Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Evolution of Food Criticism: A Response to Marc Vetri

The Marc Vetri article on Food Journalism (and its "stale" state) http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6551682 
comes off as a backhand at the 'casual-ization' of food criticism + social media. Yet, Marc (who I admire) is a respected icon in Philly whose own businesses parallel the trend: they, too, have been 'casual-ized' and utilize social media platforms to greatly advertise their own chefs and cuisine. In a way, the glory and beauty of "long-form" literary journalism have given way to "short-form" simplified journalism, not unlike the Vetri restaurant model that has gone from high-end (Vetri) to approachable-for-every-budget (Alla Spina/Pizzeria Vetri/Lo Spiedo). While Marc's argument on the generalization of writing and click-friendly, diminishing-value lists (like the recent Philly Mag Top 50) rings true, undoubtedly the public's awareness of "good food" and contributions to food-sharing democratize the "industry" and allow for every type of food business to be in the Open, for fair debate. Isn't there a benefit to that inclusion? Today, everyone has a Voice and all businesses (large and small) are weighted publicly, and therefore obtain exposure, good or bad. With that comes the need for owners to ensure quality, pay attention to detail, stay sharp and execute their concept and dishes properly. Whether that business provides a formal setting and $165pp chef tastings, or hummus on a red tray, or even a rotolo that's deemed the "morsel of the year," the playing field has been leveled and critics (professional or otherwise) judge them equally. 

It is quite surprising to read Marc's rails against Twitter and Instagram (accounts where he has 20K+ and 12K+ followers respectively), for example, which he personally uses to great extent to both argue social issues and exhibit his cooking, most recently his inventive and creative Panneto-nut and milled flour for his renowned pasta. While he tongue-in-cheek mocks online users who incorporate phrases like "seriously yum," he is employing hashtags and words like "Boom" to express the same excitement his followers feel. Social media is a powerful tool, and he utilizes it along with fellow chefs and partners Jeff Michaud and Brad Spence. One can't seriously berate a platform on one hand 
yet use it extensively in the other, right? Why bite the hand that literally feeds you? After all, Marc's own charity work with Alex's Lemonade Stand and children's school lunch programs undoubtedly gain greater recognition and support via the use of Social Media. 

Marc almost comes off like a man in his 80s looking back at his life and remembering "when things were more simple, and fair." Well, technology has evolved and so has the Food World. Remember when it was all about haute cuisine, when classic French food reigned and was only available to a wealthy certain class? All one has to do is look at Paris today and see how the food scene has drastically changed to more simple, ingredient-driven, affordable cuisine. What is wrong with this, exactly? Nothing remains static. Some people do, if they choose to stay behind in a changing time. It seems Marc and his excellent team have evolved masterfully in a very evolving industry, though, so why criticize so harshly the food media world that has also had to evolve, but from which Vetri has benefitted so greatly? While Vetri the restaurant deserves its accolades and praise, it's not the only place in Philadelphia that thrives, even if Vetri the owner wishes for a category all his own that distinguishes him entirely from his peers. Marc is one of the most talented chefs in the world who aims to create truly authentic, elevated and pure food that is more than good. That food has been justifiably recognized. The issue is that "good food" cannot simply be separated into distinct compartments by level of establishment or chef, or only deemed as such by only the most accredited writers. Unfortunately for Marc, his food gets tossed into the entire mix. 

There is a curmudgeonly feel to his piece, with serious, disguised (but clear) shouts against fellow chef Mike Solo and food scribe Craig Laban, both whom I respect immensely and Philly appreciates. Sure, I disagree for the most part with Yelpers who are seemingly attention seekers and are no 'experts' by any means...but saying they don't belong, or only literary food pieces should exist, is just wrong (and essentially irrelevant) in an age and country where free speech and ability to have open forums in a digital medium are Rights that can't be degraded, or enforced with one's own personalized exceptions. Marc's longing for a "traditional" review process by ego-absent, eloquent  critics is heartfelt, but it's also a nostalgic sentiment that ignores the reality and power of the people's voice.

Did the lessening of a bell (by Laban) for Osteria Jersey set off this time bomb? A restaurant that initially gets reviewed by a major critic in print certainly deserves to be revisited multiple times and re-rated, as restaurants either get stronger, stay consistent or get worse. The Consumer is the beneficiary, while the Restaurant and Chef either adapt and thrive, or suffer and fail. It's Survival of the Fittest in a very competitive industry that's under the microscope more than ever. Restaurants evolve just like Everything around them. People need to, too. Marc seems to be both so "in-touch" and yet so "out-of-touch." In the end, aren't restaurants all about the Consumer? Because for whom (and Why) else would a Chef be cooking?

In light of the rant regarding social media, will Marc delete all of his social media accounts? Will he only write long-form criticisms or literary food essays like the ones he misses and seeks? Because if he doesn't take these actions, isn't the Huffington Post piece just a hypocritical, backhanded Holler-Palooza? Will Marc "huff" and puff until food journalism sways in his direction? Possibly Yes, but he will run out of breath. Because there's no going back. Marc seems to be excitedly walking forward (see the new upstairs addition to the Vetri restaurant), but wistfully wanting to run backward...which is bizarre, and baffling, because he and his businesses have only climbed the ladder since his eponymous restaurant opened in the '90s. Much of that success is owed to the deserving high ratings bestowed upon him by food critics and diners alike. Hasn't he only benefitted from modern food journalism? Isn't it selfish, and somewhat ironically egotistical, to rant about the media in a city that, while admittedly is centered strongly around "food news," provides only glowing rankings, publicity and feedback for the Vetri Empire? Alienating one's lifeline is self-destruction, isn't it? In the End, it's Evolve, or Die.