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A food writer explains her approach to criticism

My editor recently told me that he sometimes receives letters about a perceived "conflict of interest" in my role as a food writer. These letters usually go something like this: "Her husband owns restaurants; how can she be objective?"

The short answer is this: My integrity is not for sale.

I was a food and wine writer before I married my husband, and anyone who thinks property is mutually owned has not been divorced in North Carolina -- as I have. If you seek to hook into a spouse's business assets and "equitable distribution" of property, move to Connecticut. Trust me on this.

If I were not married to a restaurateur, would my stories remain the same? Absolutely.

Why? My first and foremost loyalty when writing is to you, the reader. Without you, my words mean nothing. When I evaluate -- and I do mean evaluate and not recommend and not disparage -- I look at what a typical person might experience. In my mind, I write to my girlfriend, a single mother without a lot of money. If I overly praise a place, she might go. Would a place be worth it? Does the kitchen and/or dining room fulfill its end of expectations? Credentials, hype and long waits do not impress me; good taste does. I will write that the emperor has no clothes.

My guidelines are these: I try to select places from around the city (the geographical area defined by the Creative Loafing readership) and in various price ranges -- from upscale to holes in the walls. Whether or not the restaurant advertises in CL does not make a difference. I go to locally owned as well as corporate chains. I go anonymously and my meals are paid by CL. I have never accepted "comped" meals or bribes. I do not attend grand opening events -- although others at CL do attend these. Sometimes, restaurants send over food to the CL office. These edible bribes are typically eaten by other employees; crumbs are left on a plate with a "this was really good" sticky note.

Do I write about restaurants that are in direct competition with my husband's? My husband, Pierre Bader, owns Sonoma Modern, TOWN and Taverna 100 -- all downtown. He is also part owner of ARPA (a Harper Group downtown restaurant that moved into a space leased by an LLC in which my husband has an interest). None of these restaurants are exclusively owned by my husband. He, however, finds, as do his co-owners, that he is at a disadvantage because of my position. Sonoma won CL's Best New Restaurant Critic's Award before I came on board in 1995. Since 1995 none of his restaurants have received a CL Best Of Critic's Award or a review. That's 12 years -- several cycles in the life of a restaurant. In those years, my husband has opened restaurants: I, however, awarded Best New Restaurant to other restaurants -- never his.

If CL is not awarding, reviewing or writing about a restaurant, the result can have a negative impact. Not writing about a place is a more pronounced grievance than writing a good or bad review. The old saw in journalism is "I don't care what you say, just spell my name correctly." So has my position hurt my husband's business? Perhaps. I have written positive reviews about restaurants which may be considered in direct competition to his. But why would I not write truthfully about a good restaurant? I am writing for you, the reader.

When I first started writing for CL, the restaurant community took a "let's see" attitude. I have worked diligently to earn the respect of readers, chefs, farmers and restaurateurs and to have my work stand as reputable and honest. I hope I have succeeded in this. The restaurant community in Charlotte is congenial. Most of the players know each other and actually visit/eat at each other's restaurants. It's not the back stabbing, cutthroat environment that those not in the business imagine. Competitive? Yes. And they need to be. The rate of restaurant openings, and closings, in Charlotte is alarming. But this competitiveness helps to raise the culinary bar for the entire community. We all benefit from this.

Charlotte is still a small town in many respects. People know each other. In my review of Table (May 17, 2006), I wrote: "For those who wonder if I approach a restaurant anonymously, I do. But sometimes I am recognized. Especially if the chef -- in this case Gene Briggs -- has been on the Charlotte restaurant scene for 15-plus years. On this occasion I was strategically seated across from the window in the swinging kitchen door and had a multitude of servers at my beck and call ... While sipping my wine I noticed Heidi Edidin [now Bilotto], restaurant critic for Charlotte Weekly, being ushered to her seat. Edidin, by the way, had the same entourage of servers that I had. My surrounding neighbors did not."

Can a food writer or restaurant critic remain anonymous in this day of cell phone cameras? I don't think so. To believe otherwise is naïve. Years ago CL published my picture along with my article, much to my chagrin. Are the other restaurant reviewers in town recognized? You bet. If you don't believe me, ask any number of the career servers in town.

But to consider my restaurant reviews as only a vehicle to help my husband's business belittles me as a writer and an educator. I teach Introduction to Food Writing at Johnson & Wales University, the only university-level food writing class taught in the Southeast. (Yes, I am an assistant professor at this university where I judge and, at times, fail students.) I teach fairness and integrity.

I am not paid to be a fence sitter or a cheerleader. In reality my internal struggle is this: Balancing my responsibilities to my reader with the realization that restaurants are businesses, difficult businesses with extraordinary time and resource commitments which not only feeds their clientele, but their employees -- my neighbors and yours.

Do some restaurateurs resent the fact I know the inside skinny, like wholesale wine prices? Absolutely. Is this a benefit for my readers to note that "X" restaurant marks up their wine 400 percent? Absolutely.

Some restaurateurs are amused by the fact I know where the bodies are buried, but they, too, are privileged with knowledge of my personal angst as well.

A food writer's loyalty lies with the reader -- which in some cases may be a longer relationship than a marriage. This loyalty suggests another issue. Should a critic evaluate food with which he or she is unfamiliar? Should a food writer critique dim sum, if he has never consumed dim sum in Hong Kong? Or tabbouleh in Beirut? Or should he write about beer if he's under 21? Should he know chitterlings from derma? It's no secret that my passion is ethnic cuisines; after all, my undergraduate degree is in Cultural Anthology (graduate school in English), I cut my teeth at embassy parties in D.C., lived in Cairo, Egypt, and am intent on eating and drinking my way through the world. I've downed snake gall bladder wine in China, enjoyed roasted emu in Australia, swallowed raw lamb liver with an arak chaser in Beirut, delighted in barbecue in the shadows of a pyramid -- both in Cairo, Egypt, and Memphis, Tenn., tasted tapas in Barcelona, pastries in Paris and Genoa salami in Genoa. I've had barrel tastings in Beaune, Sonoma and the Barossa.

I hope to bring this knowledge with me to the table and share it with you, the reader. If you do not learn something while reading one of my stories, then I have failed. It's not a simple "this restaurant was good," or "this restaurant was bad." I do not use a star rating system. I write at length about what does and doesn't work. And if you disagree with my opinion, you can write to the world online in the comments section below my articles. Plenty of folks do.

Ironically, this story is appearing because my review for this week was of a restaurant that closed between the time I had written the review and publication date. The restaurant was City Range Steakhouse, a Greenville-S.C.-based chain located in Ballantyne. Owner Cory Wilk had no comment as to why he closed the doors after being open for six months. Am I surprised City Range closed? No. I simply tell it like it is.

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