Sam Sifton and trustworthiness

Sam Sifton and trustworthiness

The New York Times has named its next food critic. Sam Sifton is the man of the hour, the guy who is supposed to replace Frank Bruni. Eater has provided a dossier, Daniel Mauer of Grub St: NY has commented on the power of the restaurant critic, and Ed Levine of SE:NY has showered Sifton with rainbows and unicorns. What really caught my attention thus far has been Sam’s own comments from The New York Times. His comments on the internet went like this, “I don’t know that I trust the opinion of that guy who loved the sandwiches at Xie Xie and wrote about it on his blog, or Yelp, or Eater, or Midtown Lunch. (Why prevaricate? I don’t trust his opinion.)”

The truth is I don’t the context of the Susan B quote, but as a person who fought for women’s suffrage but it’s safe to say she wanted the rank and file to have their say. And maybe so does Sifton, except Sifton ain’t gonna really listen to the rank and file. To use his own word, he doesn’t trust bloggers. Then that’s the curious thing, if you don’t trust bloggers, why are you even wanting to get in on the discussion? Obviously as the Times critic, if you comment on something, you’re automatically part of the discussion. Is that what you meant? Or do you actually believe in dialog with people you don’t trust. Or do you value people’s opinions only when you’ve validated them for yourself? That sentence shows more of an error in logic than an open minded invitation for actual discussion.

If ‘industry’ people really want to sound like they know what they’re talking about, maybe they should read enough blogs to know the difference between Yelp, Eater/Grub St, and Midtown Lunch. If you’re an industry person, or born before 1975, consider this your “OMG what is the internets?” primer. There are user generated sites like Yelp, where they take basically all user submitted entries and sorts them based upon their proprietary extortionist policies. Eater and Grub St are mostly food news sites that tell us about restaurant openings, closings, as well as some of their own special features about the behind the scenes of restaurants. Sites like Midtown Lunch are what most blogs are, which are blogs in a specific niche that satisfy a targeted audience. Oh and of course there are cooking and recipe blogs, but ‘insiders’ don’t hate them. People like that get invited on the Martha Stewart Show and shit. So when you’re the single most powerful voice in the food blogosphere, and you roundly don’t trust the food news blogs, the user generated blogs, or the niche blogs… then you don’t trust ANYTHING. Then what exactly kind of discussion do you even want to have with us? After all, we’re not trustworthy, right? Are the rank and file philosophers, or are we just a bunch of punks?

As far as trust for sites like Yelp. You know what? I don’t trust ’em either. How many of you use Yelp? And actually believe everything verbatim? It’s impossible. Sometimes there are too many reviews to read them all. Sometimes there aren’t enough. If a restaurant has four and a half stars out of five, do you just read the glowing reviews, or do you read only the negative ones and try to avoid the pitfalls? Do you trust three our of five star restaurants? What does it say about you when you go to a three star place and thing, “This shit is bangin, I don’t care what anyone says. More for me.” So who’s right? You or yelpers? Are you supposed to trust yelp or are you with Sifton and you trust nothing?

I love blogs (obviously). I spend many hours reading food blogs, technology blogs, sports blogs, and other stuff here and there. All of it is pretty interesting and it’s not just mindless drivel posted by untrustworthy individuals. I’m frankly kind of sick of all these industry people shitting on bloggers. I’m going to shit the fuck back people. You hear that? I can shit the fuck, and I can do it right back at you. The best part about blogs is that they are much better at doing real-time reactions than print journalism outlets. You know, Frank Bruni has been on the job for over four years. Is anyone really believing that what he wrote three years ago completely mirrors the reality of today? Restaurants change all the time. This was made all the more evident by the Bruni’s most recent review of The Union Square Cafe, where he downgraded the restaurant from three stars to two. Why? Because it ain’t the same no more. We can all say what we want on yelp, but you’re more likely to find recent experiences from a restaurant.

As for this whole ‘internet phenomenon’… what happens right now is what’s always been happening, except people have access to an expression outlet. You can say whatever you want and see it online almost instantaneously. But what did people do before that? They ask their friends. I have a friend who’s into Burger King, Buffalo Wild Wings, and also Nobu. He thought Market Table was way overrated and he raves about Cowgirl Hall of Fame. He’ll drop a Benji at The Harrison and the next day eat halal street food on 53rd and 6th. What I’m trying to get at is that he likes a lot of different things, just like everyone else out there on yelp. Before the advent of yelp, what you did was go, “Oh hey Jeremy, have you been to restaurant X, what did you think?” And there would be some back and forth about what to try, what was tasty, what bombed… It’s just that now, in addition to asking your friends, you could twitter or facebook for advice. You could see what is on yelp and what’s on the blogosphere.

Ultimately who you choose to trust says more about you than it does about the review that you’re reading. I know the ins-and-outs of what my friends like. I take their suggestions and try to ascertain how that fits on their scale, and how their scale relates to my own. When you do this face to face with someone familiar, it’s easy. When you do it with a blog you read regularly, you also get an understanding of where his/her suggestion comes from. If you don’t trust it, that’s because you don’t know the source. If you don’t know the source, that’s because you either read general review sites like yelp, or you don’t consistently read the same blogs over and over for entertainment.

Easy Ed said that Sifton is a really well-read man, so maybe the dude reads real publications and books instead of blogs. So I can’t fault him for not trusting blogs. If you don’t know where the opinion is coming from, it’s difficult to find out whether it holds ground as it relates to your own palate. But if if he doesn’t trust blogs because of the nature of blogs… meaning if he doesn’t trust us because we’re not professionals, then that’s just stupid.

Since Sifton didn’t elaborate, I would say it was just douchey and not asshole-y. I still get really sick and tired of print journalists shitting on blogging. Or when chefs shit on blogging. People who do that need to grow up. Trust me, no one is ditching NYTimes Dining section to primarily read this piece of shit. Sure, you can read them all, but no one is going to replace the Times. People just understand that in the world today, review sites basically becomes an extension of asking your friends for their opinions. It gives you a starting point. You still have to go eat it. If you have a friend named Billy Bob who constantly refers you to shitty restaurants, you’re not going to trust him either. But depending on how you phrase it, it’s either shitting on Billy Bob’s integrity, or just saying that Billy Bob’s sense of delicious veers sharply from your own. Because at the end of the day, we’re still largely talking about the subjective notion of taste as it goes from your mouth to your brain. If I like to stuff my face full of korean cheetos, there’s no one who’s going to tell me that I’m wrong for liking them. If you do, I’m going to fucking punch you in the neck.

The pictures you see in this post are actually from Aamchi Pao. But you might want to go read about them from a trustworthy source. That’s what the food critic at the most influential paper says.

Posted by Danny on August 6, 2009 at 4:49 am

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