We need to stop letting grifters tell us where to eat

OPINION: Some shills endorse restaurants for the price of a meal — and that hurts the places that don’t have the money to pay for hucksterism
By Corey Mintz - Published on Nov 22, 2021
Pre-pandemic, media-preview dinners shaped restaurants’ coverage. (Alexandra Iakovleva/iStock)

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Has anyone missed restaurant media-preview dinners, which have been inactive for the past 19 months? Most people don’t know what they are, even if they regularly consume their byproduct in the form of the bought-and-paid-for media content they generate. I’d almost stopped thinking about them until just now, when I received an invitation to an “exclusive tasting” for a fried-chicken bagel sandwich at a Toronto hotspot. 

Pre-pandemic, these events — which offer all-expenses-paid lavishness to writers, editors, and influencers — shaped restaurants’ coverage: they buy the attention of the people who compose the lists of places you should eat and generate a tidal wave of stories and social-media posts. Because the pandemic closed so many restaurants, the PR wing of the food industry lay dormant for most of 2020. But along with indoor dining, media dinners are back.

Even if you’ve never been to one of these, you’ve read about them without knowing it. Pretty much any time you’ve heard about a hot new restaurant, there was a media dinner the night before. If you were on the list, here is what you would have experienced:

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It’s hot out. You should have splurged for a cab, even though you can’t afford it. By the time you get to the restaurant, you’re sweating through your clothes. But, at the door, to the right of the publicist holding the clipboard, there’s a young woman holding a tray of cocktails. As soon as they confirm that you’re on the list, that you belong here, the server extends her platter. The liquids jiggle, moisture dripping down the glasses. She stage-whispers some combination of nouns that sound like codewords for an air strike — St. Lucia, hibiscus, juniper, yuzu, Aleppo. Cool drink in hand, buffeted by the over-cranked air-conditioning blasting through the open door, you are transported from your overheated, underpaid life into the alternate reality of the restaurant media dinner. You take a sip while gazing across the room. The drink is weak and poorly mixed. But who cares? It’s free. 

And, look, there are your friends! Across the room, there’s a handful of food and drink writers, a few editors, and a sea of social-media influencers, all of them grazing on hors d’oeuvres — and your pals are waving you over. They flag down one of the servers, insisting that you have to taste one of the red-fife tostadas with whipped ricotta and chanterelles. Soon more servers, all in black pants and black shirts, crisscross the room, handing out tiny bowls of truffled yucca fries. You’ve already missed out on the Hokkaido scallop ceviche. Too bad, your friends are sad to inform you. They were so good. 

Soon, you are called to dinner at a 30-foot table that looks like as if it had been made by and for Vikings. You and your pals hustle to get seats next to one another, so you can catch up. Just as each dish lands in front of you, eating is paused so the chef can make a speech about their inspiration for the menu. The owner tells you about the effort and cost of importing the chandelier from Spain. The sommelier explains how they wanted the wines to complement each dish but also to entice diners with varietals they couldn’t find anywhere else. And the pastry chef, uncomfortable in front of an audience, mumbles a description of the dessert before rushing back to the kitchen. 

If the chef or owner thinks you might be someone important, they’ll schmooze you directly and ask for your opinion about the food. But unless your name is David Chang or Rene Redzepi, they do not care what you think about their food — only that you promote it. 

By the end of the evening, you are stuffed, drunk, and so happy that you don’t mind walking home in a night air that has cooled off at least a little. But you take a cab anyway. Tonight didn’t cost a penny, so why not treat yourself? 

In the cab, you open your gift bag. It’s got a bottle of nice olive oil, a truffle slicer emblazoned with the oil importer’s logo (no truffle, the cheapskates), a USB key filled with hi-res photos, plus a printout of the menu that includes a reminder to use the event’s hashtag. 

If you’re an influencer, you’ve already posted something. Maybe a close-up of the food or a selfie with the chef, using the requested hashtag. If you’re a writer or editor for a local digital publication, you might quickly write a brief description of the restaurant, its decor, and its food as part of a “just opened” template. Or not. You may, like other writers or editors there, simply file away the experience as part of your awareness of what’s happening in that restaurant, in that section of town, with that cuisine, that chef, or that restaurant group, for future possible use on lists of the city’s best Peruvian menus, brunch, wood-fired vegan dishes, chefs on the rise, etc. Over the next few days, the restaurant is mentioned multiple times in various forms of media. If they’ve really splashed out and invited all the right people, suddenly everyone is talking about the restaurant. Not one mention is made of the evening’s nature: a free meal in exchange for the expectation of coverage. 

If a food writer had no moral qualms about it, they could eat out for free most nights of the week. If they brought a doggie bag, they could feed a small village. Once you are on the list of food media, the invitations never stop. It’s been years since I’ve written the kind of material these publicists seek — promotional opening previews, chef profiles, best-of lists, travel guides, social-media testimonials, and so on — and a decade since I’ve reviewed a restaurant. But here is a list of the media-dinner invitations I received in January 2020 alone, just before everything came to a halt: 

  • January 8: Media-preview dinner for a kaiseki restaurant where dinner is $195 or $330 
  • January 14: Media preview for Dinner With a View, an event where luxury meals are served inside terrariums big enough for six (“perfect for sharing via social”)
  • January 15: Event at Lobster Burger Bar dedicated to “curating your own unique butter, de-shelling lobsters and learning about 2020 plating trends” 
  • January 19: The Enlightened Dining Club — a micro-dosed-infused five-course feast somehow in collaboration with a local artist and “digital experience specialists” 
  • January 22: Pecorino Toscano tasting dinner at an Italian restaurant where a bowl of olives costs $9 
  • January 27: Scotch-tasting at an art gallery 
  • January 29: Dinner and cooking class with chef promoting a packaged sauce 
  • January 29: Three-course Greek meal of peaches and meat with Greek trade delegation in town to promote Freshcano: Fresh Canned Peaches from Europe, an EU-funded program. 
  • January 29: Cocktail party at an upscale department store that’s just finished renovating
  • January 29: Media dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant focusing on the regional tastes and wines of Emilia-Romagna and featuring porcinis, cacciocavalo, and goose sausage

Keep in mind that January is the slowest month of the year, and this list doesn’t include offers of samples from food manufacturers — cinnamon-pecan keto snack bars; veal meatballs; Ben & Jerry’s new flavour, Netflix & Chilll’d™ — that publicists would like to deliver. Those Instagram posts captioned “look what just arrived at the office” are compensation for this swag. 

Okay. So there is a well-financed, media-savvy hype machine that promotes new restaurants that can afford the cost of publicity. The kind of content it generates is glossy and ubiquitous, and its advertorial nature is hidden from its audience. Except for the handful of influencers who adhere to requirements that they clearly and conspicuously disclose any material connection to advertisers, no one informs readers. So what? If people want to see pics of a chef’s home fridge, watch a video of a PB & J sandwich machine, take dining, fashion, or travel advice from shills whose endorsement can be had for the price of a meal, who cares? 

First, it hurts all the restaurateurs who don’t have the money to pay for this hucksterism. Second, it contributes to the “fake news” in our lives, the strategies that have been used to weaponize misinformation, the volume of information that we’re faced with day to day and lowers our threshold for caring about what is true and what’s not. Third — and this is what matters most, because of the pandemic — it’s unfair to the restaurateurs that have survived by experimenting with every possible revenue stream, the ones with a long history of making their good food and service a part of our lives and communities. It would be an insult to the kind of restaurants we love, the kind we made such an effort to preserve through our patronage, if we were now to revert back to the media-dinner payola racket and the phony “10 hot new restaurants you need to eat at right now” system it perpetuates.

I’ve been writing lately about how the restaurant industry can’t go back to the inequitable pre-pandemic status quo. But the same goes for us diners and consumers of food media. Let’s not reset the habit of grifters telling us where to eat.

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