This is the first in a five-part series about the problems with contemporary food culture.
Much of food writing is telling people where to eat, what to order, what’s new, what’s hot, what’s just opened, what’s on the menu, what’s on the secret menu — on and on, ad infinitum, in SEO-friendly terms.
The problem is that it’s all a bit of a scam.
Reporting on where to eat is a relic of the pre-digital era, when legacy media and word of mouth were the only ways to find out about new restaurants. To be fair, some content is still generated by traditional gumshoe reporting — writers canvassing the streets and the internet, looking for delicious things to eat and then sharing their findings.
But for every Jonathan Gold, there are 1,000 people willing to shill for a free meal. The bulk of where-to-eat food news is bought and paid for in the form of media dinners, at which restaurants treat poverty-wage food writers (and influencers, but we’ll get to that) to lavish dining experiences in order to facilitate flattering photos and elicit glowing descriptions of meals freelancers can’t afford. And it’s all designed to entice a target audience of well-paid professionals.
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Not all “just opened” pictorials are derived from media dinners. Some publications send out junior staffers to shoot the menu at recently launched restaurants. But the publication does not usually pay for this food.
For restaurants that can afford to host a media event (so we’re already making a big separation here, between truly small businesses and better-established brands with marketing budgets), a publicist will gather a crowd of 20 or 30 people for a Tuesday- or Wednesday-night dinner.
At the door, a host with a clipboard greets you and checks your name off a list. Inside, someone with a tray of beverages asks if you would like a glass of cava, a mimosa, a mojito, or some other refreshing drink. Who wouldn’t?
The room is full of people you sort of know. Servers circulate with hors d’oeuvres — often small-bite versions of dishes on the menu. If the owner thinks you might be someone important, they’ll schmooze you directly, regaling you with stories about finding the wall tiles on a car trip through Mexico or letting you know how much the chandelier cost.
Then comes the actual meal. The chef, who is usually uncomfortable with public speaking, tells the room about the unique challenges of the menu and how excited they are for you to taste the dishes on offer. But unless your name is David Chang or Rene Redzepi, they do not care what you think about their food — as long as you promote it.
From this point on, there is a royal court’s worth of food and wine. In some cases, each course is accompanied by a new cocktail. You needn’t worry about overindulging — as you might when spending your own money — because there is no bill. Nor is there any cause to ask yourself, would I pay $16 for this cocktail or $32 for this main? What is the size of an actual portion? Such details are meaningless when you’re racing through the menu, dismissing half-eaten plates of food like a pre-revolution French aristocrat.
On your way out, a publicist hands you a gift bag; it may contain a bottle of olive oil, a scone, a printout of promotional materials, a USB stick containing professional photographs of the dishes. (If you’re unable to attend the dinner, the restaurant may even offer to send you a gift basket, or it may invite you to come “as our guest” some other time.)
It is possible, from these events, to get a snapshot of what the restaurant is doing. I probably go to two or three a year — sometimes to see what’s happening in the restaurant world, or to gossip with colleagues, or because I’m just curious about the restaurant and know I’d never spend my own money there. Any established food writer can eat out two or three times a week like this if they want.
- The trouble with food culture: How chefs became rock stars — and why that’s a bad thing
The target audience used to be food writers, with the occasional sommelier or fashion writer thrown in, plus a proto-influencer — some well-connected guy or gal about town, often someone in advertising/marketing who genuinely loves food and also the social value of having eaten at the newest restaurant. In the olden days, following the media dinner, guests would publish pieces about the restaurant. Maybe it would be a “just opened” feature telling readers about what’s being served and featuring glamour shots of each dish alongside images of the room. More industrious reporters would come up with a story or an interview with the chef. But over time, there was less and less reason to do this. Simply publicizing what the space and food looked like, without comment, suited the needs of the business and satisfied the curiosity of readers.
Some food writers would hold fast to the principle that their critical objectivity was maintained by saying nothing if they didn’t like the meal. Others were only too happy to promote any restaurant in exchange for their free meal — a version of what used to be known in the radio business as “payola.”
But even that era of media dinners now seems quaint.
Restaurants still invite someone from every publication, big or small. But in the last five years, the focus has shifted to influencers. These are people who, 10 years ago, would have written food/fashion/travel blogs. Now they are concentrated almost entirely on Instagram, where their skill in getting people to pay attention to them, their followers, and their likes, is monetized through endorsements and product placements. In the case of restaurants, such endorsements can often be had for the price of a free meal.
These days, a restaurant media dinner is predominately attended by influencers. There’s no reason to go through the labour of convincing journalists that your restaurant is good when you can buy guaranteed positive coverage from the influencer crowd.
Not long ago, I sat down with an advertising executive who said that clients are seeing diminishing returns on this form of digital shilling. But, still, he urged me to get into the influencer game while it’s “still technically legal.”
However the mechanics change, the grift is still the same. There are publications and small restaurants that refuse to play the media dinner game. Sometimes, when you hear buzz about a new restaurant, it is truly because they are doing a great job. But the majority of the time, when suddenly everyone in your feed is talking about a hot new restaurant, it’s because the owners spent money to buy your attention, appetite, and dining choice.