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The Future Of Food Critics

Sep 4, 2018
Originally published on September 4, 2018 6:17 pm
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Years before Anthony Bourdain traveled the world on his culinary adventures, Jonathan Gold wrote stories about the fancy restaurants and taco stands in Los Angeles. The recent deaths of both men have left the world of food journalism bereft. NPR's Mandalit del Barco explores how some news outlets are rethinking their restaurant reviews in their wake.

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MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: There was a DJ and taco trucks at a public tribute to Jonathan Gold in downtown LA. Among the chefs who paid their respect were Sang Yoon from Lukshon and Michael Cimarusti from Providence - two of Gold's favorite restaurants.

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SANG YOON: He gave equal importance and paid equal respect to the white tablecloths in Beverly Hills and the food vendors hustling the streets of Boyle Heights.

MICHAEL CIMARUSTI: And within the context of his reviews, he addressed issues of class, the #MeToo movement, cultural appropriation and sustainability.

DEL BARCO: Gold's Pulitzer Prize-winning reviews set a new standard. Now, the mission of food reviewers is to relate cuisine to larger issues says Carolina Miranda. The LA Times staff writer who covers art and architecture hosted the tribute. She says all critics should be thinking this way.

CAROLINA MIRANDA: People don't want mannerist little reviews about the painting or the shrimp ceviche or the building. I think what they want are stories that show how these things connect to the world.

DEL BARCO: Gold's death leaves a void at the LA Times - also at KCRW's Good Food program where he was a regular. Host Evan Kleiman says it's impossible to replace him.

EVAN KLEIMAN: I suspect that it will be teams of people. I don't know how you do the job these days with one person.

DEL BARCO: The New York Times is expanding its team coverage of food. The paper is hiring for its recipe site and now has a restaurant critic in Australia. And for the first time, they'll base a restaurant critic in California. Food Editor Sam Sifton says it's an effort to cater to readers outside the state and the country and an acknowledgment that the food world is bigger than New York.

SAM SIFTON: The notion 60 or so years ago that, you know, there are 400 restaurants that matter in the world and that they all have white tablecloths - that's all gone. We're on a rising tide toward, like, a high watermark for excellence in restaurants across the globe.

DEL BARCO: Sifton says the reviewers will continue to mask their identities, reserving tables and using credit cards under false names.

SIFTON: We engage in the kind of lightly Jason Bourne-esque (ph) endeavor of trying to not draw attention to ourselves as much as possible.

DEL BARCO: But in the age of social media, remaining secret may prove a challenge for The New York Times' new California critic, Tejal Rao. Not only did she write for The Village Voice and has won James Beard Awards, but she's also cooked in restaurants. The fact that she's a woman of color is a welcome sign for many. The New York Times isn't saying exactly how she'll cover the state or where she'll be based, but if she's in Northern California, she'll have a rival in whoever takes over at the San Francisco Chronicle. Food critic Michael Bauer is retiring this month after 32 years.

PAOLO LUCCHESI: For the most part, it's probably fair to say he's stayed with the higher-end restaurants.

DEL BARCO: Food editor Paolo Lucchesi says he hopes the new critic will do that and more.

LUCCHESI: We're looking for someone who can really explore the politics of caviar, or any other issue, in addition to sing the virtues of sourdough. We want a critic who can talk about culture and politics.

DEL BARCO: Lucchesi is now interviewing candidates to replace Bauer, casting a wide net, reaching out to food bloggers and other writers in the Bay Area and beyond. When the LA Times begins to search for new food writers, editors may want to consider someone Jonathan Gold mentored.

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DEL BARCO: Javier Cabral is writing a cookbook for the celebrated Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza. The 29-year-old is an editor and writer for a new alternative online newspaper, L.A. Taco. He says he started out a food-obsessed Mexican-American teenager from east LA.

JAVIER CABRAL: I was a punk kid who listened to punk music, and I was just like, man, why don't I try to get paid to eat like Jonathan Gold does? Like, that's the most punk rock thing you can do.

DEL BARCO: When Cabral was 16, he wrote a fan letter to Jonathan Gold. He eventually became Gold's restaurant scout. Cabral offers this advice to LA's next food critic.

CABRAL: Just to know your city, know that California was part of Mexico, know that this city is in flux right now, and it's changing because of all the international money coming in, know about the problems that plight (ph) the city, like homelessness, drugs, traffic. All these topics are really important in a restaurant review.

DEL BARCO: Cabral says a good food critic also needs to be an evocative ethical journalist with passion and respect. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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