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Bourdain, Mariani and a tussle on this blog

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.

32 comments Add your comment

justmy2cents

April 10th, 2011
6:13 am

Two spoiled brats fighting huh?? My money is on Bourdain. Wish they could use their “celebrity” status to feed starving children here in the U.S. vs. fancy meals.

ATLien

April 10th, 2011
7:05 am

Can’t argue with that logic.

Kirk

April 10th, 2011
8:26 am

Can’t we all just get along?

Diego

April 10th, 2011
9:01 am

justmy2cents….Please point out those STARVING children, have you seen the obese kids in our America? I bet you are in the serving line at the so called “Feed The Hungry” ( Ruse ) in Atlanta, 20,000 or so mostly freeloaders that must be starving the other 364 days a year, maybe that’s who you are talking about?

JASon

April 10th, 2011
10:27 am

I’m real glad this bothers Tony so much. Perhaps if he worried more about how crappy his show has become he wouldn’t have to resort to these rants for publicity. Can you think of anything more inane than criticizing a food critic for getting free meals? Even if it is a real problem, you know, who cares?

Sam Bruni

April 10th, 2011
11:00 am

Mariana is small potatoes. And him eating with trivial PR people at their client’s restaurants is not suspect at all. That’s not a desperate attempt to get coverage even by an irrelevant rag. But yet none of those restaurants (that he paid for) even made his insignificant list.

Since, the Bourdain/Mariana feud has struck such a nerve maybe it’s a good lead in to disclose AJC’s payment policy.

Bob from Accounttemps

April 10th, 2011
11:50 am

The chief problem is lack of full disclosure. I believe John and crew are up front that they pay for meals and try to remain anonymous as they dine at the establishments they review. But when you have someone writing a review about a place they’ve been comped to eat or sleep at, that raises serious conflict questions, whether express or implied. We all like to think we can remain objective, but that’s almost impossible to do. The ethics lines were crossed long ago to the point where we have opinion masquerading as news (remember, commentary used to be labeled as such) and paid adverts masquerading as legitimate reviews. It has caused me to question nearly every review I read, whether concerning food, hotels and even cars.

Ian Hutchinson

April 10th, 2011
12:01 pm

…“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.”…

So it’s settled then. He doesn’t pay for his meals, he puts them on his expenses!

What a long, drawn-out article debating something that is settled by a paragraph within!! (Rolls Eyes).

sansho1

April 10th, 2011
12:44 pm

Since Mariani is writing for Esquire, Esquire paying the bill is appropriate.

Jim R.

April 10th, 2011
1:17 pm

Give peas a chance.

don

April 10th, 2011
1:48 pm

Bourdain has made a career based on walking…that’s mostly what he does on his TV show.

don

April 10th, 2011
1:51 pm

Just figured out why Bourdain walks so much…it IS the Travel Channel.

George the Accountant

April 10th, 2011
3:16 pm

Ian,
If you can’t distinguish between employer reimbursement for ordinary and necessary buisness expenses and being comped by the object of the writer’s review…GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN

N-GA

April 10th, 2011
4:40 pm

Does anyone even read Esquire magazine anymore?

Anthony bourdain

April 10th, 2011
5:06 pm

The key word everybody’s missing here is NOT “comp”. It’s not “freebie”. It’s “solicit”. And if it’s okay to solicit free [excrement (sorry, Tony)] from the subjects of your putative reviews then you may as well issue all of us a pair of knee pads.

Josh H

April 10th, 2011
6:13 pm

Mr. Kessler – Can you please explain the ethical standards that governed that Avion paid spot a few days ago?

Bob from Accounttemps

April 10th, 2011
10:50 pm

I was referring to John Kessler and Co. in my earlier post.

Carla Roqs

April 11th, 2011
8:17 am

bourdain is a pain…hey that rhymes. let’s try another one: his show is a no-go, mmmm, not good, but then neither is his show.

Reds

April 11th, 2011
8:29 am

Was the really Michael Symon who chimed in, or an imposter? Great piece JK. I am kinda hoping that we get some more back and forth. *goes to pop the popcorn in anticipation.*

[...] Kessler at the Atlanta Journal Constitution is still trying to sort out the Bourdain/Mariani ethical debate over food writers getting comped for their subject [...]

John Kessler

April 11th, 2011
12:26 pm

Alrighty then…
I’m kind of done with this and need to hightail it back to the intersection of Atlanta and Yum.
For the record:
AJC restaurant reviewers, both staff and freelance, follow the guidelines for ethical behavior outlined by the Association of Food Journalists, and you can take a gander here:

http://www.afjonline.com/afj.aspx?pgID=887

Two issues not addressed on this document:
Wine and Spirits: I get invited to a bucketload of tastings, go to a few and write about even fewer. Usually it involves someone making the rounds with open bottles and a spit bucket, and I make it clear I’m not promising any coverage. When I do write about spirits I usually go to a bar sometime afterward so I can taste it again, in the evening, without spitting.
Gifts from the kitchen: Chefs often send out small gifts to friends and VIPs. I know this is not a bribe, but a gesture of hospitality. Yet I do not feel right accepting anything that most customers do not receive. I don’t want to embarrass the chef by sending it back, so I usually just let it sit there. In the past couple of weeks I pushed away caviar before one meal, and a glass of dessert wine after another.
I am all about transparency in this business, and if you have any further questions I encourage you to write to me directly. jkessler@ajc.com

faustianbargain

April 11th, 2011
1:19 pm

to kessler: you want a medal for pushing caviar before one meal because you didnt pay for it? do you know how caviar is obtained?

[...]Commercial caviar production historically involved stunning the fish (usually by clubbing its head) and extracting the ovaries.

Nowadays most commercial fish farmers extract the caviar from the sturgeon surgically (compare caesarean section) and then stitch up the wound to keep the sturgeon alive, allowing the females to continue producing more roe during their lives.

Other farmers use a process called “stripping”, which extracts the caviar from the fish without surgical intervention. This is the most humane approach towards fish that is presently available but not all farmers use it due to the lack of knowledge in this field.[...]

thats what you ‘pushed away’ so you can feel smug…and ..i guess..transparent.

you, bourdain..you, kessler..symon, mariani, foodies..the entire lot make me want to slither under a rock and eat moss. and i’d be happy. you have all ruined food and erased the pleasure from dining out. i cant have a bowl of noodles without my dining companions..alleged foodies..dropping one of your cursed names or another. i just want to eat, dammit. go and fight elsewhere..please.

Grasshopper

April 11th, 2011
1:47 pm

It’s interesting that Bourdain derides food writers so much and then slithers out to appear on…wait for it…Top Chef. How commercial can you get?

justmy2cents

April 11th, 2011
2:36 pm

@ Diego- heck no I am not in the serving line for the Feed the Hungry freeloaders. I’m talking about the kids that get their only meal for the day at school. Check out the motel kids article on CNN http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/03/24/cnnheroes.serato.motel.kids/index.html (not sure if the link will post) That explains the children I am talking about.

Lizzie

April 11th, 2011
2:40 pm

Aside from the debate at the heart of todays blog, it really pleases me when Atlanta gets on the radar for our food culture. Good or bad, we’ve got a fiesty and passionate group of people who love a good discussion/fight about our restaurants, chefs, food and even restaurant reviews. I’m always a bit dumbstruck that our little ole town (I’m a native) is worth this attention. In the exact same breath, I think “’bout damn time”….

Mr. Bourdain, any plans to visit our city for your show? If we get this fired up about restaurant reviews, just imagine what the discussion on the best BBQ in the city devolved into…

Josh H

April 11th, 2011
3:05 pm

I understand the need to attend industry events as editor, but do you really think it’s worth sacrificing your anonymity as a reviewer to sample products that you don’t intend to review at wine and spirit tastings?

dave

April 11th, 2011
4:43 pm

On a related note, the tequila commercial-like post you did a week ago left me wondering what sort of perks the AJC staff is getting. Even if it was totally legitimate, it certainly did not give that appearance.

Ann

April 11th, 2011
5:44 pm

People want to bang on the table about unethical writers who accept free meals, and I agree it’s wrong – that’s Journalism 101. But I think we also need to think about how limited resources are making it more and more difficult to find a truly professional, unbiased review. Hell, most newspapers cut their restaurant critics years ago. Do independent food bloggers adhere to these rules? HA!
And where are the throngs of citizens demanding unbiased reviews? They are watching Top Chef and the Food Network, and they truly don’t even understand the difference between a food writer and a restaurant critic anymore anyway, the same way they stopped understanding the difference between news and entertainment a long time ago.

happy

April 12th, 2011
12:28 am

bourdain is either right or wrong. @ least he has the guts to bring this out in the open. this brings out a healthy discussion.

Diego

April 13th, 2011
6:52 pm

justmy2cents…You could be right about the child abuse…So called parents opting for drugs, cigarettes and booze rather than seeing to the safety and welfare of their children, but I do not go along with CNN as they tend to dramatize and embelish for their own shock and awe of America’s demise. I have not heard of a single child dying of starvation in America!

Debbie Downer

April 14th, 2011
10:42 am

Visualize swirled peas (Jim R!).

Bourdain makes my skin crawl. Anything he says goes in one ear and out the other. And agree with Grasshopper’s observation.