I write about food and wine because I think about food and wine a lot. I spend my days pondering the business, products and people associated with food and wine.
Why? Probably because I grew up in the Napa Valley surrounded and intrigued by both. Maybe because I have been both a professional chef and owned three small wine brands. Perhaps because I find myself enthralled by how food and wine seem to tell the story of our human experience.
As a culinary scribe, I believe there is no excuse for separating out bad or good behavior from the stories of food and wine, and that’s why I was so disappointed to read that influential San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer is willing to do just that.
In his April 1, 2018, article, “Fading Luster,” Bauer outlines how he’s come to the conclusion that he’s willing to suspend a chef’s bad behavior in favor of focusing his review solely on the dining experience.
“When I wear my critic’s hat I’m not evaluating what happens behind the kitchen door,” he writes. “I’m writing about what comes out the door.”
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There used to be a time when we did not talk about the behavior of artists and instead focused solely on the art (the product). Movie directors such as Woody Allen were accused of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior, but he and others like him were given a wink and a nod: What these “great artists” did in their own homes was none of our business. The message, especially before last year’s “Me Too” movement, was that if you produced movies (or anything else) that some influential people deemed worthy, then nearly anything you did — no matter how much it might have damaged anyone else — was just the cost of the art.
When I was a cook in the Bay Area in the 1980s and early ‘90s, it was nearly required that decent chefs (male or female) be abusive to their staffs if they were to be considered serious culinary players.
And when Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” came out, this view was only exacerbated. Basically, the message was that unless you’re willing to go toe-to-toe with your staff and anyone else in your path, engage in predatory and abusive sexual behavior, and do some drugs on the side, you were never going to be a famous chef. If you threw pans or knives, cussed like a sailor, displayed misogynistic tendencies or used sexual innuendo like an out-of-work porn star, then and only then might you become a serious contender in the world of American cuisine.
The reviewers were deaf to the plights of those abused workers and were willing to forgo any discussion of behind-the-scenes abuse. It was all about the food and experience, they cried. Meanwhile an army of overworked, underpaid, abused and often traumatized restaurant staff were told to suck it up.
Happily, things have changed and the new crop of culinary talent is shaking off the past and moving into a future that is less focused on machismo and more centered on creativity, sustainability and equanimity. There is still a ton of work that remains to be done. But as someone who has worked under the thumb of abusive chefs and owners in the past, I can tell you that having an influential reviewer such as Bauer look away from accusations of harmful behaviors of owners, chefs or other restaurant personnel is akin to turning a blind eye. It has the effect of encouraging — or at least not discouraging — said behavior.
There are counterarguments to my view — a couple made by Bauer himself. One goes like this: Why should the staff of an excellent restaurant be penalized by the actions of a single individual? I can tell you for certain that the loneliness and isolation of the abused are not fixed by silence, but only enhanced.
The other argument is based on the view that critics are “not evaluating what happens behind the kitchen door.” On the one hand, I am sympathetic to this point of view. But if the behavior behind closed doors is harmful to the powerless, then what? Do we turn our collective heads and exclaim, “Hey dudes, you got yourself into this mess and now you are on your own”?
Three qualities that I find most inspiring in leaders are courage, creativity and a healthy dose of humility. That said, I can’t claim that I have never been charmed or otherwise misled by those who I’ve reviewed or interviewed. On the contrary, I often hear after the fact that someone or a business that I’ve written about glowingly might have done things in the past that were less than inspiring or even hurtful. I have tried to learn from my mistakes and make fewer of them in the future. I can also assure you that I have no fear when it comes to telling as much of the story as necessary so that readers might make an informed choice.
At the end of his article, Bauer makes two comments — one I agree with whole heartily, but the other I disagree with vehemently. The first is, “In the end, diners will make the ultimate decision,” which seems reasonable. The second part, to me, is more insidious and is an abdication of responsibility as well as a misrepresentation of the true influence of power. He ends the sentence with, “as they always have.”