2015 March Film and Interactive


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3 6 S X S W o r l d | F I L M / I A M A R C H 2 0 1 5 | S X S W. C O M he movie Ratatouille came out in 2007, but Pixar's love letter to food and cooking already feels like something of a period piece. Remy the rat was not a blogger. Restaurant critic Anton Ego didn't tweet (though he's inspired both the user name and avatar of many a contemporary Twitter account). And nobody in Paris Yelped. Seven years later, all those things--plus food trucks!--were crucial to the plot of Chef (SXSW 2014's Opening Night Film), which used a Twitter spat between Jon Favreau's title character and Oliver Platt's critic as a major plot device. As always, real life's more dramatic than the movies. In January, Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri wrote a Huffington Post column called "How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread," opening with the complaint, "Food jour- nalism in today's world is all about a 'best' list, a 'what's hot and what's not' or a restaurant ranking system," while accusing the entire profession of lowering its standards: "anything to draw readers' attention, and to encourage them to share on social media." And for the better part of a year, critics, chefs and diners have been riveted and riven by events in Dallas, where a group of restaurants have declared war on the Dallas Morning News' Leslie Brenner. The battle began with profanity-laden tweets by Knife's John Tesar (in response to a largely positive review). Since then, multiple restaurants have tried to keep Brenner from reviewing their establishments by not letting her pay for meals. It's a cruelly ironic strategy, given that not taking freebies is one of the things that traditionally sets a professional critic apart from bloggers or the Yelp Elite Squad. "There will always be a place for thoughtful criticism, but will there always be an organization behind the critic willing to pay for it in terms of salaries and multiple restaurant visits? Unclear." says Kerry Diamond, who co-founded the indie food mag Cherry Bombe, is the editor of Yahoo! Food and also co-owns several restaurants. This is the environment that two SouthBites/SXSW Interactive panels, "Chef, Reviewer, Guest: Who's Got the Power Today" (moder- ated by Diamond) and "Food Criticism in the Digital Age"(moderated by KCRW Good Food host Evan Kleiman) will tackle tomorrow (Monday, March 16). In a response to Vetri's Huff Po piece, Eater features editor Helen Rosner argued that, "Yes, there are lots of listicles and there's lots of short-attention-span journalism. No, actually, that doesn't mean there's less stuff of quality being produced. In fact, there's more good stuff out there, more good writers, more thoughtful and nuanced opinions. There may be more noise, but there's also more signal." (Case in point: The Huffington Post, which can publish listicles, inves- tigative features and rants by famous chefs, all at the same time!) For Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, sniping chefs and digital-age competition aren't necessarily a bad thing. "The pro- fession is actually invigorated by outside criticism, and always has been," says Gold, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2007. "People were taking potshots at critics centuries before the inven- tion of the Internet." And while Gold, who is also the subject of a new documentary film screening this year at SXSW, City of Gold, jokes that "I do write more listicles now," in the most essential way, he feels his role is unchanged. "When there's a great scene somewhere, whether in cooking, hip- hop or painting, there is generally a decent critic in the midst of things, providing intellectual context and and bringing attention to that which deserves to be noticed," he says. "Is it possible that this could happen within the medium of a Snapchat feed rather than in conventional reviews? Of course. Still, is somebody who has tasted a hundred versions of sole meuniere generally better equipped than a novice to assess number 101? Of course." For critic Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle, some things have changed and some haven't. "I think I am better at what I do with the rise of multiple online voices and outlets," says Cook. "They make me more competitive, they force me to hone my writing and thinking about stories, and to focus on what I can bring to the mix that's uniquely mine. Sure, the new order can feel more perilous and frus- trating, but it's also exhilarating to figure out how you can separate yourself and your publication from the noise." Both Cook and Gold still rely on a process that involves multiple unannounced restaurant visits and a grace period after opening. But that period is likely shorter than it was 10 years ago, and, says Cook, "if a restaurant is hotly anticipated I might do a short first-look blog post with the usual disclaimers right when it opens." "I'm sure most chefs would be happy to see critics go away, but some form of criticism will always exist, whether professional or amateur," says Diamond, who speculates that Yelp itself could evolve into a place with paid professional critics as well as unpaid post-ers. "Then chefs can really lose their minds." For a full list of SouthBites programming and events, visit: by Jason Cohen T Ke rry D i a m o n d M E L I S S A H O M Bring the Noise! Food Critics Welcome Outside Voices

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