Sexism and unprofessional behavior could set women food critics back decades

Michael Chiarello is a chef, not a model photo: Michael chiarello

In 1992, Ruth Reichl left her post as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and headed East. She had been offered the job at the New York Times, a move she was unsure of at first. Her husband, however, was not: “… that job would make you the most powerful restaurant critic in the world,” he said. And he was right.

Perhaps no review defines Reichl’s career more than her legendary takedown of the snobbish Le Cirque, where on her first visit, disguised as her “regular person” alter ego Molly, she was treated like dirt, but on her second visit, when she dined sans disguise, she got VIP treatment from owner Sirio Maccioni, causing her to knock the renowned eatery down from four stars to three. Reichl spent six years outperforming all her male predecessors with aplomb; her reviews were smart yet entertaining with a distinct point of view, showing off not only her incredible knowledge of food and dining but also her witty, lively style of prose.

Reichl established the gold standard for women food critics, but with the advent of the Internet, which allows virtually everyone to call themselves a food critic, a couple of women — Kat Odell, editor of the food news and gossip site Eater Los Angeles, and Anna Roth, restaurant writer for SF Weekly — are working hard to set women back decades with their sexist attitudes and unprofessional behavior.

I’m not the only one taking note. Tom Colicchio, restaurateur, chef and head judge on Bravo TV’s Top Chef series, got into a Twitter battle with Eater’s founder, Lockhart Steele, about the world of restaurant criticism, the star rating system, and adhering to journalistic standards. Steele professed that Eater was “doing some of the best food journalism anywhere.” You could almost see Colicchio’s famous smirk as he disagreed, pointing out that Eater had never come to him to check a single fact.

Colicchio is more than vindicated as we watch Odell make one journalistic error after another on Bravo’s new reality show Eat Drink Love, which follows a group of women with jobs in the L.A. food scene. In one sequence, pastry chef Waylynn Lucas is furious over an article Odell pens for Eater about the anniversary of fōnuts, a bakery she co-owns. She accuses Odell of misquoting her, which Odell denies — but we are shown flashbacks of the interview where she clearly did just that.

Odell, who is heard boasting in the opening credits that she “can make or break a restaurant,” displays an embarrassing level of arrogance for the editor of a website that gets little respect from professional food journalists or established chefs.

In a scene clearly engineered by Bravo at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Beverly Hills (Keller has guest hosted on Top Chef), an awkward Keller appears at the table where Odell is dining with publicist Brenda Urban and “mixologist” Lindsay Nadar to make sure they’re enjoying their meal. Odell can barely speak, and after Keller exits stage right, she high fives the other women for maintaining her composure. (Having interviewed Keller several times, I can honestly say that, while I admire his work, I was never star struck.) When the waiter brings the next course — duck breast from Liberty Farms — Odell (who clearly doesn’t do her homework) asks where Liberty Farms is located. As her food grows cold, she goes on a mad texting spree with L.A. chef Chris Crary (a former Top Chef “cheftestant”), batting her eyes as she shows Urban how many texts he’s sent over the past few days.

It is Odell’s portrayal as a man hungry, star-struck chef chaser who, according to Urban, dates four or five chefs at a time and “has a reputation for sleeping with everyone she writes about and writing about everyone she sleeps with,” that is perhaps the most disturbing part of the series, especially because Odell does nothing to prove her wrong (she has since blamed “editing” for making her look bad). Not that Urban is a saint — she is also seen flirting mercilessly with Crary in another scene, and nearly passing out when meeting Keller, which she says is “like meeting the Pope in the food world.”


Closer to home, SF Weekly’s Anna Roth (whose online bio includes eHow, Citysearch, and her own Tumblr account) has been doing her part to make women food critics look foolish with her curious Coqueta vendetta. “I popped into Michael Chiarello’s new Spanish tapas endeavor, Coqueta, the other night, seeking libations after a trippy lightshow at the new Exploratorium,” Roth says in an April 2013 blog post; but rather than discuss what most readers care about (food, drinks, ambiance), she launches into a tirade about something that is “nagging” her — “the cluster of Zagat and Michelin recommendation stickers on the restaurant’s front door.” The problem, Roth says, is that Coqueta had only been open a week and therefore couldn’t have been reviewed. “Zagat stickers are fairly ubiquitous … but the Michelin name carries some weight. It seemed disingenuous and more than a little shady,” Roth says. It turns out the stickers were left from the previous restaurant, Lafitte, because the folks at Coqueta — having only been open a week — were still waiting for their new door. Roth gets to that at the end of the post, but I don’t understand why she wrote about it in the first place, and I especially don’t understand why she would casually throw around words like “disingenuous” and “shady” in reference to a chef, who, in my experience, has never been anything but upstanding and gracious.

The post foreshadows Roth’s even more bizarre review of Coqueta for SF Weekly in June, where, while dining anonymously, she became upset when Chiarello didn’t visit her table. Roth writes, “All through the meal, the chef returns to the same two or three tables several times — drinking punch with them out of a traditional Spanish pitcher, bringing them little treats from the kitchen, generally having what appears to be a great time — and ignores everyone else. If I’d come to bask in the glow of Chiarello’s celebrity, I would have been left out in the cold.” But she clearly did come to bask in his “glow,” gushing earlier that Chiarello is “as handsome in person as he is on the Food Network, tanned and trim with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair,” and noting that, while she’s seated just two feet away, her view during most of the evening is limited to “Chiarello’s (admittedly well-toned) backside.”

Contrast this with San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer’s description of Chiarello as he illustrates the dichotomy between the chef’s celebrated Italian cookery and Coqueta’s decidedly Spanish inspiration: “… when Michael Chiarello comes out of the kitchen in his chocolate brown chef jacket with the flag of Spain on its sleeve, you might be totally confused about Coqueta.”

If a male critic discussed a female chef’s “well-toned backside” in a review, it might have knocked Paula Deen out of the headlines. Worse yet, Roth is clearly so blinded by Chiarello’s snub that she takes it out on his food. After spending the first half of the review coming off like a celebrity chef stalker, Roth says dismissively, “And his food here isn’t much of a consolation prize.” Having eaten at Coqueta (a full review is coming soon), I couldn’t believe Roth and I were at the same restaurant as she bashed dish after dish. She says that the Marcona almonds “had a texture and astringent flavor that brought paint primer to mind.” Having never eaten paint primer, I can’t attest to its attributes, but I can say that the Marcona almond gazpacho, made with almonds, grapes and a drizzle of Syrah reduction, was rich and satisfying. Roth also says the grilled octopus, one of the highlights of my meal (and I don’t usually like octopus), was “gritty and acrid;” the meatballs were “so salty they were inedible;” and the paella (another highlight) was just “fine.” Outside of the paella and a “decent” open-faced sandwich featuring lardo, jambon iberico, and sea urchin, Roth concludes that her meal at Coqueta was “a bust.”

Bauer, on the other hand (who apparently ate at the same restaurant I did), raves about the food. He says the grilled whole branzino is “one of the best fish preparations” he’s ever had; the Gaucho ribeye steak for four “… should make the management of even the best steak house head back to the aging room to see what’s missing;” and the Iberico Secreto (considered the “Spanish butchers’ secret cut of pork”), “truly is, and worth the price.” Bauer’s takeaway from Chiarello’s Embarcadero jewel mirrors that of other food critics, including mine: “Coqueta channels the best of Spain, and mixes it with the best of Northern California. It’s an alluring combination that competes with — and beats — the water views.” He gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars.

For her conclusion, Roth once again turns to stalker talk: “I went in ready to be seduced. But the affair fizzled soon into my first visit as the food revealed itself to be a lot of show without much substance … Flash and style might be enough to fuel a first attraction, but there needs to be more behind the initial excitement or a flirtation will inevitably fizzle.”

It seems Roth wanted to be seduced by a lot more than Chiarello’s food. As with Odell flaunting her ability to seduce information out of chefs for Eater LA, I find it offensive that sexist attitudes and unprofessional behavior could set woman food critics back decades, cluttering the path carved through a male dominated profession by pioneers like Ruth Reichl. Too bad people aren’t as up in arms when a woman is sexist as they are when it’s a man — if they were, Roth and Odell would likely be apologizing on Twitter and uploading their résumés to Linked In.

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