Critical Anonymity in Question for New York Times Writer Sam Sifton

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Ethical guidelines amongst restaurant critics has become a hot button topic these days, with outings of high-profile critics who show up to restaurants expecting preferential treatment tumbling down like so many business cards flung at a maître d'. Last week's announcement of long-time New York Times writer Sam Sifton being named the new Frank Bruni raised the question again, but from a different angle: could Sifton, whose picture and profile has flooded the Internet since the announcement, remain anonymous in what is essentially the highest profile critic gig in the country?

Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson attempted to answer the question earlier this week on her blog with yet another question: in an age where everyone is a critic, capable of posting reviews to aggregate websites and blogs alike, is anonymity even important anymore? I mean,  a restaurant could always assume that there's someone in the house at any given time who may be writing something about their experience. So why is it important if it knows for a fact that someone is?

Yesterday, Seattle Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman responded on his blog, stating matter of factly that he will always endeavor to dine anonymous, no matter the popular climate. I, for one, agree with him.

One might ask why anonymity important in food writing at all. Well, aside from being one of the standards set by the Association of Food Journalists, anonymity guarantees that the experience a critic has at a restaurant is essentially in line with one that an average customer would have. If restaurants have "outed" you as a member of the press, it becomes difficult to know if what you're receiving is the same as everyone else. Maybe the chef slipped an extra couple ounces of beef onto your plate, or the waiter lavished you with more attention while his other tables went neglected. How can you write a completely fair and impartial review knowing full well that you may have been subject to better treatment as a side effect of your position? There's also the chance that restaurants who know food critics are dining with them will send out dishes gratis, raising the ethical question of whether or not they are somehow "paying" for their review.

When I was working as New Times' clubs editor, I was "made" in a few different establishments. The result was I was sent free drinks or small bites on the house. In one case, a manager tried to give me a $100 gift card to his restaurant for writing a favorable review. I politely turned him down, telling him that I wouldn't accept gifts for what I had written no matter how much he insisted. While he may have thought he was only being kind, I couldn't get over how cheap it made me feel. Writing about bars and restaurants is my job - I already get paid for it, and I enjoy what I do. If I accepted money or gifts from someone else for doing it, I'd not only feel like I was betraying my employer, I'd feel like a whore whose opinions are for sale. Here at New Times, we'd lay into any public official that accepted money or gifts to leverage their position in someone's favor. It would be the ultimate hypocrisy for one of us to turn around and do the same.

Quite often, after I've reviewed a restaurant the employees pick up on dishes I wrote about or things that happened and figure out who I am as a result. This makes return visits to places I like especially awkward, as staff can pretty much peg me from the moment I walk in. From then on, it makes it very hard to write anything impartial on the place, which, from my perspective, stings a little bit, since these are often places I'd trumpet. I can say I'm fortunate enough to have never gotten "made" in the reverse scenario, in a place where I hated the food and said as much. Nothing quells the appetite like the fear of a jilted chef tampering with your food.

I feel for Sam Sifton, I really do. He's going to have a hell of a time keeping the wolves at bay and doing his job faithfully all at once.

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