Tweets, Shoots and Leaves

With gushing, exuberant, indefatigably upbeat charm, the foodie hype machine is destroying the soul of dining out.

Another problem is the birth of the big-dish bounty hunter, who skulks around town crossing items off some gastronomic bucket list. And woe unto the chef who happens to be out of her one-hit wonder when the bounty hunter comes a-calling. “I get a little bummed when people think the sticky bun is the only thing we do,” says Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery. “If we don’t have them, they’re crushed, as though there’s nothing else in the bakery worth trying.”

West Bridge chef Matthew Gaudet, creator of the storied Egg in a Jar, admits that while he was thrilled by the initial flurry of egg traffic—he sold 982 of them in the month of August alone—he’s a little concerned about being pigeonholed. “Customers come in and I’m like, ‘Oh, right: You want the egg,’” Gaudet says. “My only worry is, I don’t want to be known as the Guy Who Does the Egg.”

The call of the hit parade is understandably strong. I get it. Why trudge through the entire album when we can snap up just that one track we’ve been obsessing over? But as any serious music fan understands, a band’s best song is hardly ever the crowd-pleasing single. It’s the harder-to-grasp composition, with a nuanced beauty that reveals itself only after multiple listens.

 

Underlying all the dining hype is a modern-era anxiety that social scientists have termed “fear of missing out.” Bombarded with tweets and updates and snapshots of our peers seemingly living the good life, we panic about our own shlumpy existence. So we slavishly follow the buzz, loading up our dance card with venues and cocktails and buttery morsels bearing the crowd-vetted stamp of approval. Which we then, in turn, broadcast to our own followers, sealed with a jaunty exclamation point.

It’s this collision of agendas—social posturing and food plugging—that’s wreaking the greatest havoc on the soul of dining out. Okay, that Instagrammed lobster roll with the “Yes, please!” shout-out might very well mean “I Am Endorsing This Lobster Roll.” But it just as likely means “In My Fabulous Life I Eat Lobster Rolls, Like This One!” Which is fine, but flooding the social mediascape with gushing generalities doesn’t just make it harder for diners to discern the quality of a restaurant. It also robs restaurants of invaluable criticism that chefs might use to improve or respond.

They are, however, getting one message loud and clear: We’re suckers for anything over the top. Taken at face value, the general tenor of images populating our Facebook and Twitter feeds would suggest that, as a community, we’ve got an insatiable appetite for foodstuffs of the yolk-moistened, bacon-topped, offal-studded variety. That all we want is the knockout—the come-hither duck with the mahogany skin. And chefs, in turn, oblige, stocking their menus with “wow”-factor morsels likely to get picked up by these all–important (and free!) new marketing tools. It’s a vicious—and artery-clogging—cycle.

But is this really how we want to eat? Or is it merely how we want to tweet? Mostly, I worry that chefs and their fans are feeding off one another, mistaking a litany of boosterish “likes” of foie-gras poutine photos for a mandate that says, “This is the direction we want dining to go.” When the reality is that, well, we’re simply programming content. We’ve figured out that a dripping cheeseburger or a plate of deep-fried pig’s ears guarantees more “retweets” than a shot of a subtle salad. Good for us—that is, until chefs stop serving us salads.

Ana Sortun, chef-owner of Oleana, puts it this way: “You’ll get a young chef who has just taken that big leap of faith, they’re trying really hard, maybe a little insecure, cooking up a storm to make it work. But they’re also reading every single comment out there. If their filtering system isn’t good, they think, ‘Yeah, maybe I should be doing something weirder because it grabs people’s attention.’ It can distract them from their vision.”

 

Back at West Bridge, I stuck my fork, at long last, into the waiting egg, mixing the components together like I’d been advised by those who’d passed this way before me. I took a bite.

And? Well. I thought it was…pretty good. At the time, I made a mental note that I wasn’t blown away by the soft, pillowy textures writ in triplicate (egg, mushrooms, potato purée). That it tasted a little underseasoned. Also: blah, blah, blah. The truth is, the culprit was neither the salt level nor some “abject pillowiness.” It was the fact that, at this point in the game, mere enjoyment was no longer acceptable—I had to be blown away.

Once upon a time, we were eager participants in the give and take of dining. We’d browse through the menu with an open mind, taking in the poetry of the descriptions, letting the blob of bone marrow or the swirl of yuzu beurre blanc tempt us slowly. It was a dance. The art of seduction, culinary-style. Nowadays, we want to stampede to the bedroom and get the deed done. Hyper-efficiently scanning the menu for the five or six keywords (pork fat duck egg jar), we reassure ourselves that we’re getting only the best. But in that constant fear of missing out—in entrusting the crowd with curating our culinary lives—we practically eliminate serendipitous discovery, the chance to fall head over heels for that quiet wallflower with the mysterious smile.

Or the one with the bewitching umami finish. For that matter: The true dazzler that night at West Bridge was, sure enough, that damned carrot dish that my clueless other half had ordered. A trio of braised, pickled, and shaved-raw carrots plated with quinoa, goat-cheese cream, and dehydrated shiitakes dressed with smoked salt and soy sauce, it was an understated revelation.

Do ignorant diners, who can stumble into bliss unaware, know something we as foodies don’t? Maybe. I’m not willing to concede that quite yet. But one thing is clear: By being obsessed, we’re taking the joy out of dining. Which, frankly, is grossly unfair to restaurants and chefs—and to us.

  • http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/ MC Slim JB

    A very thought-provoking piece. While I’m guilty of contributing to the hype cycle here (my Stuff Magazine review of West Bridge with a highlight on the egg dish was the earliest of the pro reviews on the place), I think in general that overconsumption of reviews of any aesthetic experience is a mistake.

    Read enough to convince yourself you want to go (try the restaurant, see the movie, watch the band live, etc.), then stop reading reviews. The issue now, as the author points out, is that there are now thousands of potential reviews to read — most of them by amateurs whose tastes you know nothing about, and thus shouldn’t be considering their advice seriously to begin with — so it’s easy to build unreasonable expectations before you ever set foot in a place. Pick trusted critics, pro or amateur, as they can help you identify places you’re likely to enjoy, but don’t spoil the experience before you go with overpreparation.

  • http://40-somethinglife.blogspot.com Tracey

    What an absolutely fascinating take on the Foodie. Being a foodie myself, I do and dont disagree with you. I remember hype over a duck dish at Blue Inc. that I wanted to be blown away by like you, but I thought it was just good. Or maybe it was better than good but the hype was too big for the dish. Almost like being disappointed in a movie everyone raves about.

    I still like to read reviews whether a yelper, blogger or mainstream critic and know what would be good to try at a restaurant but I also try to go for something different like the carrot dish.

    The sad part comes when a dish has been slammed as equally as one that has been raved about and you could miss out on trying something extraordinary.

    I am still not sure where I stand but thank you for writing something for myself as a blogger to think about.