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.

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SXSW SouthBites Recap: Technology in Dining

momofuku

This was the second year for the SXSW SouthBites program, which connects food artisans, the food industry and technology. Basically, it’s to talk about the culinary industry! One of the sessions I went to was The Future Role of Tech in Dining and Food with David Chang, the owner and founder of Momofuku and Matt Buchanan, the editor of The Awl.

David Chang started his session out with a bang, claiming the Internet is what killed food and that chefs are losing their individuality. Ideas, restaurant reviews, and recipes are shared widely on the Internet, changing the way we think about food, experience restaurants and judge our experiences. I can definitely see what Chang means by this. Before I step into a restaurant, I know how cool the restaurant is supposed to look, what dishes I’m supposed to order, and how many stars my peers are giving it. I have increased expectations. I’ve lost some of the spark in the experience. We may have had this naturally by word of mouth, but the Internet has expanded it. Chefs are copying each other based on what’s hot. (Remember the cronut craze?!) I think the Internet is great for getting new ideas and expanding on those ideas. Whether or not it’s affecting chef creativity? I can see how that could be but I don’t have enough knowledge to be sure. What do you think?

In discussing how tech can help restaurants and the dining experience, Chang asked: how can restaurants collect data better (i.e. have their own data instead of using a third party like OpenTable) and how can tech make waiting in line disappear (referencing Franklin BBQ, its consistent line and how amazing it is). Great ideas and I have a feeling tech in the culinary industry will grow to make culinary experiences better and operations easier.

I didn’t know anything about David Chang before this panel but I’ve enjoyed treats from Momofuku Milk Bar. Throughout this panel, I felt he was very genuine, honest, team-focused and forward-thinking. He knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, although to him, it looks like he’s figuring it out as he goes. He said he got into the business to cook and that it wasn’t about the money. That’s why he’s opening a small fast food fried chicken restaurant soon. Because he likes fried chicken! He also said that some restaurants, like Franklin BBQ, are better because they care. They’re meticulous about the process and the product. And lastly, he’s humble in saying that he’s made a lot of mistakes along the way and it’s a bummer the Internet is changing how we do things. It’s taking away much of the trial and error. I’ll leave you with this inspiration from Chang: “Out of the ashes, something awesome could happen.”