Responding to critics

I’ve been teaching a writers’ workshop in Chautauqua all week, one of the most unusual and interesting spots of the country, a summer resort, an enclave of Victorian gingerbread cottages devoted to intellectual and spiritual pursuits (it has thus made anything good to eat, this many times daily pleasure of the flesh, really hard to come by).

But it’s given me a moment to do something I’ve wanted to address pretty much since I started publishing books. Respond to critics. This was one reason a non-fiction writer told me he blogged. What pleasure, what satisfaction! I thought. To answer the snarky and ham-handed journalistic rabble; until recently one could only sit there, wrists and ankles bound to the chair, mouth gagged, and absorb the mauling. It’s a double-edged sword though because one can easily come off sounding petulant and whiny, especially when the reviews are mainly favorable. But I have wanted to address a couple issues some reviews (and comments from a couple of journalists) have brought up: the notion of enthusiasm for one’s subject and conflict of interest issues for a writer who both works with and writes about chefs.

In his nytimes review of my book, John T. Edge calls me a gusher who's too cozy with his subjects and implies that I hid the fact that I’d worked with Thomas Keller on his books (he had to go to the PR material, he writes, to learn that I’d coauthored these books that I speak so highly of); in fact, I note numerous times in Reach of a Chef my part in these cookbooks and moreover they’re listed on the “other books by” page in the front of the book, and my association and friendship with Thomas Keller is spelled out in the opening pages of the book. But the implication that I’m shilling for my own work isn’t really what bothers me; it’s the slightly unctuous tone of the reviewer. Isn’t he really questioning the conflict of interest in writing about Keller? If he didn’t like the book, he should just say so. It reads as if the Times editors forced him into a positive slant at the end. I say all this, of course, with gratitude to the reviewer and to the book review editors for consideration at all, something not to be taken lightly.

A more generous review (but not without its criticisms) comes from Louisa Thomas in the NYObesrver. Identified as being on staff at The New Yorker, Ms Thomas seems to convey the spirit of my book as I intended it, but even her reading is perplexing. I make a hero out of Keller in the book, she says, adding that I believe chefs are the high priests of the food world. Edge, too, says Keller is my muse. This was more true of the last book, Soul of a Chef, in which I truly could seem to be gushing. In Reach of a Chef, I don’t gush, relative to what I’m capable of when I care about a subject. The opposite really—I’m the most skeptical person there is with regard to the contemporary chef. We are entering an unromantic era with regard to chefs and restaurants. In this new world, Keller has lost his shoes, is out of balance, and says he’s not a chef anymore. And I think this is something that people don’t want to hear. People still want to believe that chefs are artists, which they very rarely are.

In the end, there are genuine reasons to be enthusiastic in today’s chef world (e.g. Melissa Kelly, Masa Takayama—if there’s a hero in my book, it’s him—Judy Rodgers and her smart words, what an observant cook and excellent writer she is)—but it’s more complex now, the chef is in transition, and I don’t know what the next phase will be. There’s simply too many alumni coming out of great kitchens; a finite number can fit into the always moving circle cast by the spotlight of public adoration; we can only have so many celebrity chefs. Those chefs who no longer cook have become in effect CEOs, and it’s hard to maintain celebrity when you’re a CEO, except by becoming a criminal.

About the gushing: I don’t gush indiscriminately (and I wouldn’t call it gushing; over-idealizing is more accurate). The people about whom I “gush” deserve it. And again, I do very little gushing in the new book, because I think a lot of what’s happening in the upper echelons of the chef world are confusing and sad. But I think that for journalists, especially those in the New York food media, being skeptical and snarky (which is the opposite of gushing) is somehow perceived as an asset and somehow beneficial to the reader. Only rarely is the snarky writer talented enough to deliver a truly great read, a really ugly, delightful evisceration. I’d go so far as to claim that snarkiness and talent are mutually exclusive for all but the rarest writer.

Two journalists have questioned how I could have written about someone formerly close with Keller, Adam Block, a businessman, for The Times magazine, which, given the aforementioned reviews deserves a response. It's important and interesting, and I intend to address it, but I’m late for my class…

5 thoughts on “Responding to critics

  1. I’m only on chapter 4, so can’t really comment, but here’s the link to the NY Observer article.

  2. Gushing? Hardly. I read the Times review and thought Edge misinterpreted your words. The comment about eating at the FL being like losing your virginity, to me, evokes more your sense of innocent wonderment at first experiencing Keller’s cusine, rather than about the food itself. And the “sprinkled with magic dust and sold in big numbers” remark about the FL cookbook, again, doesn’t comment on the book itself, but rather Keller’s ability to sell, based on his reputation.
    I’m reading the section about chef branding now and find it fascinating. It also clears up why Cat Cora has gotten a “media whore” reputation, considering she’s still basically a nobody. 🙂

  3. Whew! Saw that header and was worried for a moment 🙂
    I was surprised that Edge had to dig so deep into the paperwork and not the book itself to realize you had a prior working relationship with Keller – I’ve read some of his stuff in Oxford America and liked it quite a bit. But it’s certainly not like you’re hiding anything in your writing. In fact, it’s something I thought you deserved praise for this time around – you come out right up front and announce that you’re not just a journalist, observing the world of cooking, but that you’ve become a part of it with this trio of books, and the co-authoring of 3 (that’s all right?) cookbooks as well.
    Having read nearly everything you’ve written, I wouldn’t go so far as to say you ever get to the point of gushing – you ARE very passionate about the topics you write about, and that certainly comes through loudly – but if it didn’t, I don’t think your books would be nearly as interesting as they are.
    I would have to say that Melissa Kelly came off as the most revered in my reading of the book.

  4. thanks dan and kathy. appreciate those words.
    dan, btw, has a very good site called emerging writer’s network, and in my opinion, brings exactly the right spirit to reviewing…

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