Friday, May 15, 2009

a spirited defense of amateurism and in-group cliqueishness

This negative review of Thomas Keller's restaurant Per Se by Ezra Klein was meant to invite the blog drama. My favorite comment, by a chef:

As for the dissing of the IFA, I must say that most of my hate wasn’t directed as Ezra. However, I do think that this isn’t a typical blog. Many of the writers are known for their work in other spheres, which gives them a certain influence that must be used carefully. It’s foolish to think that people who have no clue about food don’t read this blog even though they may read the IFA writers’ other blogs. Ben Miller and Amanda Mattos, for example, have posted utter nonsense, and are NOT good cooks. Yet the name of the blog, and the blogging cred of some of its contributors, pumps up the value of this blog in a dishonest way. As a chef, I know that uninformed bloggers can have a distorting effect that is bad for the food industry. People are fetishizing food and chefs instead of understanding the basic theories of cooking and the proper metrics by which to evaluate food. Blogs like this only increase this problem. When I read Ezra Klein saying oysters and pearls’ only value is in its outrageous luxury, it’s a little annoying to those of us that understand how brilliantly balanced and refined that dish is on so many levels. I’m not saying food isn’t for everyone. I just wish people would get some experience and really build a sound knowledge base before starting a blog.

Seriously. Stop the recipes. Stop posting so much. Take a step back. Learn from people who know how to cook. And focus on your other blogs, which are much more interesting. Don’t be like Noam Chomsky, who is a great linguist but a terrible political analyst.

Oh, and it’s spelled PALATE, not palette.

Well, I also like this zinger:

You all, while a step above average, are amateurs. You aren’t great cooks. You have posts deriding Per Se that don’t get Per Se. You have articles about how overrated ramps are. Another talks about making ricotta, but it isn’t about ricotta. The recipes are pedestrian. Your claim to fame seems to be an overuse of dried red pepper flakes.

Yet you write as if you know what you are talking about. You “almost” aren’t qualified to criticize Per Se? What remotely qualifies you to review any restaurant, let alone that restaurant, let alone after but one visit?

I am not saying you aren’t a true critic simply because you don’t like Per Se. You may life and love and hate as you wish. But you need to understand before you write about it.

This whole enterprise makes me question if you know what you are talking about in your day job’s blog. I sure hope so. For the record, I read several IFA author’s primary blogs and other writings and I love you guys. But while you might be into food, you aren’t real cooks or proper critics. Stick to what you [hopefully] know.

Kate Steadman, a fellow Internet Food Association blogger, offers this spirited defense:

So Ezra wrote a post about Per Se and obviously pushed some buttons. But these comments ripping the blog about being amateurish just completely miss the point of this endeavor.

The IFA was started because a close group of friends were getting increasingly obsessed with cooking and food. We thought it would be fun to work on a new blog — a place to write because “we are united by a shared recognition that all those things suck, and we’d much rather talk about food.”

Not a single contributor to this blog is a chef. This is the internet – you know, that wonderful place where we don’t have to be a professional to talk about what we love. I have an amazing day job — health policy is my proverbial bread and butter — but little compares to the creativity, satisfaction and generosity that’s part of being a home cook.

I’m young. I’ve only been cooking on my own for five years, and new disasters and revelations appear everyday. But it’s absolutely ridiculous to say: “the IFA, while amusing, is all very amateurish.” DUH.

This blog is about our love of food. It’s our thoughts on restaurants, ingredients. We never claimed to be chefs.

But that’s the point — most people aren’t chefs. Most people have the same experiences — they went to that crazy expensive restaurant and felt underwhelmed. They messed up meatballs. Protests of “you’re amateurs” are entertaining at best.

Also, you’ve never tasted anything Amanda Mattos and Ben Miller have made. They’re both amazing cooks, and more than that — they are each one of the most warm, kind, hilarious, creative and giving persons you could ever know. So back off.

Take that, you blogospheric bullies and meanies. And your mom, too! I admit, I was highly amused by these exchanges. But I am a bad person. Far be it from me to get on my high horse about writing about things on which you are not expert. I rarely blog about my actual areas of expertise, nowadays!

Occasionally, I like the IFA. Like this post, on how pretension is the enemy of the good, especially in food policy. I will refrain from making any comments about the expertise/amateurness of these self-proclaimed self-trained journalist "policy wonks," because that's a bit below the belt. Maybe they are! So maybe their other writings demonstrate a greater amount of expertise and thoughtfulness. But they themselves profess to have no expert knowledge about food or cooking, and so I'll leave it at that. What do you all think? Do you need to be an expert in order to express an intelligent opinion that can be accepted as a type of authority by another? What if you profess to have some measure of better than average knowledge such that you will impart such knowledge onto grateful readers, to "help you cook"? What if no matter what, you sound like a tool who thinks that cooking "should" be complicated, take a long time, and be competitive? Okay, that last bit was mean. No pejorative epithets in happy la la Law and Letters land. I just think it's funny. Then again, most of the recipes I post here are along the lines of "what to cook if you are busy working all day" and "use canned broth, it's faster."