Watch out everybody! Chefs have discovered this internet thingy -- and they're pissed off! In today's New York Times, Julia Moskin delves into an emerging, and highly entertaining new internet phenomenon: The chef flame war.
As Moskin writes, many chefs are increasingly using Twitter, blogs and other websites to get even with people who are getting on their nerves. They're hitting back at critics (Kitchen Cabinet member Amanda Cohen took to her website to rebut her restaurant's New York Times dining section review). They're sniping at each other (NY restaurateur Joe Dobias attacked superstar chef David Chang, Baohaus' Eddie Huang called one of his competitor restaurants a "hellhole"). They're striking back at uninformed bloggers (LA chef Ludovic Lefebre's wife, Kristine, reduced one food blogger to tears by pointing out that her husband's tuna tartare isn't "underdone," that's the way it's meant to be), and taking user-reviewers to task (California chef Jason Neroni's Twitter stream: "Yelp is for cowards.") Oof. It's like the Wild West out there!
As one chef points out in the article, this kind of grandstanding is part of what eaters' now expect from a big-name chef -- "they want us to be rock stars" -- but it has far more to do with the way that the internet has changed the way people read and learn about restaurants. As Francis Lam recently wrote on Salon, the traditional restaurant critic is going through some tough times these days. Unlike other forms of criticism, people use restaurant criticism primarily as a barometer of whether or not a place is worth visiting. Now internet can do the same job, on a much bigger scale.
Websites like Yelp allow diners to post their own reviews in a matter of minutes, Twitter and Facebook allows them to instantly broadcast their verdict to all of their friends, and bloggers can help make and unmake food trends. There's something very empowering about the way the internet is, like so many other industries, democratizing the restaurant world. As NYU professor Krishnendu Ray recently told me in a conversation about Indian food, the emergence of new media even helps speed the uptake of exotic ethnic cuisines into the mainstream of America. "People have always trumpeted rare ethnic foods, but now they have a byline."
Obviously, there's a down side. For restaurateurs with an upscale and detail-oriented cuisine, it can be infuriating to read a review written by somebody who doesn't know much about food ("I've never had sweetbread, but this sweetbread sucks"), and it's only logical that chefs, especially chefs with reputations to protect, start fighting back. If anything, it's surprising that David Chang wasn't telling bloggers to screw off five years ago. It may not be the most civil of developments, but it's certainly not a surprise -- and, for fans of internet feuds, this is good news indeed.