By Michael Nagrant
If you comped me a $300 meal at one of Chicago’s top restaurants, I believe I’d be able to write honestly about it. That being said, it would be impossible for the reading public to know what’s in my heart, and, admittedly, it’s possible some unintended subjectivity might creep in. That’s why I never write critically about free meals. This of course includes friends and family cooking, which has had the unintended but delightful consequence of keeping me invited to dinner parties and in good standing with my mother-in-law.
That’s not to say I’ve never taken a free meal. As a blog editor and as a freelancer, often with no budget for eating other than personal funds, I’ve taken free meals or dishes when I felt I needed to taste something to support my writing on a feature (a common industry practice). Still, it felt dirty to even do this. I’d be writing about the restaurant because it bought access, when relatively smaller mom-and-pop operations never could. As a result, I’ve even stopped doing this. If a publication won’t pay, but I feel a meal’s a worthy endeavor, I’ll deduct any costs associated with a meal from my pay for the article. The only times I might review free things are consumer products that weren’t made specifically for me or media previews that are open to the general public.
Still, not a day goes by where I don’t get offered a free meal. Last Friday night I dined at a local restaurant, not professionally, but to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I used a pseudonym, but the hostess recognized me, as I’d interviewed her before. Halfway through the meal, the server brought two extra appetizers. I told him to tell the kitchen to stop. After the entrees, it seemed we were home free, but then he brought an extra dessert. After finishing the meal, the server told us that we were all set, and that our meal had been “taken care of.” I insisted that I’d have to pay. The general manager came over, apologized and said, “I hope you didn’t think we were trying to do something inappropriate,” and handed me the check. It included both of the extra appetizers and the dessert, an extra $40 dollars which I’d not have had to pay for, as we never would have ordered those items. Interestingly, those three extra items were extraordinary and had given me a glimpse at something I wouldn’t have tried. In fact I’d had a great meal, but I couldn’t write about it. Ironically, even with the special treatment, I still had no problem criticizing the one misstep, a sauce that had so much cardamom it was like eating a tablespoon of Chanel #5.
It was not an easy decision to pay for those items. My wife and I got in to an argument about doing so and it ruined our evening. But if I had accepted them, I felt I’d never be able write about the restaurant again. I felt the chef (who was out of town on this particular night) was cooking at the highest level in Chicago, and it would be a shame to never be able to cover him.
We all have occupational hazards, and I’m not writing about this as personal whining. Rather the Friday night encounter put in to perspective how bad this industry is getting. Restaurants and PR agencies (this encounter is not an exception, but the rule) need to stop being so generous, and instead rely on the quality of their product.
I also feel the public needs to demand more from the press, and understand what’s going on when they pick up the paper to read a review. This recent piece Katy McLaughlin wrote for the weekend Wall Street Journal about bloggers taking freebies is a good start.
My only real criticism of McLaughlin’s article is that it still smacks a little of old-guard media standing on high ground taking potshots at new media. Old media journalists have been taking similar freebies for years. The article should also have examined the phenomenon of the exclusive “media preview” whereby traditional journalists eat free meals on the restaurant’s dime under the guise of editorial research. I’ve spoken off the record with many restaurateurs and journalists and can say with certainty that folks from many major publications in Chicago have attended these junkets at one time or another. Some local outlets even write reviews based on them.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many less blatant forms of compromise. For example, about half of the chefs I’ve ever interviewed say they can identify Phil Vettel of the Tribune and Pat Bruno of the Sun-Times. While these guys dine anonymously and pay for their meals, they’ve been writing for over twenty years, and at some point, no matter how hard they try, they’ve lost some of their anonymity. To be fair, Vettel and Bruno honorably make notes in their reviews when they feel they’ve been identified, but shouldn’t the major dailies be rotating their anonymous reviewers, at least after a decade or so? It would certainly be a good start.