Yesterday Bill Esparza, a veteran L.A. food writer, published a piece on Eater L.A. asserting that restaurant critics don't understand modern Mexican cuisine. Specifically, he referred to a pair of reviews, written by me and by the L.A. Times' Jonathan Gold, about Maestro in Pasadena — a restaurant with an ambitious chef, Daniel Godinez, who takes regional Mexican flavors and seeks to expand and modernize them.
Esparza, whom I know and respect for so many things (including his amazing curation of L.A. Weekly's annual Tacolandia event), makes a lot of good points in the piece. I actually believe he and I have fairly similar feelings about Godinez’s cooking. He states that Godinez, “like many of our young Mexican chefs, is still finding his voice.” He also says of my review: “[W]hen she claimed Godinez’s food was 'lacking bold flavors,' did she really mean that it wasn’t as 'bold' as the street version? That because it didn’t make your ass burn, it was just bland?”
I'll take a minute to answer that legitimate question before I get to the heart of the matter: I did not mean that Maestro's food should be more like street food. I wasn't looking for extreme spice or the kind of char that only comes from cooking on a janky grill on a street corner. I was looking for what I want from any restaurant: balanced, pleasurable flavor. Some of Godinez's food seemed as though the chef was more concerned with the thrilling way in which he served it — on an empty mezcal bottle, for instance — than the way it tasted. Some dishes, the stewed meats in particular, were beautiful. And some fell flat. As compared to what? As compared to the modern Mexican restaurants I've visited in Mexico and Los Angeles and Orange County, and as compared to the New American restaurants I regularly review as well.
I can see how Esparza would take issue with my use of the word “bold.” It does in some ways insinuate that I was looking for something more extreme, something lacking subtlety, when subtlety is exactly what Godinez is going for.
But if we're to scrape off the initial layer of meaning in Esparza's piece and look a little deeper, I think what we'll find is a very real issue in the world of restaurant criticism, and that is the overwhelming whiteness of the profession. This is problematic in this country, and it's especially problematic in Los Angeles, where much of what's interesting to eat is not Euro-centric. I'm not saying that only people of certain ethnic backgrounds should be allowed to write about certain foods. I am saying that diverse voices matter, that they enrich the conversation, and that we're lacking them at the critic level, both locally and nationally.
A few years ago I wrote about the gender disparity among restaurant critics, finding that in the United States there were more than two male full-time or dedicated freelance critics for every female. If we were to switch gender out for race in that survey, the results would be laughable (or a better term might be cryable). Racial disparity exists across all media, but it's particularly egregious when it comes to restaurant criticism.
This is not an easy problem to fix. Fewer and fewer newspapers and magazines employ full-time staff critics or dedicated freelance critics. I often feel as though media outlets are offering a public service by employing critics and paying for their review meals. It's one of the most expensive ventures you can take on as a media company, and it doesn't always pay off. Even if it does, why bother when you might get more readers (and ad revenue) by publishing various clickbait?
Journalists tend to rise to critic positions one of three ways: They're lifelong journalists at legacy publications who fall into food writing, or they're wealthy enough to work for low pay as a freelancer until they get hired somewhere, or they're wealthy enough to have traveled the world and chronicled their eating adventures on a blog. All three of these paths favor privilege, which in turn favors whiteness. (My own path to criticism was not any of the above, which is a story for another day. But there's no question my whiteness and its inherent privilege has contributed to the trajectory of my career, in ways both large and small.)
This dynamic in the food-writing world more generally was highlighted in a post on the website Food52 in February, “What We're Doing About Our Lack of Diversity.” To me, the most illuminating section of that post (and something that I pointed out on Twitter at the time) was the following passage: “Early on, when we had very limited resources (and hardly any revenue), we relied on unpaid contributors. This led to a stable of writers and photographers who mostly came from more privileged backgrounds.”
For a newspaper or magazine or website that decides to hire a critic, it's not as easy as just going out and finding more diverse candidates. Critics need to have writing experience, and they need to have broad dining experience. Esparza's piece underlines how important it is for them to have eaten internationally if possible. Media needs to create more opportunities on the ground level for people to build this kind of experience. Freelance rates need to be good enough that people can pursue this career as more than a hobby or as a supplement to a trust fund.
These things are unlikely to happen. Good intentions don't translate to increased budgets. Capitalism's a bitch. Lucky Peach, one of the few food-writing outlets that paid well and published truly diverse writers (though it had a reputation as being a bit of a boys' club, and never published reviews) is folding. There are organizations that actively look to increase diversity in the media world, and even specifically the food-writing world, but I fear that criticism will be the last to catch up, even if strides are made in other areas. Which is a shame.
Until there's a diversity of voices in the world of restaurant criticism, chefs are going to feel that only one point of view is being represented. The intent or knowledge behind the review will only matter a little. Because, despite our attempts at understanding and self-education and cultural awareness, we critics are far too alike. And allegations about homogenous reviews — from those chefs as well as from cultural critics like Esparza — will be correct.