I am proud to announce to you all that after much labor, I have conducted some rigorous investigative reporting and scientific analysis that analyzes racial demographics in food journalism. My findings are summarized in the Chart below:
As my Chart scientifically proves, the leading voices in food writing are not very diverse. They are, in fact, 100% not diverse. Note also that this is even after including non-establishment media sources (Eater), bad food cities (Boston, DC), and cities where white people are in the minority (New Orleans). I included these under the thinking that maybe environments where media institutions are less entrenched might be friendlier to the emergence of a non-white voice—but, as the data conclusively (100%) shows, this has not been the case. I mean, I hate to use him as an example again, but he is really is just the best example: Tom Sietsema—a man who has never met a European restaurant concept he didn’t like—has been the Washington Post’s food critic for 18 years and everyone here is just fine with that. That is all you need to know to know that the root of this problem is very deep.
I know what you’re thinking. Nobody reads food journalism, so who cares about the profession’s diversity? You are right, food writing has a relatively small readership that consists almost entirely of the friends we only see for brunch on a quarterly basis. Nevertheless, kind of like our elected officials, despite the fact that most people have no idea who they are, food critics still unfortunately matter because (1) they represent something and (2) their views, no matter how wrong they are, influence the allocation of capital.
How did we get to this place? Here we are, a large nation containing the delicious cooking of so many countries and cultures with so much to explore and yet somehow, in every single one of our major cities, we have anointed a white person to lead the way. It is so absurd, and at the same time, I suppose, there is nothing more American. It is also–and I admit I’m never sure if I’m using this word right–but I think it is also very ironic.
I mean, this is a bit of a tangent, but would anyone even like French food if all these critics weren’t telling us how great it was all the time? It is OK and all, but has anyone ever been out on a Friday night and thought to themselves, “Man, I could really go for some French right now”??? Has the precision of a chiffonade ever changed anyone’s experience in a material way??? Would people talk about a roux as if it was some fancy thing if it didn’t have a silent x at the end??? Who cares if an omelet is browned or not??? Why are there so many arbitrary rules that make little to no substantive difference, and why is adherence to those rules used to determine merit and inflate price???
I mean, goddamn.
To be clear, I am no elitist. I grew up in Hong Kong and I know how that sounds, but hear me out. In Hong Kong, there are ridiculously overpriced restaurants, to be sure. But you can also easily go through your entire life in Hong Kong eating delicious meals every day never spending more than $10 because there are so many good restaurants at every possible price point–even $5 can buy you a delicious bowl of wonton noodles or honey barbecue pork. I think what makes Hong Kong different boils down to the fact that the food culture is more deep and established there–the people know what they want, and good restaurants of all price points crop up to meet that demand and if they are not good, they go out of business. You really do get the feeling when you are there that there is more integrity, that more often than not the place you are eating at is simply trying to give you a delicious meal, rather than trying to scale its brand to the National Level. And this is kind of borne out by the fact that food journalism and celebrity chefs are much less of a thing in Hong Kong. For instance, (the main English newspaper) the South China Morning Post’s food critic only has 895 followers and nobody really cares about what she thinks (she is also, coincidentally, probably not a nice person based on how she brags about how mean she is to waiters in her column). And celebrity chefs exist, but they don’t have the followings that they do in America. The focus is on the food; everyone has clear ideas of what they want and they’re not as easily distracted by some random journalist’s inane thoughts or some celebrity chef’s latest fast-casual concept.
But in America, I don’t think we know what we want. I mean, for God’s sake, we don’t need any further proof of that than the fact that Mike Isabella is making sushi now and Tom Sietsema (44K followers, somehow) is entering his 18th year of uninterrupted employment at a nationally circulated publication despite being nothing more than the human distillation of a hotel lobby restaurant. And because we don’t know what we want, this gives the (white) food critics and their (generally expensive) tastes a lot more influence. So while a good review cannot save a bad restaurant in Hong Kong (nobody will read it anyway), this is not the case in America and bad restaurants are rarely forced to close, especially if they are expensive. Because if Tom Sietsema likes it (and if it has a silent e in its name and/or is owned by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, he probably will), enough of his 44k followers will continue to go there running up $100+ tabs for two, and the restaurant will not only stay open, but profit and probably scale. (Note I don’t blame the followers, we are all just trying to figure it out in this crazy world after all, but I definitely blame Tom Sietsema he could be using his position to do so much good but instead he is just continuously entrenching the wealth of restaurant conglomerates.)
I admit it, I am definitely mad, but it is really just such a hustle. You should be mad online with me. Tell me if you’ve heard this story before. A fancy restaurant opens up in a part of town—let’s call it Ripple—that uses “local” ingredients like nettles and figs, costs $50-$75 a head, and its executive chef used to work for Mike Isabella. It is just OK and much too expensive, but the local (white) food critic calls it “beguiling” and gives it five stars and soon, there is another expensive restaurant called Seafood Ripple that also uses nettles and figs but is instead focused on seafood. Seafood Ripple also gets five stars and then, there are more Ripples, they are proliferating now, and before you know it, every cuisine in the city is marked up and sold through a Ripple corporate pass-through–there is Greek Ripple (Kapnos), Mexican Ripple (Espita Mezcaleria), Tapas Ripple (Barcelona), Cambodian/Taiwanese Ripple (Maketto), Ramen Ripple (Chaplin’s), Pizza Ripple (All Purpose), Hong Kong Ripple (Tiger Fork), Nordic Ripple (Honeysuckle), Japanese Fusion Ripple (Himitsu), and so on and so forth. I mean click on some of those website links, they are literally all the same. Surely, we are living in the last of days.
(Sidenote, after I eat at a Ripple, half the time I can’t even remember what I ate the next day. It is hard to remember paragraphs. Somethingsomething with pickled nasturtium and somethingsomething with a somethingthing demiglace compote grastique or whatever. (And the fact that all the Ripple chefs are doing this also goes to show we really do have no idea what we want.) By contrast, I often think about my favorite spot in Hong Kong for honey barbecue pork—it is $5 and always great.)
And the greatest tragedy is that there are real casualties here—affordable options and family-run spots get priced out of the city. It is just so typical. To take another’s thing, exploit some capital to make some flashy but unnecessary and detrimental adjustments, which are then used as a basis to inflate the margin, which ultimately leaves others unable to do their thing anymore. (By the way, this is also happening with coffee right now. Here we have this ancient beverage that has been enjoyed by billions of people for over a millennium, and suddenly, in 2002, along came a white guy from California who finally perfected how to roast and brew it and now you can buy his branded beans and patented brewing contraption for $25 a pop.)
So, in conclusion, I think we need more minority food critics. Thank you for reading.