Tweets, Shoots and Leaves

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

By Jolyon Helterman | Boston Magazine |

food hype destroys dining out experiencesPhoto by Lucas Zarebinski

The first time I ate at West Bridge, in buzzing Kendall Square, I ordered the Egg in a Jar. Billed on the menu as “small,” it arrived at the table in a glass vessel that, true to form, was no bigger than my fist. But frankly, I was caught off-guard: In its mythology, it had been rendered enormous. Helen of Troy’s mug may have launched a thousand ships, but this diminutive shot glass of comestibles—buttery potato purée, crispy duck skin, roasted maitake mushrooms, soft-poached egg—had prompted at least as many silver-tongued scribes to plump on its $12 behalf.

Local gastronauts, in fact, have been obsessed with the Egg in a Jar since before West Bridge opened. On May 7, 2012, eight days prior, Grub Street posted a blow-by-blow of the egg’s preparation. On the day of the opening, Thrillist christened it the restaurant’s “signature” dish. By the time chef Matthew Gaudet and co-owner Alexis Gelburd-Kimler unlocked the doors for their first dinner service, the egg was already a certified sensation.

After that, the lovefest turned crazy. Excitable Yelpers led the charge, heralding the Egg in a Jar as “totally unique and delicious,” “pretty rad,” and “the highlight of the meal.” Chowhound wasn’t far behind: “For god’s sake, go to the bar immediately and order yourself one of these,” urged a typical post. The critics fell, too, deeming the egg “satisfaction through synthesis” (the Globe), “indisputably delicious” (the Improper Bostonian), and an “insta-classic” (our own Corby Kummer). Stuff devoted much of its Food Coma column to the egg, noting that it was good enough to “make you coo like a contented newborn.” First prize, however, goes to Eater Boston, which included the egg on a list of “Boston’s 20 Most Iconic Dishes,” where it rubbed shoulders with classics like the Hamersley’s roast chicken and No. 9 Park’s prune-stuffed gnocchi. That was July, when West Bridge was all of two months old. Talk about a contented newborn.

So by the time I waltzed into West Bridge in September, I’d consumed a heaping portion of buzz about the mythical Egg in a Jar. And now, finally, there it sat, looking every bit as fetching as it did in all of the pictures I’d seen on Instagram, the social-media photo-sharing service that seems to exist just for food porn. No, scratch that: It looked even better.

Just before digging in, I glanced over at the starter in front of my spouse, who’d ordered some random carrot dish I hadn’t even noticed on the menu. A genuine lover of dining who doesn’t read food blogs and couldn’t tell you with any certainty whether he possesses a Twitter account, he also makes a point to ignore—defiantly and to the letter—any ordering suggestion I deign to utter in his presence. Rolling my eyes, I silently wished him and his plate of carrots an unforgettable meal.

 

I should have known better. Even before sitting down at West Bridge, I had begun to worry whether we, as food lovers, have lost sight of the big picture. In our shift from enthusiastic connoisseurs to gluttonous consumers (and beleaguered producers) of food-related “content,” I fear we’ve forgotten how to enjoy the very activity that turned us into gastro-evangelists in the first place. Foodie hype-mongering is changing dining out, and not for the better.

Back in olden times, when professional critics did most of the reviewing, it was customary to wait two or three months before pouncing on a new eatery, to give the staff a chance to find its feet. That kind of restraint is but a faded memory, replaced by the feverish sprint to author the first Yelp blurb, or to live-tweet pictures of the opening menu. (The press—this magazine included—is complicit, fast-tracking cheery “previews” and “first looks” in advance of dispatching the critic.) These premature raves do damage in the long run, beckoning customers who might otherwise have waited for a visit. That race “doesn’t allow for a more-developed understanding of the experience,” says Tiffani Faison, chef-owner of Sweet Cheeks, “and almost never allows more than one visit.” Joe Cassinelli, owner of Posto and the Painted Burro, echoes that sentiment. “When writers come in too early, they’re seeing the place in its very infancy—it’s almost like reviewing a book based on the prologue.”

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.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/12/food-hype-destroys-dining-out-experiences/