SXSW SouthBites Recap: Food Criticism Today

The second SXSW SouthBites session I went to was Food Criticism in the Digital Age with Alison Cook, restaurant critic at The Houston Chronicle; Helen Rosner, features editor at Eater; Jonathan Gold, food writer at the Los Angeles Times; and Moderator Evan Kleiman of Kcrw Good Food.The panel started out with the question: “In this age of Yelp, is everyone a critic or are we all just sharing our opinions?”

Gold mentions the phrase “glorious noise of specialists” to describe the online reviewers and bloggers that write about restaurants and food. The “noise” is just an amplified version of what was already there. It’s a new avenue to express opinions. Instead of snail mail, platforms were created to give consumers a different kind of voice and snail mail has become email.Another big subject was food bloggers vs. food critics. The panel stated that their wealth of knowledge and context is different. Backed by the legacy of their publication, critics have a way of doing things that includes visiting the restaurant at least 2-3 times and going under a fake name. Critics put chefs, restaurants, and food movements into context. They know the know the cultural, socioeconomic, geopolitical, agricultural backgrounds behind the dishes they’re eating. As Gold described, he knows how the current weather conditions would have on a croissant and how it would look differently. The big difference is that critics pay for all their meals. Cook argued that when you’re given free food, you’ll post something nice with no critical content and there isn’t a value framework there.

Take a look at these statistics about online reviews from a recent study.

  • 88% of consumers say they trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations
  • 57% of consumers will visit a local business website after reading a positive review
  • 85% of consumers say they read up to 10 reviews before they trust a business

Personally, I may analyze a number of things before I visit a restaurant. I read critic reviews, I look at their menu, and I scan Yelp reviews, though I tend to go with what’s new and “hot” and what’s recommended to me by close friends. I like to think that consumers are smart enough to figure out truth from slander and do their own research when they make decisions on where to eat. That said, I think there’s a place for food bloggers. As long as food bloggers are very honest about receiving complimentary tastings and about the content they publish. Sure, bloggers may post something nice but I don’t think they would – and I would truly hope they don’t – post or write something because they feel obligated after accepting a free meal. I think that’s an understanding among food bloggers.

Lastly, the panel discussed the effect that photos and photo-based apps like Instagram have on the future of food criticism. The consensus was that yes, photos are great but nothing can replace the written word. Even photos have captions! You can view a pretty photo but the words will describe the flavors, the movement and the creation.

What do you think? How do you see the role of food critics and food bloggers today?

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