No less than Jonathan Gold, the esteemed Los Angeles Timesrestaurant critic, has suggested that food now occupies the cultural airspace once devoted to music. So it follows that food critics — and food bloggers, food-source polemicists, and writers concerned with the lives of chefs — would assume the mantle once worn by rock critics. They lead a national cultural conversation, and — more to the point — they have the jobs every other journalist secretly wishes they had.
Consider: The New York Times’ Pete Wells may be the “first viral restaurant critic,” as Slate’s Isaac Chotiner suggested. Wells is certainly the most viral critic at the Times, showing food criticism’s status versus, say, movie criticism.
The Scylla to Wells’s Charybdis is Gold, who in a 2016 documentary can be seen cruising strip malls in his green Dodge truck looking for his next great Southern Thai meal. In Los Angeles, Gold is less a food critic than a civic hero. In the film, one admirer compares his literary vision of Los Angeles to Raymond Chandler’s.
The New Yorker, which began publishing a food issue annually in 2007, now overflows with food writing. Adam Gopnik, Dana Goodyear, and Bill Buford have collected the smudged napkins discarded by A.J. Liebling and Calvin Trillin. The magazine isn’t just turning it monocle on chefs (Yotam Ottolenghi, Damon Baehrel) but on food writers. In the last six months, it has run profiles of Wells and Anthony Bourdain.
For his part, Bourdain, who hosts Parts Unknown, is not just the model of a globe-trotting gourmand. He has pulled off a miracle: He hosts a show on CNN and is not held up as an example of the depravity of cable news.
Years ago, Besha Rodell, who’s now the restaurant critic at the L.A. Weekly, told an editor at Vice (then a mere magazine) that she wanted to write about food for him. The editor was flummoxed: “You are so not the audience we’re going for.” Today, you need only toe-dip into the Vice empire to find a story titled, “The Quiet Genius of the Most Underrated Japanese Chef in Paris.”
Adam Sachs, the editor-in-chief of Saveur, told me he used to merely nod at a couple of dog-walkers in his New York neighborhood. Then Sachs appeared on the episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table starring Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson. All of a sudden, the dog-walkers got very interested in him. As Sachs recalled, “They stopped me and said, ‘You know Magnus?’”
The same glamour-adjacent pleasures that once drew writers to rock now draws them to food. “It used to be that the cheesy boomer binary was, do you like the Beatles or the Stones?” said Jeff Gordinier, the food and drinks editor at Esquire. “Now, it’s are you Gabrielle Hamilton or Dan Barber? Are you David Chang or Alex Stupak? It’s become the cultural conversation.”
Yet when I told Corby Kummer, the longtime Atlantic food writer, that a horde of writers were following his path, he said incredulously, “And they feel they’re going to make money at it?”
This — no pun intended — is the rub. Just as the world has minted enough Bourdain-worshipping, elusive-taco-truck-hunting foodies to create a reliable audience for food writing, it is struggling to pay for it. Music is cheap to stream, and even cheaper to steal. You have to pay $700 for the privilege of panning Per Se. If everyone wants to be a food critic, who’s going to pick up the bill?
Everybody’s writing about food,” said Barbara Fairchild, the former editor of Bon Appétit, “and everyone I meet is a lawyer who wants to be a food writer. It’s really getting kind of freaky out there.” Figuring out what happened is like determining which L.A. eatery invented the French dip sandwich. It’s a long, occasionally winding road but entirely worth the journey.
Perhaps the biggest reason food writing has new status is that American food has new status. By the mid-2000s, “you have a confluence of a coherent food blogosphere coming into being,” said David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula, “plus you have more and more young chefs and restaurateurs being a little more enterprising.”
Mitchell Davis, the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, said the rises of food culture and food media are almost always linked. In 19th-century France, the new middle-class cooking was documented by L’Almanach des Gourmands, which Davis called a “proto-blog” — the Eater of its day. “Otherwise, there’s no sharing of the art form,” Davis said. “You can perform a concert in the town square and the whole city can hear it. You can’t do that with food.”
The second reason for the rise of food writing is the democratization of restaurants. In 1975, when Jane and Michael Stern pitched their first Roadfood guide to cheap, regional restaurants, they were met with bewilderment. “The editor had a hard time convincing the publisher that there were enough interesting restaurants in the United States of America to fill a guidebook,” Michael Stern told me. The Sterns will publish the 10th edition of Roadfood this month.
“The word ‘foodie’ was not yet coined,” Michael Stern continued. “In those days, if you were into food it meant you were into French or Continental food. … Writing about barbecue and clam shacks and chicken-dinner halls was just not something people had thought of doing. … What’s happened in a way is that we as Americans have gotten over our culinary inferiority complex.”
By 2014, when The New York Times changed the name of its “Dining” section to “Food,” the transformation was complete. There’s still plenty of writing about fancy restaurants (look at the bombs Ryan Sutton and Pete Wells set off inside Per Se). But more writers are following in the footsteps of the Sterns or Calvin Trillin, traversing Brooklyn or the Brooklyns of America to discover a new chef or trend.
There are food writers who mourn the changeover. “If it’s new-casual and organic or farm-to-table, there’s a tendency for it all to be praised,” said Alan Richman, an award-winning food writer who wrote for GQ and other magazines. “Then there’s these nut-bag trends. Remember the ramen burger?”
Food writing is also sustained by a deeper interest in where food comes from. You can draw a line from writers like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan to a site like Civil Eats. As with every other corner of journalism, President Trump has provoked interesting food writing, from chef Allison Robicelli’s piece about how Obamacare helped restaurant workers to the recent Times feature about a chef who was deported from the United States years ago and is now making Mexico City’s food great again.
In a fully digitized world, food offers the promise of writing about something tangible. “I feel like people are longing for connection,” said the writer Jason Tesauro. “We’ve gotten to a place where soul and authenticity and genuineness — there’s a dearth of it about. A lot of food writing just deals with surface — it’s restaurant reviews and hype and ‘Look at what I’ve found that you haven’t heard about yet.’ But peel that back and what you’re really getting is an excuse to write about what’s real.
“Food writing happens to be on everyone’s coffee table,” Tesauro continued, “so it’s a great entry point.”
L.A. Weekly’s Rodell said: “I would love to think Americans all of a sudden are really interested in pleasure and culture and community. But, really, I think they’re interested in commerce and status, probably.” Either way, they’re reading about it.