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Social Media Critics and the Quest For Authenticity in the Culinary World

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Earlier this month, I came home from working the floor at the Driskill Grill. I sat down with a tray of sushi I just purchased at Whole Foods and a Domaine de Canton Kir Royale. The plan was to do a little food pairing homework for our tasting menu, plus I was really hungry. In addition, I had my iPhone's TweetDeck application open. I'm new to social media and am attempting to understand its usefulness and significance. I set the search function to the word "Driskill," so any tweet that contained the word "Driskill" would pop up. Plus, I'd like to know what people are saying about my new restaurant home. As I snacked on my sushi and admired my cleverness in the pairing, I also noticed, "Hey we're being reviewed in real time here." I hurried and read all of the tweets on Twitter from @cookingengineer.

Every restaurant operator, when they find out they're being reviewed, wonders which table the reviewer was seated at and which night or nights the reviewer visited. They will even go through the roster of who worked the floor and which cooks were on which stations. As I was reading reviews in real time, I wondered, "Which table are these tweets coming from?" "Oh! Maybe it's the guy with the super soignee camera setup, hovering over the place setting seated at table 8b, duh!"

In the hotel world, one is trained to ignore so much, to respect the preferences and idiosyncrasies of one's guests and not judge them, but to be accommodating. So at the time when I presented wine service at the beginning of @cookingengineer's dining experience, I thought nothing of the awesome apparatus for capturing images hoisted on the table. The tweets were mostly positive declarations. He didn't like the ginger soup, bummer, but he seemed to enjoy everything for the most part.

In the morning when I awoke, I saw he had written a very favorable review and shot some amazing photos, too. I emailed the review to our GM, Sean Tupper, with a note, "This is the world we live in now." So what's my take on this? Bring it on! There are many changes happening in the restaurant landscape, and the social media critics (SMCs) may be the people to keep us sincere.

The Quest for Authenticity and Hyperreality

This is really a very exciting time in the culinary world. Restaurants are moving to a point of myopic implosion as a return to local, community-focused values is the dominate paradigm. Deeply rooted in this localism is a crucial quest for authenticity. A unique factor of this movement based on localism is that there isn't one epicenter, rather a bunch of epicenters, feeding off each other. Cities such as Portland, San Fran, Chicago, Brooklyn, and even Austin are deeply entrenched in this quest for the authentic and paramount of the community. This applies not to just the restaurant kitchen, but to the wine lists and cocktail programs. I particularly enjoy the cocktail side of the movement, and although there are some very unique wine lists out there, the quest for authentic, ingredient-and-tradition-inspired cocktails is at the chic forefront of the changing dining landscape. I confess I feel a little out-of-fashion when expounding the theories of food and wine pairings to a table when the bar scene is so much more exhilarating.

Intertwined with this quest for authenticity is individuality, manifesting itself as a culinary subculture. I often hear restaurant-players talking about, "People understanding what we're doing." To paraphrase, "People who get it are welcome, people who don't can take a hike. My myopic quest for authenticity makes me special." Another manifestation of the movement moving toward a subculture is that belief in the values is sufficient enough, and that the top performing aspect of the restaurant-solely or any combination of kitchen endeavor or the cocktail and wine programs-makes the service staff special by default. "Chef's food is outstanding; therefore, I'm an outstanding waiter because I'm delivering it." "The cocktails are amazing, thus am I." The mere fact that the server delivers the incredible food or drink makes him exempt from pulling his weight or honing his craft as a professional. Good service isn't part of the program of many authenticity-driven restaurants, rather, a smug, arrogance often prevails.

Even if diners understand the restaurant's mission, they can still be scrutinized by the wait and host staff, evaluated as if they are really "getting" what the restaurant is all about. "You don't like my service. You obviously don't get what we're all about here." In the real world, it is unrealistic to think the most economically viable small businesses are the ones who critically pick and choose their customers. I often wonder why chefs and owners allow their staff to blow it as the myopic quest for authenticity takes precedence over delivering fine service. The service is not as important as the food or beverages? The people who get it, will get it and look past poor service?

There lies the irony: the quest for authenticity does not make one authentic. To be truly authentic in the modern culinary world is nearly impossible as authenticity doesn't happen in retrospect. The last instance of authenticity to emerge upon the culinary landscape may be molecular gastronomy, championed by the efforts of chefs such as Ferran AdriĆ .

Authenticity is only achieved by originality in the present. To understand this concept, ponder this statement: Blues is authentic music, Rock and Roll is not. Blues comes from a place; rock and roll only revisits that place. At this point you're left with a hyperreality, attempting to force an unattainable fantasy-ideal into reality.

The quest is fueled by a single-mindedness to achieve real authenticity, researching traditions, practices and recipes of bygone days, finding only pure ingredients to execute the vision and become economically viable, long-lasting and understood by the general public (or the people who get it).

The quest for authenticity is brilliant as the journey outshines the destination. Although there is a savvy dining populace, for the most part, people remain difficult to convince. Those at the forefront of the quest for authenticity are often there alone. It takes time before the general public, even educated diners, catch on. Someone has to educate guests and deliver the message of the mission. In the restaurant world, this is best delivered by gracious hosts, meaning the floor staff: hostesses, waiters, barmen, floor managers, etc. I see glimpses of the gracious host, but no standard-bearers.

It's so un-hip to be a servant

Everyone wants to be a star nowadays. Examples from the entertainment realm reinforce the idea that you don't have to be a true artist to be famous. Reality TV makes stars and the ParisHiltonization of Hollywood reinforces that the merit of your pursuit can be questionable, if only the icon is seductive or charismatic. Individual pursuit is more important than talent. Individual-first mantras fueled by Facebook, hipsterism, Twitter, iPhones, and YouTube rule supreme. Consciousness-shaping icons such as Oprah Winfrey herald the concept that the greatest sin is to go unnoticed. This prevailing mantra is in contrast to the goal of a true service professional: to take care of the guest in an unobtrusive, near invisible manner. Highly influential companies promoting lifestyle products (such as Whole Foods) exist in an individuality-first, customer-second paradigm. I'll argue that Whole Foods is the biggest advocate of the "our customers are the people who understand what we're doing and are better off because of it" credo in business today.

There is no reward in genuine service. Society fails to celebrate a service professional's endeavor. It's difficult to be a great servant, sincerely caring about one's guests, being gracious, even to those who don't understand what you're doing. It's easier to say, "Chef's great, so I'm great, YOU don't get what we're trying to do, there's the door."

Social Media Critics and Hyperreality

Social Media Critics also exist in hyperreality. As guests become critics, the concept of a simple dinner hyperboles into a serious critique of the restaurant. More importantly is the SMC's attempt to change the reality of their "day job" into the fantasy of playing the role of "food critic" with the added enticement of real metrics. The more followers/fans/subscribers I have, the more the merit of my endeavor increases; therefore, a SMC doesn't need to know the difference between a pate a choux and rillette, he only needs to get out there, blog/tweet/yelp it and hopefully, in the meantime, grow followers.

There exists a very strong example from the real world reinforcing this trend: wine critic Robert Parker. It is argued that Mr. Parker-referred to as the most powerful critic in the world-doesn't understand a wine's harmony and finesse. He awards high scores to wines that are powerful and overt. Should his message have merit? If one measures the cases of wine his positive reviews sell, then "yes." He doesn't have to understand harmonious and pure wines now, does he?

The SMC transcends the role of a traditional food critic as space and time is crossed in an instant through direct and immediate communication on Twitter, simultaneously reaching an audience while reviewing, and in a much more personal manner.

Built into this hyperreality is a certain gunfighter's mentality. Many gain interest in becoming SMCs with the hopes that they will increase their merit by growing their number of followers. The restaurant becomes the "target" as SMCs roll through their doors armed with cameras and smart phones, looking to be the first to catch the restaurant in their crosshairs. To the SMC, this increases the value of their dining experience. "I've heard great things about this place; great for me if it delivers, but even better if it doesn't, gives me something to write about. Maybe I'll be the one to knock it off its high horse!"

I find it fascinating how these two hyperrealistic paradigms converge. A culinary subculture wanting to be the sole judge of authenticity, bent on reaching out only to those who are worthy enough to be "getting it," colliding with the SMCs who seek to be the judges by delivering declarations on culinary endeavors and reaching out to an ever-growing following, vastly ranging in levels of discernment.

Words of Advice

First, for those in the industry who hate the SMC landscape, get over it. It is here to stay. You will have to learn how to handle this type of social schizophrenia. You might be using social media to get the right people through your doors, and SMCs use it to get more value from their dining experience, even if at the annoyance of those dining at the table with them. (My wife put a stop to me busting out my iPhone at dinner. Out of respect to her, I now keep it away from our simple little dinners out).

Restaurant operators who want to monitor what people are saying about their establishments should add platforms such as TweetDeck to the office computer or check it from their smart phones, but preferably away from the guests' view.

The best remedy is to graciously deliver delicious food and drink to everyone who walks through your doors.

Second, for the SMCs, keep doing what you're doing, but try to be as fair as possible. SMCs keep restaurants sincere. There are many changes to the dining landscape; perhaps your efforts will bring beneficial improvements to the service realm. If you're taking the time to review the food and drinks, remember to include your take on service. A chef might want to know their food was described appropriately. Restaurant owners might want to know if they need to step up their game or offer an apology. Floor managers might want to evaluate the quality of service given.

In the case of the @cookingengineer's review, the Driskill Grill's back-of-the-house staff took the account seriously and gleaned it for information to make better experiences for future guests. They were thankful for the feedback. As for the front-of-the-house staff, we strive to deliver unobtrusive, near invisible attention to the guest. In the review, there is nary a mention of service. "Thank you."



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