Have you ever heard of sbafatori?

Camilla Baresani tells us about the incredible world of Californian food critics

28-02-2016
Michael Bauer,

Michael Bauer, "restaurant critic and executive food and wine editor" at the San Francisco Chronicle in a photo taken from the San Francisco Eater website
 

Six months ago Gli sbafatori, a book in which I write about the contemporary world of food critique, made mostly of people who are poorly paid (or not at all) and therefore strongly unreliable, was out. In fact, most of those who write about food these days are maintained and often entertained by the same people they should examine with a clear mind. A few days after the book was out, I found a message in my Facebook mail from an unknown person: "I enjoyed your book very much... Except, for your info, the world is the same wherever you go, including here...". I Googled the name of the person who had signed the message, on top of giving a look at his FB profile: a guy from Bra working for Eataly in New York.

A month later I moved to San Francisco long-term. One of the first people I met was Kitty Morgan, editor in chief of the travel, food and wine section in the San Francisco Chronicle: "We’re extremely strict," she said. "Our critics must supply the bill from the restaurant they review and sign a pact in which they guarantee they don’t hang out or worst become friends with chefs and patrons. It’s a question of principle, and if violated, they’re automatically removed". A few days later I met Eleanor Bertino, the most famous and authoritative food PR in town. In the offices inside the prestigious Sentinel Building, owned by the Coppola’s American Zoetrope, this historic friend of Alice Waters (founder at Chez Panisse), of Carlin Petrini, but also of conceptual artist David Ireland, told me: "Let me know who you want to meet and I’ll introduce you".

A portrait of writer Camilla Baresani from the Brando Cimarosti blog

A portrait of writer Camilla Baresani from the Brando Cimarosti blog

Speaking with her was very enjoyable and informative. Of Michael Bauer, "restaurant critic and executive food and wine editor" at the SF Chronicle, she pointed out he’s short, rather crooked, with long, possibly dyed blond hair and has been visiting restaurants in San Francisco for 28 years now, often with his boyfriend who’s two metres tall. It’s impossible not to notice them, not to know who they are: "Only an unprepared person opening a new restaurant and coming from who knows where wouldn’t recognise them". And she added: "Bauer is very powerful. Every year he compiles the list of the best one hundred restaurants in the Bay Area and they all want to ingratiate him".

The Bay Area - San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Silicon, Napa, Sonoma Valley – counts around seven million inhabitants, plus tourists. The population is made by a small majority of American or European Caucasians, a growing number of Asians ready to surpass the white people, a good dose of South Americans, a narrow 8% of black people on top of a mass of tourists, students and temporary workers. These percentages, in fact, fit the genre of restaurants available in the Bay Area. Eleanor Bertino told me: "But if the SFC doesn’t pay trips abroad and Bauer has never left the United States, how can he judge the quality of a Burmese, Vietnamese, Bhutan or Yemenite, Italian or Spanish restaurant for his top one hundred list?".

Eleanor advises her clients to be very careful during the first three months after opening, when she’s almost sure Bauer will pay a visit. As for Yelp, the US Tripadvisor, there’s only one certainty: "Various restaurateurs have informed me that when you see a group of women at a table taking pictures of dishes, you’re sure to end up on Yelp". Then it’s a question of the manager’s shrewdness and good manners, working hard before the comment is posted.

In this photo from the SFGate, one can see at table from the left Jane Connors of San Francisco, Priscilla Coe and PR Eleanor Bertino of San Francisco, back turned. They’re dining at Michael Mina’s newly opened restaurant inside the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square

In this photo from the SFGate, one can see at table from the left Jane Connors of San Francisco, Priscilla Coe and PR Eleanor Bertino of San Francisco, back turned. They’re dining at Michael Mina’s newly opened restaurant inside the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square

There’s more: Aldo Blasi, patron at Ristorante Milano, for thirty years on the scene of San Francisco and careful observer and expert of the restaurant world, told me that American culinary critique has become homogenous. It creates idols in unison and then, only when the seeming idols are no longer trendy, they cautiously destroy them. They’re terrified of losing their seat at a table, of losing sources and presents, that is to say to antagonize PRs. They tend to write only positive notes, in a passionate tone, praising even the last phalanx of the chicken leg cooked by Angela Dimayuga, omitting any negative detail, perhaps on how the restaurant is uncomfortable. We might still haven’t reached the "pay per play" approach (a term taken from cable TV), but we’re almost there. And even with the most famous critics, who are committed with their newspapers to keep a distance, you then see them in photos with chefs at the James Beard Awards’ party.

Food magazines and columns are extremely boring. "Only the New Yorker or The Atlantic, which are outsiders with respects to food, publish interesting investigative reports and well written pieces. "No newspapers in this sector would have published Consider the Lobster by D. F. Wallace," says Eleanor Bertino, "while they all publish astonishing reports from sponsored parties for chefs, restaurants, food and wine brand anniversaries".

Many point out how culinary journalism was destroyed by the ranking list trend. Because writers are constantly commissioned pieces such as "The Ten Best" of everything, which they have to compile without having any experience and since they have spent all their time in front of a computer, there’s nothing left to do but to call food PR people. The result is another rule from the American contemporary culinary scene: a chef and a restaurant without a PR will never appear in any top ten list, and therefore will not exist.

Finally, while in the past one would grant some six weeks of fine-tuning before visiting a restaurant for a review, today we’re experiencing a celebration of openings. Blogs, newsletters and food magazines have all cancelled the difference between review and advertising campaign. Comments on openings are killing culinary critique.

Most of all, in the United States just like in Italy, one thing’s for sure: it’s almost impossible to survive as a food critic. "Once an influential critic would be paid between 80K and 150K dollars. Today it’s 20-40K on average. An article on a blog can be paid 10 dollars while until a few years ago contributors were paid 2 dollars per word" says the editor of the prestigious Food & Wine Magazine.

However, while food critique is considered dead, food critics won’t starve to death: for most journalists and bloggers, writing about food and wine is first of all a way to become popular on Twitter and from there take a leap towards less volunteering positions, working for brands in the food industry.


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