Food Bloggers, are they all tarred with the same Brush?

In recent times there has been a plethora of stories emerging about food bloggers and in particular ones that review restaurants. From the most extreme case where a blogger has been jailed in Taiwan, to various chefs taking matters into their own hands after receiving a less than glowing review.

The power of blogging isn’t to be underestimated, Oisin Rogers from The Ship in Wandsworth was only too happy to talk about his experiences of bloggers & how he treats them. He feels that, for him at least, they provide a service to his eateries, which is great while it’s all positive or just minor tweaks. But what happens when it goes further than that? Over the past month or so at least four high profile chefs have taken matters into their own hands to voice their displeasure over being the centre of attention from various bloggers, with varying degrees of success. Whilst Alex Stupak (Empellon) & Michael Caines (Gidleigh Park) both received a certain amount of sympathy from their followers , Mark Sargeant & Marcus Wareing were less than successful in their attempts at handling their critics. Probably creating more mainstream media interest in what the kerfuffle was all about, and thus giving undue extra attention to what was an averagely written post in the first place.

Many chefs & restaurateurs wouldn’t even talk about the subject of food bloggers, presumably for fear of reprisals & the damage it can do. At the moment of writing this post, my blog has just shy of 1500 followers on Twitter & just over 2200 ‘friends’ on FaceBook. Yet when I put this proposition to them, there was an occasional smattering of ‘prepare yourself for a full inbox’ and the like, but actually very little arrived. I even asked several profile chefs & restaurants, with the proviso of anonymity.Yet very little came back in a way which I had hoped for, where people would actually want to participate in the debate.

Whilst the attitude of some from within the catering industry is somewhat cynical, with many taking the line of

They’re just rich f*ckers, who can afford to eat out a lot. Which they think gives them the right to review me & know what they’re talking about!

Some embrace the free publicity they receive, with Mr Rogers telling me he is pro-active with bloggers and contacts them, just to improve his product should he receive less than pleasing feedback. A brave line indeed, but then when your eatery is such a regular hangout for food bloggers you can’t afford to be complacent.

There are several different types of writers out in the blogosphere. There are the ones that carry real weight, not because it appears they want to, but because of the quality of writing & judgement they exude. The two runners up in The Observer Food Monthly awards last year are some of the ones I talk about. ‘Cheese n Biscuits‘ & ‘Eat Like a Girl‘ both carry weight, are approachable people and I have yet to see anything remotely malicious coming from either of them (although Cheese n Biscuit’s Chris Pople was behind the very funny parody of Gordon Ramsay on Twitter). Whilst they both blog with different styles, they also clearly understand the influence they both have over their readership.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of other bloggers, who just seem to want to court controversy. There have been incidents involving 2 multiple Michelin starred chefs & the same blog. One of chefs apparently rang The Critical Couple to vent his displeasure at a post on his eponymous restaurant. The Marcus Wareing saga ran to 69 comments on The Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog & 90 comments (3pages) on the foodie forum eGullet. It all seemed to end when a contributor on eGullet pointed out that The Critical Couple had actually courted press attention via tweets to Jay Rayner & Giles Coren. That was in November 2010 and for any new blog (The Critical Couple was a mere 5months old at this stage) it must have been a massive shot in the arm for traffic numbers. So it may come as no surprise that not 7 months later they pull the same stunt again. This time, with one of my favourite restaurants, Gidleigh Park in Devon.

Now I have the utmost respect for the team at Gidleigh Park, I’ve eaten there several times in recent years and it’s as good as it gets in my experience. So for this couple to criticise the food without even trying it, in regard to the tasting menu (of which there were 2 when I went) is just plain wrong because it contained Scallops, Foie Gras & Lamb. But what makes this worse is that after such a bad meal you couldn’t pay them to go back & then miraculously when Michael Caines offers to cook for them personally they’d only be too happy to return. Which is it?

It is actions like these that only reinforce the argument against food bloggers which AA Gill seems to use to mild effect (although being stuck behind The Times paywall doesn’t really help his cause). He said in an interview about a month ago;

They go to all these events — that’s a form of payment. They get put up in nice places — that’s a form of payment. What they are effectively doing is funding their hobby and not doing it particularly well.

Oh dear, what the likes of Mr Gill don’t like is that anybody now can post on the internet & write a restaurant review where two thirds of it aren’t about his tedious over privileged life or ‘The Blonde’. The printed media is dying a slow death, as is the example of Gourmet Magazine (a million monthly subscribers) which was closed by Conde Nast in 2009, and the new media of blogging & the social networks are here to stay, well for the foreseeable future anyway.

For Mr Gill’s benefit I’ll put this into context for him and compare like for like. One of the more successful ‘Super’ bloggers said last year that he got on average 28,000 page views a day, a truly remarkable figure. But this means Mr Gill, that more people actually read his work per week than yours, not so much of a hobby now is it?

With the spate of high profile openings this year in London, there was a sense of ambulance chasing as to who will post the first review of a restaurant. Unfortunately this shows a real lack of knowledge about how the industry works & respect for the teams involved. No company, large or small gets their product right straight off the bat & restaurants are no different. No matter how small the blog, maybe bloggers don’t realise the damage a poor review can do to a fledgling eatery or the team that service it. Conversely, journalist Marina O’Loughlin rarely jumps on the ‘me first’ band wagon, instead giving new eateries time to bed in to give her readers a more balanced view of a snagged product.

Another stick that bloggers are beaten with by professional writers, is ethics, and they may have a point. When I reviewed The Prince of Wales in Putney I received extra courses. I didn’t ask for them, in fact I had to refuse one due to an allergy, I mentioned this very early on in the review and my reasons behind it. But unfortunately not all bloggers are like this. Some that I have heard about demand free meals etc & fearful operators duly oblige. This is where the wheat & the chaff soon separate. Under ASA rules if you receive a free meal you have to declare it (as maybe some kind of advertorial?!?) and unfortunately restaurateurs rarely know this. All of a sudden, a potential rave review at the cost of a free meal isn’t looking such good value if the blogger has to declare a lack of integrity.

Oh bloggers don’t worry, the Pro’s aren’t whiter than white either. Earlier this year Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner resigned his position of the UK Chair of the 50Best Restaurant list, citing part of the reason as the press junkets;

both restaurateurs and tourist boards have gone out of their way to get panellists in, offering them endless free trips and free meals.

And, as he put it.

I could have eaten my way around the globe on the offers that came my way in the last 12 months. I took none of them.

So to the nuts & bolts of this, the number of food bloggers is growing whether you like it or not. It ranges from chefs to the ‘rich f*ckers’, you don’t need a huge Nikon, actually you probably already have all the equipment you need. A computer with internet access and a camera (most phones now have average cameras on them). All of the major players in the blogosphere offer free platforms to start with & for about $10 a year you can even have your own domain name. Then there is the issue of copyright (ironic I know coming from me, as I learnt that lesson the hard way), because an image is on the net, it doesn’t mean it’s free to use.

But what you can’t buy is respect, integrity & creativity which will make your blog stand out from the crowd. Along with this comes a responsibility, like it or not. Should you take up the mantle of food blogger & write about restaurants then you are likely to affect, in some small way, a group of hard working passionate people.

In an ocean of poorly written, ill informed, sometimes obnoxious food blogs there are some small islands of quality sites and long may they continue, the rest will just fall by the wayside.

25 Responses to “Food Bloggers, are they all tarred with the same Brush?”
  1. Bob Smith says:

    The blogger you mention gets 28,000 readers a day. The Sunday Times has a circulation of more than 1.2m, not including online, which means that a little over twice that number read it every week. Whether you like it or not, Gill is one of the ST’s major writers and is responsible for shifting a significant number of copies. Even if only half the weekly Sunday Times readers (which we can charitably estimate at 2m) read Gill’s restaurant column (or his TV column, or his other features) every week, that still equates to almost 150,000 unique readers a day.

    Don’t pretend blogs have more influence than they do.

    • You have a slightly flawed point there Bob. Latest figures for ST from press gazette show circulation at a little over 1million & that was a 10% decrease. Point of the post was about restaurant reviews not TV reviews & the combined numbers for online Times media, according to NewsCorp is 100k approx. No media, printed or otherwise can prove 2nd hand readership. It can only speculate.

      If bloggers don’t have any influence (or as little as you’d like to think), why they are they recieving freebies & going to promotions or soft openings?

      • Bob Smith says:

        Even 1m readers, or even half that, knock your blogger (for whose supposed readership figures you have supplied no evidence) into a cocked hat.

        PRs like bloggers because bloggers are typically much easier to get plugs from than journalists.

  2. Chumbles says:

    I too posted a comment on that article in the Graun about the Critical Couple. I only read the first para of their blog and that’s all I’ve ever read of their stuff. Semi-literate garbage was my immediate reaction, and that was without reference to the subject matter.

    Food bloggers are most interesting when their posts run across a whole range of things, like ingredients, resto reviews, cooking – new recipes, etc. But they also need from my perspective to be reasonably literate. For me the shining examples of blogdom are Meemalee’s Kitchen and Food, Football and a Baby, the latter being a brilliant source of Mangalorean recipes.

    I read ChefHermes, because it’s always a fascinating insight into the business and the five questions series is an excellent series. Far more influential than any blogger is TV, though!

  3. Really well written post here. I agree with most of it too, having gone back and forth about just how ethical it is to accept anything free as a food blogger. As a rule, I don’t, but I’ve made exceptions here and there – mainly if it’s someone I know personally or if the restaurant/PR can guarantee anonymity (I want to have an ‘off the street’ experience where ever I can).

    My main issue with the critics of food bloggers is that they forget that we all do it for different reasons. I don’t think it’s fair to throw everyone in the same pile. Some are trying to rival the AA Gills, some are looking for book deals and – true – some just have an opinion. Personally, I don’t really care if people read my blog or not. It’s nice that people do, but I write my blog more as a diary. Going out to eat is my entertainment, and though it may sound silly, I have a much easier time remembering my experiences through food than I do anything else.

    Bottom line though: Quality and personality always show through – if a blog is truly crap, people won’t come back to it and as you said, restaurants won’t offer them freebies.

  4. John Ferris says:

    Great piece Chef. There are always going to be bloggers who are worth reading and those who aren’t. It’s up to the public to figure out for themselves which ones are trustworthy and which ones are freeloaders out for all the free meals they can get.
    If a site has reviews that are all positive and no negatives then how can anyone believe what its saying? I’ve been blogging and writing restaurant reviews for a local paper in Belfast for five years and I can count on one hand the number of dinners I’ve had that didn’t have even the slightest little niggle.
    You’re right chef, bloggers have influence. It may not be right that some of them do (I’m thinking about those blogs that take free meals, don’t mention it and say everything is great); but the rest of us shouldn’t be tarred by the same brush.
    Incidentally, this may be a local phenomenon, but in my experience when I’m ‘invited’ for dinner somewhere, 8 times out of 10 it’s absolutely awful. I always mention a free meal (and when you work for a small newspaper with little expenses, sometimes a free meal is something you have to accept) in any article.
    Bob, your argument is flawed for me, if the ST has 1 million readers then I’d be surprised that more than 10 per cent read AA Gill, whose arrogance over bloggers is a bit much. He doesn’t read them but knows they’re shit. That’s the comment of a remarkably smart man.
    If you take how many people living in an area where they can reach a restaurant he reviews, I bet that many local bloggers have a far more tangible impact on a restaurant than Gill ever could.
    I enjoy Gill’s work but I can’t remember the last time I read a piece and wanted to fly over the water to go eat somewhere he was talking about.

  5. Jay Rayner says:

    I have to say you’re undermining your otherwise interesting arguments by suggesting that a blogger with 28,000 readers a day is getting more readers than Gill. Newspaper industry standard, based on decades of research, is a print pick up of three readers to each issue. Even if we went for a more conservative two for one that’s two million print readers. Even if Gill gets just 10% of that readership – and I suspect he gets rather more – that’s 200k per week, before you comp in the online readership. Plus of course most bloggers get many fewer than 28,000 readers a day.

    There is no doubt that print – as in the dead tree version – is seriously challenged. Only a fool would argue otherwise, but equally only a fool would argue that bloggers are more read than those of us working for the dead tree merchants.

    All that said, in the battle for readers it simply comes down to this: those of us who are paid to do the job have to be better at it than those who aren’t. if we’re not, we’ll lose our jobs. Some bloggers are good, and quickly turn it into a paying gig; others are sponging, freebie-whores who thump through the English language like elephants on heat.

    For the moment I’m still employed. So are Gill and Coren. Let’s see what happens with that.

  6. Really interesting article and great to see so much debate already. I’d argue that blogs and newspaper pieces are written with entirely different purposes – the newspaper restaurant reviews I read are often as much about entertainment as individual dishes, whereas so many blogs go through a blow by blow account of what they are eating (often with photos – am still unsure whether I support this as love reading blogs with pics, but often feel uncomfortable taking them myself). I think there is space for great paid newspaper critics, and powerful bloggers – as people say above, the quality of the writing shines through and the rubbish naturally sifts to the bottom!

  7. John Ferris says:

    Isn’t there room for those who aren’t paid to do a decent job as well as those of you who get paid to do it Jay? Besides, for me I think in the next five years it’ll become more about who the writer is rather than where they’re writing… dead tree or iPad or Internet browser or phone or whatever… a good, well written and balanced piece is as good in print as it is online.

  8. Paul Edson says:

    The food bloggers with a palate can’t write for toffee, the ones with a decent turn of phrase have no palate. The blogosphere is still waiting for a truly credible restaurant blogger. It’s not going to be the Critical Couple though, that’s for sure.

  9. Johnnie mountain says:

    Of ALL the bloggers in ALL the world, the Critical Couple are NOT the people you think they are. Sure they have been nice about me in their reviews, but please, I have the balls to speak the truth constantly. This often leads me to trouble, in this instance maybe the same. The male person in the couple worked his nuts off for many years and was fortunate enough to ‘hit’ most peoples dreams. To do whatever the fuck he wants to do, whenever and wherever. His love of food meant in his free time (which he has lots) a blog was formed. He needs no affirmation, admiration or condemnation for his acts!! He’s not looking for more followers, in fact, he may just fuck the whole thing off quite soon. The couple are in a fortunate position where a lot of us would like to be. Let’s not show envy towards them, embrace the fact that in their opinion they give a frank and honest posting on the day that they eat. There are no fictitious elements to their blog. There is no need, no end goal and no affirmation required. For those that know me, you know me. I have no reason to write this shit, other than defend innocent, honest and loyal people. For those who don’t know me, who gives a shit!!!

    Lots of love

    Johnnie Mountain. Xx

  10. Will says:

    Hermes, bloggers all seem a pretty nasty bunch whether it’s Critical Couple or Cheese and Biscuits. While you say ‘I have yet to see anything remotely malicious coming from [Cheese and Biscuits], in his review of Dego he said of one dish ‘It’s difficult to describe just how rancid this dish of braised octopus smelled, but try and imagine a tin of tuna in brine, opened, left for a week, then eaten and expelled by a cat with Crohn’s disease. It was revolting’. I have eaten at Dego several times and it’s ok, not Gordon Ramsay for sure, but certainly not deserving of that. Maybe they didn’t give him that one as a freebie and that’s the price they pay. He’s totally rude about the staff and later describes the place as ‘shit’; malicious? Like AA Gill says, they’re all in it for the freebies.

  11. Hugh Wright says:

    There’s a lot of this I agree with, and a fair bit I don’t but rather than go through it point-by-point, I’ll just say this:

    Yes, food bloggers are, seemingly, all tarred with the same brush. And no, they – we – shouldn’t be. The tendency (of bloggers and non-bloggers alike) to see ‘food blogging’ as one homegenised, uniform activity in which everyone has the same motives and objectives is to ignore the fact that many – myself included – just see it as a hobby and would never hold ourselves out to be ‘critics’. I eat out a fair bit, I enjoy writing, so I write about eating out. That’s all there is to it. If people attach significance to my opinions – and that’s all they are – that’s entirely their choice, and very flattering it is too, but I don’t make any claims to expertise, influence or ‘integrity’. As for any blogger expecting PRs to ‘guarantee anonymity’ – give me strength.

    There are many different blogs out there with many different voices; readers and restaurateurs alike are free to choose which, if any, are the voices they listen to.

  12. renta ghost says:

    Hear what Johnnie Mountain is saying, but haven’t the Critical Couple set themselves a bit of an own goal with their chef dinners? Supposedly open to joe bloggs (pardon the pun) but guest lists to date seem to number a) pierre koffmann b) chefs who have previously cooked for them c) a n other influential bloggers – so instead of democratising the dinners as advertised, they have chosen to make them a niche event. Thus alienating a large portion of folk who either follow their blog or follow them on twitter. So the approachable, “honest” folk you refer to, now seem cynical in their attempts to throw open their “generosity” to the public, In my view this has damaged their rep – their dinners now no more than private dinners with a few VIP guests – and to brag about them is a bit “non U”. I don’t begrudge them their wealth but perhaps they would be less criticised if they weren’t so brazen in their attempts to court “important” twitter folk.

    • Johnnie mountain says:

      Hey Renta Ghost,
      The CC choose the guests very much like you would want to choose the people coming to your house for dinner. It’s a difficult choice, they do obviously invite ‘influential’ twitteratti, howelse would they determine whether the guest was ‘genuine’ or not.
      A recent guests was ‘paid for’ via a charitable donation of £750, plus I believe the guest donated a further £100 to Action Against Hunger. Would you invite ‘strangers’ to your house? With a huge cost to the CC’s, How would you choose?. I feel your reply is nothing more than a hole picking exercise into someones lifestyle you either are very jealous of or just don’t understand.
      Did you want an invite?? It was open to the world for the highest donation. Surely that was enough motivation for you!!

      Johnnie Mountain. Xx

      • renta ghost says:

        Hey Johnnie
        But I don’t advertise my dinner parties to the public – they do! So they ARE inviting strangers. My point is – don’t advertise the dinners and then just invite Hulstone, Chefalyn etc (ie Monday’s dinner). Just invite who you want – don’t bother to get others to “apply”. Anyway, I’m not jealous of their lifestyle – why is this always being brought down to money – I don’t know anything about their lifestyle so how can I be? Other than they eat out a lot and the comments on other sites suggest they have money. So what. Plenty of us eat out a lot, and I’m sure I’ve met far wealthier people in my time. My point was they seem to stir up a lot of controversy and this doesn’t help their cause.

      • John Ferris says:

        Yes, the Critical Couple’s blog most likely got a huge boost from the Marcus Waering controversy (it’s how I first heard about them). Whether they did the piece or not to get such a boost, I’ve no idea, and frankly I don’t care. I like reading their posts, in my eyes, that’s all that matters to me and the same for the general public.
        But even if I accept for one moment that they did it just to get readers, is it any different than AA Gill courting controversy by taking the p*ss out of Welsh people, or shooting a baboon to ‘feel what it was like to kill’, or pick your own story from the list of his career controversies to date? Bloggers and print critics have a massive thing in common – if there are no readers there will be no column. It might take a blogger longer to cut the cord than an editor who cuts a critic loose, but it’s the same for both worlds. But to answer the ultimate question of this piece, which ties in again with Mr Gill… yes we are all tarred with the same brush, and it’s people like him who make sweeping and generalised statements about groups of people who don’t seem to grasp that like in every walk of life there are good, bad and indifferent bloggers/people.

  13. A. R. Baggs says:

    I wright a food blog so I can show of to my mates. I try and get to restaurants before they open so I can be the first person to review on UrbanSpoon. I don’t care if my blogposts make no sense as long as the photos of the food are good enough to make everyone jealous of how sophisticated I am. I collect michelin star menus and keep them in a pillowcase. I love freebies and often tell the restaurant that “I’m a food blogger and I would like the bill – hint hint”. Mainly I look forward to checking my readership stats to see that I am now more popular than my village is big.
    PR emails make me laugh because some of them are illiterate and they make speling errors – idiots! I would never declare I got a free meal – that would be mad, people would presume I wasn’t rich enough to spaff away a redback on a plate of carpaccio.

    Oh yeah, come read my blog, that’s the only reason I posted here anyway. Obviously.

  14. Chris says:

    Thanks for the mention Mr Hermes, much appreciated.

    Will: That quote wasn’t malicious, it was accurate. I’m glad you enjoyed your meal at Dego but mine was one of the worst I’ve ever had in London, and I think I went into sufficient detail to explain why. Also I can’t see how I was “totally rude about the staff” unless you mean some of the suspiciously defensive comments that appeared beneath the post. Do you know something I don’t?

    P.S. I paid for every bit of my meal, although obviously I wish I hadn’t.

  15. Emmy says:

    for those who might be interested in the subject of food bloggers, you might need to read this:
    This should be the standard, the rule in food blogging.

  16. Emmy says:

    On the subject of restaurant reviewing, I stumbled upon a must-read article :
    it’s untiled ‘Learn to know your food reviewer’ and it is my reference guide on restaurant reviewing:
    The author goes deep on the matter and upon reading that article, I personally became a better restaurant critic. Emmy

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Chef Hermes Posts an interesting read about Food Bloggers:    In recent times there has been a plethora of stories emerging about food bloggers and in particular ones that review restaurants. From the most extreme case where a blogger has been jailed in Taiwan, to various chefs taking matters into their own hands after receiving a less than glowing review. The power of blogging isn’t … Read more […]

  2. […] online or during the day to day involvement in the catering industry. Yet when I published ‘Food Bloggers, are they all tarred with the same Brush? ‘ you could have been mistakenly thought that I’d made some John Lennon-esk comment about Jesus […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: