille.
So, why then do we still need food and wine journalism, in particular restaurant criticism? In short, those writers are the watchdogs. They keep the intricate restaurant community in a sensible order. They are consumer advocates. They help the restaurants find out where to improve.
They are also educators. We learn about ingredients we’d never heard of from them. We learn about restaurants in areas of the city we’d never heard of before (see the aforementioned Jonathan Gold list). Those restaurants need these reviews to bring diners who then bring money. It goes on and on.
Most of all, restaurant criticism is an art. We love to read, we love to learn, and most of all, we all love to eat. A quick blog post might touch all of these gently, but nothing like what a master of prose can achieve. Read some articles by Sietsema, Raskin, and Rao. Not everyone, or barely anyone, can write like them. We can’t have them reduced to tweeting.