Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 15, 2010

Eating Food, Not Hype

Robert Sietsema is a man devoted to keeping his craft in the public eye and his face out of it.

Max Lakin

If Robert Sietsema is wary of seeing his near-20-year tenure as restaurant critic for the Village Voice swallowed up by some upstart blogger with a point-and-shoot, he's not letting on. He is similarly unimpressed by the city's voracious embrace of food culture, precious restaurant trends, and cult of chef celebrity.

What is clear is his reverence for his trade's well-tempered history—an almost religious enterprise marked by a lineage of unflappable New York critics such as Craig Claiborne, Gael Greene, and Ruth Reichl, and the seemingly at-odds blend of public anonymity with outspoken judgment they injected into a once-unflashy beat.

Robert Sietsema refuses to show his face to the public. Photograph by Kevin Demaria
"The immediacy of criticism means that everyone wants a thumbs up or thumbs down right away, and restaurants have little time to develop before they get nailed."

Robert Sietsema refuses to show his face to the public. Photograph by Kevin Demaria

Sietsema will not play fast and loose with the unwritten edicts of his trade: He eschews the personality cultivation endemic to new media and is deathly serious about physical anonymity, both his own and as a First Commandment of the food critic Covenant. He does, however, seem to enjoy Twitter, dispatching mostly on bands he's seeing (The New Pornographers; MGMT), with the occasional pithy critique (June 9: Ate at Seersucker this evening. It kinda seersucked.).

And of those blogs? Sietsema will tolerate them. (That he circulated a self-published food review fanzine called Down the Hatch when he moved to New York in 1978 might have inured him to their late-era novelty). He considers the current lot only a small part of a movement that has birthed artisanal ice cream, swelled greenmarket attendance, and given us over to crippling emotional investment in the winner of Top Chef—developments that have turned out scores of unlikely gourmands in the time it takes to warm the microwave meat sachets they will deny to have consumed. In the following interview, which was conducted through email and has been edited for clarity, Sietsema shares his thoughts on why we still care so much about food writing, how bloggers are failing their audience, and why your next meal should be in Sheepshead Bay.

Gelf Magazine: The gripe of many food critics is that the raft of informal or otherwise unofficiated food criticism encouraged by the Internet is a detriment to professional outlets doing real work. Do you consider all the openness and nouveau-populism entirely negative?

Robert Sietsema: No, I'm in favor of the maximum number of voices, but it makes it hard to analyze what's good and what's not.

Gelf Magazine: To pare that number down shuts the door on a lot of aspiring critics. It also concentrates the number of voices speaking which are, in a sense, diluting the conversation. Do you think pre-web dining was preferential? Is there a Third Way?

Robert Sietsema: We're in the Age of Foodism—it's a bubble, a fad. Someday soon something else will come along that excites the popular attention, and interest in food blogs will wither.
I like the web and live on it. You've got to take what you're given, media-wise, and turn it into Shinola.

Gelf Magazine: Writing about the food blog Eater for the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year, you say "Whether a meal was eaten for free by a reviewer who'd announced his presence beforehand, or according to principles of professionalism and anonymity, is of no concern…The site captures the culinary zeitgeist of our era, with its mixture of lively gossip and real-estate reporting." What do you say to someone like Josh Ozersky, who insisted to the Observer last year that "there is no way that you can really know the current state of gastronomy just by going around and eating meals. You need to talk to chefs and find out what they're thinking about and what turns them on"?

Robert Sietsema: He's full of it. Chefs may be his false gods, but not mine. The quote is self-serving, because he's the one always cadging free meals, so he doesn't know if what he gets is what the common person on the street is getting when it comes to restaurant food. I like Josh tremendously and I've known him for years. He's a good writer, but, like all writers (including me) he's limited by his perspective and methods.

Gelf Magazine: How does blogging affect the restaurant business? Have you seen a marked change in the way places open and operate?

Robert Sietsema: Not just blogging, but the immediacy of criticism means that everyone wants a thumbs up or thumbs down right away, and restaurants have little time to develop before they get nailed. It has created a boom and bust cycle for restaurants in which—to paraphrase Warhol—every restaurant is famous for just 15 minutes. If you want to eat at a place over a period of years and see how it develops—good luck!

Gelf Magazine: So do you think then a restaurant's buzz carries more with eaters than what shows up on their plates?

Robert Sietsema: There are a certain number of people eating hype rather than eating actual food, but most people I know have discerning palates that respond to food rather than food promotion.

Gelf Magazine: How about the next fad? I've got to believe chefs are just about exhausted trying to gussy up fast food—apparently we're in the midst of an age of sandwich enlightenment, or something. I'd like to think we can start progressing as a food city again.

Robert Sietsema: It's just that 99% of the media are content to cover 1% of the food. There's plenty of stuff happening out there that the media never covers. The amount of food excitement available at any given time might just be a constant.

Gelf Magazine: Who's doing things you like that we're not hearing about, and, perhaps more important, why aren't we?

Robert Sietsema: African restaurants are still largely ignored, and so is anything that's not in a wealthy or hipster neighborhood. When's the last time Sam Sifton did something in Sheepshead Bay? Yet there are dozens of perfectly good and even excellent restaurants there. Basically, most publications cover only those neighborhoods that meet their effete sense of demographics.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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