Get a few newspaper food critics together, and it’s hard to not hear the fear in their voices. Given the dramatic contraction of the press, journalists are looking over their shoulders as the budget cleaver swings. Food critics have to face an additional threat from Yelpers and bloggers elbowing their way onto their turf. How do we stay relevant now that everyone with a laptop and an Internet connection can become a restaurant critic?
Those pressures are real, but I believe restaurant critics face irrelevancy of another kind unless we change with the times. I believe that the social and environmental impact of the industrial food system should include discussing a restaurant’s choice of ingredients. As someone who spends a great deal of time thinking, reading and talking about food, limiting my reviews to just a chef’s skills and a restaurant’s décor and service isn’t enough anymore. Isn’t the fact a restaurant serves low-grade, factory-farmed ground beef made of a composite of ammonia-treated meat scraps from different processing plants as relevant as whether the kitchen overcooked my burger or the waiter refilled my water?
Consider: A new report written collectively by some 3,000 scientists found that 20 percent of the world’s vertebrates are threatened with extinction, and one of the biggest culprits is industrial agriculture. Because industrially-produced food is the norm in America, restaurants are complicit in a system that’s based on: animal cruelty, petroleum dependency in the form of pesticides and fertilizers, loss of top soil and biodiversity, public-health threats (E. coli, salmonella, water pollution, heart disease, cancer, etc.), exploitation of immigrant labor and the destruction of rural agricultural communities. Would you like soup or salad with that?
Of course, restaurants are only feeding the public what they want. Until diners demand something other than commodity beef and industrially- farmed vegetables flown in from around the world and are willing to pay for it upfront rather than at the doctor’s office or in environmental remediation down the road, the menu won’t change. But that’s where the restaurant critic can come in. We hope that they can tell a good story and educate readers about food along the way. But restaurants don’t exist in a vacuum. Ignoring the reality of the food system and pretending all is well is like admiring a python’s stripes as it coils around your neck.
What I’m proposing is clearly outside the bounds of restaurant criticism today. Some may say it’s no longer restaurant criticism but simply a polemic against factory-farmed food. I say that restaurant criticism and restaurant critics are stuck in time and need to evolve. A critic not only discusses aesthetics and value but can also spur debate, raise questions and challenge convention.
I’ve written about this before, but I’ve been inconsistent. Since the vast majority of Silicon Valley restaurants support the industrial-food complex with their purchases, I’d have to shoot down 99 percent of the restaurants I review—that would get boring quickly. Most readers just want to know whether a new restaurant is worth the money and what should they order, hold the environmentalism. But I’m determined to find a way to do this. I welcome your feedback.