Monday, August 15, 2011

Food bloggers & Food critics

Pandas are bamboo critics
"Everyone's a critic", say some articles, as a way of putting down bloggers. Well actually, yes, everyone is. At an eatery, every single diner or even potential diner (e.g. a caller who tries to make a reservation) will judge their experience. The difference is, some of them have blogs and Twitter accounts whose contents can be Googled, some have Facebook, and pretty much everyone has least a mouth, an opinion and a voice to tell people about their experience.

But why does everyone keep thinking it's "bloggers vs. critics"? It's like when TVs appeared and people kicked and screamed about how radio and books were better. And yes, I do think letters are better than email for some things, but then again, each letter I'd send to my friends in Australia would take a week, and I'd have to copy them by hand word for word if I was talking about the same topic... Look, it's just technology, ok?

Ok, let's lay down the ground work so we don't all get confused. You may not agree with these definitions, but for the purposes of this blog post, this is how these terms are going to be used. You can argue for/against them, but that's not the main purpose of the post, so please try not to get your knickers in a twist just yet.

Some food bloggers cook. Don't bash them!

Food blogger/food blog
Whenever there's a "blogger vs. critic" article in mainstream media (formal publications e.g. newspapers) the writer always seems to assume that there is only 1 type of food blogger. That is simply not true. I would say the term encompasses 2 main groups:

a. those who blog about their dining experiences
b. those who blog about their cooking experiences

Of course, there are blogs that mix the two, and a good number of them also incorporate travel and other food-related experiences, but if a blog is purely about food, it usually falls into the two categories above. Either way, the person is passionate about food, or at least at the time they started blogging! The blog may or may not be a source of income. They might also be a food critic or food writer.

Whoever you are, if you love food, you'll eat it and you'll talk about it.

Food critic/reviewer
A writer/journalist who is employed by a formal publication, be it digital or in print, that is not a personal website/blog. Beyond the written word, there are of course radio and podcast critics, or video critics, but here I'll mostly be talking about the written word. A critic or reviewer will go to a restaurant, judge it on its merits and write about it in the publication. That's their job. They might also have a blog.

Food writer
A person who writes about food, usually for formal publications, but who might also have a blog.

Formal publications
Newspapers, magazines, online magazines (websites), digital magazines (Issuu, iPad magazines) etc. They are not personal.


Food bloggers
You like to dine out. You may or may not be a trained chef or learned eater. You pass judgment about a restaurant. You tell your friends.
In 1986, you bring it up on a phone call with your friend. Or at a dinner party. Or over tea. If you were really keen (or your recipient was keen) you may have written a letter.
In 1996, you wrote an email.
In 2006, you blogged about it.

Especially if you move countries 3 times and make at least 3 groups of friends who also like food and will undoubtedly ask you again and again where/what to eat when they come visit you, or a place you've been (and ate).

Relax, it's just technology

Food critics
You are paid to dine out. You usually like food. You may or may not be a trained chef or learned eater. You are a trained writer or journalist. You pass judgment about a restaurant. You write it with the intention of informing a wider community via a formal publication - a town, a state, the world. You have subeditors and fact checkers.

Ethics - invitations, free meals etc.

Food bloggers and food critics are increasingly invited to the same events related to food. Restaurant openings, menu launches, tastings etc. and are sometimes invited by the restaurant. Critics in general will not publish a review of a soft-opening or a free meal. A blogger might blog about it, or even review it (latter is pretty useless, especially if they don't disclose), it depends on the blogger.

Some bloggers take free meals, fail to disclose the fact and proceed to write a favourable review. Well, yeah, they suck. DUH. But I don't think those blogs will last long. They lose credibility. The blogger probably isn't passionate about food anyway. They'll lose steam and move onto something else.

Most critics and publications make it clear that they pay. Many bloggers do too. But it's not just about paying. It's about who knows they're there. Did they book through the PR people, or anonymously? Do they know the chef? Did they go and say "hi" to the chef as they walked in?

The funny thing is, bloggers are under so much scrutiny with regards to disclosure these days that many will often blog everything. Some formal publications do not. They simply tell you they paid, and that's it - you're thus supposed to be satisfied about their impartiality. It's important to remember that money is not the only currency people trade. Favours, reputation and goodwill for example (thank you Accounting 101).

That said, some bloggers do not disclose. If you ask me, that sucks. It also sucks when they ring up or email a PR person and demand, "I'm a blogger, give me a meal". If you do that, you are on par with those losers who call up a restaurant and say "I've won eight Oscars so you need to make the earth move around me". Or even a critic *gasp* who does the same. Sure, you might justify it and say you're helping them create buzz, and hell, the PR people might even like it, but you're a loser in my mind. (Not that I'm anything/anyone who matters...) I'm even going risk humiliation to go all early nineties on you and say you're a Loser with a capital L.

Quality of Writing

It really depends who's writing. There are good writers, there are trained writers, there are good & trained writers, there are bad & trained writers. Of course, there are untrained writers who might also be good or bad. You choose what you read. (In this case, I'm not talking about a journalist's skills, which includes much more than just crafting prose.)

Some great writing going on here

Quality of Publication

It also depends on who's writing. Journalistic skills can be taught, but an investigative eye, observation skills, curiosity and an eagerness to get the facts - these are things that can be picked up. Some people are even born with it. While a formal publication, be it print or digital, has an industry standard, blogs do not. Blogs are often personal, and an extension of a particular person. That person may choose to be investigative and journalistic in their approach, but to that end, they may also choose not to. That's just the liberty bloggers have, as a platform, It's not good journalism, but bloggers simply don't have to be journalists.

In sum, I just wanted to say that there is no versus. Good reviews will still be read, just as good blogs will. Bad journalism won't be read, just as bad blogs won't. They're not going to take over each other. They're just different forms of media that will coexist.

Make a choice. Read, eat and climb only the stuff you want to read/eat/climb.

One last thing - and I guess it's not just about food blogging/reviewing/writing - is that it's sad that we have to assume that readers no longer have the media literacy to judge whether a piece of writing is trustworthy or even worth reading. Some writers are even trying to make the decision for readers. It's like cutting food up and feeding it to a kid. If you keep doing it, the kid will never learn to feed him/herself.

What say you? Have I got it all wrong?

By the way, more of my thoughts on this blogging thang are in this Q&A.


  1. What I like about blogging is that there is a relationship between the blogger and reader. If the blogger breaches the trust in that relationship by grabbing freebies and writing dubious reviews it is fairly evident and the reader is sensible enough to realise that. That leads to a breakdown of trust and effectively ends the relationship.

    In relation to bloggers who disclose where they take freebies, again there is a relationship and the reader has a choice on what level of trust to extend on how to engage with the blogger.

    In contrast, with "official" press the relationship is not as two way. Many famous reviewers write in such a way which would destroy the trust in any typical blogger- reader relationship.

    Both sides have problems, however, as you very sensibly point out, literate people are quite able to work out hte positives and negatives in both sides and tread the line between them.

    Back to work now :)

  2. This post reminds me of the time when I wrote my own blog policy - here. I like how you stress that the readers need to learn how to judge if a blogger/critic/writer is credible and worthwhile to read. The reverse is true; a blogger decides what kind of readers he want, and write accordingly.

    After many months since that policy is written, sad to say it does seem to affect how people communicate with me, as someone who writes about food and related experiences.

    Oh, I choose what I read too, and hence this comment ;)

  3. Blogs-- specifically ones with good, succinct, accurate (& hopefully humourous) writing-- definitely make a better read than a journalistic publication. Bloggers are not bound to strict journalistic codes, dept budgets, ethics, etc. This gives ample space for creativity and opinionated thoughts, both of which are extremely essential in the highly subjective realm of food.

    Having said that, what really gets my goat about food blogging, besides the obvious case of obnoxious bloggers demanding free meals just because they yield a DSLR & have a URL to their names, is that an increasing no. of bloggers are spoiling the name of food writing with their poor knowledge of food. I dare say more than 1/2 of 'food blogs' these days are of rather low quality: paltry content, devoid of in-depth discussion on food, and near-zero background knowledge of ingredients. Many don't research or understand how to completely appreciate food and/or all of the hard work that may have gone into the dish.

    I mean, if you're bothered to get a blog, take pretty shots of food, photoshop them to perfection, etc, I think you should be bothered to read up and expand on some of the ideas beyond the plate/ restaurant. It's a responsibility (to oneself & the readers) issue, I feel.

    Bloggers, I believe, aren't the only ones guilty: I've been told by a HK journalist friend that there are lazy 'food journalists' who show up restaurants for free tastings and end up taking one or two bites, before loading up on the free booze. To make matters worse, these journos simply regurgitate the restos' press releases and not their personal experiences while dining there.

    There should be some sort of a Food Writing Code to police the ethics of food writing (which is quite sad in today's OpenRice-era, really...). Ideally food writers/bloggers should anonymously visit restos 2-3 times, try as many dishes as possible on the menu, talk to the manager, the chefs, the owners to get the facts right.

  4. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Daniel, there is in fact a Food blog code of ethics that states similar conditions to what you've suggested. I actually have a link to them on the right hand side of my blog. I do think though, that 2-3 times isn't always possible for bloggers who eat on their own dime. I've only been to Caprice 3 times in 3 years, for example!

  5. Anonymous10:56 am

    I like the term "Floggers" (which I picked up from another blog in Perth - Australia ) which summed up the bloggers who had gone too far into freebie/PR territory.