The big topic of conversation in a week too cold to do anything but be virtual about restaurants was Michael Nagrant’s piece at Eater on the absence of restaurant critics:

I’ve seen the future and the resulting fallout. The decline of the major food critic didn’t start weeks ago when Vettel retired. It began a decade ago, when Vettel’s chief competitor, Pat Bruno, was fired from the Chicago Sun-Times. The Sun-Times named me as Bruno’s successor, but two and a half years later I was also let go when the Sun-Times killed the dining section.

What we know about monopolies is that they often lead to laziness and exploitation. In the absence of another critic pushing him, what would Vettel get lazy about? To understand that, you need to understand what a food critic does and how they do it.

As he says, reviewers put Chicago on the international dining map by telling people outside of Chicago what was happening here:

But why should we care if a food critic or their national counterparts celebrate expensive restaurants that cater to the elite? When international diners fly out for a Michelin-starred meal they read about in the paper, they eat at other restaurants, influenced when the chef or general manager tells a table, “You gotta check out the Isaan sausage at Spoon Thai and the chapli kebab at Khan BBQ!” A rising tide lifts all ships, not just the luxury yachts in Monaco. When a critic manages to lure a culinary tourist to Chicago for a Michelin-starred meal, the city’s lesser-known restaurants — ones just as integral to its fabric — benefit.

Nagrant surveys the scene well, which is why I was a little sorry that he winds up dumping the whole mess on the Tribune’s doorstep, saying they’re bailing on an important civic function (as if Alden Capital wouldn’t have fired firemen during the Chicago fire, that’s how much they care about civic values) and that Vettel was too cozy with the industry:

In his last few years, Vettel renounced his anonymity and indulged his inner Kardashian, taking a parade of Instagram and Facebook selfies with the chefs and restaurateurs he was supposed to objectively and anonymously cover.

He’s enough on Vettel’s case that Eater felt compelled to get comment from the man himself. Well, I’d be all for Nagrant—or someone—taking over the head reviewer gig at the Trib. I’d also like more legroom on airlines, but there are things in life that some beancounter has decided we shall never have again.

As long as we’re wishing, I do not want a new, Nagrantified version of Vettel in the one reviewing throne left in town. That is, I’d be fine with that, but what I really want is a whole bunch of voices, in which the Trib is just one (or a couple of them but not the only ones). Here’s how Nagrant paints the scene a decade ago:

Vettel’s work and that of a generally strong class of professional food critics helped Chicago shed its meat-and-potatoes image to emerge as an innovative American food city. Daring restaurants like Paul Kahan’s darling Blackbird, three-Michelin-starred Alinea, and molecular-gastronomy pioneer Moto would likely have been built anyway, but without critics like Bruno, Vettel, Time Out Chicago’s Heather Shouse and David Tamarkin, and Mike Sula of the Reader competing feverishly and intelligently, would Chicago have become a must-eat destination?

I’d like all that, too, but in some ways that I think Nagrant fails to notice, that was already kind of an anachronistic view of food media—except for Time Out the outlets he mentions were all at least 40 years old by that golden age. The new voices on the scene whenever that was (late first decade of the 2000s, I guess) were online—bloggers, LTHForum, Serious Eats, citizen media of all sorts. And the reality is that much of what was talked about in mainstream media originated with these newly-vocalized amateurs— today’s LTHForum find was likely to be next week’s review or feature story at many of those publications, and the amateur participants who were more capable of writing professionally for legacy publications soon did.

Nagrant does have something to be say about online media—influencers on Instagram:

Influencers can do good things, but they aren’t critics. Ask yourself why you see the same over-edited photos on every Instagram account. It’s because some PR firm sent every influencer the same free meal or paid a stipend to get a mention for their client.

These mentions get amplified by blinder-like social media algorithms which reinforce and feed you things you like and keep you away from things you don’t.

True enough, so far as it goes. But the reality of social media platforms is that they take off when they provide an easy new way to communicate, to be in the conversation. Blogging offered a writing platform but you had to, one, be able to write interestingly, and two, be able to find your own audience. Facebook and Instagram made it possible to get the dopamine hit of a blog post without really having to write—some words, sure, but mainly pictures, and to an audience you’ve already signed up. That killed blogging because anyone could do it.

But they’re not the End of History, either. New platforms will come along, again and again. If I were starting something like Fooditor right now, I’d be looking hard at Substack-type newsletters. It’s basically a push-blogging platform—what you oldsters would call a newsletter—with a built-in payment system to help you get past the hardest part of all media now, getting paid for what you write. If I wanted to review restaurants right now, I would forget trying to convince any publication owner of any civic duty and start The Gebert Report, see if I could get a couple of hundred people to pay $50 a year for it. (If you wonder why I don’t do that, it’s because I have more than a thousand people signed up at the low low price of free here, and eventually I’m going to have a book to promote to them, so it doesn’t seem like time to decimate my audience. But someone else should!) (Someone else who did is Michael Nagrant, whose Love in the Time of Coronavirus newsletter raised money for restaurants in the early days of COVID—a fine thing, though writers actually getting paid for their work is a fine thing too.)

Anyway, so I agree with a lot of what Nagrant says in this piece and recommend it, but it seems pointless to me to keep knocking on the same two doors that he’s been trying to batter down for a decade. There may or may not be money in writing by yourself about food, but there’s definitely freedom and the chance of having impact. Start there.

Buzz 2


Speaking of Substack newsletters, they’re not just for restaurant reviewing but for lots of kinds of food writing that otherwise isn’t going to find a steady home. And this week Leela Punyaratabandhu, aka @SheSimmers, author of a couple of Thai cookbooks, launched one on Thai cooking with a piece on green curry as a signifier of social status in Thailand, telling the stories of a 70s prime minister who liked to show off by making green curry with a splash of cognac:

General Chamanan’s version of green curry became the talk of the town not because it was a marked improvement on a well-loved classic but because it represented a novelty. It was the kind of culinary theatrics that drew a demarcation line between a whole class of Thai people, who could play around with expensive imported goods amidst a drawn-out financial crisis, and the have-nots, who could barely afford a bag of plain old green curry off a street stall.

Go here to sign up and/or subscribe.


They’re trying again—a new version of the Restaurants Act has been introduced on a bipartisan basis in both the U.S. House and Senate. The House will vote on it the week of the 22nd, so contact your Congresspeoples now!

Mayor Lightfoot has reopened indoor dining—so why are restaurant workers still down not “essential workers” in line for the vaccine? A petition asks that question.


The Tribune hits Black History Month hard this week, with pieces on Brown Sugar Bakery, Lem’s Bar-B-Q, and The Licking, where owner Lenny Coffey Weston has tried to fit onto the neighborhood:

“When I put up my takeout area, they said, ‘You’re not gonna put the thing that separates the cashier?’ I refused to do that,” said Weston. “It’s basically painting a picture that says I’m in this neighborhood, but I’m really not comfortable in this neighborhood. It’s been almost two years and nothing crazy has happened. I don’t open something up just to make a buck and leave.”


Countdown to Dolinsky D-Day, and he visits the new Crave Kabob in the West Loop and Skokie:

“We make everything here. We make a little bit of everything. We make falafel, we make kabobs, shawarma,” said Manager Husam Ahmad.

That shawarma, both chicken and beef, is hand-stacked each day. The giant cones are cooked on tall vertical spits until charred but still juicy.

Why go through the trouble of making them by hand?

“Tastes a lot better. Looks a lot better. Just awesome flavor, it’s packed with flavor,” said Ahmad.

He also talks Hunan food for Chinese New Year.


And speaking of Chinese New Year, Titus Ruscitti returns from a New Year hiatus to talk potstickers in Chinatown (mostly—he also goes to Dangela’s Dumplings in Lake County, actually a visit that dates back nearly a year, which I know because I drove).


Friend of Fooditor Dobra Bielinski can count on facing reporters every year—when Paczki Day rolls around. But what will the angle be this year? Block Club Chicago talks to the owner of Delightful Pastries about making paczki in a pandemic.


Virtual travel time: Sandwich Tribunal discovers a sandwich rooted in one island near Montreal:

Like much of Quebec, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield has a number of snack bars called casse-croûtes, where Quebecois and more general fast food items like Poutine, Montreal-style all-dressed hot dogs, burgers, and smoked meat sandwiches can be ordered. Valleyfield, though, has its own specialty that isn’t seen much past the shores of Lake St. Francis–a sandwich called grillade.