The late Terry Lanni, the MGM CEO memorialized yesterday, was a charming man and a great leader, so I didn’t really mind when he came up to me at a Michael Mina tasting and said, “I’d like to have your job.”
I was, of course, laying for him. “What a co-incidence,” I retorted. I’d say a multi-million dollar salary package plus stock options adequately compensates for the occasional impromptu lunch in a corporate dining room.
But in spite of the popular fantasy, being a serious food critic takes its toll both mentally and physically, not to mention the economics. Every college student knows a life in journalism is fun, exciting, and low pay. If you want to make money, your college advisor will tell you, go into a field like engineering, medicine or investment banking.
Well, I chose fun, excitement, and above all, good eating. To use an expression from Joseph Campbell, I followed my bliss, and one can’t put a price on what that is worth. And you know what, life’s a blast.
But in this modern era of too much information, or, to use my brother’s metaphor for the Internet, “more shit, faster,” we dining critics have been relegated to the trash heap of history, along with the Yelpers, Urban Spoons and every other Tom, Dick and Sally who thinks himself qualified to write a piece about a restaurant.
And to add further insult to injury, we are exposed to indignities and even job threatening conflicts that these Blogmeisters are not. One of my worst situations occurred when the owner of Origin India, who had the gall to lure my wife in for a free meal by calling her cell phone, was cheeky enough to complain to my then employer, Greenspun Media.
I hadn’t ponied up a favorable article fast enough, it seemed to him. I’ll put his restaurant in my book, “Eating Las Vegas,” just for the record if a horse’s head appears between my bed sheets. I lost that job only six months later, and can’t help think the event was a contributing factor.
You may recall a while back that I posted a piece defending my friend, S. Irene Virbila of the LA Times. She was made by the owner at a place called Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, and photographed. Then, he put a shot of her on the Internet, to compromise her anonymity. This spiteful gesture was performed because she gave his food a bad review.
Now, an even more heinous event has occurred. Alan Richman, the longtime GQ critic, has been accused of giving a female server “an inappropriate pat on the rear.”
In his current article, entitled “Diner For Schmucks”, (www.gq.com/food-travel/alan-richman/201109/alan-richman-m-wells-restaurant-scandal-review?printable=true¤tPage=1) Richman constructs an impassioned defense of himself, and this has incurred much discussion both on Twitter and Eater National, as well as some commentary by Sam Sifton in the New York Times.
The problem, said Richman, occurred after indifferent service at the Quebecois-American diner M. Wells, owned by the Canadian-American couple Hugue Dufourt and Sarah Obraitis. This place charges $42 for a burger. Personally, I’d rather give that kind of scratch to the poor, than spend that much on a goddamned hamburger.
But that’s off the point.
On a third visit after having had the owner agree to a subsequent interview, Richman experienced bad service. I’d guess he’s right when he postulates that the female server invented an excuse to cover up her poor service, but I’m just speculating. But it’s a thing where the accused can’t win. It’s like being accused of racism. If you’re innocent, you’ve still been cast in a bad light.
Richman says in his piece that New York restaurants have long been “tumbling into informality,” and refers to our time as a “post-service era.” That’s not my experience in Vegas. I’ve been accused by friends, and probably by restaurant staffers behind my back, of bullying, but I deny that accusation. Anyone who reads me on a regular basis knows I am a softie. So when I seem demanding, it’s only because I want the best out of a restaurant, so I write more favorably about it.
Richman partly blames himself for the current state of affairs. “Critics like me,” he writes, “deserve some blame for the proliferation of terrible service standards in so many casual restaurants.”
This is not correct. This is an era of Yelpers, Blogmeisters, texting maniacs and friends with benefits, one where politeness went out the window ages ago. Mr. Richman, bless his soul, does get around, like to China, Tuscany and the American South.
But like all New York writers, he lives in that bubble where New York is the center of the universe. I know Alan, and he’s a great guy. I don’t believe he would pat a waitress on the ass anymore than I accept his contention that New York Chinese restaurants are as good as ones on the West Coast.
We are, however, brothers in arms on this. Alan, I’ve got your back.
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