Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Confessions of a Food Blogger/Yelper

Last week Brooke Burton of FoodWoolf.com and Leah Greenstein of SpicySaltySweet.com published a Jerry Maguire-type manifesto called the Food Blog Code of Ethics. The Code, which places a heavy emphasis on following the rules of good journalism, took the food blogging world by storm -- landing a mention in the NY Times dining blog and inspiring many food bloggers, myself included, to take an introspective look at the content we publish on our sites.

While I like to believe that I already adhere to some of the guidelines in the Code (taking accountability, being civil, revealing bias, etc.) on my blog, I know that my reviews and posts are by no means perfect -- especially when I am writing reviews for Yelp.com, a site that seems to be forever catching the ire of chefs, restaurant staff and professional critics alike.

When I started "Diana Takes A Bite," I initially intended it to be a more fleshed out version of my persona/profile of reviews on Yelp. I consider some of my early posts on my blog cringe-worthy -- rife with over statements, generalizations and the egoism that sites like Yelp engender in their reviewers. In my first post about how to make a healthy yogurt parfait, it is clear that I am writing for a reaction -- for the "useful," "funny," "cools," and compliments that Yelp reviewers can receive from other members. In my experience, these "accolades" are partially responsible for the greatest critiques voiced against Yelpers -- namely that we are a lot of uncouth, disrespectful drunkards whose opinions should be swallowed with an entire carton of Morton's salt. In the world of Yelp, reviews are meant to be first and foremost entertaining rather than factual and well-researched.

When I realized what I was doing, I began taking my blog in an entirely different direction -- making it more of a celebration of food rather than a means to shock an audience like some of my Yelp reviews. I take a lot of pride in my blog and truly make an effort to construct all of my posts in a thoughtful, and ideally, thought-provoking way. I endeavor to be factually accurate, to properly cite sources for my recipes, and, when reviewing a restaurant, to be fair and respectful.

My one concern with my restaurant write-ups is that in most cases, I am only able to visit a restaurant once before writing about it. I have tried to compensate for this by altering my reviewing style from a traditional review to a personal account of my experience at a restaurant -- the story of what what I was thinking, what I was tasting and what I was feeling -- with the hope that by offering my opinion in this manner I am making it clear that I am not trying to be Jonathan Gold, Ruth Reichl or even S. Irene Virbila. I am giving my perspective of an experience. The "Diana Takes A Bite" experience that is not necessarily the experience that Matt of Mattatouille or H.C. of LA & OC Foodventures or John Smith on Yelp will have.

I like to think that by writing in this manner, I can be fair to the restaurant I am reviewing, while also subtlety letting my readers know that my thoughts are based on a one time experience. The problem is that even with these precautionary measures, I am bound to stumble upon a dining experience that is incongruent with a typical night in the restaurant.

This past Friday night, I attended a wine and food pairing Yelp event at Campanile, a restaurant I have been to several times before. For $19 (+tip/tax), we were treated to pours of three different white wines to be paired with three plates of food -- classic grilled cheese sandwiches, grilled cumin scented shrimp with Greek yogurt, and smoked cod with red pepper and bacon on crostini.

While I enjoyed the grilled cheese sandwiches (I ate seven slivers) and thought that the wine selected was quite good, I was disappointed by the shrimp and crostini. Everyone at my table agreed that the shrimp were limp and flavorless. and we were equally turned off by the "fishy" cod crostini that most of us left entirely untouched.

If I were to write about my experience at Campanile on Friday night, I would probably describe how I couldn't stop eating grilled cheese sandwiches because I was so hungry from all the wine and was afraid of breaking a tooth or contracting a foodbourne disease from eating the "fishy" cod crostini. The review would be funny, but it would not be respectful to the fine restaurant that I have enjoyed in the past. It wouldn't be a proper representation of the other experiences I have had there, like the amazing time I had on my 24th birthday, or the lovely brunch my friend Lauren and enjoyed this past winter.

The situation is a classic illustration of the food blogger's dilemma -- is it really possible to be fair to a restaurant after just one visit?

I don't know that it is, but at the same time, I wouldn't be able to maintain my blog if I always visited a restaurant two or three times before writing about it. Plus, I love being able to share a wonderful dining experience with my readers as soon as possible -- especially if it might inspire them to try the eatery as well.

Ultimately, I don't really know all the answers to the questions that Brooke and Leah raised in their Food Blog Code of Ethics. I don't even know that I will be able to live up to the standards they extol. But I do know that I am excited by this latest development in the world of food blogging, and in the future, I will be a little bit more careful about what it is I'm sending out to the blogosphere when I hit the "publish post" button.


The Blonde Duck said...

I want to bang my head against a wall. Leave it to journalism to try to muck up something good. If journalism was so perfect, papers wouldn't be failing everywhere. Food bloggers offer something valuable we can't get from proffesionals--real opionions, beliefs, and recipes. Snarl. Don't listen to them. Please keep blogging like you have.

mattatouille said...

You have a very good food blog and you really do focus on celebrating good food. I think that's a much more worthy cause than being a rogue restaurant critic. Thanks for sharing those thoughts.

Jenn said...

It's your opinion and your creations, etc. That's what free speech is for.
Keep doing what you do. That's what makes each and every blog out there unique.

Esi said...

This has been such an interesting topic in the blogging world lately. I think the code has pros and cons. In the grand scheme of things a blog is completely separate from journalism so trying to impose journalistic requirements is kind of silly, but at the same time, people who are honorable will already do much of what is written in the code. The next few months of debate are going to be interesting to watch!

Diana said...

Miranda - Thanks for the support. :)

Matt - I really appreciate your comment -- it is especially meaningful coming from someone with a blog as successful and well-written as yours!

Jenn - I agree! I know that when I go to your blog, I'm going to get a great healthy twist on a traditionally heavy recipe. It's a comfort to have all those unique voices out there.

Esi - I agree - the whole thing is so fascinating! I can't wait to see where it goes.

Heather said...

there's definitely a lot to think about. i love your blog and really enjoy the content... so i say keep it coming!

Erica said...

You know what, I love your blog and all of your restaurant reviews. You're funny and discuss the the things real people actually care/think about. Whateves to blogging rules- I think they're lammmmmmeeeeee. Its a blog, not a best seller

Brooke said...

thank you (as always) for your thoughtfulness in writing. Its wonderful to have gotten the chance to meet so many talented writers and thoughtful food bloggers through this entire experience. You are definitely on the top of my list.

It's funny that the FBCE made you think of Jerry Maguire, too. Great minds think alike!


PS IMHO Journalism didn't kill newspapers. New technology did.

Ashley said...

Re: ps - AMEN GIRL!

Melissa Good Taste said...

Grilled Cheese sounds good!

Kirby! said...

This is a really interesting and thoughtful post... and I haven't read the manifesto yet, but I am planning to do that soon.

I originally started my blog intending to do recipes AND restaurant reviews. I have mostly stopped restaurant reviews for the same reason you talk about here: I can't afford to eat out that often, so when I have a less-than-stellar experience somewhere, I most likely won't risk spending any more cash there in the future. This is too bad, because I think all businesses are imperfect, and thus, deserve a second chance now and then. These days, I only print a restaurant review if I really loved the place and can write something positive.

This is not to say that I don't love Yelp and read reviews daily. It's really helpful for getting the honest truth about a lot of places. And I think most people take those reviews with a grain of salt. If a restaurant has 90% 4/5 star reviews and 10% poor reviews, then I'm most likely going to ignore those 1-star experiences as flukes that occur with any business.

Anyway, great post! Makes you think...

H. C. said...

Yeah, sometimes I notice myself writing in a "shock jock" style too and totally have to edit (and heaven forbid, re-write) my stuff.

And Campanile's grilled cheese night is really something special, their creative/upscale spin on classic sandwiches are amazing. But for only $19 you got quite a deal :)

I wish I had a bigger yelp presence now...

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