Saturday morning as the fog rolled back towards the coast and the fog of the early morning dance-offs at the Rollin with the Red Carpet After Party at E&O Kitchen started to lift, a powerhouse quartet of food writers assembled to discuss the state of the American food journalism scene.
The answer is: because of the immense surge in popularity that the dining out culture has seen recently, it’s not as bleak as you’d might expect with the financial challenges facing print food sections.
That being said, if you want to be a food critic, then good luck. There aren’t many spots. You need to be creative and very skilled with social media.
As part of this weekend’s SF Chefs Festival, the “Editors Panel: Inside the American Restaurant Scene- Coast to Coast Opinions” brought together Miriam Morgan (The San Francisco Chronicle’s Food Editor), Kim Severson (Atlanta Bureau Chief for The New York Times and a former Times and Chronicle food writer), Tom Sietsema (The Washington Post Dining Critic and also a former Chronicle food writer), and Margo True (Food Editor of Sunset Magazine).
What an all star cast for the restaurant industry to take a few notes from. And what a view from the 36th floor of the Union Square Grand Hyatt.
- Sietsema mentioned how he personally can’t get scoops from chefs like bloggers can, because professional food writers and editors have to keep an important objective distance from the restaurants. In Sietsema’s words, “A lot of news gets broken over bourbon at midnight.” He can’t exactly do that with José Andres.
- Being a former San Francisco writer transplanted on the East Coast, Sietsema added that he still feels the best industry changing trends start out here. In the 90’s, it could take years for a trend to spread. Now they spread as rapidly as a single day. All panelists agreed New York is playing it safe these days. David Chang was not on the panel.
- Severson had some intriguing insight on where “print” journalism is going next: video. Her bosses in New York always want video nowadays, even if shot on an iPhone. Remember, you can add commercials to the start of videos. Commercials mean money.
- What’s the next big society food movement now that farm to table is everywhere? Everyone agreed that sustainable seafood will become the hot button story very soon. Humanely raised beef was a close second.
- The panel acknowledged the importance of social media today and most are very active (Morgan admitted she’s a “dinosaur,” but her colleagues keep her in the loop). It’s a two way street for professional food writers with their audience. They consider themselves the “diner’s advocate,” looking out for the best interests of diners. At the same time, Sietsema pointed out that diners now are “reviewing the reviewers” more than ever. Will food writers soon be rated on Yelp?
And to answer the question of where esteemed food writers eat in San Francisco: Morgan and Severson had a reunion dinner at Commonwealth. True is a big fan of Bar Tartine and Coqueta. Sietsema always gets oysters and a margarita at Zuni Café (and probably the roast chicken also), though he does have to also keep up to date on the new spots around town.
A few other quick notes from the panel:
- Severson pointed out that Yelp now even has prisoners judging an Atlanta prison. Seriously.
- Severson: “Atlanta is 45 minutes from the South”
- Severson: “The South is the Italy of America”
- Sietsema is currently working on a project of reviewing the various chain restaurants around the Beltway. He’s learned a lot from the Applebees and the Outbacks of the country.
- It was fascinating and a bit disconcerting to hear from Margo True about how thorough Sunset is when double testing every recipe, including a second time by kitchen novices, before being published, while every other magazine and newspaper in the country doesn’t. Now you know why all those recipes you try don’t always work. You’re not that bad of a cook…well, usually it is me. Not the recipe.
- Great story from Sietsema how even after he had just filed a rave review of Stephen Starr’s Le Diplomate, he was noticed dining there on the 4th of July. However, the chef and Starr were at the White House watching fireworks. They were quickly summoned anyways to oversee Sietsema’s dinner, even if it was the 4th of July, and Sietsema was dining there for fun. I guess critics ruin holidays…
Now, the weekend included many other panels, demos, and grand tastings in the big white tasting tent on Union Square. Yours truly only attended the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Bar Bites event. The highlights from that evening high atop the Westin St. Francis:
- Rye on the Road’s “Black Pearl”: Appleton Estate Reserve Rum, Espolon Reposado Tequila, peach shrub, lemon juice, Cynar, simple syruup, and housemade chocolate bitters, garnished with a peach wedge
- Parallel 37’s “Pig ‘n Boots”: Pig’s Nose Scotch, Lillet Rosé, yuzu, lavender syrup, freshly grated cinnamon garnish
- Dosa’s “Mango is the New Black”: Templeton Rye Whiskey, Mango nectar spiced cumin, peppercorn, bird’s eye chilies, and coriander, lemon juice, spiced agave, and a saffron garnish
- Trick Dog’s “Louie, Louie”: Bulleit Bourbon, Campari, and pineapple
- For food, The Abbot’s Cellar’s seared duck breast with smoked morel mushrooms and a blackberry agrodolce