If there was ever anyone who could talk to the animals, it's this guy.
What does it mean when the people covering D.C.’s food scene don’t look like the people of D.C.?
As Washington City Paper’s Laura Hayes examines why the Washington region doesn’t have any full-time food critics of color. The arbiters of taste at major publications are all white.
What do we miss when we don’t hear from food critics of color? And how is the genre of food criticism changing? Kojo sits down with food writers and restaurant industry professionals to talk about the lack of diversity in food criticism — and what can be done to get more people a seat at the dinner table.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Take a moment to think of your favorite food critic at your favorite newspaper or magazine. Who is it? Based on statistics, it's probably a male, and he's probably white. That's definitely the case if you're thinking of a local full time food critic at a major publication in the D.C. region. Today, we're talking about food criticism's diversity problem and why it matters. Does it matter to you? Joining me in studio is Laura Hayes. She is the food editor at Washington City Paper. Laura, good to see you again.
LAURA HAYESYou too.
NNAMDINina Oduro is the Co-founder and Creative Director of Dine Diaspora. Nina Oduro, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIRock Harper is a Chef and the President of RockSolid Creative Food Group. Rock Harper, thank you for joining us.
ROCK HARPERThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Jessica van Dop DeJesus is the Founder and editor of The Dining Traveler blog. Jessica, good to see you again.
JESSICA VAN DOP DEJESUSThank you for having me.
NNAMDILaura, today's show was inspired by your recent article in the Washington City Paper about the dearth of food critics of color in this region. Why did you first decide to write this piece?
HAYESEvery story starts with a question, and mine was: what are we as Washingtonians missing out on by not having a dedicated food critic of color in the region? Are there blind spots? Are there restaurants that aren't on our radar? Are we not holding restaurants accountable for the way they treat diners who don't look like me? I had all of these questions and, you know, I obviously recognize I'm not the perfect person to write this story. So, I kind of set out more with an attitude of trying to learn as much as I can and kind of more with a curiosity than authority. And I certainly learned a lot, and I hope to keep learning.
NNAMDIYou make a distinction between a food critic and food writer or reporter. What's the difference?
HAYESA food critic to me is someone who usually has that title and they're either on staff or they're on contract. And they write regular formal reviews of a restaurant. Take Tom Sietsema at the Washington Post. He publishes one small review and one full review per week. They often evaluate food service ambiance. Sometimes these critics are giving a star rating. In Philadelphia, it's a bell rating. And that's different to me than someone like myself, who's a food writer or a food reporter. I look at the restaurant industry more holistically, and I'm covering trends and issues, where our food intersects with labor and the environment and politics. And rarely am I kind of evaluating what's on a plate.
NNAMDISame question to you, Nina, and then Jessica. What do you think are the differences between food critics and food writer?
ODUROI mean, I would agree with Laura's assessment. In my opinion, as well, a food writer is someone that also with the Internet, and the ability for people to create their own ways of sharing their stories. They don't need to be on a hired staff. So, bloggers are part of that. Podcasters and people that are amplifying different types of foods and not waiting for the staff at major publications to, you know, have that sort of say. They are also having that say. So, food writers, I think, are broader. And not necessarily knit-picked or handpicked by publications.
NNAMDIJessica, you joined us for a show last year about food bloggers. Where do food bloggers fit in the spectrum of food writers and food critics? And where do you consider yourself to fall on this spectrum?
DEJESUSWell, I think I'm a food writer. Well, food and travel writer. And I think that, for me, blogging, what has done it's democratized media. It's made anybody like me, some Puerto Rican girl from Upstate New York, that I can have my own platform and share the things that I enjoy. And now I have writers also that we have the same core values and we can share what we see, the trends that we like into a medium that I pay for.
NNAMDIIn broader terms, how do you think social media and food blogging have changed the food criticism landscape?
DEJESUSI believe that now we don't have -- there's that one person that's going to tell us where to eat. I get DMs, or direct messages for those, who are not -- like pretty much every day. It's, like, "Where do I take my wife for my anniversary dinner?" "Where can I go for a birthday dinner?" And I think that it's definitely brought in the landscape in terms of who is going to be tastemaker. And I believe that people see people that look like them that perhaps had parallel experiences to them, and they trust them more than somebody that's on staff in a newspaper, and that they have no connection to.
NNAMDIRock Harper, bring us inside the mind a chef. When you were the Executive Chef at B. Smith, what did you think the role of a food critic was versus a food writer?
HARPERWell, a food writer definitely -- you know, a critic is there to critique. It's right in the name, right? And they're also an arbiter of -- they're an arbiter of taste, as Laura put it in here article. A food writer is definitely going to dive a little deeper in the issue sort of beyond the plate or underneath the plate, if you will. Yeah. It's just one is critiquing and saying, "Hey, should I go here?" And the other is -- they can sort of both play with each other, but a critic is going to give you stars or not.
NNAMDIThere's this idea that might be a cliché that food critics can make or break a restaurant. Do you think that's still the case today? Or has the role of food critics changed?
HARPERThat's a tough one, right there. I think yes and no, right? You know, I'm a self-accountability person. So, I believe that if you're doing right and you're listening to your guests, like what Anthony Bourdain and Rick Tramanto told me that years ago, like, focus on your guests. if the numbers are working out it will work out. But they can -- you know, I'd be foolish to say like they can encourage a lot of people not to go to your place.
DEJESUSCan I add so --
DEJESUSThat there was an awful --
NNAMDIThis is Jessica by the way.
DEJESUSYeah, review about La Vie, for example, and I had a friend of mine that she called and she's like, "The review was so awful that I almost want to go there." Like, she was actually inspired to go there because she wanted to see what was so bad about it.
HARPERWow. That's crazy.
ODUROI think that speaks to the idea that --
NNAMDIThis is Nina.
ODUROThat these publications major publications do amplify. So, whether it's good or bad, the name is out, and it does inspire curiosity. So, to me, they hold a very large place in people's perception of what is valued. Whether it is good or whether it is bad, that is a big place where they're reaching numbers of people that some bloggers cannot get to. And they also have the opportunity to amplify bloggers, as well.
NNAMDIHere's David in Washington, D.C. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHi, Kojo. Thank you so much for taking my call and happy holidays to everybody.
NNAMDISame to you.
DAVIDI have more of a comment than a question. I'll just say that I'm from an Armenian background, and we grew up with, you know, lots of lamb and garlic and rosemary. And my wife is Malaysian, and she's exposed me to some things that most people have never heard, like beef rendang and curry lockza. And these things are so amazing and important. So, my comment is that when we have a diversity of food critics, it encourages people to go out and try new things. That, you know, black folks and white folks and Hispanic folks and Asian folks, they oftentimes have different experiences. And if we can enrich each other's lives through that shared experience, I think that brings us all closer a little bit. So, I'm fully in favor of the diversity of food critics.
NNAMDIYou may have just answered the question I was about to put Nina Oduro and Jessica van Dop DeJesus: why is it important that there are critics of color? Did David just answer that question?
ODUROHe just did and I would add to that representation does matter. It's two things. I think it's representation in terms of being in the actual rooms where the ideas are thought of, where pitches are and contributing their perspectives and experiences. But then it's also sort of that inclusion of the voice, right? So, now we're having diverse thought including spaces that may have not been thought us otherwise if they weren't in the room. But then what are those stories? Bringing forth and them sort of having the opportunity to tell stories from their own perspectives, sometimes from their cultures as he was saying. That enriches those publications and the narratives that they're telling about food.
DEJESUSYeah, and to add to what Nina said, for example, last year I went to the James Beard Media Awards, and there's only one Hispanic person that won an award and that was Pati Jinich. And, to me, I'm like, every restaurant that I go to in D.C., New York, everywhere there is a Hispanic person, front of the house, waiters, bus boys. There's Latinos in the kitchen. Every vineyard, every distillery. So, why are we still invisible in this food world? It's beyond me that you hear Spanish, you see our people everywhere and we're still invisible.
NNAMDIHere is Mamet, in Washington. Mamet, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAMETHey, thank you for taking my call. Hello, everybody. Happy holidays. Mine is basically a comment that if you are interested in the person's skin color, as opposed to their person individual character and what they do and what they bring to the table, then you're being very divisive and very, in my opinion, racist.
NNAMDISo, you're saying that this whole discussion about diversity among food critics is a waste of time?
MAMETIn my opinion, yes.
NNAMDIYou see no distinction based a food critic's color, cultural experience, or history between --
MAMETCultural experience could be in terms of many colors. And it shouldn't matter what one's skin color is, as long as what they bring to the table is worthy their customers, their guests and the food critics that they bring to the restaurant.
NNAMDIWell, let me put that to my guests here, because classic food critics and Mamet might say, "Well, food criticism is a systematic practice." Why is it a problem that there aren't food critics of color? These people are highly trained individuals who know how to give how many stars to a particular food. How would you respond to that idea?
HARPERWell, I would say it's a good question. But why are all of the people that could -- you know, he said they could be many colors, why are they all white? That would be the question. Why are only white people the guys that can get these jobs?
NNAMDIMamet, how would you answer that question?
MAMETI wouldn't know. I'm not one of them. So, the reason for that may be people need to step up from different cultures and different backgrounds.
HARPERWe're not good enough, maybe.
MAMETWhat do you mean not good enough?
NNAMDIWell, that's exactly what we're discussing here. That people are stepping up from different cultures and different backgrounds. They might not be employed specifically as critics, but they are stepping up and on blogs and the use of social media. They are adding to the whole conversation about food. Care to respond to that, Laura?
HAYESWell, a couple of things. I mean, first of all, my answer to the caller would kind of be one of the main things I talk about in my story, and the reason why this is so important, is empathy. I have no way of understanding what a black diner, for example, would experience going into a restaurant. Through my reporting over the past year, I get my inboxes constantly filled with people telling me about their experiences that I would never have. For example, I had a writer write about a policy that was being selectively enforced at a restaurant on U Street, where they were asking mostly diners of color to hand over their identification in advance of their meal. And they would only get it back if they paid their bill. That would never happen to me so I could never comment on it. And if service --
NNAMDIAnd see I used to frequent that place and as a result of your writing, I don't anymore.
HAYESOh, boy. No comment. So, things like, you know, they are still happening. And if service is such a huge part of a review just as much as the food I can't comment on what I would experience if I looked differently. And one thing I want to definitely point out is that the typical food review is shifting. That's a very exciting thing to me. It's no longer just what's on the plate. We're seeing critics look into a chef's character, look into culture, look into history. The person who is doing that the best is Soleil Ho, in my opinion, at the San Francisco Chronicle. And it's shaking up this system. But when you're talking about things more than just the food, I think it's even more important to have representation.
NNAMDIFrom a chef's perspective, Rock Harper, what do you think about this lack of diversity among food critics?
HARPERI think empathy is the ultimate word. You know, your experience defines your perspective, right? And to say that there's one person that can sort of, you know, empathize or provide the opportunity for everybody to empathize with the writer is crazy. So, I think as I watch this new show in the background, I'm a firm believer. I'm a sports fan. You know, I view politics. I think that the answer is not only do we need to start -- especially in D.C. -- with a food writer of color. But we need a bunch more food writers because it doesn't make the actual product worse. It actually -- when you have these different voices coming from different areas, it makes the intrigue and the interest and essentially what we all want, the sales, increase.
DEJESUSAnd I think that having -- so, for example, in Dining Traveler we have three regular writers. One is Indian parents raised here. Pria who also writes for Washington City Paper. I have a writer who's based in Belgium, Venezuelan born, naturalized Belgian citizen. She does all her interviews in French. And then I have a girl, Asian parents, grew up in the Bay Area. And I love reading their articles, because they all bring something so unique to the table. And I think that if I had writers that were all the same, it would just be boring. Boring writing.
NNAMDIDo you think food criticism has a diversity problem in this region? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or if you think not. And what do you think about the types of restaurants that food critics cover? Would you like to see restaurant reviewers cover a larger variety of places? 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet or email. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about food criticism and diversity. We're talking with Jessica van Dop DeJesus, who's the Founder and editor of The Dining Traveler. Rock Harper is a chef and the president of RockSolid Creative Food Group. Nina Oduro is the co-founder and creative director of Dine Diaspora. And Laura Hayes is the food editor at Washington City Paper. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. For people of color, the experience of dining out can be vastly different than for white people. I've heard the phrase “dining while black” used to capture that experience. And I think that's what Cole in Annapolis wants to talk about. Cole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COLEHi, Kojo, and happy holidays.
COLEThank you. My thoughts or comment would just be that, as a minority diner, I think there needs to be diversity in the blogging and in the critics-sphere only, because unfortunately, if I read a review from a top-tier majority writer and their experience when it comes to service specifically could be very different than when I go to sort of a high-end restaurant in the DMV. So, I'm not suggesting that there be a dog whistle given by a minority sort of writer. But I'm just saying that we speak to the service component of the experience if I know that that writer is diverse then I could assume that if they said it's a fantastic service experience then that translates well to my experience.
NNAMDIExactly what we were talking about. Laura Hayes, what do white food critics miss about the experience for people of color in certain restaurants?
HAYESPrecisely that, just what is your experience when you walk in? What is your experience when you place your drink order? Are you questioned, or are you asked strange things? The person I interviewed most about this particular topic was Michael Twitty, who I know has been on the show and is from D.C. And, you know, he was saying if he comes into a restaurant, you know, unless he's recognized, then he's given -- this is his words, not my quote -- you know, "the black seating towards the back near the bathroom." But if he pulls out his book he's given a window seat where he says people with, you know, who are dressed better or don't look like him are seated. I think it's a whole variety of different things that I'd be interested in hearing more about. And like I said, I do get emails about this from readers all the time. So, this is definitely a pervasive problem in this region, which most of us consider pretty progressive.
NNAMDIWe got a comment from Bob on our website, who says: "It's pretty obvious why D.C.'s food reporters aren't diverse. It's because it's a simple and high profile and fun reporting job that has a high number of applicants, meaning it attracts tons of candidates from elite backgrounds. Until outlets start hiring candidates who did not go to an Ivy League school or an expensive private college, D.C. will continue to have diversity issues in food coverage." I'd like you to respond to that, Nina. What do you feel the level of expertise need to be?
ODUROI mean, I think there isn't, in the food sort of critic world, I don't think that the path to becoming a food critic is that well-known by everyone from all cultures. It's been a very niche sector, that requires a lot of experience, that's not as transparent as maybe other sectors where you can go to school and then perhaps, you know, be up for jobs. The other big thing is that for inclusion to -- to be able to accommodate the type of inclusion we need, there needs to be more jobs. And the reality within this particular type of field is that there's very limited jobs. So, that also means that who gets the job if they don't have the particular types of experiences that larger publications are looking for is a huge issue. And how do we also have a conversation with food critics that hold the power now to hire about what types of experiences and opportunities that people of color have that could amplify that could help their publications now and bring diverse perspectives? And yet may not be the path that others have taken that have previously gotten those roles.
NNAMDIOn to Tracy in Fairfax, Virginia. Tracy, your turn.
TRACYThank you so much and hello everyone. First, I'd just like to say I'm such a huge fan of Chef Rock Harper. There are no need for food critics where his food is concerned.
HARPERThank you so much. I appreciate you. Thank you.
TRACYSo, been a fan of yours, Rock, since B. Smith days. So, my point to the panel is I agree with what's been said. Particularly that experience brings perspective in that cultural restaurants, minority-owned restaurants are not always reviewed from a lens of appreciation. They're reviewed based on the standard or the whims of the writer. And so I think there's something that is missed if there isn't a cultural celebration, or at least an understanding of the culture from which the food is being offered. So, I'd just like the panel to weigh in on that.
DEJESUSI think that there's a devaluation of ethnic food, you know. And I even hate the term ethnic food, but I think that when people are like, "Oh, if it's a good Hispanic restaurant or a good Latino restaurant, it has to be in a hole in the wall and served in Styrofoam." Like, you know, God forbid, you know, somebody serves -- and when you look at a food cost, for example, a pasta dish will probably cost you three or four dollars tops, you know, in a nice restaurant. Whereas a protein heavy meal that has higher food cost and people are still willing to pay $22 for a gaucho pepe, but not $22 for a roasted pig that will have a higher food cost. And I think that the lack of education in terms of world food and people's perception that Indian or Latin or certain types of Asian food has to be cheap to be good. And that is perpetuated by sometimes the articles that we see in the Washington Post. The $20 meal is always an ethnic meal. So, I think that there has to be shift to be able to appreciate these foods as much as we revere European foods.
NNAMDIThe restaurants that a critic does not review can signify a valued judgment to readers, too, that a restaurant is worth reviewing. What types of restaurants do D.C. food critics tend to review and what kinds get ignored, in your view, Nina?
ODUROSo, I mean, certainly, you know, fine dining gets a lot of praise. I think the ones where we are wanting more to be talked about are some of the fast-casual restaurants that may not sort of, you know, stand out to everyone. But are certainly coveted by many people of color. And don't need to be classified or talked about as less than in any way.
NNAMDIFast-casual and carry-outs are not often covered by critics.
ODUROExactly. And I think the idea that covering them makes it a cheap eats or makes it something -- like that needs a label like that is offensive, to be honest. And so, in covering it, how can you cover it how can you cover it so that it gives it the value that it deserves, whether or not it's a particular price point, what is about the food? Cover the food. Don't give so much attention to what level it's on. And that's what I think would help amplify different types of cultural narratives and food around D.C.
NNAMDINewer immigrants or immigrants of color restaurants also generally don't garner the same acclaim that other restaurants do. Why do you think that is, Jessica?
DEJESUSBecause they probably don't have the money to pay a publicist that costs $3,000 a retainer a month.
NNAMDIYou, both Laura and Jessica, have a say in the scope of the coverage that your publications put out, although it's not straight food criticism. How do you decide which restaurants to cover?
HAYESI do try to look where no one else is looking. I rely a lot on readers, because they know what's good in their neighborhoods, and that's how I found out about this great place in Anacostia that opened in February called Open Crumb, which is from the family that used to run Ghana Café on 14th Street. And they're serving up kind of Southern comfort food as well as, if you know to ask, they're make some Ghanaian dishes. So, I rely on people, just everyday people, not publicists, to kind of point in the right direction. And I also bring on a team of freelance writers who could kind of fill in my blind spots. We're about to launch a new column in December with a writer named Marcus Dowling, who's going to be exploring how a chef's single dish tells their story. And so, I try to kind of lean on others to point me in the right direction. And then, you know, when you go to a place like Open Crumb, I mean, you can ask them, you know, "Where else do you like to eat in this neighborhood?" And you kind of can build on from there.
DEJESUSSame as Laura. I sometimes just put out -- I write not only about food here, but from a traveling perspective. So, when I've traveling -- I've been to Puerto Rico now often, because of my book and I ask people, "Hey, where should I go and eat?" And get the feedback that way, as well.
NNAMDIRock -- go ahead. You want to say something?
ODUROI would add that networks really matter in the food industry. I think many restaurants and many stories in food get retold over and over. I often get tired of reading about the same chef. (laugh) And it's because the networks are not changing. And, you know, Laura has been great in sort of going into different networks, building on networks. And I think a lot of critics are stuck in the same network and need to think about who do I meet next. Who do I sort of allow in my space that brings different perspectives in order for these new stories to be told? And not necessarily that they're new, but they're different, from what they've been telling in the past.
HAYESSure. I think we're seeing some really exciting disrupters, too. And I want to give a shout out to A. J. Johnson and her cofounders of DMV Black Restaurant Week. Because that's also an exposure thing, where traditionally, a restaurant week in this town is only for members of a trade association who have to pay dues and you have to be set up to serve a three-course meal. But with DMV Black Restaurant, the founders found a way to kind of showcase black-owned restaurants of all categories, carry-outs, caterers who could participate and offer a deal to kind of get more exposure.
HAYESAnd when I talk to people, they tell me, you know, some of the restaurants on the participating list I've never even heard of. So, there's places out there, and the general theme in my reporting is you don't know what you don't know.
NNAMDIRock Harper, getting a big-name critic to review a restaurant can be challenging. When you became the executive chef at B. Smith's, you tried to get Tom Sietsema to come in for a review. What happened?
HARPERI did. Short answer, he didn't come in, but Tom, where you at. No, we closed now. So, (laugh) it was interesting, because I had taken over as the chef, and I called him, as a result of a publicist friend of ours, right, of the restaurant. She wasn't our publicist, but she said, hey, Rock, call him and ask him why he's not coming in. We would have actual managers meetings, why we're not getting the food critic in. I mean, this is valuable time, high-level people, vice president, GM, executive chef, right, a lot of money.
NNAMDIAnd nobody ever thought to pick up the phone.
HARPERI didn't. At that point, I was new to it, right. That was my first executive chef job. I didn't know they were that accessible. I thought he was sort of -- I looked at him like, ah-ah-ah, you know sort of (laugh) -- you know what I mean? I didn't think he'd --
NNAMDI(overlapping) He's riding on a cloud someplace.
HARPERExactly. So, I called him. And he basically, you know, agreed with...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Picked up the phone.
HARPER...he literally picked -- hi, this is Tom. (laugh) Very pleasant voice for a writing dude, right. So, he told me -- I don't know what I expected, but he basically said the cuisine or the chef -- like, we give new ink to new -- nothing has changed, or much hasn't changed since the last time we reviewed you. So, we take that information back. Like it or not, you take that information back, and now you're informed.
HARPERBut what was key for me as a chef, especially at B. Smith's, where we were serving Southern Cajun and Creole, is that are we going to cook or serve for a critic? Are we going to do what we do and stay in our lane? And if he comes, great, but we were doing five million in our best year. (laugh) How much would he have boosted that? I don't know, but 5 million's pretty good, (laugh) you know what I mean?
NNAMDIExactly right. We got Jen from Sterling, who sent us an email, who said: I believe critics of all stripes are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. I go out all over the area, and I haven't relied on the opinions of professional food critics for several years now. I've instead turned to the amateurs out there, and I haven't been disappointed. Jessica, you're not an amateur.
DEJESUS(laugh) Well, according to mainstream media, I am. (laugh) But I do think that people do rely on their friends, on their networks. Like I mentioned, again, I get a lot of private messages from friends, friend of friends, followers, hey, you know, where should I go? So, again, it's the democratization -- been speaking Spanish for the last two weeks, (laugh) since I just got back room Puerto Rico -- of what the people that determine taste. And I think that we keep on hearing that more and more.
NNAMDIHere is Trassic in Washington, D.C. Trassic, your turn. Tassic, I'm sorry.
TASSICHi. I just wanted to call in. I am a waitress, or -- I'm a waitress and a journalist, but I've been waitressing in D.C., mostly fine dining, for the past six years. And I just wanted to say a few things, because I care so passionately about this subject. Number one, I have to say that food criticism, newspapers are dying, food criticism, in the old school sense, is really -- I don't know.
TASSICWe had packets and packets of photos of potential food critics and food bloggers in the kitchens at every place that I've ever worked. And it is a sea of white faces. I mean, there were so many indistinguishable white women writing for the Washingtonian...
NNAMDISorry, Laura. (laugh)
TASSIC...it was really, really terrifying.
HAYESI hope they got my good side. (laugh)
TASSICIf there were minority faces, they would be instantly spotted. It would just make it that much easier to tailor the experience to them. The only real proof that you're going to get is going to come from Yelp and Trip Advisor and those amateurs that are out there. You know, a good restaurant, and you want to go to good restaurants when you're spending your money -- a good restaurant is going to know...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Glad you raised that issue, because I can raise it to Rock Harper and others. How important today, in today's world, are sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor?
HARPERListen, it's not I don't want to -- I don't know if they're if a sponsor or anything. I'm not a fan of Yelp, (laugh) but I am a fan of Yelp, right. I'd be lying if I didn't say, you know, I searched the place and looked at some of, you know, the things that go on. Here's the thing about that. I don't want to discredit -- we have to be mindful of -- you know, we do need, like, the proof of concept that diverse food writing is out there -- is already like what Jessica's doing. It's proven. You don't need to prove when people flock to it. It's proven.
HARPERTom Sietsema is a -- I think he's a really good writer, right. Laura's a great writer. Stephanie Gaines is a really good writer. That doesn't mean that there aren't more. So, here's the other thing: these people went to school. There's a difference between tweeting out your feelings while you're sitting at a table. I got a one star at my barbecue spot before we were open, because the menu wasn't posted. (laugh) I was, like, bro. So you can't tell me that a Laura Hayes would do that, you know. (laugh) You can't tell me...
HARPERSo, I think that there's -- we have to temper them, as artists. We have to understand what we're getting. And there is certain value to the big-time food writers. All I'm saying is that there's more perspectives than this one person that's supposed to be the end-all be-all.
DEJESUSAnd I think that, you know, especially from my travel writer side, people that post on Trip Advisor is mostly from a traveler perspective, right. So the top -- I used to live in Brussels and, like, the top 10 restaurants in Brussels are on (speaks foreign language) which, in translation, you're not going to find the best restaurants in Belgium, in Brussels, near the (unintelligible).
DEJESUSSo, I think that -- and also what I see is that people writer reviews-- and I'm responsible for this-- if I really love something or I really hated something, you know, if I do it on Yelp or Trip Advisor. So, sometimes you're leaving out that piece of objectiveness.
HAYESAnd I think those sites are not as valuable as something like Instagram, because food is such a visual thing. You eat with your eyes, and it's kind of, you know, if you take a picture of a dish and it looks nice and you share it with your friends, you know, unless you're a food stylist who's bringing, like, brushes of oil to make the food look shiny, or special lighting.
HAYESI mean, that is what you're going to get when you go to that restaurant. And so I give more credence to that than someone who may have had a bad experience who's posting on Yelp. Because, like you said, I mean, restaurants come to me and say, you know, we can't get our rating up. We have one star because, you know, there's no parking. You know, so it's tough. And, certainly, restaurants I talk to use Yelp and find it helpful for constructive criticism. But I think imagery is more important these days.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. However, if you'd like to join us, just give us a call. 800-433-8850 is our number. Do you think food criticism should strictly be about what's on the plate, or do you think critics should add more context? 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing diversity in food criticism with Nina Oduro, co-founder and creative director of Dine Diaspora. Rock Harper is a chef and the president of RockSolid Creative Food. Laura Hayes is the food editor at Washington City Paper. And Jessica van Dop DeJesus is the founder and editor of the Dining Traveler. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Tom, in Adams Morgan. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMThanks, Kojo, and thanks to the panel. This has been a great discussion so far. I wanted to add that I'm a food and wine writer. And as much as there is a diversity problem among food critics, it's even worse among wine critics. When I go to a food-writing workshop, for example, I'm astonished at how diverse it can be. But you go to a wine-writing workshop, and it's a lot of middle age white guys, like me. So, I hope it starts to bleed over. I know the food-writing industry is taking a lot of initiatives, like equity at the table, to try and get more diverse writing in food, but I don't see it happening in wine.
NNAMDII know in your piece, Laura Hayes, I think you refer to a woman who's African American, Jamaican heritage, who's a sommelier, correct?
HAYESYes, Nadine Browne. She's one of my favorite people. But, yeah, in the same -- the group that's writing about sommeliers looks like sommeliers is because there's also a diversity problem when it comes to who has those positions.
NNAMDIOn now to Pat in Washington, D.C. Pat, your turn.
PATHi. Thanks for taking my call. I'd like to preface this by saying I'm not criticizing any of these reporters' works. But I think the reason why there's such a homogony problem in the D.C. food writing scene is because this is a fun, non-traditionally difficult reporting job. This isn't writing about wireless communications or aerospace. It's writing about food.
PATAnd so they get a wide pool of applicants that they can pick from. And, traditionally, these outlets like Washingtonian and City Paper pick candidates from either elite journalism schools, like Northwestern or Syracuse, or they pick them from Ivy League institutions. Laura went to Syracuse. The Washingtonian reporters went to Penn and some expensive culinary school. Until these journalism outlets start considering candidates who do not come from elite backgrounds, we're going to continue to have this issue.
NNAMDIPat, you obviously did some research on this. What is the nature of your interest?
PATI am a reporter.
NNAMDI(laugh) But do you report on food at all?
PATI do not.
PATLike I said, I do not criticize these people's work. I think Laura does a really good job. I just notice that that's how these news outlets hire, and so that's why they have a diversity problem.
HAYESI agree -- I'm sorry, Nina, go ahead.
ODUROI do want to caution that comment, because, yes, perhaps there are, you know, a tendency for people to have some sort of education that lends itself to food writing. But I don't want it to be seen as if people of color don't have these types of educations, as well, and can't be competitive for these roles.
ODUROI think in speaking to -- to make it seem as if there aren't a diverse pool of people of color also vying for these positions is not necessarily the truth. It is about the pathways into which people have gotten these roles. And not to discredit anyone in these roles, but how can we be more open to different experiences that allow for people to tell diverse stories once they're in the positions as well.
ODUROSo. one of them is using empathy as a person that isn't from that community. but I really don't want to look at it credentialing in a way that discredits people of color as if they are not accomplished enough to actually gain those roles on their own.
NNAMDIArlie commented on our website, there are different things that people are used to in different food cultures. So, what might be very desirable in one food culture is frowned upon in another. For example, as a Chinese person, I grew up eating lots of whole fish with skin on and having to pick fish bones for myself. In lots of food shows with a Western viewpoint, the implication is that fish skin is undesirable or must be crispy, and that a fish must be filleted or deboned for the diner. The assumptions about food prep and presentation are simply different. So, diversity of viewpoints is important. What do you say to that, Jessica?
DEJESUSAbsolutely. You know, I mentioned before, I grew up in Puerto Rico, where we were eating things that most Americans would find disgusting, like blood sausage and (laugh) tripe. And I think that there's a perspective, you know, Chinese food, a lot of the Asian cuisines. And I think that if you grew up in suburban Ohio, and that's great, wonderful that you went to, you know, Northwestern. But did you grow up, you know, eating these types of foods and learning to appreciate them?
NNAMDIYes, blood sausage and tripe. I did grow up eating those foods, (laugh) yes.
DEJESUSThe Caribbean Diaspora foods. (laugh)
NNAMDIExactly. Laura, you wrote in your story that you get a lot of press releases about restaurants that use one word in particular: elevate. How are PR people using this word and what's problematic about it?
HAYESNot my favorite. It's up there with authentic and some other words that I try to avoid and I ask my writers to avoid. But I've just seen elevate or upscale so much over the past two years. People are elevating backyard barbecue. They're elevating, you know, Southern home cooking. And, basically, you know, what that translates -- I think, in their minds -- is restaurant quality.
HAYESBut I don't like that word because it basically creates this assumption that what came before isn't good enough or isn't worthy enough of the same kind of attention. And that's just not valid right now. I think every food should be considered in the same plane. So, I don't like that word very much at all.
NNAMDINina, when you were talking with Laura for her article, you mentioned a lot of foods get reported as new, when they're not. Explain what you mean.
ODUROYeah. So, I believe that when there isn't diversity in these newsrooms, per se, and, you know, scripting and pitching goes on, that there is a tendency to pitch something as new, as a discovery. As in, I just heard of it, so this is something that I think is so new. And yet there's no recognition for the fact that this sort of cooking or this way or this style has a heritage and a history. And perhaps maybe had the first restaurant that someone's opening in a particular area, but is not necessarily something to be discovered.
ODUROAnd so, having more representation, more diversity can allow for checking that, as well, and recognizing when something is actually not something to be discovered. But to be told by someone else is okay, but not to be shared as discovery, I think there's very much a problem. It's very much a problem in food criticism.
NNAMDIRock, some restaurants have gone to scrutiny for cultural appropriation. Earlier this year, you brought attention to a mural at Roy Boys in Shaw that depicted famous rappers as chickens. You talked about it on your podcast, the Chef Rock Experiment. Can you tell us about what happened in your process with thinking about that mural?
HARPERYeah, well, the first thing I did when I saw the story, I saw the ad, the restaurant is coming, I called some people in hip-hop. Like, a friend of mine Priest Da Nomad. I know rap as a consumer, but these are hip-hop, like, historians. So, I called him and asked them, like, am I tripping, you know? And he put it out to his Facebook people, and he said I wasn't tripping.
HARPERSo, we put it out to the community, put it out to people. And social media can, you know, light some fires, but I just really wanted to hear the perspective, because I thought it was offensive. And just -- I don't even say offensive. I thought it was shortsighted, and they didn't think through. I thought it could've been, as a restaurant owner and a chef, you just have to be more thoughtful and mindful. And, yeah, we said, hey, take that down.
NNAMDIYou also had an exchange with a reporter who got in touch with you about that mural. What was your exchange with the reporter?
HARPERSo, it was interesting. Within the exchange with the reporter, I noticed that he said to me -- I don't know if he said I'm sorry, but he sort of expressed some sort of remorse that they didn't catch it when they first reported it. And I didn't think about it until that moment. I was focused on, like, you know, the chicken, Biggie was a chicken head.
HARPERIt was crazy to me. But they have a role, as well. Media has a role to say, hey, maybe we should ask the restaurant about this. And if you get someone that looks like Biggie in the room, right, or has the experience of hip-hop or black culture, or even has a framework like -- hey, around the world, when you animalize human beings, here's what has happened in the past not just for black culture but with other cultures, when you have that in the editing room, maybe the story, or at least a question to the restaurant is a little different.
ODUROAnd you mentioned, like, the term chicken-head, like, if anybody grows up in an urban environment, like that is a negative connotation. So, when I saw the pictures, I was, like, oh, Lord. (laugh) But nobody wants to be poultry.
NNAMDIExactly right. Here's Josh, in Washington, D.C. Josh, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSHHey, Kojo. Hey, everybody. My question has to do with the role of traditional media as gatekeepers. I keep hearing -- you know, the context of the conversation seems to be around what is or is not available to the broader audience based on a popular media source being a gatekeeper. But what about social media? How are we leveraging social media to sort of amplify voices that are often not heard, or traditionally haven't been heard?
DEJESUSLike I mentioned before, I think that social media -- I mean, I say that the success of Dining Traveler has been because of social media. Because, again, I've pitched, pitched, pitched, and didn't hear anything back. And, you know, I took my own money, and I invested in the Dining Traveler. And I invested in my own book, because, you know, people weren't listening to what I had to say or what I was pitching. So, I think that social media's integral to amplifying, especially, writers of color, chefs of color, restaurateurs of color.
HAYESI'll just add that if you go to my story on the Washington City Paper website, at the bottom, there is an appendix there that has a list of bloggers, reporters, podcasters of color. And you can follow their work. That's one place.
NNAMDIHere now is Cassandra in Silver Spring, Maryland. Cassandra, your turn.
CASSANDRAHi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm calling because I really appreciate reviews when they include a disability access perspective, whether it be how wide the space is between tables, or if the bathrooms are accessible, if there's a stair up to get into the restaurant. The level of noise in the restaurant, if I can access a plastic straw, things of that nature. And while the food is very, very important, if I can't access the food, it's useless to me.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Cassandra. And Larry emailed us: noise, noise, noise. I wish there were greater coverage of noise levels in restaurants. The food may be great, but if I can't hear my partner speak, it really doesn't provide an excellent experience. Disabilities and noise.
HAYESYes. This is something I wrote on this year, about accessibility in restaurants. And I also recently wrote about what diners who are 65 and older want to see more of their restaurants. And that's interesting when we're talking about culture, because I think people have different tolerances for noise, you know, based on where they grew up. And did you dine in a large, boisterous family of 12, or, you know, did you grow up in a small family of two or three people? But those things, I think, are really important to review.
HAYESTo his credit, Tom Sietsema actually added accessibility information to his reviews this year, which I was really happy to see. Because the hardest thing to do is to figure out if a place is accessible before you go. And so that'll open some doors, literally.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, here, but, Nina, what do you think is the way forward at this point?
ODUROI think there needs to be thinking around, and suggestions, actually, around what needs to change and how that change needs to happen. And when I talk about change I think about it as structural change. What do publications need to do to open up opportunities to more diverse representation in their newsrooms? Is it having more contributors? And I think that's important, because although contributors don't get paid that much, that's amplification of their work that allows them to reach new audiences.
ODUROHow can they create new opportunities, assistant editors, things like that that allow for more voices? But then how can they really identify the types of inclusion that they need in the room that will be representative of D.C.? So, what are the voices and what are the experiences? It could be ability and accessibility. It could be sort of sexual identity and orientation. What are the -- including race, culture and class? These are all critical, but I think in those publications, there needs to be a conversation about what can we change to be more representative and to be more inclusive.
NNAMDIRace, culture, class, and I'll let Sonia have the last word, age. Sonia said: diversity is not just a matter of ethnicity. Age and gender also matter. What is the experience of an older woman who goes in on her own? I'm afraid we don't have enough time left, Sonia, to discuss that, but it is a topic for a future discussion.
NNAMDIParticipating in today's discussion, Laura Hayes, food editor at Washington City Paper. Laura, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDINina Oduro is the co-founder and creative director of Dine Diaspora. Nina, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIRock Harper is a chef and the president of RockSolid Creative Food. Rock, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Jessica van Dop DeJesus is the founder and editor of the Dining Traveler blog. Jessica, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. We're taking a Thanksgiving break, but we wouldn't leave all you harried cooks helpless in the kitchen. Tune in for the Splendid Table's Turkey Confidential, public radio's help line for those of us tasked with Thanksgiving dinner. That's from noon until 2:00 pm tomorrow. We'll be back on Monday with a look at Amazon's $20 million donation to bring more affordable housing to Northern Virginia. Plus, we'll find out if striking bus drivers in Northern Virginia are getting the public support they expected. That all starts at noon, on Monday. Until then, have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a wonderful weekend. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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