"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
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
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
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
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
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
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