Much to my delight, boorish foodies have officially made the news. In last week's Maclean's, Jessica Allen describes what restaurants contend with now that people can publicly whine during their meal in real time about perceived problems with the food, or their eating experience, via Twitter.
Allen tells the tale of Amy Lu, a Toronto food blogger. Anticipating a great meal at a luxury hotel, she expressed her excitement to her 650-plus Twitter followers, but things changed even before she sat down at the table. Unlike, say, at Walmart, nobody greeted Lu when she walked in. When she presented a voucher, she thought her server was condescending. A modern-day Solzhenitsyn, she publicly stood up for her principles: "Wow...I'm not impressed with the service so far...It better be good or bad review from me."
The hotel saw her tweet immediately, the two parties met, and they had a civilized dialogue where an understanding was reached. "Thanks so much for finding me and helping me improve my experience here," Lu Tweeted afterwards, magnanimously looking past the ugly episode...after receiving a complimentary luxury spa voucher from the restaurant.
This is not an isolated incident. The article also describes a professional writer who was kicked out of a restaurant for negatively Tweeting about it during his meal. Sadly, this wonderful response seems to be as rare as it is heroic. Generally, if someone uses social media to complain about a restaurant, however unwarranted their dissatisfaction, the restaurant, not surprisingly, tries to restore their image by giving out perks to this nefarious foodie, thereby rewarding this tasteless, tacky, and entitled display! And from the readers perspective, how can bloggers like Lu objectively report on the service if she consciously interferes with it?
I spoke with a few people in the restaurant industry who all became visibly excited when describing how common it is for the perpetrators of food blogs to expect better treatment than ordinary, blogless patrons. In other words, a lack of shame and social media has combined to create two classes of restaurant goer, a type of gastronomic apartheid.
This gives a bad name to dedicated food writers and food writing in general. Without trying to, the casual food blogger can be flippant and cause a lot of harm to restaurants, whereas professional critics write their reviews after going to the restaurant twice. Anyone can have a bad day, from servers to cooks to the reviewer himself. Pro critics' meals are expensed, allowing them to experience and write about the full menu without financial worry. I understand that amateur food bloggers spend their own money, and they go out to eat whenever a new place opens, but their blog is not to be used as a coupon. To expect preferential treatment is just plain trashy.
The industry people I spoke to described how unpleasant it can be when they know they're serving bloggers. It feels like they're being inspected. Because eating out a lot is expensive, bloggers frequently eschew drinks, second courses, and generally tip less. I heard complaint that sometimes servers get singled out for perceived faults on Twitter, then get in trouble from their boss. This is evil, but perhaps worst of all, they sit at the table distracted, Tweeting and taking pictures of the food in poor lighting that aren't always flattering, even if they're eventually uploaded in the "food porn" category.
The servers I spoke to charmingly appealed to the lofty notion of the restaurant, a place for having fun eating great food with great company in a relaxed atmosphere. They resent the foodie bloggers checklist mentality. These foodies don't experience the restaurant properly, and this upsets passionate servers. This irony is worth dwelling on. Those who Tweet about the food mid-meal are like speed readers rushing through classic literature in order to proclaim it's been read. I'd rather savour something that I love, rather than document it.
This doesn't only violate the spirit of eating out, but it's unfair to give an impression of the restaurant until the meal is done. Recall from Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility. These bloggers aren't hobbyists painting model air planes in their garage. Rightly or wrongly, they can be influential. The notoriously perilous restaurant business deserves more than a frivolous, amateur review from someone who likely hasn't worked in a kitchen.
As we all know, the Internet demands no credentials. Oscar Wilde said, "All bad poetry is sincere." Where poetry is an obscure hobby, eating is anything but. Everyone's doing it. Do the math: the amount of people who eat food greatly exceeds the number of valuable food opinions. Passion isn't enough.
The foodie blogger frequently admits they're driven by their love of food, and they don't necessarily have a sophisticated palette or a deep knowledge of it. The writing is not always bad, but utilitarian. So long as there are no ghastly typos, their needs are met. They don't find these shortcomings problematic. In other words, they bring nothing to the table, they just eat from it. Anybody can do that. But it must be remembered that bloggers can crush a restaurant. I am sorry for the good food writers who are unfairly lumped in this category. They deserve better, but I have no sympathy for the boorish hacks.
If you have a passion for food, by all means, eat! Eating rituals separates us from the animals, Eumaeus from the suitors. But either the casual food writer should begin taking their work more seriously, or they can make a privately heroic decision and refrain from publishing altogether.
The reticent foodie is a noble creature.