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The Face Of Anonymity

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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.

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