Amanda Hesser

"Poor Amanda Hesser" has got to be in my Top Five list of Food-Related

Things I Never Thought I’d Say, along with "Ken Friedman’s music policy

is beloved

of both the New York Times and Charlie Rose" and "soy products can

replicate to an uncanny degree the experience of eating meat" (from this

month’s Atlantic).

I still don’t think anything of soy products. They make my teeth want to vomit.

But I can certainly second Eric Asimov’s rave

review of the Spotted Pig, while remaining surprised that he also saw fit

to write an entire separate article on Ken’s prowess with an iPod and a volume

knob.

And watching various bloggers pile on to Amanda Hesser today, I have to admit

to feeling a certain amount of sympathy for the author of "Cooking for

Mr. Latte: A Food Lover’s Courtship, with Recipes". (How anybody can even

get past the title of that book

without their teeth wanting to vomit, I have no idea.)

The line about teeth and vomit, in case you’re not hooked in to the New York

blogosphere, comes from Eurotrash, who eviscerated

Hesser’s latest restaurant review

today, calling it an "unspeakable piece of codswallop" before getting

really nasty. It’s something of a baptism of fire for Hesser, who recently

took over the job of chief New York Times restaurant reviewer – a very

powerful position with a legendary expense account.

It’s not just Eurotrash, either. Gawker snarked

at Hesser before linking

to Eurotrash, and Lockhart Steele inserted his own stiletto into Hesser as well,

starting off a restaurant review with a sly

parody of her opening sentences. Clearly, Hesser has an uncanny ability

to rub people up the wrong way.

And making fun of Hesser is almost comically easy. "Howard Stern and a

girlfriend amble by. You are in a James Bond movie, a high-end bar in Bangkok,

a Vong to the 10th power." Rarely can Howard Stern have reminded people

of James Bond, but I suppose that food writers’ minds move in mysterious ways.

Mysterious enough, at least, to cow Hesser’s editor into leaving in that "Vong

to the 10th power" line, despite its evident meaninglessness. Maybe it’s

what you get if you raise Vong to the 5th power and then square it by mentioning

the headwaiter’s t-shirt twice.

Still, it’s clear what’s going on here, and there’s a clue, actually, in the

fact, noted on Gawker, that Hesser is far from anonymous when she goes to these

places. Historically, restaurant reviews have been just like any other kind

of review: someone who knows what they’re talking about telling the rest of

us how good or bad the thing in question is. A great review can make a restaurant,

as New Yorkers decide en masse to try it out; it can even change food culture

more generally, as when Asian restaurants started receiving four-star reviews,

placing them on an equal footing with the grand old temples of French gastronomy.

Rarely, however, have the New York Times’s restaurant reviews been remotely

interesting to read. By far the most important thing about them was the number

of stars at the bottom: will Le Bernadin keep its fourth star, or, like Chanterelle,

will it get downgraded from four to three? That sort of thing. The list

of four-star restaurants is short indeed (just five, at the moment), and the

first time that Hesser fiddles with it, she will attract huge amounts of attention.

But the fact is that these reviews don’t always make for great copy. That’s

fine if they’re simply service journalism: a reporter going out and basically

telling you which restaurants to go to. But check out William Grimes’s rave

review of Alain Ducasse: after mentioning the $300 truffle menu, available

to anybody who walks in the door, he then spends most of the rest of the review

talking about dishes from "a tasting menu offered in the chef’s room, a

small private room just off the kitchen that regular customers can book".

These include one pastry dish which includes not only four huge black truffles,

but also "large coins of black truffle" in addition. The proportion

of New York Times readers which will ever so much as see this dish,

let alone afford it, is so tiny that they can’t possibly provide the main reason

for writing about it.

And now that the Times is branching out, trying to position itself as a national

newspaper, service journalism is even less useful for its readers. Restaurant

reviews have to do more than just help people decide if they want to try the

new place that just opened up around the corner: they have to be interesting

to a much broader cross-section of the national population.

This is something that UK newspapers have struggled with for years. They’re

based in London, but are distributed nationally, and it’s very unlikely that

a schoolteacher in south Wales really cares much about the quality of the coffee

at the latest trendy bistro in Clapham. So they’ve turned restaurant reviewing

into something of a spectator sport, helped on their way by novelist Will Self.

Self more or less started the ball rolling on the phenomenon of the modern

British restaurant review. There’s the lethal take-down, since perfected by

AA Gill, where a restaurant is simply demolished with choice epithets. That

hasn’t made it to the US yet (one Vanity Fair review by Gill notwithstanding),

and is certainly unlikely to appear in the New York Times any time soon.

But Self also realised that if his readers weren’t going to eat at the restaurant

in question, he didn’t need to go into much, if any, detail when it came to

the food. He could write 1,500-word reviews whose sole description of the food

was "nice"; and, since he’s a talented chap, he could do so in a wickedly

entertaining way. Now, Hesser’s not going to go down that path: most of her

review is, indeed, about the food. But she’s following in Self’s footsteps in

a different way: she’s trying to sparkle up her prose a little, so that the

review is more than a list of dishes with a star-rating at the end.

At this point, it’s worth noting Adam Moss’s comment

in the New York Observer today, when he talks about a long tradition of mobility

between magazines, newspapers "and things in between". Moss used to

edit the New York Times magazine, before being promoted to an ill-defined "features

czar" role overseeing the fluffier content in the newspaper, including

the Dining Out section. Moss is a magazine guy, and the advertising-driven extra

sections of the New York Times are very much in that grey area between newspaper

and magazine journalism. They’re feature-driven, rarely break news, and often

read much more like magazine pieces than like old-fashioned reported stories.

And what Hesser is doing in this review is definitely close to magazine journalism.

She writes in the second person, present tense: "A maître d’hôtel

with carefully rumpled hair wearing a "Late Night With David Letterman"

T-shirt and a sports coat takes your name at the door." If this appeared

in the Metro section, an editor would have jumped on that, turning it into "took

diners’ names" instead. Third person, past tense, objective, reported.

The food editor at the New York Times is Sam Sifton, who certainly understands

the need to sex up service journalism. He arrived at the newspaper from New

York magazine, but he started out at the New York Press, writing annoying first-person-plural

reviews which always referred to oysters as "bivalves" on second mention.

The Press’s reviews were closer in spirit to Will Self than the New York Times:

they were anecdotal, often touched only glancingly on the food, and served to

showcase the author’s writing chops more than they served to help people decide

where to have their Wednesday-night meal. I’m sure that when he sent Hesser

to Spice Market, Sifton told her to come back with something evocative of the

scene, rather than an objective, just-the-facts-ma’am report.

I think it’s a bit unfair, then, to go after Hesser for spending the first

part of her review not talking about the food. "What’s the fucking food

like?" asks Eurotrash: "Nice? Who fucking knows?" Well, we do,

after a while: Hesser spends quite a few column inches on it. But especially

when you’re reviewing a hot new Meatpacking District restaurant, the general

scene is at least as important as the quality of the food.

Still, Eurotrash does have a point: the writing simply isn’t very good. A large

chunk of the review basically consists of little more than concatenations of

ingredients – here’s one passage, verbatim.

…fat tapioca pearls loom large. They are simmered with Thai chilies, Sichuan

peppercorns, cinnamon and chipotle, then paired with slivers of raw tuna in

a cool coconut broth sharpened with kaffir lime. The dish is eaten with a

spoon.

Fried squid is piled atop a salad of papaya, water chestnut and cashews. Sweet

shrimp fritters are dotted with crunchy bits of long bean and tempered by

a relish of peanut and cucumber cut into minuscule cubes.

Thai chicken wings are lined up on a plate, coated in a hot, sticky sauce,

fragrant with chilies, soy, lime and fish sauce…

I count 21 ingredients there, in six sentences. The mind simply can’t process

all that information: it’s hard to imagine what just a couple of things taste

like, let alone a long list like this. And the whole thing is in a stultifying

passive voice: pearls "are simmered", the dish "is eaten",

squid "is pulled", fritters "are dotted", wings "are

lined up". Nobody does any of this: it just magically happens.

Eleven year-olds are taught that "the dish is eaten with a spoon"

is horrible English, but somehow, again, star writers (and Hesser is certainly

one of them) can get away with that sort of thing.

Hesser’s review, coincidentally enough, was printed on the same day that New

York media types were emailing each other the full 20,000-word text of Howell

Raines’s forthcoming Atlantic article.

In it, he talks about how he wanted to "strip away the New York parochialism"

of the paper; he also says that back of the book in general was underfunded

and unimaginative.

Raines is long gone, thank god. Reading his article, you start by thinking

"what an arsehole", then think "Christ what an arsehole",

and then just throw up your hands when you come across insufferably pompous

and self-serving drivel like this (you’ll forgive me for digressing a bit from

the restaurant beat, here):

I worked alongside James B. "Scotty" Reston in Washington, and

came to know him well as an avuncular figure who was as tough as goat guts

in his analysis of staff weaknesses. When a correspondent who had clerked

for Scotty and later boasted of their closeness left the paper to protest

a reassignment, Scotty dropped by my office. I was then the Washington editor,

and I assumed he was going to chide me for not giving the fellow the prestige

beat he thought he deserved. Instead Scotty blew out a cloud of pipe smoke

and said, He never had it, did he? At its highest levels the Times operates

by that kind of brutal managerial shorthand.

My favourite bit, though, is when Jodi Kantor is hired to take over a section

of the Sunday paper: "Arts & Leisure readers definitely knew there

was a new sheriff in town when Jodi beat New York’s hip publications to the

punch with a lead story on the rock group White Stripes."

I guess I’m saying that Hesser is a bit like Kantor: a talented journalist

who somehow persuades stodgier, older editors that she’s doing amazing stuff

even when she’s doing nothing special. I’m sure that Hesser focus-grouped well:

she’s popular among the kind of wealthy female demographic that advertisers

adore. Go check out the cover of her book, here,

and tell me if you can ever imagine a male walking out of a bookstore with it.

What I think happened is that the editors of the New York Times wanted a restaurant

reviewer who would (a) be advertiser- and women-friendly, just like their star

columnist Nigella Lawson; and (b) have a more discursive style than New York

Times readers might expect. A foodie Selena Roberts, basically. It helped that

Hesser had name recognition: Raines complains that the paper has "not had

a dominating national voice in any area of cultural coverage since Frank Rich

retired as theater critic", over 10 years ago. Parachuting Hesser in from

the world of best-sellerdom could help punch up the food section somewhat.

Now that Hesser’s in place, she’s got a certain amount of tenure, and pretty

soon, I hope, she’s going to relax a little. She doesn’t have the writing chops

to pull a Will Self, even if the Times would allow such a thing. She started

by showing off:

One-name restaurants took hold with a vengeance five years ago, after Babbo

was a hit. Then followed Otto, Ilo, Tappo, Beppe, Gonzo, Pazo, Pico and Crispo.

And, of course, Bread, Butter, Salt, Good, Taste, Fresh, Supper, Grocery,

Canteen, Commune, District, Town, Craft and — how could New York be

complete without it? — Therapy.

And she’ll probably have to let off a little more steam ("order a Pattaya

if you are feeling the need for discipline") before she settles into a

voice of her own.What she really needs is a good editor, who can trim the excesses

and tell Hesser that she should start bringing more of herself to her reviews.

It was the autobiographical elements which made her previous columns such a

success.

Hesser knows this, actually: in an interview

last year, she said that "when you are writing personally, people, negatively

and positively, make these connections and relate, because they have experienced

these things in their own lives and feel strongly about them."

Then again, in the same interview, she actually said she didn’t want the job

she now has. Maybe it’s just not going to work out:

The natural path that people try to follow at the Times is they become a

reporter and eventually a critic. I never wanted to be a critic. I love eating

and love dining, but I love cooking at home and being at home. I find that

I have done stories where I have to go out four nights a week or to two or

three restaurants a night. It’s kind of grueling and unpleasant. You get jaded.

You find yourself being super critical about what really is just a meal. There

is definitely a foodie culture that’s very competitive, and there are people

who really just love going out every night. You know, good for them. I don’t

want to do it myself… I realized shortly after I arrived at the Times that

I would like to eventually write about wine. Although, I still love writing

about food. I knew that I didn’t want to become a restaurant reviewer.

Tell us, Amanda! Why did you take this gig? Do you feel under pressure to deliver

something you’re not sure you want to be doing? ‘Cos that could explain the

missteps.

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20 Responses to Amanda Hesser

  1. Poor Amanda Hesser

    Poor Amanda Hesser

  2. Lock says:

    Nice, Felix. Hesser, though, is just on the review beat until they name a permanent replacement for Grimes. In February, they said the announcement would be made in “late winter.” So we may not have her to kick around much longer.

  3. Linkage

    · The Morning After: an in-depth Amanda Hesser analysis [FelixSalmon.com] · On the road in Des Moines: Dare Diablo’s tour blog · Lindsayism’s colorful/motion-full new digs [Lindsayism.com] · The Death of a Room-Mate: Tony Meilandt […

  4. efg says:

    yeah, lock’s point kind of makes the preceding blowharding even more useless than the normal crap posted in this blog. some people like just like to hear their own electronic text too much.

  5. jen h. says:

    Very insightful

  6. foodie says:

    this is a great read. well done.

  7. David Sucher says:

    “Soy products”?

    Do you mean tofu? When you say “I don’t think anything” do you mean that you have no opinion? or that you do not like them?

    “Teeth vomit” :)

    How do you do that?

  8. Jen says:

    Have people not read the work Ruth Reichl, the pre-William Grimes food critic? Both while at the Times and afterward? Ruth wielded an iron ladle and did rule the NY restaurant world. While Amanda might be on some odder flights of fancy, it really doesn’t seem that bad. She wrote this . While I’m the first to make fun of anyone so cute and tiny, I think she’s great – in person, she’s humble and interesting and genuinesly passionate about food.

  9. Frost Street says:

    Sticks and Stones

    A lot of people have been beating up on Amanda Hesser lately. Last week’s review of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market has foodies and bloggers up in arms. Eurotrash wrote the most scathing rant to date, verging on the personal in…

  10. Melissa says:

    See the Editor’s Note in today’s NYT about the Hesser review in question. Guess what? The chef she praised wrote an effusive blurb for her book.

  11. The editorial comparison between a theater critic as ” dominating national voice in any area of cultural coverage” and a food critic seems odd. People don’t just go to NY for Broadway and dinner, but shows go on the road. And get turned into movies. A theater critic, even one writing about local productions, has a kind of *possible* application to my-life-outside-NYC that a restaurant reviewer can’t have, except by setting a national tone for restaurant reviewers (the UK effect you point out).

    A side note on your Raines digression — since when is working for a journalist “clerking”? Isn’t that what young lawyers do for judges? Puh-lease! I may actually buy the issue of the Atlantic so I can throw it across the room occasionally while I read; that’s hell on laptops.

  12. Gothamist says:

    Amanda Hesser’s Final Restaurant Review

    Gothamist, fond of Amanda Hesser ever since we saw cook from her book, The Cook and the Gardener, at Fairway a few years ago, has to hand it to her. In her Dining & Wine > Restaurants: Mystery, Allure and Sushi” href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/02/…

  13. A Fast Food Encounter With Amanda Hesser

    You will never guess who I ran into at a McDonald’s, the one by Park and 28th. Obviously by the title of the post, it was the much despised Amanda Hesser. I’m assuming she didn’t get the job at the NYT, and was drowning her sorrows in a Big…

  14. A Fast Food Encounter With Amanda Hesser

    You will never guess who I ran into at a McDonald’s, the one by Park and 28th. Obviously by the title of the post, it was the much despised Amanda Hesser. I’m assuming she didn’t get the job at the NYT, and was drowning her sorrows in a Big…

  15. A Fast Food Encounter With Amanda Hesser

    You will never guess who I ran into at a McDonald’s, the one by Park and 28th. Obviously by the title of the post, it was the much despised Amanda Hesser. I’m assuming she didn’t get the job at the NYT, and was drowning her sorrows in a Big…

  16. L B BOTTONE says:

    Amanda Hesser is marvelous. I can’t believe all these bitter, sour would-bes that are so critical of her. She has a style and voice of her own and I look forward with pleasure to every thing she writes.

  17. L B BOTTONE says:

    Amanda Hesser is marvelous. I can’t believe all these bitter, sour would-bes that are so critical of her. She has a style and voice of her own and I look forward with pleasure to every thing she writes. Obviously, the NYTimes understands and values this treasure they have found!

  18. Amy says:

    I am sorry to disagree. I just finished reading Amanda’s book and I thought it was wonderful. I loved the recipes and I loved the way she savored her friends and family. I loved the way she saw the good in all the people in her life.

    Her cooking style is not exactly mine but everyone is different.

    The people who are negitive and hurt others for no reason are the people who make this world a sad place.

    I thank Amanda for a book that renewed my passion for cooking and enjoying the people in my life!

    Amy, Atlanta, GA

  19. Lise Pinard says:

    Just want to make a remark on the recipes published in the New York Times. I find it frustrating that the salt used is qualified ‘kosher salt’. I use sea sall or any other ans never failed a recipe. My frustration increased when I realized that 80% of the food in my pantry was labelled Kosher. My reaearch informed me that the Jewish community throughout the world collect billions $ annually from this operation. These monies being distributed to rabbies and jewish activities where some could be related to war. So, is there a possiblity to refrain from using this word from your recipies, as it not only makes me mad but a lot of people who are aware of this fact. LP

  20. Lise Pinard says:

    Just want to make a remark on the recipes published in the New York Times. I find it frustrating that the salt used is qualified ‘kosher salt’. I use sea sall or any other ans never failed a recipe. My frustration increased when I realized that 80% of the food in my pantry was labelled Kosher. My reaearch informed me that the Jewish community throughout the world collect billions $ annually from this operation. These monies being distributed to rabbies and jewish activities where some could be related to war. So, is there a possiblity to refrain from using this word from your recipies, as it not only makes me mad but a lot of people who are aware of this fact. LP

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