I was cleaning out old newspaper clippings recently when I came across one that stopped me with a chill.
It was the final review I wrote as restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans exactly 20 years ago, and I had crossed the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in a furious lightning storm to write it.
But it wasn't the tale of that perilous journey or the delicious stuffed quail detailed in that glowing "four-bean" review that stopped me. It was my description of the chef — John Besh — as "a former Marine, but a gentle and nurturing cook who revels in the rustic flavors of European country cuisine."
Yikes! Besh was then still a relatively unknown 30-year-old from Slidell, La., making his chef debut at an inn called Artesia — and I was a fair judge of his culinary talent. His subsequent success, going on to become a nationally known celebrity chef with a dozen restaurants, umpteen James Beard awards, cookbooks, and TV shows, was no surprise. But apparently, I wasn't such a good forecaster of character based on the infamy now associated with his name.
Besh has become the Harvey Weinstein of the kitchen.
After the Times-Picayune's current critic, Brett Anderson, published an investigative blockbuster in which 25 women accused Besh and his company of rampant sexual misconduct, the chef, who's issued apologies and stepped down from his company, is at the center of a scandal that has sent ripple effects across the entire restaurant industry in a nationwide culture crisis. In Besh's wake, a long list of famous restaurant men in other cities have fallen from their own empires after accusations of sexual misconduct, from Mario Batali to Ken Friedman of New York's Spotted Pig.
There has been a reckoning of sorts for those who have chronicled the rise of these culinary stars. The industry's most visible awards organization, the James Beard Foundation, recently called on food writers to reconsider actions past and present, and advocate changes to end "a culture of silence and complicity."
Let me be clear: I have no tolerance for sexual misconduct. But what is the critic's role and responsibility in all of this as the gatekeeper of culinary glory? Many of the nation's food journalists, it seems, have decided that only the good eggs should be lifted up as role models for praise and awards. But it isn't always so simple. And any journalist or reader who cares about fairness, facts, and consistency should be concerned about this slippery slope greased with the tallow of good intentions.
The Beard Foundation's Restaurant and Chef Award Committee recently issued a directive to its journalist judges (myself included) to get personal with the 2018 crop of award candidates: "If you have concerns about a chef, restaurateur, or beverage professional, or about the culture around a restaurant or restaurant group, leave the person or business out of your nominations."
Similarly, following Anderson's investigation, an editor at Bon Appétit wrote that when the magazine compiles its influential annual list of the 10 best new restaurants in America, "we factor in not just the food and the vibe, but whether or not the chefs and owners seem like s—heads."
Are mere "concerns" all it takes these days to cross someone off the list of contention for a career-changing award or a positive review? A bad vibe from a chef during an interview? As someone who's spent an entire career trying to keep personalities out of the equation in my restaurant assessments — and believe me, aside from the mostly inspiring people I talk to, I've interviewed screamers, braggarts, liars, and worse — these standards strike me as both wrong and unrealistic.
I'm not arguing — at all — that news organizations should ignore issues of sexual misconduct, worker exploitation, fraud, or any number of a long list of detestable behaviors that occur in the world of restaurants and beyond. Stories like Anderson's on Besh are important and essential, and you can bet the Inquirer would report aggressively on any similar leads. But writing a weekly restaurant review and reporting a months-long investigative story are two very different journalistic pursuits. A news organization as a whole can deliver the full picture. But I'm troubled by the notion that now restaurant critics individually are expected to focus on a dining experience, but also simultaneously make casual character judgments before doling out reviews on a weekly basis.
How does Bon Appétit, which jets in and out of various cities for a few days a year, let alone a local critic who covers his or her food scene full-time, fairly assess the "creepy chef factor" based on a few meals and a conversation? How can you possibly know that the person whipping your meringue in the next room is going to become a predator or a tax cheat, a drug addict, or an alcoholic who'd put their business and personal relationships at risk, an exploiter of immigrant labor, or a deadbeat in paying purveyors?
Most of the time, you can't. And short of substantiated proof, rumors aren't enough to cloud my view of a restaurant. Only just a few years ago, Bon Appétit had no problem running an entire post devoted to 11 photos of John Besh (the "man with arguably a perfect head of hair") eating hamburgers.
I guess their trusty s—head meter wasn't quite working yet.
Of course, good restaurant critics have always tried to frame restaurants in the cultural context of their wider worlds. And when that touched on serious matters beyond the table, I've also always felt obliged to acknowledge them when confirmed information was available, whether there were infractions against employers paying full wages (Talula's Garden), environmental investigations that contradicted a restaurant's farm-to-table mission (the Mainland Inn), or an owner's violent history in the mob (Chick's), to name just a few. Readers, legitimately, might decide not to go somewhere based on those details regardless of whether the food is delicious.
But short of any hard evidence, the proposition of judging a restaurant or chef on anything other than the dining experience itself is a dodgy pursuit fraught with blurry borders. At what point along the continuum from garden variety jerk to infamous scoundrel does a personality now incite a critic to penalize a restaurant (along with its many innocent, hardworking employees) from receiving the rating it might otherwise have earned, to tone back praise for its good flavors, to subtly ramp up the complaints, or even to decline to do a review itself based entirely on unsubstantiated whispers, hearsay, or intuition about a chef's character and integrity? When a restaurant couple or business partners have a bad breakup laced with tawdry details, is a critic expected now to assign guilt and weigh their perceptions of a meal accordingly? Of course not! We definitely don't want known sexual abusers winning Beard awards. But the door to those other feelings marked "concerns" has suddenly been opened a crack.
Strictly avoiding personal relationships with the people I cover — and by extension those kind of individual judgments — is Journalism 101, and has allowed me to consistently assure readers that my reviews are never influenced by any friendships or personal dislikes — because I have none. Plus, sparkling personality is rarely an accurate barometer of quality in the finished experience diners pay for. Plenty of taciturn characters are geniuses in running restaurants while more than a few golden-hearted saints couldn't cook their way out of a meal kit and turn out to be terrible managers. What ultimately drives the critical content of my reviews has always been about what's on the plate, in my glass, and my impressions of the service, scene, and space during my visits.
But that attitude is perhaps rooted in a more naive era. Before the cascade of #MeToo recriminations. Before the days when the sourcing, sustainability, and ethical status of food was on everyone's mind and at risk of being exploited by poseurs — which I'd surely report on if I knew. Before the days when every big-name chef was expected to run a charity to balance their celebrity glow.
I agree in some measure with frustrated industry leaders such as Marc Vetri who complain that the restaurant world has suddenly been painted too broadly with a negative brush that doesn't equate to the community of mostly hardworking, passionate cooks he knows. He asked, sarcastically: "So … every restaurant and restaurateur is basically a scumbag?"
But the pendulum has begun to swing back from the days of fluffy Food TV adulation to the point where skepticism is now the dark, new default setting on the Instant Pot pressure cooker of public judgment. And hindsight can be a bitter lemon.
I've covered many talented cooks who were perfectly pleasant during their phone interviews, but who turned out to be guilty of all the offenses I listed above and worse — including Alex Capasso, who last week received a 20-year jail sentence for child pornography and exploitation. I surely would not have said such nice things about Capasso's pasta "love letters" at Blackbird Dining Establishment had I, in that moment a decade ago, somehow known the man would become as twisted as the demonic biker's beard growing on his chin.
And, yes, I also wish I could go back in time and take back all the Times-Picayune "beans" and Beard awards I ever voted for in John Besh's favor. Would his history — and the lives of all those he compromised — have unfolded somehow a little differently?
But it's impossible to go back. And it's also a crazy notion to suggest that a professional diner, in the course of their normal duties, can somehow look through a plate of heirloom carrots and swirling sauces to see beyond to a dark heart at the stove and foretell a future of abuse and personal destruction. I wish I could. But I'm a critic, not a clairvoyant.