When restaurateur Noah Ellis decided to shoot a photo of longtime L.A. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila and post it on restaurant Red Medicine's Tumblr yesterday, he broke a mostly unspoken code among chefs and the men and women who eat their food and then either throw some stars at them or maybe serve up a little vitriol on the side. It's the "we'll pretend we don't know who you are; you pretend you're just a regular customer" dance that chefs and critics do, sometimes more successfully than others.
According to the report on Eater, Ellis claimed Virbilia's "unnecessarily cruel and irrational" reviews . . . have caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs. . . We didn't want her reviewing us. . . .Our purpose for posting [the photo] is so that all restaurants can have a picture of her and make a decision as to whether or not they would like to serve her."
Agree or disagree about the outing of Ms. Virbila? We caught up with Village Voice critic (and Slashfood contributor) Robert Sietsema to hear his thoughts on what it means to catch a critic. Read on after the jump.
Slashfood: Do most restaurants truly have your pictures in their kitchens? And what happens when you get recognized by staff?
Sietsema: It's a giant pain. Either the restaurant kisses your ass and bugs the hell out of you by offering free dishes "from the chef" and hovering, or -- in much rarer cases, they don't let you on the premises.
Slashfood: How often do you get recognized when you're out?
Sietsema: Very rarely, and usually because it's my own fault.
Slashfood: Is what happened to Virbila every critic's nightmare? And how do you feel about the ethics of what this restaurateur did?
Sietsema: I think Virbila has built up a lot of goodwill over the years. (I'm saying this without knowing all the details of her career, though. The L.A. critic I watch more closely is Jonathan Gold.) This sort of nasty behavior on the part of the restaurant indicates both their uncertainty about the quality of their own food, and also a general refusal on their part to "play the game," and accept whatever licks are in store for them, critically speaking. Now, just let them try to kick out all the yelpers and chowhounds and bloggers that diss them!
Slashfood: Do you think recognition also depends on how unusual or eccentric-looking a critic is naturally (not when they're dressed in disguise, as former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl is famous for doing).
Sietsema: The question is not how distinctive a critic looks, but can a restaurant afford to devote time and energy to always being on the alert for the critics, and hiring enough staff so that there will never be an "off night" or "off meal."