Man at His Best

Opinion: Death Of The Food Critic

Victoria Cheng questions if the proliferation of food bloggers and Yelp-type reviewers has diminished the “power” of the traditional food critic.

BY VICTORIA CHENG | Feb 28, 2016 | Food & Drink

Image from Flickr / Blue Mountain Local Studies

In my head, I can see the beginnings of a joke set-up. “A dining critic for the paper, a French restaurateur and a food blogger walk into a bar…”

Pen in mouth, notebook in hand, I’m reflecting on the conversations about restaurant critiquing that I’ve had with a restaurateur and media friends over the week. I imagine us sitting on wicker armchairs, wine or whisky in hand, opining about the value of a food critic.

Has the proliferation of food bloggers and Yelp-type reviewers diminished the “power” of the traditional food critic? “To some extent, but food critics are far from extinct. Their knowledge of food, trends, and most importantly, products is much appreciated by those readers who ultimately ‘select’ the critic that they want to read,” says André Terrail, who inherited Paris’ oldest and finest French restaurant, La Tour D’Argent, from his father.

Norman Hartono, a general manager with Singapore’s largest Chinese restaurant group, TungLok, then shares an interesting insight: “The truth is, to restaurant operators, the words of food writers bear more weight than those of a blogger who became famous overnight. Professional writers are trained experts in the field.”

“Blogs are more popular, but not necessarily more credible,” Amy Van solemnly adds. She was formerly my editor at Appetite magazine, and would unquestionably be drinking vino in my invented scenario. But isn’t popularity a form of power, I ask. She continues to explain that online search is the main source of reviews for the average person. But since there’s no filter for who can enter the business of critiquing anymore, bloggers come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Indeed, popularity is about high viewership, even without legitimate content. Unfortunately, it means greater power rests with those who aren’t responsible with their words.

“But some bloggers work hard on their craft, who were even journalists before,” Hartono counters. “The pro is that food critics-turned-bloggers can report their analysis straight from the gut onto Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, instead of going through a vetting process by an editor. The con is that these tend to offer a less detailed perspective of the actual restaurant experience,” Terrail counters.

Celine Asril, an articulate Singapore-based food writer disagrees: “I don’t think self-proclaimed critics have diminished the power of traditional critics. They’ve made traditional critics a breed that’s more elusive.” She’s a rare specimen in the writing industry, opting to remain as anonymous as possible in order to avoid the inevitable special treatment if she’s recognised. 

I admire Asril’s integrity, having observed her efforts to keep her relationships with restaurant owners at a professional distance, in order to keep her writing objective. It reminds me of the last generation of great food critics, such as Frank Bruni or Ruth Reichl, who went to almost comical lengths to keep their identities hidden. Terrail rationalises, “Very few critics remain anonymous, because it’s expensive and hard to maintain. It’s a shame, because it is the only way to remain totally objective.” 

Meanwhile, others trumpet their presence for privileges. It’s important to make a distinction between self-entitled posers and those asking for a favour, the two restaurateurs agree. “Official reviews should be kept objective, but for special occasions, I actually encourage not just writers, but any customer to make requests for an exceptional experience. Good hospitality extends to every single person who walks through the door,” clarifies Hartono.

The irony of the topic isn’t lost on me either, as a food journalist-turned-media presenter. I’ve moved from restaurant reviewing to sharing the stories behind the industry instead—like the one you’re reading now.

“I used to correct people when they’d call me a blogger, as I’m a publisher, an editor and a journalist, who happens to blog,” says Cheryl Tiu, one of the Philippines' most renowned food journalists who has also started a blog in recent times, echoing my thoughts. “But I realise some don’t know the distinction between writer and blogger, and the mislabelling is sometimes out of ignorance or innocence.” 

It’s starting to not matter anymore. Even fiercely old-school critics have adjusted with the times. Acerbic French food critic, François Simon, started a vlog series, while his Straits Times counterpart, Wong Ah Yoke’s photo is published above his columns. Some might argue, in this day of mean-spirited trolls, that showing your identity also enforces accountability.

“What reviewers don’t realise is that their thoughtless one-star criticism can cost someone their livelihood. They have no idea how stressed a restaurant gets over one review that took someone five minutes to carelessly churn out,” vents Hartono.

How about bloggers who make you pay for an “objective review”? “I didn’t even know that it was possible to charge for a review!” exclaims a bemused Terrail. Van adds, “I could be jaded, but it isn’t so different from magazines these days.” It’s no secret that in the age of dying print magazines and low budgets, sales teams are pressuring editorial staff to write positive reviews for advertisers.

If you’re taking payment or widely read, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself on food and writing, to provide an informed and preferably objective review, she adds. With that point in mind, it could be said that many “professional” food writers in Singapore aren’t reliable critics.

Someone finally states candidly, “The truth is, there’s no place for food writers in Singapore. There’s no demand to read magazines; it’s all digital now, with sensationalist headers or listings. Quality writing isn’t motivated. There’s no trained food critic with a chef background anymore. They’re rare.”

Asril astutely concludes, “The food writing scene has changed. As writers and journalists, our nature is to adapt. Standards have changed, but it boils down to who the writer feels they’re responsible to: their clients, their readers or themselves.” 

Perhaps the proliferation of self-styled critics isn’t such a bad thing for the dining landscape as a whole. As everyone fights harder to be heard above the cacophony, nature has a way of weeding out the good from the bad.

Now, about that punchline, “A dining critic for the paper, a French restaurateur and a food blogger walk into a bar...”

First published in Esquire Singapore's December 2015 issue.