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For Our Food Culture To Diversify, Our Restaurant Criticism Needs To, Too

Last summer, restaurant critic Michael Bauer retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold died unexpectedly. The restaurant and food journalism community celebrated and mourned, and, in a moment of tremendous self-awareness, recognized an opportunity.

Food media has become increasingly diverse in form and authorship; see Eater and the dozens of sites like it, and read Korsha Wilson, Mayukh Sen, Michael Twitty, Nicole Taylor, Mari Uyehara, Thérèse Nelson and many, many more. However, formal, star-ratings-in-print criticism has remained a stronghold of the “homogenous old guard,” i.e., overwhelmingly white, and mostly male. People of color like Korsha Wilson are asking, “What would restaurant criticism look like if it represented diners like me?”

As the food community watched to see what would happen, the New York Times named Tejal Rao as its new California critic — its primary critic is still Pete Wells. The San Francisco Chronicle ultimately selected Soleil Ho. The Los Angeles Times introduced both Bill Addison and Patricia Escárcega. (Notably, there are still no restaurant critics for major publications who are black.) On the whole, chefs and writers were pleasantly surprised. With these choices, the daily print media establishment chose to embrace an ongoing cultural and generational shift toward media that includes new voices, previously silenced voices.

With personnel changes come structural changes, too, especially at the Chronicle. Whereas Bauer awarded stars with joy and rescinded them with gravity, Ho kicked off her tenure explaining the absence of star ratings in her reviews. She writes:

Since I plan to write reviews of everything notable that I find in the Bay Area, from disappointing tortas to avant-garde collard greens to molecular bánh mì, I believe imposing a star rating system that purports to put all of those things along the same spectrum would do a disservice to all of them. Rather, I want you to actually read what I have to say about a restaurant’s qualities and drawbacks — and judge its appeal for yourself.

My mind was blown. Criticism is inherently subjective even when critics strive for objectivity, and here is a badass young woman of color embracing the idea that meaningful criticism is deeply and openly personal. Since the internet already knows her face, she’s also more accountable. She doesn’t apologize for having a point of view, and she’ll acknowledge when her perspective is under-informed. “An important and unseen part of being a restaurant critic is researching all of the cuisines I don’t know and filling in the gaps as best I can,” she writes in a review of Burmese cuisine.

We all have blind spots, food writer and radio host Korsha Wilson points out in an Eater article, even established critics who don’t tend to be up front about them. Sometimes, entire cuisines or individual restaurants exist squarely in the middle of these critics’ blind spots. These are places that never get reviewed, or even written about, or spots that critics just "don’t get." Other times, it’s diners who are invisible.

For example, newspaper and online critics alike heralded Manhattan’s The Grill as an “ode to the past” that “puts everyone under a spell that they belong here.” But as Wilson notes, not all of us enjoyed belonging in the "past." Instead, she experienced The Grill as awkward and unsettling.

Nostalgia, it seems, can make blind spots themselves imperceptible. We get so wrapped up in the romantic narratives of the past that we don’t even notice ourselves forgetting what the past was actually like for everyone. Take, for example, a recent invitation I received to cook, without compensation, at the Wine & Rosecliff Gala, part of the Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival. “The Gala,” the invitation promised, “will transport you back to a bygone era where elegant dining and dancing were magical and a common occurrence in the Newport Mansions each summer.” Time traveling to an era during which I couldn’t have voted, attended an unsegregated school or lawfully married my non-Asian spouse? I passed.

I don’t imagine that more diverse critics will always see things from all perspectives, but I know they’ll at least have new, different blind spots. They’ll perhaps be nostalgic for different things.

So with critics like Ho, a whole new group of chefs enjoys the possibility of not only getting some press attention, but also being understood and acknowledged on their own terms.

It is inspiring to see criticism evolve and to hear new voices from old platforms. (In researching this article, it inspired me enough to hit ‘subscribe’ for a number of publications, which I’m sure is not lost on editors or newspaper owners.) It feels to me like walking into a strange room expecting to sit alone, but instead finding friends and colleagues who have saved you a seat. And it brings me to my favorite question: In the midst of tremendous cultural progress and change, where the hell is Boston? (I know that Boston isn’t culturally comparable to New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, but haven’t we always wanted to be?)

In recent memory, most of Boston’s prominent restaurant critics, from The Boston Globe to the now-shuttered Improper Bostonian, have been white. Critics make taste, so who makes the tastemakers? As people of color fight for a seat at the table, it’s impossible to miss the fact that the ones pulling out chairs for us are almost always white. On top of that, restaurant criticism is increasingly under- or completely un-funded, and with fewer small newspapers, working one’s way up in journalism is different now. Writers who have different voices will probably come from different places, and they’ll need institutions and editors who are willing to take a chance on them. It’s a risk, I think, that publications can’t afford not to take. While I wait for Boston to get a restaurant critic of color, at least there are writers in other cities I can look forward to hearing from.

Irene Li Twitter Food Columnist
Irene Li is The ARTery's food columnist. She operates Mei Mei Street Kitchen and Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston.

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