Service Journalism or Personal Insult?
A food critic’s evisceration of a new restaurant poses the question: What is a critic’s responsibility?
Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project
By now, there is little chance you have escaped reading the epic piece of scorn written by New York Times food critic Pete Wells about Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, the new Times Square restaurant by Guy Fieri, television personality and star of the popular Food Network program “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
Written completely in the interrogative (“Guy Fieri, have you eaten in your new restaurant in Times Square?” the review begins), it is merciless and scathing. If my Facebook feed is at all indicative of the opinions of Americans at large – and it may not be – it was also a work of art, a course-by-course takedown of the highest comedic order.
“Why is one of the few things on your menu that can be eaten without fear or regret – a lunch-only sandwich of chopped soy-glazed pork with coleslaw and cucumbers – called a Roasted Pork Bahn Mi,” Wells asks at one point, “when it resembles that item about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson?”
As quickly as the review went viral, it set off not only a debate about whether Wells went too far, but on a broader level, it raised questions about the professional responsibilities of being a food critic.
To Wells’ question, “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?” NPR’s Scott Simon responds, “Let me step in right here – the way a boxing ref might when a fighter on the ropes is about to be clubbed – to ask: Did the critic order a blue drink just to make fun of it? Did he think the taste would be subtle and complex?”
Was it journalism? On the other hand, does it have to be? Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder defended the review’s entertainment value: “The tyranny of ‘usefulness’ is so tiresome. What if the purpose of Wells’ piece – and many other works of criticism, for that matter – isn’t to convince, to educate or, God forbid, to provide something as dull as service journalism? What if his review is merely an example of a talented writer responding to an offensive thing in a way that pleases him?”
The Times is also defending the review, with NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan calling the piece “very mean and very funny and, of course, completely within the purview of the restaurant critic who, like all critics, has all the pleasure and all the pain that comes with the freedom to speak his mind.”
However, others believe the review was not only elitist, but also unfair and mean. It’s true that “Guy Fieri is low hanging fruit, the obnoxious host-dude ‘real foodies’ love to hate,” writes Boston Globe’s restaurant critic Devra First. “What is unquestionable is that with criticism comes responsibility,” First continues. “Here’s one litmus test: After writing a negative review, could the critic look the chef or owner in the eye and defend it?”
What do you think? Did Wells go too far? Or do you side with Sullivan’s defense of the review, in which she maintains, “If you must write a negative review, make it memorable”? Weigh in.