Anonymous food critics dine with stealth-like secrecy, making reservations and paying for meals under credit cards with fake names. Some go to extremes, wearing disguises, hats, wigs, glasses or elaborate costumes. Others dine unencumbered, but excuse themselves to take copious notes in the bathroom so they can document the details of their experience without raising suspicion. Critics say it is necessary for them to dine anonymously for ethical reasons and so they are able to have a “normal” dining experience without receiving any preferential treatment. But it is quite a game of charades.
Would You Like to Dance?
Chefs, restaurant owners and wait staff know who the food critics are. Critics are pegged, sometimes before they have even walked through the door, because restaurants know their pseudonyms. Some critics will purposely arrive after their party is seated, but restaurants know what the critics’ frequent dining companions look like, too.
In more competitive markets, restaurants have pictures of local food critics posted on kitchen walls. They train their staff on how to spot them. In New York, some have even been known to place a $500 cash bounty on the heads of certain food critics, paid to sharp staff members who are the first to identify them.
Savvy service industry professionals usually do recognize diners, especially when a patron has dined in their establishment on more than one occasion. It is in their best interest for servers to know their clientele. After all, they do work for tips. Since servers also move from place to place, it doesn’t take long for a restaurant to figure out who the critics are.
But everyone goes through the motions like a well-choreographed dance. The food critic pretends to be someone they are not, the chef and their staff pretend not to know who the critic is and they repeat the steps of the dance over and over again.
Why Does Being Anonymous Matter?
The Association of Food Journalists has this to say about anonymity: “Reviews should be conducted as anonymously as possible. The goal of restaurant criticism is to experience the restaurant just as ordinary patrons do. However, true anonymity is often no longer possible. In that case, critics should engage in the practice of anonymity.”
The premise is that by having no personal ties to an establishment being reviewed, a food critic can maintain credibility and is qualified to write an unbiased review because they have no conflict of interest that would preclude them from doing so.
Food Journalism in a Digital World
Before the internet, food critics dined anonymously and that worked quite effectively. But in today’s digital age, there are cameras everywhere you go. Now, most restaurants have high-tech security cameras and the majority of people carry smart phones that have cameras built right in. So it isn’t too difficult for a restaurant to get a clear picture of a food critic if they don’t already have one.
Today, information also travels much faster than it used to. There are still people who read local papers, but the majority of us get our news from television and the internet. The digital world has brought us into the age of instant gratification. Gone are the days when the food critic for the local paper was only voice of authority on a city’s culinary scene.
We can now get food news from endless digital outlets: apps, websites, blogs, social networks, video channels, crowd-sourced and content aggregator sites. News spans the globe in a mere matter of seconds. And anyone with internet access can be a food critic if they want to.
What’s a Food Critic to Do?
There have been a number of food critics that work for high-profile publications in major markets who have recently dropped their anonymity, including Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times, Leslie Brenner of the Dallas Morning News and Adam Platt of New York Magazine, to name a few.
These critics, with the support of their publications, announced their big reveals and wrote about the reasons why they decided to drop their anonymity. In each case, the critics cited it was because they knew they were recognized frequently and it was becoming increasingly more difficult for them to dine anonymously. They also have all made statements that they will continue to make reservations under assumed names and will continue their practice in much the same way they have in the past. The only real difference is their picture will now be posted to their online profiles.
How this will change food journalism remains to be seen. Perhaps it is time for food critics to drop their anonymity. Judges and critics in other industries like travel and tourism aren’t anonymous, yet they are still able to critique from a position of ethical integrity.