The Yiddish language, one of the great taxonomers of human behavior , has a special word for those who cadge free meals. Such a person is a “schnorrer,” and Anthony Bourdain hates schnorrers.
The frequently dyspeptic TV host, author and idol to a generation of food obsessives took to his blog recently to deride the profession of food writing as a haven for corrupt schnorrers who fress for press – eat free meals in exchange for coverage. Bourdain hinted darkly of greater ethical breaches and took a swipe at shallow stories on “kicky new muffin recipes.”
Bourdain’s tirade kicked up a storm – first on New York magazine’s Grub Street blog, then CNN’s Eatocracy blog and then The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Food and More blog, where Bourdain and Esquire magazine columnist John Mariani, the object of Bourdain’s greatest scorn, got into an online screaming match.
The exchange, closely monitored by the food world, might seem like inside baseball. But it illuminates points about the changing nature of food journalism in the global village, when restaurant reviewing can be indistinguishable from most travel writing. There’s an inherent conflict: Ethical dining critics pay their way to show opinion can’t be bought. Travel writers often work in concert with the travel industry and accept free or deeply discounted trips . (The AJC, like many news outlets, prohibits its writers from accepting junkets.)
This nexus of food and travel is the world that both Bourdain and Mariani inhabit, albeit in different ways.
Bourdain, a nimble and sometimes great writer himself, is best known today for his cultural travelogue “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, where he explores international foodways and treats the camera to the occasional money shot of him slurping snake blood.
Yet as a high-wattage presence on food television, he does a lot of rubbing of shoulders with famous snarferati, and he has become increasingly prone to acid commentary about this world. He has poked fun at easy targets like Sandra Lee (”semi-homemade”) and Paula Deen, and big targets like Mariani and the James Beard Foundation.
On a recent posting on his blog, he dismissed the James Beard Foundation as a “goat rodeo/awards ceremony/chef shakedown.” He applauded the journalism award nomination for “Ruth Bourdain” – a Twitter persona that borrows from his voice and that of food writer Ruth Reichl to lampoon the pretensions of foodieism.
Building steam, he cited an online discussion among members of the Association of Food Journalists that wondered if an award for an anonymous Twitter account “cheapened” the awards. He pivoted on the word “cheapen” to dismiss all food writers as “old hookers complaining about the new girl who kisses on the lips.” Finally, without naming names, he used this to launch into a tirade about Esquire’s Mariani.
I leaped into Bourdain’s outraged response on ajc.com’s Food and More blog because his bile-fueled argument was specious and damaging. The Association of Food Journalists has a clear code of ethics for its members. The James Beard journalism awards this year include nominations for great essayists and chroniclers of public policy. And as a member of the journalism committee, I can verify Ruth Bourdain’s nomination was met with cheers, not jeers.
Soon after I posted, Bourdain reached out, primarily to assure me he takes extraordinary efforts to reimburse every cook featured on “No Reservations.”
“We pay for all meals on the show,” he said by phone . But, as Mariani points out in an e-mail discussing Bourdain, “When the credits roll, there are always several hotels and restaurants under ‘OUR THANKS GO TO …’ ”
This one writer aside, does Bourdain really believe that most in the profession are beholden to free meals?
” Even some who do work at major papers are bad apples.”
Mariani, a 35-year veteran, is among the last big-name national restaurant critics . Of his many writing forums (including several seminal books on Italian-American cooking), his gig as a columnist for Esquire magazine remains his best known. And none of his magazine features gets as much attention as his annual list of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants, generally a survey of about 20 high-profile spots . An unabashed booster for the fading segment of fine dining, Mariani’s list sometimes features places that leave locals scratching their heads. Paces 88, the high-gloss, low-impact restaurant in the St. Regis Atlanta, comes to mind.
Mariani’s food-and-travel Internet newsletter, “Virtual Gourmet,” documents a world of more luxurious travel – upscale hotels and country inns and the attendant dining that goes with this lifestyle.
For a writer, he leads an extravagant lifestyle, and there have long been accusations he makes it work through comped meals and travel.
Atlanta publicist Melissa Libby, who dines with Mariani at her clients’ restaurants, writes in an e-mail, “I have never paid for any [of his] meals, travel or accommodations and he has not asked me to.”
In an e-mail, Mariani denies seeking free meals at restaurants considered for Esquire: ” All you need do is call Miller Union or Niko Bistro [sic], the two ATL restaurants that made Esquire’s list last year, and ask if I paid my bill. Or I could send you copies of the receipts.”
But Joe Truex, whose restaurant Repast was an Esquire award recipient several years back, says his records show he did comp Mariani’s meal.
When similar charges were leveled against Mariani two years ago in the Grub Street Chicago blog, his Esquire editor came to his defense.
“John has worked very hard to make sure that if he even thinks he’s eating at a place that might make our list, he pays the full bill ,” said articles editor Ryan D’Agostino. “Believe me – I see his expense reports.”
However Mariani observes different rules as a travel writer. “I probably get 50 requests a year to go on [free] press trips, and probably go on two,” he said by phone
But he’s sick of being the “poster boy” for what he terms common industry practice.
Many major publications not only accept comps and paid travel, but rely on them . Yet because of the prevailing trends in food publishing, they find themselves increasingly in the role of critics. Roving restaurant reporters and editors compile any number of “best” lists in an effort to bring their disparate national readerships into an all-inclusive dialogue. How cool that the restaurant around the corner has one of the 10 best beer lists, or 10 best bowls of macaroni and cheese.
Bourdain rails against this development, seeing accolades in exchange for comps. Then he pivots to another scourge he sees: “Five minutes after you open your restaurants, all the Yelpers and Twitterers are into your space,” demanding free food for commentary.
I wish Bourdain would stop with the ranting long enough to use his bully pulpit for a better purpose. Between the few who need to subsidize luxury dining and the many who treat social media as happy hour, there is a schnorrer-free zone.