Earlier this year chef Marc Vetri—CEO of the critically-acclaimed Vetri Family of eateries in Philadelphia, including the fine-dining Italian restaurant Vetri and the casual Pizzeria Vetri, among others—wrote an op-ed in The Huffington Post entitled “How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread.”
In the piece Vetri laid out what he sees as a crisis in food writing: Instead of giving readers the pleasure of digesting thoughtful food stories, journalists now only feed them clickbaity lists. “In the process of lowering their standards they have done irreparable harm to the once-elegant business of reviewing restaurants,” Vetri writes. “They have made traditional restaurant reviews all but irrelevant.” He continues: “Regardless of which direction food journalism takes, I’m still happy to earn my reputation the old-fashioned way, one good meal at a time.”
We caught up with Vetri while he was home in Philadelphia, on a short break from his countrywide tour promoting his new book, Mastering Pasta.
Have you discovered any great restaurants since youʼve been on the road?
Oh god, yeah. I usually eat at a lot of the same ones, but I finally ate at Quince in San Francisco and that was one of the most amazing meals of my life. In Los Angeles the folks from Gjelina just opened up a new sandwich place that was amazing. Every city has its own sort of vibe. Theyʼre all great in their own way.
Let’s talk about your critique of food journalism.
Weʼre going right for the jugular. Look, I wasnʼt out to bash every writer. But you just asked me, “What’s your favorite city to eat in?” Someone else will ask me, “What’s your favorite knife?” “What’s your favorite…” We need to free ourselves of needing to know this stuff. Why does there have to be a favorite or the best? Right now Iʼm sitting at home on a break from this wild book tour. I’m listening to my little ones yell at each other. But this is the best moment of my life, right now. And then tomorrow that will be the best moment.
You write that journalists “always pander to the most basic, low-brow instincts of the readers” with best-of lists and stories like that. The problem is that’s what readers click on!
It’s a whole snowball effect. Everyone started reading blogs and wanting information right away. So all of a sudden the writers have their bosses saying, “hey, we need you to write like this, we need you to write a list, we need you to write what’s number one, because that’s what people are going to look at.” It’s not like you want to write that stuff.
So what types of food articles do you want to see written?
I can only speak to what I like. I’m not looking to change the food writing world. I just want to read things that are interesting. I love reading The New York Times and Lucky Peach magazine. There’s this new magazine out called Life & Thyme and theyʼre doing some really cool stuff. Theyʼre looking at chefs from the point-of-view of artists.
Do you think there’s a role for traditional restaurant reviewers anymore? Traditional as in newspapers or magazines.
Restaurant reviews are pretty much irrelevant. It used to be that a restaurant opened and then there was nothing written about it up until the restaurant review was out. So everyone waited with bated breath for the restaurant review. But now the restaurant opens and there’s 100 reviews within an hour. So by the time the heavily weighted restaurant review is out, it’s irrelevant. Although I still look forward to reading a really good writer who writes fun and interesting reviews. Philadelphia has a really good restaurant reviewer. Heʼs an amazing writer and his stuff is really fun to read. I don’t necessarily agree with his ranking system, but it’s his ranking system so it really doesn’t matter if I like it or not.
Then there’s a place like Eater that writes reviews for shock value. That whole Per Se review was like the dumbest review in the world. Sorry. Per Se is one of the most perfect restaurants. Iʼve been there three times and every time is more perfect than the last. And then to have some nincompoop write, “everybody knows it’s not what it used to be,” and this sucked and that sucked. Come on. But that being said, I think Eater’s got some really interesting stuff on there.
Does the Philadelphia reviewer work anonymously?
What’s anonymous anymore? Everybody knows what all the writers look like, so he makes an attempt.
There’s been a backlash from chefs against anonymous newspaper critics over the past year, leading a few to ceremoniously unmask themselves.
Unmasking yourself as a restaurant reviewer speaks to your self importance. We all know what you look like, so stop with the unmasking. It’s absurd. There’s a photo of every restaurant reviewer in every city in most restaurants. Everyone knows what you look like.
But maybe they’re unmasking themselves to the reader instead of the kitchen?
Yeah, I guess. Listen, it’s all a ploy to get more readers. But hey, that’s the name of the game. We want to get more customers in the seats, writers want to get more eyes on their stories. Because if more eyes are on it, then youʼre gonna get more advertising dollars.
Are you constantly trying to keep the attention of the media so outlets will write about your restaurants?
I donʼt try to. It’s more about making sure everyone who eats there gets such a great experience. Because if youʼre open for 15 years and everyone who eats there has a great experience, theyʼre going tell their friends. And then theyʼre gonna eat there. I mean sure, I think media plays a role, but if everyone’s talking about you, like the actual customers, and then the media doesnʼt write about you, then they look like theyʼre missing something. It’s not healthy to just focus on, “we gotta get this article.” It’s good to focus on the restaurant, the evolution of the restaurant. Pour your energy into the restaurant and good things will happen.
How are people telling each other about your restaurants? Do you monitor Yelp?
I donʼt know. I look at Yelp for the negatives to kind of see what’s going on. If there’s a valid complaint I look into it, but I donʼt think Yelp is a judge. Those reviews are basically just comments on an article. Everyone’s just reading a comment. Oh my god, theyʼre so hurtful and hateful and even if there’s a nice one, it’s like, who writes comments? Do you ever comment on any article? I never comment.
God no. We donʼt even allow comments on Playboy.com.
It’s just sad. If there’s 200 comments on an article, whoʼs going to read yours? Like three people? Who cares? You want to write about me? Great. You donʼt want to write about me? Fine. My satisfaction comes from the folks who eat there and the smiles on their faces. And that’s it. Iʼm not worrying about this writer, that review, this comment. Theyʼre all thinking about their own agenda. Theyʼre not thinking about you.
Some reviewers write for the consumer, the eater.
Sure. I don’t like to obsess about it.
Have you dealt with any pushback since you wrote your article?
Very little. There was like one guy in Philly who basically wrote this soliloquy an hour after my article came out, which just validated everything I wrote. And then Helen Rosner from Eater, who I had always thought was a really wonderful writer, wrote another like completely absurd and ridiculous response like literally 20 minutes after the thing went up online. So how well was that thought out? It just didnʼt make any sense at all. But those are really the only two. But they were nothing, because then I got hundreds of emails from chefs and from writers thanking me.
I wrote an article that I thought was interesting and obviously a lot of other people thought it was interesting too. Again, my article wasnʼt like, you suck and this sucks or that sucks. But it was basically to say, “hey, listen, for better for worse this is what chefs are talking about.” You want to hate me because Iʼm the messenger and Iʼm the only one who has the nuts to say this? Fine. Iʼll be the bad guy.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep