The Face Of Anonymity

Keep Dallas Observer Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Dallas and help keep the future of Dallas Observer free.

Few issues trouble those outside the professional food writing industry as much as anonymity--or the lack thereof.

Critics themselves have long ago exhausted the topic, although it still comes up in our conversations from time to time. Some hope against the odds for complete anonymity. Others, including at least one national magazine writer, don't mind announcing their visits long in advance. The rest of us have resigned ourselves to the reality of being discovered--eventually--no matter how hard we strive for concealment.

Yes, we've discussed this subject here already. Each time a restaurant critic appears at a dining event or hobnobs at some gathering, however, it rouses consternation amongst the concerned public. When a chef or server recognizes a critic it discredits any subsequent review, or so they believe.

So let's walk through those realities one more time.

Anonymity is a tenuous thing, at best. In this market we all try to achieve it at some level. But, depending upon the publication, the critic may have other duties--feature writing, for example--that occasionally interfere. As budgets tighten, critics sometimes end up covering news, in addition to the normal run of restaurant visits. Blogging creates new problems, such as phoning up chefs for a 10 Questions session. We can limit our public appearances, of course. But as visits pile up and food service personnel move from one venue to another, it becomes ever more difficult to hide...at least from those determined to uncover our identities.

Certainly you know the general rules by now: no photographs (although sometimes that can't be controlled...and some credible people even double-cross you after swearing not to post party pics), fake names, etc. Even so, anonymity often boils down to using a nom de plume, trying not to call attention to yourself and hoping no one notices.

That's how it gets defined over time: If they don't know you're coming, they can't prepare.

But anonymity isn't the real concern. If they do spot you sitting down for dinner, what really changes? Better service? Well, that's pretty easy for a critic to figure out. Freebies? We're reimbursed for meals already. Better cooking? Yeah, the chef may take over for one of his or her line cooks--if the chef isn't too rusty for such duty--but it's not as if they can suddenly learn to saute or call their purveyor for instant delivery of a better cut of meat.

No, the real concern voiced by some of the wiser critics of critic behavior runs more along the lines of friendships between cooks and writers--and it's a valid one. There are, after all, amateur writers out there in the online world who put their chef buddy on a pedestal while ignoring word of that person's sleazier activities.

This is where the word "professional" comes into play--hopefully, anyway. To reiterate something I mentioned in a previous post, most of us understand that we have no true friends in the industry. People are nice to us, yes. They are generally nice in that annoying "PR" sense of the word, however, so you grow immune to it...though it can be fun to babble about sports, war movies or even politics when you know the other person is cringing inside.

If real friendliness develops, most of us also understand the requirements of our job: to be honest and accurate, no matter whether we like a chef--or despise a chef, for that matter. It's like that scene in North Dallas Forty where Charles Durning yells something to the effect of "you're professionals; you don't have to like each other to play together."

In the food critic world, professionalism means a willingness (and ability) to put your feelings aside, to tear your best friend apart in print and be kind to your worst enemy, again in print. But only if they deserve it.

And if they deserve an 'eh, it's alright.' You give them that, as well.

Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.