Thursday, March 12, 2009

Houston's professional food critics

Alison Cook on Rainbow Lodge

Alison Cook published a magnificent review yesterday of Rainbow Lodge.

I don't say her review is magnificent because she loved the restaurant. (She did). Nor because her opinions are similar to my previous comments about the restaurant and its new chef. (They are.)

It is magnificent because it is so elegantly written, thoughtful, and insightful. For instance:

-"I felt my eyes welling with tears. . .I've never watched someone turn into a great chef right in front of me."

-"Thin-cut apple divides the ribbon of fish from a swoosh of cilantro pistou that is low-key enough not to dominate."

-"Rucker's more in love with his ingredients now than he is with his own mad skills."

And best of all:

-"Hansen and Rucker are running one of the best - and most interesting - restaurants in this corner of the world. Sometimes revenge is best served with a side of dashi gelee."

Many of Alison's published reviews are so polished, clever, and professional that they put the New York Times' critics to shame.

Houston's professional food critics

I remember a few years in the 90s -- after Alison left us for a while - when Houston had no full-time food critic. We are so fortunate now to have two of the best in the country.

Robb Walsh's writing is completely different and far more informal. And I disagree with his restaurant reviews more often than Alison. But he is my favorite American food writer. He articulates relationship between culture and food perhaps better than any critic writing in America today.

The coming end of professional food criticism?

It's no secret. The web is slowly killing off newspapers. And it is causing the layoffs of professional critics nationwide.

As Leisl Schillinger explained in a NYT blog today, "the old paradigm of publishing -- in which editors cautiously selected content, anxiously assessed its potential appeal and profitability, then painstakingly edited and proofed before printing their costly pages - has been overtaken by . . . 'mass amateurization,' or, in lay speak: blogging."

Houston's recent food blog explosion is part of that mass amateurization. I'm one of the amateurs. And I think there may be some real value to pithy stories, full of misspellings, about my efforts to cook a pig's head or find corn smut.

But if we ultimately do lose our professional critics -- people who write as carefully and thoughtfully as Cook and Walsh -- it will be a great loss for Houston.


Anonymous said...

great post, i agree with every word!


Misha said...

You and I have discussed this before, and I'll still disagree. Newspapers are hemorrhaging both revenues and writers, but that happens to an industry in transition. I believe the publications and writers that understand new media will do very well in the future.

I don't see food blogs as a threat to mainstream media. Appearance of amateurs is a sign of a maturing food culture. In a city as large as Houston, blogs allow smaller restaurants to find their micro niche, good chefs to be recognized and help expand the base of well educated diners overall. All of that increases interest in food, which in turn increases the demand for food writing, mainstream and amateur.

Starbucks based their entire business on that premise. Critics of their business model claimed that there is only so much coffee people need to buy, so you can't just keep adding more and more profitable locations. Instead Starbucks went on to create their own consumers with their very own culture - one that increased overall coffee consumption and absorbed higher prices. This is why there are often multiple Starbucks located right next to each other and yet both stores are busy.

Another interesting effect of Starbucks creating their own market was that independent coffee houses located next to Starbucks stores typically increase their sales, rather than go out of business. The only explanation so far is that as more people become coffee drinkers and learn about their preferences, a certain number splinters off and begins to buy higher end coffee.

The moral of the story is that expanding markets help everyone. Even the food writers.

Misha said...

And then of course Alison proves my point by posting a roundup of food posts around town.

anonymouseater said...


I see your point about food blogs. The blogs help nurture a larger market for food criticism.

But at a more general level, blogs and other internet media are killing the newspapers. We get all the information we need online, and don't need it from a newspaper. I have a friend at the Chron who has admitted to me that newspapers won't be around much longer.

When newspapers have to cut costs, one of the first cuts they make is the critics. I would be willing to bet that the number of full-time newspaper movie critics has been cut in half in the past decade. And, of course, when newspapers go under, everyone gets fired.

Misha said...

I am not as worried about newspapers, as I am about journalism. I think professional reporting and writing isn't going anywhere, especially something as intensely local as food coverage.

John said...

I am with Anonymouseater. I worry that Alison could not make a living as an on-line food writer (remember, it is her salary PLUS being reimbursed for dining costs). It is so easy to get lost in the sea of bloggers -- how could she get subscriptions or ads? Also, Alison honed her craft with newspapers (and was presumably edited and helped). Once she is gone (and here's hoping she writes into her 80s), I am not sure she will have a successor with anything like her talents.

While I understand Misha's "more is better" stance, I don't agree that it lifts all boats in this area. I think the professional boat gets swamped and sinks. I would give up Food in Houston, Misha's blog and 10 others to keep Alison around -- consistency and quality beats volume in my book. I don't drink coffee, but it seems to me that the Starbucks analogy fails: there are not near enough bloggers who reach (what I understand is) the quality level of Starbucks. Also, there is NOT an increasing number of professional food writers on Alison or Robb's level a la independent coffee sellers. Instead, look at the better analogy -- how Amazon and the chain bookstores have decimated the independents. Or, even closer, look at how there are almost no newspaper book reviews anymore, every stand-along Sunday review section (LA, Wash, Chicago) has been axed except for the NY Times, and the Hou Chron is down to about 25% of its peak in the Zest section, and then try to sift through all the junky book reviews on the Internet.

Oh, and once again I have to opine that Alison is God (from way back in 1990 or whenever it was that her Houston Press writing first sent me to Irma's, Lankford, etc.).

StefTampa said...

I'm new to reading Alison and Robb, but I've gotta say, there is something elegant about the way Alison writes that leaves you wanting to read more. I hope the paper continues to see her value and gives her that outlet.

Anonymous said...

There is a new little cafe in Pearland called "The Shade Tree Cafe". She is just getting started and has a small menu but everything is completely homemade from scratch and with fresh ingredients everyday. No pre-made, pre-packed anything. She has 3 homemade soups everyday - broccoli & cheese, cream of potato, and spicy chicken soup - all are delicous. Her chicken salad is hand-shredded and yummy. Also, the turkey pesto panini is to die for. Please stop in at 5103 Broadway, Pearland. You will love it.

YANNA said...

I understand. I am new to food criticism but I know that I want to be more involved. I hope that it doesnt die out.