Vulnerable to the same currents of change as the rest of the news industry, food journalism is undergoing a transformation just as other genresalthough it's a part of the press that's getting a lot less press. As so many have access to a camera, a computer, and a food palate, an increasing number of people have been writing about food on the web. A new blog crops up every day, a new voice digesting some part of the food worldbe it the new hottest restaurant, a little known delicacy, the usage of kale, or the pizza shop down the street that you always thought smelled funky but actually has the best calzones.
Alex Vallis is one of the many sniffing out the best food in New York City. A self-professed lover of food who was particularly inspired while living in France for a year in college, Vallis has climbed the food-journalism ranks, starting off as an intern at Saveur, working as an assistant food editor for New York magazine, and landing a New York editor position at NBC's new FEAST food blog.
"Don't call something the Best Pizza in New York if you've only tried pies in your neighborhood."
Vallis considers her primary role to be "a person who studies food and reports on restaurants and chefs," and loves that food journalism constantly drives her to try new things. In the following interview, conducted via email and edited for clarity, Vallis talks about the changes in food journalism and how far she would go for her favorite meal.
Gelf Magazine: Do you remember when you realized you wanted to be a food writer?Alex Vallis: I've been motivated by a love of food since I was a kid. Then I lived in France for a year in college, which intensified my desire to work in the industry. I'd say it was as an intern at Saveur that I discovered I really wanted to write about good things to eat. The magazine was so beautiful and sincere and bridged the connection between food and culture, which is of personal interest to me.
Gelf Magazine: How did you get into the food-critic industry?
Alex Vallis: Officially, I interned at Saveur after graduating from NYU (can you believe they gave me a two-hour test for an unpaid job?I was psyched to get it, though). That's where I stockpiled some clips. From there, I freelanced for a creative-services company that worked with the Food Network, and then I started at New York magazine in 2006. At New York, I split my time between editing the online restaurant section and contributing to Grub Street.
Gelf Magazine: What is your favorite food?
Alex Vallis: In the summer, fish tacos, or lobster rolls. Good pizza wins in any other season.
Gelf Magazine: What has been your favorite topic to cover, be it restaurant, cookbook, chef, or food item?
Alex Vallis: Since starting at Feast, Sixpoint's rooftop garden. I'm a fan of the urban green-roof movement.
Gelf Magazine: How far are you willing to travel for your favorite food? What lengths have you gone to for your favorite food?
Alex Vallis: Well, traveling is all about budget (and time off). I would do anything to travel the globe and eator even just go back to Paris this week and devour a roast chicken from the market with a bag of pommes dauphine plus a gougère the size of my fist, some chocolate macarons, a vanilla eclair. In terms of local eats, I have access to a car, so nothing is too far. Sripraphai gets regular visits.
Gelf Magazine: How do you reconcile your personal tastes with what you can predict other people's are when you review food?
Alex Vallis: I think being a good taster and reviewer is about describing food as best as possiblewhat sounds good to me might not sound good to you, and vice versa. That's pretty much why reading a review that says this is "good" or "bad" or the "best" doesn't have much use. Also, when I taste high-quality ingredients combined in a balanced way, I can acknowledge that a dish is well done even if it's not my favorite style of cooking. Too salty, unseasoned, muddy, flavorless, low-quality meatthese are criticisms that transcend likes and dislikes anyway.
Gelf Magazine: Do you find it difficult to go out and eat for pleasure without subconsciously reviewing the food or restaurant?
Alex Vallis: Not really, since I'm always thinking and talking about what I'm eating, and that's also what I find pleasurable.
Gelf Magazine: What are the essential differences between a food blogger and food critic?
Alex Vallis: There are all sorts of bloggers. Some review restaurants, some cover restaurant news, and others specialize in one food. At the moment, I consider critics the handful of experts who file regular restaurant reviews for established publications. Interestingly enough, if a blogger wants to be a critic and just review restaurants, that person (if s/he doesn't make a hullabaloo about being at the restaurant) has the opportunity to be more anonymous than any of the city's working critics, who practically walk around with signs on.
Gelf Magazine: In your opinion, what website really set the tone and set off this series of food blogging?
Alex Vallis: Eater was the first on the scene to incite obsessing over restaurant minutiae, but there are so many different sites now that are expanding the nature of food journalism.
Gelf Magazine: What qualifies you or anyone as a food critic?
Alex Vallis: Critics should understand food in its contextmeaning, don't call something the Best Pizza in New York if you've only tried pies in your neighborhood. Also, people should probably want to know what you have to say.
Gelf Magazine: What are your favorite food websites? What do you think they bring to the table?
Alex Vallis: Serious Eats and the Atlantic are my two favorites. Serious Eats is just a drool-worthy site. The food photography by Robyn Lee is exquisite and the writing exudes palpable enthusiasm over the subject. It's rarely negative: The focus is showing the best of what the city has to offer. They spotlight new things but also aren't held down by having to be newsy, just delicious. The Atlantic does longer pieces and often touches on food politics, so I like to see what the contributors are writing about.
Gelf Magazine: What are your favorite food blogs? What do you like about them?
Alex Vallis: I like Eat Me Daily because it came out of left field and is really witty and quirky. I'm not sure it appeals to the mainstream but I like to browse it for fun stories. Recently, they covered the Queen of England's gift of a giant crown made of cheese, and today there's a history of Chef Boyardee. I love The Girl Who Ate Everything because they have Robyn Lee's photos. I need to feed my sweet tooth from time to time and Blondie & Brownie does just that: I like sweets; they like sweets.
Gelf Magazine: Would you say that the prevalent food blogs are an existential threat to food critics?
Alex Vallis: No, I think online food buzz does a good job of averaging out general reception and the Feast Rank helps make that even more clear to people trying to learn more about a restaurant. But I don't think food critics will disappear just as I can't imagine that film critics would. We all have the critics we align ourselves with or agree with or just like to read. A certain critic's taste may be closer to your own than the averaged-out thoughts on a place. There's nothing to stop critics from blogging, so I think the lines can get muddied, but there's a place for formal criticism. I was at Prime Meats the other night and a waiter said that people came into the restaurant the afternoon after Sam Sifton's recent review came out, review in hand, and had lunch. People still care.
Gelf Magazine: What was your goal in getting involved with Feast, both personally and for the website?
Alex Vallis: I believe in the site and think there's a place for a website that helps readers figure out where to eat while showing the people and ideas that make these restaurants so good.
Gelf Magazine: What do you think is Feast's best feature?
Alex Vallis: Our standout feature is the Feast Rankthe first word and final score on New York's restaurant scenean algorithm that rates restaurants based on reviews and ratings culled from across the internet, from New York Times reviews to blogs.
Gelf Magazine: How did you foresee Feast changing food coveragebe it through blogging or being a critic?
Alex Vallis: No other site makes sense of ratings across the entire world of food coverage and gives you an easy-to-digest snapshot of a restaurant. We're like Rotten Tomatoes for restaurants.
Gelf Magazine: Have you ever had an experience where being a food critic has gotten you in trouble with friends? Perhaps criticizing a dinner party or a dish?
Alex Vallis: I'm always talking about food, so I'm sure that gets old, but I would never be so rude as to hurt someone's feelings at a party because I'm such a food snob I can't hold my tongue. Wait until you get home to criticize food at a dinner party or keep it to yourself. Florence Fabricant could tell you that.
Gelf Magazine: How would you advice a food blogger aiming for the top of the pack?
Alex Vallis: Do your research, meaning, know what you're talking about. I think people try to brush off bloggers as unqualified, but if you cook and study a subject or report on it fairly, then you can break out of that stereotype.