Recently, in our review of Otto Pizzeria, a commenter noted that pizza was a sacred beast, and that “acting like we [knew] better” was unacceptable. It’s a refrain you sometimes hear repeated among local chefs and the owners of local food-oriented businesses (even though such comments alienate what I would think to be a fairly important demographic for their business); that food bloggers are self-important idiots, with no training or education, spouting off on the Internet about food, without the needed qualifications and background, be it in the food service industry, a professional career in print media food reviewing, or otherwise, with no right to comment on the food prepared in their kitchens.
So the question is: Are food bloggers qualified to write about food?
The short answer is: Probably. I’ll elaborate.
Does a food blogger need to have a background in the restaurant industry in order to write compelling reviews and opinion on food? While a bit of back-of-the-house experience may provide a writer with some different insights into the process of food preparation and presentation, I don’t think having been a dishwasher somewhere necessarily makes them more qualified to write about food than anyone else.
Anyone who eats out at a restaurant, anyone who gets their coats on, shuffles out the door, gets the car parked, and basks in the company of strangers for 90 minutes, while sipping cocktails and throwing themselves at the mercy of a stranger, a stranger who cooks, for that person, their take on delicious food, has the right to comment on that experience. Some people will do it informally, and in just a few words. Those people drop a few notes on Yelp or Urbanspoon and get on with their lives. Others get into more heated discussions on Chowhound, using a bit of a longer form to get their ideas across. Some type their thoughts into their blog, giving an opportunity for even more at-length discussion of a particular topic, whether it is a restaurant, a recipe, or the weather. The best dining patrons are so good at thinking about food that they write their thoughts down on paper, and those thoughts get published in a newspaper and read by hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people.
These people, though the outlet for their thoughts, and the scope of their audience, may be different, all have one thing in common: They don’t want to shovel any old thing into their mouths, and wait for their next meal. Food is not about fuel, for them, and they relish the opportunity to think about what they are eating, about why they enjoy the things they like; it is our job to notice the flourishes a chef puts into a dish, as well as the way the restaurant, the waitstaff, hell, even the kind of day we were having, made us feel about our meal. Food writers at all levels put great thought into each chew, and I would think a chef who takes care in his food, would appreciate a customer who takes care to notice.
If anything, amateur food bloggers are at least as passionate, or perhaps more passionate, about their subject than professional reviewers. A restaurant critic for a major newspaper enjoys meals that are either comped or paid for by the paper, a tidy paycheck, and local or even national recognition for the cleverness with which they craft a metaphor about the flavor of a certain cheese.
Food bloggers see few of those rewards: We eat out more than most of our non-blogging peers, paying for meals out of pocket. The demand for fresh content on a website means that we aren’t visiting a restaurant 3 or 4 times, and then lounging around in our jammies for days, smoking a pipe, while we consider whether the pico de gallo on our halibut was “piquant” or simply “poignant.” We need to be constantly cooking, dining out, writing, editing, and moving right along to the next piece. We often spend thousands of dollars on fancy photo and lighting equipment. We spend hours responding to comments and writing each day, to publish our work on a website that we spend more hours designing and maintaining, which, in the grand scheme of things, nobody reads.
For us, perhaps more than any other category of food writer, a real love of subject is key to why we do what we do. Often, I don’t know my ass from my elbow, and I don’t think I’ve been shy about mentioning that. I don’t know how to properly butterfly a chicken. I don’t take very good photos. I’m still trying to learn the finer points of talking about food without describing it. But at least I’m thinking about it, and trying to figure out why I like the things I like. Hopefully, some of the people who read our site might find that our tastes align in some areas, even while they diverge in others. Anyone who is willing to think constructively about food, about why they like the things they do, about the way food makes them feel, has the “right” to write about it, and again, I would expect chefs to welcome a customer that passionate, thoughtful, and considerate about what they are eating into their restaurants with open arms.