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Should Chefs Care About What Food Writers Think?

Last Friday, Eater attended a private dinner at Night+Market. During the meal, over generally polite conversation, a Los Angeles-based chef with multiple restaurants told a table full of restaurant industry types that he doesn't care what bloggers, food writers or Yelpers think of his restaurants. He said he didn't care what bloggers wrote, that he never reads "Eater or other blogs" and doesn't "care about [writers'] opinions" whether they wrote for a blog or a magazine. He clarified by saying that his "job was to cook, and make good food." Not long after the exchange, a guest at the table pointed out that this same chef employed a public relations firm.

Chefs are craftsmen; some might even call them artists. Should chefs — like some actors, directors, novelists, and other artists — ignore their critics? In this age of real-time social media, can chefs afford to disregard Yelpers and bloggers? Should they also ignore traditional food writers in an effort to focus on their work? We posed the question to several food writers and chefs. See what they think, below, and leave your own two cents in the comments.

The Writers:

elina-quote2.jpgElina Shatkin, former restaurant critic and blogger at LA Weekly, current Senior Editor at Los Angeles Magazine: "On a purely pragmatic level, most chefs need to consider what writers, bloggers, and Yelpers think because those dialogues can influence their bottom line. Almost no one is above caring, and I don't believe chefs and restaurateurs who claim they are. (The same goes for writers. We sometimes pretend we don't care about negative comments. We do.) But as with anything else, you have to consider the source. Few restaurants will fail because of one bad review and fewer critics have the power to singlehandedly sink a restaurant. That's a good thing. Where it gets tricky, especially online, is the wealth of misinformation, stupidity, and general meanness that abounds. You can't please everyone; attempting to do so is a sure path to mediocrity. But it's important to listen to even our most vociferous critics and ask: Is there any truth at all to what they're saying? In practical terms: Listen with an open mind but grow a thick skin."

Krista Simmons, Judge on Top Chef Masters, Food Editor at LAist: "There may be chefs out there that say they cook for themselves, and that they don't care about what people say about their food. If you were doing this solely for yourself, then you'd be holed up in your studio cooking alongside your cat and a bottle of Eagle Rare. It's all about sharing your passion and talent with customers through the business of hospitality. Whether you are cooking to nurture, to create a unique sensory experience, or to champion some sort of agricultural or political cause, you can't do it without someone actually eating your food. Writers — both digital and print — use their voice to inform our city's citizens and help bring those people in, and most of these writers are paying customers, too. Each writer and site has their own style, and you don't have to like every last one of us, just as we don't have to obsess over every single dish you cook. And if there's ever a moment where you might feel we're overly-passionate or too agressive in our approach, please remember we're trying to do our jobs — just as you do — day in and day out."

Christina Xenos, Editor "Considering that the food media is the front line between the part of the public that wants to research where to eat, and their restaurant, I think they should definitely take the media's perspective into consideration. While details can be embellished depending on the source/situation, if chefs/restaurateurs notice particular issues (or praises) coming up consistently, that's a pretty good indication that they're either doing something extremely wrong (or right). I guess they could embrace it as free market research."

Jeff Miller, Editor, Thrillist LA: "Do I think that they should care? Yes — but only in that they should care what anyone eating at their restaurant thinks of their restaurants. Like any business, restaurateurs should (and usually do) want to deliver the best experience possible for all their patrons. If the food or service or experience is good, people will tell their network, no matter how big or small it is; likewise, if it's not so good, word will spread. I think it's in the chef/restaurateur's best interest to deliver the experience closest to the experience they'd like if they were patrons in their own restaurant."

Joshua Lurie, Food GPS: "Hopefully chefs are open to feedback, whether it's from a customer, critic, blogger or Yelper. Of course it's up to the chef to decide whether that criticism is constructive or valid, and whether it will improve the experience they're delivering, or whether it's just somebody sniping."

kelly-quote2.jpgKelly Bone, writer at Serious Eats: "To restaurants I say: Always consider sound advice, but only follow your instincts. Ideally, Chefs cook for the people. Food writers/bloggers are members of "the people" who offer their opinions — publicly. If a restaurant is struggling, then they may find wisdom in the public forum. But if they are doing well, what does it matter?
Chefs should ignore Yelp. Always. Although I still Yelp from time to time, I don't consider that information for the establishment. If a problem arises or something is wonderful, address it at the moment, not on some semi-anonymous sounding board."

Esther Tseng of the blog, e*Star LA: "Yes, chefs should care what is being written of and about them but as with everything, with a grain of salt and to different degrees. You can't realistically be in the food and beverage industry without being receptive at some point to the feedback that's out there. On the same note, you have to consider the source. The customer isn't always right, anymore – sometimes they're just some customer who's difficult to serve and feels entitled because they're going to Yelp about it, later, and add to their 1500 reviews that include Target and their neighboring gas station. I don't think chefs care about people who spend too much time hiding behind their computer and internet to really know the nuances and challenges of the service industry. Of course, the higher credibility of writers at magazines, newspapers is and should be weighted more. The weight of blogs, I think, run the gamut so it depends... some write with an agenda more than others. In the end, there's constructive criticism and there's non-constructive criticism, and I think chefs know the difference between both."

The Chefs:

kris-quote2.jpgKris Morningstar, Executive Chef, Ray's and Stark Bar, Patina Group: "I think it is a mixed bag. I remember at Blue Velvet a customer complained about the fact that they ordered ocean trout and came out looking pink like salmon. Hello! Ocean trout is pink and does look like salmon or Arctic char. Why write your opinion when you clearly don't know your food or care to inform yourself before writing something stupid? That being said, a lot of these reviews give you a chance to reach out to people that did not have an ideal experience, and you can try try to win them back as customers. But add to that the people that use yelp to get a free meal out of it. Even worse are the customers that you identify as having challenges in service while they are still there. You go above and beyond to make them happy. Comp or give extra wine.. A small plate, etc. and after that and they seem happy they still go and yelp about it. You can't really win, but there are times you can win customers using it as a tool. Bloggers ... everybody wants people to like their food but everybody has different opinions. For example I was at Pebble Beach this weekend and walking to booths with a food writer, and some we things we both agreed were great, some things we thought differently about. You can't please everybody. But blogs and yelp can be a measure of how often you're doing things well."

Michael Fiorelli, Chef mar'sel Restaurant, Rancho Palos Verdes: "As a chef you have no choice but to be cognoscent of the effects that writers and bloggers can have not only on your restaurant but your personal reputation. It's unfortunate though that there is no way to discern the credibility of someone who may be posting a review. So many people these days call themselves bloggers or reviewers and they have zero food, beverage or service acumen. It's become somewhat of a hobby for frustrated restauratuers. My job is to offer the best possible experience I can to every guest that dines in my restaurants. In that regard it's easy. Inspire my staff to cook the best possible food and offer genuine service. After that, it's out of my hands. That philosophy has worked pretty well for me so far. Although there are still those people whom I've never met who seem to hate me on Yelp."

jason-quote2.jpgJason Travi, Executive Chef, littlefork: "I personally don't read yelp or many blogs. My partners, on the other hand, do this so that what is written about us is discussed. For me that works out the best, my partners filter out any nonsense and we just deal with anything that may be important. Also I'm a big baby and can't take criticism well."

Jason Fullilove, Executive Chef, LACMA: "I personally feel that you have to balance responding to grievances and following your heart. When you cook, you're expressing yourself. Your approach to cooking is personal, it's your art and it won't always be for everybody. At the same time, if you're noticing a recurring theme in comments and complaints, you may need to take note. However, I also feel the internet can be a bit like the Wild Wild West. Just straight unmonitored anarchy at times. For instance, I will never forget the time a women went to a restaurant I had left and had a really bad experience. She proceeded to go on line and look me up. She says in her review that she knew I was no longer at the restaurant, but proceeded to blame me for her bad experience anyway. Then went off on a tangent about me. Thank you Yelp user Shelly O. thank you!!! That was hilarious. Those type of remarks should be taken as entertaining and nothing else."

Laurent Quenioux, Executive Chef, Vertical Wine Bar, Pasadena: "Overall, yes, I think so... bloggers/yelpers/writers are an essential part of what we do. But I strongly feel that most of the folks that read them are foodies, and industry people - and we all know that is not the clientele that will keep your restaurant afloat for the next 10 years! You need to keep doing what you do best and with time you will gain the reputation you need ... My style of food is not for everyone, and I would rather be in the kitchen creating, finding new and better products, spend time with farmers, researching incredible, exciting new products, and spending time with my peers. But, we offer a service to the public and while we cannot please everyone, we have to try. Sometime folks don't get it or understand what we're trying to do, so writers can help explain it, too. The problem I have is about boundaries ... What/who defines good service vs. bad service for each individual (bloggers, yelpers, food critics)? Obviously (especially in LA) some writers are totally biased: the chef is cute, the waiters are sexy, the GM has a bad reputation, etc. I think we are lacking transparency."

kerry-quote2.jpgKerry Simon, LA Market, numerous properties in NY and Las Vegas: "It's an interesting question, it's very complicated. You have to pay attention to feedback from all of your guests. If they don't tell you in the restaurant, you have to find out if they've put it elsewhere. I think you have to be open minded about it. If someone writes about a service problem at the bar, you have to find out if there's truth to it. I listen to customers all over, all writers, all bloggers, all critics. I think it's interesting to watch some chefs battle it out; it's kind of amusing. But, it's part of our business now. Sometimes you're doing something that's not working out quite right, or it wasn't executed in the way you were thinking, so it's good to have that influence out there. Your customers are going to talk to you any way that they can. Artistically, they're not changing me. But it's important to make sure they're happy."

Alex Reznik, Top Chef Season 7: "This is one of those conversations that people have been talking about a lot. I know a lot of chefs say they don't care but they go home and read all of it. I personally think as a business operator it's important to understand what your guests have experienced in your restaurant. In this day of technology, yes bloggers and yelpers can make or brake a business. So I encourage my guests to go ahead and tell their friends about their experience. The unfortunate side is the guests that are disgruntled for whatever reason and can lie or exaggerate their dining experience. I have had guests make up items that they ate that we don't carry or days they ate that we have been closed. It is also unfortunate that they can be cruel to employees that don't deserve it. Many bloggers and yelpers have been hard on what the hostess was wearing or her intelligence based on the fact that they had to wait for a table."

Neal Fraser, Chef/Owner, BLD, Fritzi Dog, Redbird (forthcoming); consulting chef, The Strand House: "Yes. I feel it's very important. Why? Because the bloggers and food writers are our customers. We are out to please."

·All Open Threads [~ELA~]