Blog-Tied: How a Hunger for Clicks Drives New York’s Brutally Fickle Food Scene

Flavor of the month: cronuts.

Flavor of the month: cronuts.

Remember Locanda Verde? It’s still downtown, it still has delicious, affordable food, but it might as well be Sardi’s for the amount of coverage it gets. The Dutch displaced it, and now Lafayette will displace The Dutch. They all have the same universally respected chef, Andrew Carmellini, and are owned by an experienced and well–funded restaurant group, so they will be fine.

But go visit some of the hot restaurants of 2009, like Matsugen and Mia Dona and Adour and Allen & Delancey and RUB and The Tasting Room and Centro Vinoteca and Irving Mill. Or rather don’t, because they’re all out of business, and got that way fast as a result of a brutal food-media climate dominated by online outlets. For the sake of convenience, I will call them “blogs,” but they’re really news-driven niche sites for foodists, which is to say, almost everybody these days.

The effect of blogs on the way we eat in New York has not been fully appreciated. It’s not strictly bad, and you could make a pretty good case that diners have never had it better. What’s more, the writing on most blogs is witty and entertaining, and it provides an IV drip of entertainment day and night. But it comes with an enormous hidden cost. By creating unsustainable hype around new restaurants, online food sites condemn those six months or older to murderous silence and obscurity.

The blogs give their blessings freely but withdraw them soon after: they’re like children who shower a puppy with adoration and then quickly regret its existence. Even a restaurant that sticks it out is hard-pressed to survive the shockwave of its online fame. The hype invariably creates a huge backlash that the restaurant is then ill–equipped to deal with, causing it to hire $5K-a-month PR firms, putting it on even more precarious ground. “The pressure to be in certain blog roundups and listicles is intense,” said Steven Hall, a veteran New York restaurant publicist. “But once a few months have passed, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the hot factor, especially if the players are unknown.”

The immense power the top food and restaurant blogs wield was not inherited from Gourmet or The New York Times. They created it, along with the food culture that forms New York today. Blogs need material to write about: they need it desperately, the way that magazines need celebrities on their covers. If they get enough content, people will come back to read them not once or twice or four times, but dozens of times a day, and only with that kind of traffic can even a scaled-down site make money.

This basic economic fact compels them to publish all the time, and to publish things that seem like a bigger deal than they are. To take an example readily at hand: Dominque Ansel Bakery in Soho recently came out with a new pastry. It’s called a cronut. It’s half donut and half croissant, and it’s really good. That’s it. All you need to know about it can be contained in a tweet. Now do a Google News search for cronuts. You’ll find dozens of stories: posts about “cronut mania” on Eater, a headline on Grub Street claiming that it “might very well change your life,” follow-up posts from the ABC and Today show sites (“meet the new dessert sensation!”) and, now having crossed the Atlantic, the Daily Mail. There is a site devoted to cronuts, cronut.org. Ryan Sutton, the restaurant critic for Bloomberg, reports on “cronut scalping” on his own blog, thebaddeal.com. The cronut is two weeks old.

David Chang, perennial food blog favorite.

David Chang, perennial obsession of New York’s food bloggers.

Nobody is going to win a James Beard Award for his cronut coverage, but so what? Older print food writers, resentful and aghast at their sudden obsolescence, invariably mourn the absence of thoughtful, knowledgeable expert criticism. This is a fair objection, as it happens, but is also entirely irrelevant. No food writer today, with the possible exception of Anthony Bourdain, wields anything like the influence the Times or Gourmet once did. As late as the mid -’90s, small, weird restaurants were the exclusive purview of a few zines and newsletters, like Jim Leff’s “Chowhound” and Robert Sietsema’s “Down the Hatch.” But in the long run, these small and agile mammals outran the immense, omnipotent beasts who ruled the forest.

The best thing about this evolutionary change has been the spur it has given to the undercapitalized but inspired undertakings of the Momofuku model, which would limp along until its owner had a baby. When print media controlled food writing, smaller indie efforts existed entirely for their neighborhoods unless an important writer chose to single them out for literary purposes, as with Calvin Trillin’s famous essay on Shopsin’s or Mimi Sheraton’s star-making review of Rao’s.

The situation is reversed today—big, fine uptown restaurants like Oceana and Gilt and Park Avenue Spring can barely earn a mention on the blogs. And the reason isn’t so much that people aren’t interested in them, or that they are only patronized by fuddy-duddies, although both of those things are true. It’s that bloggers are themselves under immense pressures that you don’t hear about.

TAKE IT FROM ME. I was the first editor of Grub Street, and those two years were, for all the excitement, a life radically wretched. I’ve been in a bad marriage, survived a doctoral program, suffered obsessive episodes requiring medication, lived with a girlfriend who worked as an escort, struggled to keep a business afloat, been in tax trouble and written nine books—and I have never felt the kind of pressure I did when I was helming Grub Street.

I had opinions to burn and a strong knowledge of food and restaurant gossip, along with an effortlessly voluble writing style that I thought would never fail me. None of it mattered. I was a desperate, harried, hysterical wreck. Newsworthy food stories don’t happen every day. But even if they did, I wasn’t writing once a day; I was writing eight times a day. Later it became 12 times a day. Some posts could be offloaded onto interns. Others came from our nightlife editor, Daniel Maurer, who was eventually drafted to help out with food stuff.

But even with help, I still faced a horrific gaping content maw, a journalistic sarlacc that I was lucky to fill with any hint of news, or even news about news. Cesare Casella mentioned to me once that he was talking about maybe opening a retail bean store in Grand Central Terminal; I called him once a month to check on it. David Chang would say something to me at Ssäm Bar when I was there; everything he said to me found its way onto Grub Street. (These kinds of boundary issues are, I suspect, a big part of the reason for my lifetime ban from the Momofuku empire.)

One day, somebody forwarded me an email some hapless chef had written to his friends urging them to vote for him for a James Beard Award; I printed the letter, redacting his name. It was a crummy thing to do, and I later found out that he had barely been dissuaded from beating the shit out of me. The other blogs, equally desperate for content, picked up the story, and his name, once known, earned him more blog posts, which were then linked to and commented upon by other blogs. The posts were basically a Von Neumann machine, each post helping to create others like itself.

Even so, there was never enough material. I cracked under the pressure and became a whimpering mess, like the soldier Patton slaps in the hospital. In my haste, I made frequent errors, and earned the daily scorn of a young editor charged with “cleaning up my messes,” as he put it. But other writers, younger ones, adapted quickly to the pressure. Eater, our arch-rival, soon hired a former student of mine at NYU, Amanda Kludt, who turned out 10, 12, 15 or more posts a day, on every subject, seemingly without stress. Grub Street had to keep up, and around then it seemed to me that it might be a good idea to throw in the towel. Daniel Maurer picked up the slack and never missed a beat; he was succeeded by other, equally tireless editors and writers. Grub Street is the best it’s ever been, and it has to be, to keep up with Eater and Serious Eats.

Mission Chinese: hot until it's not.

Mission Chinese: hot until it’s not.

ALL THESE SITES HAVE to post many times a day, because they do a volume business, and even tens of thousands of visits a day can barely cover the cost of doing business. When in gear, the blogs work the dining public up into a lather of excitement and expectation, and the energy they loose on the dining world has powered its explosive growth over the last few years. Meet Danny Bowien! He’s an awesome guy with a cool haircut and some restaurant somewhere that people like you like! Now he’s coming to New York! Mission Chinese is going to open soon. The plywood just came down! The city has gone gaga over his kung pao pastrami! He’s like David Chang, but friendlier! Will his madcap style propel him to a great review? Will he get a Beard nod? The gale of hype fills the sails of the place, and the print writers rev their noisy old outboard motors to keep up. Then comes the post: Mission Chinese is the Times’s Best New Restaurant of 2012. OMFG! The sky’s the limit for Mission Chinese.

Or, really, it isn’t. Danny Bowien is talented, and it would be wrong, as some churls have, to dismiss his cooking as stoner food for smart people. But he’s no Gray Kunz, either, and Mission Chinese will eventually cool, and the Blog Gaze will land elsewhere. That kind of coverage is, I think, justifiable when lavished on a figure as charismatic and influential as David Chang, or as wildly talented as the Voltaggio brothers or the Torrisi boys. But the dynamic is at work all the time, and there are only so many stars to go around. So soon a corps of disposable ingénues get the treatment—young chefs who can’t hold onto a job, Top Chef washouts, food truck operators, other bloggers. I think that, just on my watch, Ryan Skeen was hired and fired by four different restaurants; I quit four years ago, and he hasn’t broken stride. (The very day I wrote this, he was in Eater for being fired again.)

For all the distortions caused by early fame, the most damaging effect of the hourly news cycle comes at conception itself. The blog ecology forces any potential restaurant to stress novel dishes and weird concepts because it needs to break through the noise.

The blogs valorize young, unproven chefs who are often immature jerks and are almost always unequal to the demands of running a restaurant over the long term. Of course, even the most seasoned chef is hard-pressed to have a new, complicated business running with perfect efficiency in a matter of weeks.

But that’s how long they have before the big print critics, edging away from their looming grave, either jump on the bandwagon or, worse, hit back hard. The pressure to opine about new eras is so great, even for entrenched critics, that a restaurant’s every virtue becomes wildly amplified: the city’s gastronomes go into heat, and the restaurant, blinded by the light of fame and a very temporary financial windfall, invariably relaxes its efforts, or at least ceases to apply the hysterical strength required to regularly produce stellar results in an undermanned kitchen. Then the inevitable and permanent night of obscurity descends.

Having seen this cycle in action a few times, the best New York restaurateurs have fallen into a certain preventative rhythm, creating wonderful restaurants every two years or so, thus guaranteeing the continuing success of their older efforts, which are, at least, then bathed in the reflected light of their cuter baby brothers. So Locanda Verde gave way to The Dutch and The Dutch to Lafayette; Joseph Leonard to Perla, and thence to Fedora and Jeffrey’s and Chez Sardine; Momofuku to Ssäm and then Ko; Convivio and Alto to Marea and Morini and Ai Fiori. It’s the smart move, an adaptation to the blog ecology. “You can’t embrace the positive effects of blogs when they help and they ridicule them when they don’t,” said Gabe Stulman, of the aforementioned Joseph Leonard empire, one of the canniest of the new restaurateurs. “You have to accept it all, and so we do.”

The only catch is that most restaurants don’t have the kind of direction and organizational support needed to reinvent so frequently. They are running in place, like the blogs that cover them, undermanned, under pressure and attempting vainly to keep up with unquenchable appetites.

editorial@observer.com

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Culinary Blasphemy and commented:
    Hmmm…interesting read…agree or disagree?