Another Food Critic Loses Anonymity

Encouraged to be "more visible" by the Houston Chronicle, Alison Cook spoke at the Metropolitan Food Show this past Sunday. Eater Houston had a picture of her up by Tuesday. 
Tue September 18, 2012 10:41 pm
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The Internet has claimed another Texas food critic: the Houston Chronicle ’s Alison Cook, who had remained officially anonymous—if often recognized by restaurant insiders—during an approximately thirty-year career that has also included stints with the  Houston Press and Texas Monthly .

Encouraged to be “more visible” by her editors at the  Chron, Cook spoke at the Metropolitan Food Show this past Sunday, and  Eater Houston  had a picture of her up by Tuesday.

Eater Houston ’s Eric Sandler  noted that Cook spoke specifically about the issue Sunday. 

“I’ve never done this before,” she said of speaking publically. As Sandler wrote:

As recently as when she conducted an online chat about her top 100 in June, Cook noted that one could not find a picture of her online by searching google [sic]. Those days have come to an end.

The food news website has a recurring ” To Catch A Critic ” tag, aligning it more with chefs and restaurant owners, who are always looking to ID critics and share photos, than journalists who value the anonymous tradition. 

“Stay Classy, Eater,” tweeted former Austin American-Statesman  food critic Mike Sutter , a frequent topic  (target?) of Eater Austin ’s coverage.

But Texas Monthly  food critic and Executive Editor Patricia Sharpe did not see any reason to blame the messenger in this case. Her take:

Eater was reporting the news here. Alison–who is an old friend, by the way–did make a public appearance about it, so this one didn’t strike me as a gotcha post (the fact that it’s great gossip is icing on the cake).

I feel less comfortable about “To Catch a Critic” becoming a regular, ongoing Eater feature if they use it in a paparazzi way, to expose an anonymous critic who is trying to provide a reader service.

Eater doesn’t actively do that ( full disclosure: the author of this post has been a contributor to the site–including  a brief interview  with famous disguise-wearer Ruth Reichl, who remains an anonymity proponent, on that very subject) . The site has previously outed the last two Dallas Observer critics, Hanna Raskin and Scott Reitz, but as with Cook, they had been photographed in other contexts. It also infamously stalked then- New York Times critic Sam Sifton when he went to eat the KFC “Double Down,” but Sifton was already not anonymous. 

Few critics are in the current age of digital media and “personal branding.” Certainly the job of the anonymous critic who does nothing but review scarcely exists anymore. Food writers must also interview chefs, blog, take pictures, and ideally be on televison (or at least in online videos). Readers want to see the face behind the prose. 

Another Houston writer, cookbook author and former Press critic Robb Walsh, “came out” in 2009 for those very reasons, while his successor, Katherine Shilcutt, has never been anonymous, as she wrote in her own story about Eater’s Cook post .

Chronicle senior editor Melissa Aguilar told Shilcutt that Cook was “such a force in print and on social media that we decided it was time our readers meet her in person. I think most folks in the restaurant community have figured out who she is over the years.”

Cook’s own statement to Eater was pragmatic:

My comment is that my newspaper wants and needs me to be more visible, and I have honored that request. It’s not a comfortable situation for a critic who has tried to keep a low profile for many years, and whose photo is not online. But times have changed for journalists,and for newspapers, and I’m willing to adapt to new circumstances as long as I can keep my ethical standards intact. I think I can.

But on Twitter, she let her emotions show a little more:

Below, more of Sharpe’s thought on the issue:

Years ago, I thought that anonymity was obligatory; I still think it is desirable.  But when you have been a restaurant reviewer as long as I have, waiters and chefs and restaurateurs get to know you. They watch the dining room like hawks to see if someone is doing something suspicious, like asking too many pointed questions, or scribbling a surreptitious note, or taking too many iPhone pictures; friends of yours innocently mention who you are; word gets out, more so in this social media era than ever. So often, the minute you walk in, you’re busted, because a smart waiter remembers you from another restaurant and he tells the owner.

But I think you can still do an unbiased assessment if you take care. For one thing, you always make reservations using an assumed name, so they’re not ready for you. And you have the advantage of ordering what you want. Of course, they send out fee samples, their best dishes (in their opinion), but you base your review primarily on what you ordered. One big difference the restaurant can make is being sure you have excellent service, but you just watch to see how other tables are being treated. And you never ever allow them to comp your meal. That’s a given. 

I think the real danger in being a public face for a magazine is that once you meet a chef or restaurateur, you usually like them (they’re sooooo nice to restaurant critics). And you can unconsciously go a little easy on them because of that. But your readers are depending on you for an honest opinion, and if you want to have long-term credibility, you absolutely must tell the truth and not pull your punches. You don’t have to rant or be mean, but you do have to be honest. And frankly, if you wimp out, the chefs know it too and they have no respect for you.

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