A Day at the Beach, and a Sense of Perspective

Good morning, friends and neighbors.

It had been a very long time since Em and I had gotten out of the city. We went back to Philadelphia in July, but the last 6 months have been especially trying (to say the least,) and the immediate future promised to be even more interesting.

Back when I lived in New Jersey, walking on the beach near my house offered more than good exercise and an enjoyable afternoon. It offered perspective- a quiet if a not-so-subtle reminder of my size and place in this world, as well as the size and place of my problems.

Even the biggest things are not so big at all, compared to the view from Cannon Beach.

A panoramic shot of Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock in Oregon

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“Vox Populi, Vox Dei”- Yelp and the Future of Food Writing

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I like going out to eat as much as the next guy. I make my decisions on a bunch of criteria-

  • What am I tasting?
  • Price point
  • Locality
  • Did I discover it and it looks interesting/ did a friend suggest it personally?

You will notice something missing on that list- I don’t really give a crap about internet reviews.

Broken iPhone

from pexels.com

I don’t have a Yelp account, and I really don’t care to get one.
I have multiple friends who are business owners, restaurateurs, chefs, and cooks who do. They pay attention to the reviews they receive for their workplaces/ properties.

Like it or not, Yelp IS a powerful organ in the culinary world, and I’ve seen my friends react with disappointment, wrath, and sardonic wit at negative reviews in roughly equal measure:

“SunshineLadyXOXO, I’m so sorry you had a terrible time at our bar. I’ve spoken to the bartender after you and your equally-drunk friends failed at seducing/threatening him to get you free drinks. Please understand we DID have to charge you for the chair you broke when you attempted to storm out. “

The truth is, however, that most people trust online reviews as much as they trust their friends. You can ignore them or indulge them at your peril.

How did we get to this point, however? How could restaurants suddenly rise and fall on the anonymous words of customers with an ax to grind?

To my way of thinking, there are at least three roots:

  1. The Democratization of Food Writing
  2. The Replacing of Expertise for Opinion
  3. The All-Powerful Platform of the Internet

Food Writing Belongs(?) To Everyone

Audience of people

Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

Food and foodways DO belong to everyone.
Cultures- national, geographical, local even to city limits- decide what foods stick around, and which join the endless graveyard of failed concepts and “sounded good at the times.”

Food WRITING, however, had previously been the purview of a few. Where else could we get the food columnist from?
The food critic in your local newspaper?
Books upon books written by chefs, culinarians, gastronomes, and other professionally-hungry types to feed our cravings for opinion?

These are people who are PAID to be tastemakers- those who use their experience and evaluations to tell us WHAT is good right now. They use connections in the food world and their own practiced palates to say who the up-and-comers are, what the next big thing is- or in the most wonderful cases, simply who’s got the best steak sandwich in town this year.

Food writing isn’t simply criticism either. It’s also using pen and ink to engage our imaginations AND appetites. It can be decrying the latest trend of activated charcoal desserts,

(I had to look that up. It’s real. Don’t weep for me- I do this gladly for you)

or it can be extolling the virtues of a perfect bowl of tagliatelli Cacio e pepe
(which I understand can only be found in Rome, and anything else blasphemy.)

Jonathan Gold, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, Mark Bittman- anyone who ever set pen to paper to fire the palate is part of this camp. People who know food and love it so much, they HAVE to tell you about it.

With the omnipresence of food entertainment, however, this knowledge has been democratized as never before. If you have a Netflix account, you can watch all the seasons of “Chef’s Table.” Watch “The Great British Bake-Off” enough times, and you’ll KNOW what makes a proper Baked Alaska.

Is it the same as being a chef? Or a cook? Or running your own restaurant?
Absolutely not… but no one asked, of course.

Opinion ≥ Expertise

A young woman listening to two other women talking

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

With near-instant access to all this knowledge, what DOES separate the common man from the expert?

What SHOULD separate them?

With the democratization of food knowledge, comes a sudden consciousness of elitism.
What do these rich pricks in their ivory towers know about food that’s better than me? They’re not down here, are they? I don’t need some Michelin or Zagat shmuck to tell me who’s got the best burger- I KNOW, because I EAT THEM. DAILY.”

If we’re going to be totally honest… that’s not wrong either.

Now, it IS a problem when we wade into the waters of public health or climate science, for example. As much as I love food, the stakes aren’t nearly so high as all that. While there is science and objective fact to those things… what’s the metric of how to measure the best burrito truck?

(Still Saint Burrito on SE Ankeny in Portland, by the way.)

What Yelp has going for it that the food columnists, writers- “tasting experts” let’s say- don’t is that the people who read those reviews know that they came from people LIKE THEM. Average Joe’s on the street, as likely as not to come from the same socioeconomic background, work a similar-level job, and have a generally similar life.

Those kinds of things DO affect your opinions of what makes “quality” food. Average Joe doesn’t care so much about Nomad here in PDX, or Le Bernardin in New York City beyond the famous names associated with them- unless they are a diehard foodie, they are NOT likely to get a seat there.

Why should they care how amazing Eric Ripert’s hamachi is… they’re never going to eat it.

But they have VERY strong opinions on the places they do- diners, sandwich shops, and hot dog carts- and they are much more likely to value the words of someone who THEY think actually eats that stuff on a regular basis. Someone like them.

They have opinions. Those opinions weigh us much to them as the critics do.

Handing over the Megaphone

The title of this post is Latin, and it translates as “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” In television journalism, “vox pops” was often used as a stand-in for investigative journalism and was often time-filler that seemed useful- a reporter going out to ask “the man on the street” how he felt about (insert current news story.)

As anyone who has spent ANY time on the internet knows now, people like to get rowdy on Facebook and Twitter.
The pseudo-anonymity, the impunity from immediate physical consequences, and the ability to dissociate let folks give vent to some pretty heinous attitudes, values, and more, and broadcast them to a wider audience than ever before.

Putting all this together:
A little bit of food knowledge
+ valuation of popular opinion over “elitist” experience
+ technology to broadcast one’s opinions
+ immunity from direct consequences and shield of anonymity

​= Yelp.

This is Yelp’s formula. It is also their strength… and it is why it’s never going to go away.
Things like Michelin stars and Zagat ratings are only appealing anymore to foodies, chefs/restauranteurs, people IN the industry, and the people wealthy enough to get a table somewhere that’s gotten such a write-up.
They are NOT a majority… and they are not likely the average cook’s customer base.​

Your customer base relies on Google reviews and Yelp.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

The Future of Food Writing

None of this means that food writing is going to go away. People who love food will always love to read about it.

Food criticism, on the other hand- the paid-for and published kind- WILL have to change… by becoming more entertaining.

If you’ve had a chance to poke around my blog, you’ll notice that I too do occasional restaurant reviews for local places. I have pretty strict rules in place for how and what I do with them:

  • No entirely negative reviews. EVER.
  • I always pay full cost for food, plus tip. I forbid discounts or comps.
  • It must be someplace I would recommend to friends.

You might also notice, though, that my writing style for those reviews is different. I firmly believe that dining and restaurant-going is an interactive storytelling experience. Therefore, my reviews use the restaurant and the specifics of it as background and color- the main attraction is “Here is the story of my night out at ____.”

Without lending too much ego to it, I truly believe that future foodwriters will need to embrace storytelling structures as much as reporting. Food criticism will have to ENTERTAIN as much as it educates- or else people won’t care.

They’ll continue to go to Yelp to get a feel for a restaurant… but Yelp can’t always provide a STORY.

Picture

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Summing it up…

Yelp is not going away. You may like it or hate it, personally or professionally, but it still holds tremendous power that it came by honestly.
Chefs and owners will have to continue soaking up the rejection of mouthy fools that think they know more than they do. Handling social media is part of the gig- it’s part of the new world we find ourselves in.

The old tastemakers- the food critics and food writers- will have to evolve to be entertainers as much as reporters on current trends.

The Voice of the People may be the Voice of God… but God never told a great story of a dinner out with his wife.

What do you all think? Are you Yelpers? Do you still read newspaper food critics? Who are your favorite food writers? Let me know in the comments!

Stay Classy,

Evolving Priorities

Good morning, friends and neighbors.
It had been a trying few days.
Emily and I were living in our first apartment here in Oregon. We’d barely been here a year.
My first shot at going into business for myself wasn’t doing so well, and I was back on the job hunt again.  

Emily’s job was feeling somewhat bumpy at the time. Her first performance review hadn’t been great, and her teaching hours were temporarily cut. The apartment we’d chosen- though convenient for Em’s job- was expensive. We’d picked it out in the same hurry that precipitated the move itself.

We were living off of our dwindling savings and the distant charity of our parents.

On top of all of that, winter was coming. It was going to be a rainy season, in a part of the city we still don’t like hanging around in too much. Not because it’s dangerous or anything- far from it. It’s very… suburban. It reminded us of all the things and places we DIDN’T like spending time in on the East Coast. Strip malls, highways, nothing decent in walking distance, and barely anywhere to walk anyway.

As we were doing laundry, Emily started crying.
She didn’t like this place. This wasn’t working out. She was stressed out and unhappy. She knew I was struggling. She knew I was essentially trying to start my career from scratch, without any of the connections that had helped me previously.

She was scared that I’d given up my dream of Vienna for her, and she couldn’t abide that.

​A little context here:

The Me That Was

I’ve spoken before about the person I was before culinary school- physically, emotionally, and such.
In short, I really wasn’t a happy guy.
After my first year in culinary school, I had an idea of what this career would demand of me- and I was okay with it.

Then.

Matt Back Then was overweight, sad, lonely, and generally felt unloved and unlovable.
So… what the hell, right?

Long work days meant more money for ME.
Never see loved ones? WHAT loved ones- I don’t have a girlfriend, and couldn’t really see a grand future for myself beyond some romantic dreams.
No holidays? Well, I’d call my family, but I figured I’d never have ANYONE to rush home to.

My life was mine and mine alone, and I was going to give it over to baking and the restaurant life- I simply never imagined I’d be sharing it with anything or anyone else, and all my decisions, for better or worse, would be on me to deal with.

Starting off, I didn’t especially have a goal I wanted to bend my career toward either. I knew I wanted to bake, and I wanted to travel and learn. After a few rewatches of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” I figured that Vienna would be an amazing place to live and work for a while.

Vienna- historically famous for being a crossroads of East and West, for music and composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and for viennoiseriea specific sort of a pastry work- as well as it’s chocolatiers.
I decided that would be my goal- somehow, someway, I’d live abroad in Vienna for at least a few months, work at a bakery, and learn viennoiserie from the masters.

“Change is the Only Constant”

Humans are not static, though. We change. We evolve and we grow, and our priorities and dreams shift.
I’m sure it sounds inspirational when someone claims to have had the exact same goal in life since they were a child and never wavered. It sounds wonderful… but to me, it’s also very suspicious.

When I was a child, I dreamt of being:

  • A doctor
  • An engineer
  • A rabbi
  • Indiana Jones
  • He-Man
  • A chef
  • A baker

and a few others I’ve probably forgotten.

Life has a way of doing that- it changes your priorities, and your goals can change too.

Emily and I on our 4th date

Sometimes it’s people too

It’s not weakness of will or character for a person to stop and say, “Why am I still here?”

“Do I still want this?”
Do I still care?”

It can be hard. It can be terrifying, even- especially if you’ve already invested so much of your life into that thing, or achieving that goal, just to find that- eh… you’re just not feeling it anymore.

Matt Back Then was pleased to work long days, no holidays, sweat his bones out, and come home each night wired out the a** on caffeine and whiskey because what the hell- it was his life.

Now, Matt just wants good pay to work a 40 hour week. I want a job that I can feel good about doing, and that will give me time and space to NOT do it, and where I can spend time with like-minded people who don’t wanna just black out each night after work- they go out and live.

I can honestly say I want that now because I know there is someone in my life that loves me.
She wants to see me happy with my work. She wants me to come home alive each night, and wake up next to me each morning.
She wants me to look out for myself, and demand the things I need to make my life and energy worth it.
She makes me want to be a better person than I was.

I have responsibilities and priorities now that I never thought I’d be lucky enough to have.

“Well, That Didn’t Go As Planned…”- catchphrase of young professionals everywhere

So yes… plans changed a lot. I have no idea how I’ll get to Vienna, what I need to do to get there, or who I need to talk to. I haven’t forgotten it, nor can I say I’ve given up.

It’s simply not a priority right now.

My priority now is giving Emily and Cleo a life worth living.
It means keeping back enough of myself at work so I still have something to give them when I come home.

In a way, yes- I did drop my dream of getting to Vienna for Emily… for starting a life with her, I had to direct energy from other places in my life.

I’ll tell you this, though- if someone were to take me back in time, and show me every thing and task I’d have to complete to make that dream come true- every letter to write, every hand to shake- and tell me I could have it all, but I’d lose the life I have here with Emily in Oregon, and maybe never have Emily in my life at all?

I’d tell them to f*** off out of my bakery and let me get back to work.

I’ve never exactly done things the easy way anyway.
I’ll get to Vienna somehow.

And Emily is gonna be there with me.

Life is not always an either/or game. You have to make choices, yes-
but if you don’t like the choices offered, no one said you couldn’t create your own.

Animated GIF of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones demanding trial by combat

Like this… I will seriously roshambo someone for a plane ticket.
Stay Classy,

Making Yourself A Priority

Good evening, friends and neighbors! I apologize for the silence on here as of late, and for the lightness of this evening’s post.

Over the last two weeks or so, I’ve been reorganizing and tidying up this blog, and it’s kinda gotten in the way of researching and writing. Between that and working on the upcoming book, most of my creative energies have been pulled away.

The good news, however, is that not only will this blog be a bit easier and more enjoyable to read, it will also be better to write. Here’s why:

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A Trip Home(s)

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The flight in was abysmal. Normally, I don’t truly care one way or another for air travel- I usually have enough of SOMETHING to make being stuck in the same seat for hours on end manageable- reading material, writing work, podcasts, exhaustion, something to make the hours a little shorter.

For some reason, though, the red-eye out of Portland International drove me mad. I’d been tired enough to sleep, but not exhausted enough to sleep for very long. Nothing distracted me long enough that I could ignore my legs getting twitchy and anxious.

Granted, that had been my entire body and mind for the last week or so, and this plane trip was meant partially to help me relax and get ready for a new job to start the next week. What better way to relax than ten days of family and food- and what better place to do it?

Philadelphia.
Hello, you f***ed up little city. Good to see you again.

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A Wake Of Fire, Flour, Blood, Butter, and Ink- In Memoriam of Anthony Bourdain

Around 8 years or so ago, I was staying in my girlfriend’s apartment for the weekend. We have just finished making some chocolate cookies for after dinner. At the time, I was still working as an EMT- my work weeks were pretty grueling, and I found relaxation in cooking and baking at home. Often, I would bring in the results of my work to the Rescue Squad- they were usually very thankful. The EMT diet tended to be odd things at odd hours, washed down with way too much caffeine, and getting something home-cooked and half-decent just delivered to you was a rarity.
    While the cookies were cooling, Amanda said, You know, there’s this great show I’ve been watching recently on Travel Channel I think you’d like. This guy used to be a chef, and he just goes all over the world and talks about the food and culture and stuff. He just did a really funny episode about Prague. Hang on, I’ll pull it up.”
    I shrugged and crashed out next to her on the couch. It had a been a long day- a busy shift, and then driving the hour to get to her, I was eager to get as much sleep as possible on my days off.
    She pulled up the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”- and my world tilted.
    In the weeks to come, I would start cooking and baking at home even more, trying out different recipes with Tony joking and laughing in the background from whatever corner of the world he was in. I would pick up “Kitchen Confidential,” and a number of his other books, devouring ALL of them. All the while, I’d bring in stuff for the squad- and I’d hear them say,Matt, this is REALLY good. Why are you running on an ambulance? You should be doing this!”
    8 years and a few days ago, I was informed that I’d been accepted to culinary school.

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So You Want To Move To Portland…

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

If you’ve been reading this blog for even a little bit, you probably know at least three things about me:
1. I like a food. Like, a lot.
2. I am a proud New Jersey native.
and 3. I currently live in a pretty weird place.

Picture

The Unipiper- a guy who figured that a Darth Vader mask, a unicycle, and flaming bagpipes would be his day job. Click for his site

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