On Tom Sietsema And Objectivity

I like food. I write about food. I pay attention to restaurants, reviews, and industry-wide reportage — particularly in Washington, DC, where I work.

Tom Sietsema is an undeniable presence in my life, is what I’m saying. He’s been the chief restaurant critic for the Washington Post since 2000, during which time the restaurant scene in DC has exploded. If you are a person who cares at all about food in the DMV you’ve seen the shift. New, noteworthy restaurants are a dime-a-dozen these days. We’re not exactly awash in celebrity chefs, but for those who pay attention, DC is home to a crop of as young and exciting chefs as you’ll find in the country. Look at Bresca, a high-concept space that opened earlier this year on 14th Street. Chef/owner Ryan Ratino is 27. This year Bresca picked up one Michelin star.

Sietsema has presided over this explosion, wielding enough power and sway to be considered one of the most influential restaurant critics in the country — and, especially in DC, one of the most well respected.

When he pens reviews, we listen. I may not agree with his infamous take down of local eatery Founding Farmers (unadventurous eaters need a place to eat, too), but I often find his criticisms deft and well-reasoned. Unlike the a large percentage of the blogging generation (of which I’m a participant, I’ll admit it) he understands flavors and possesses the undeniable skill of translating tastes and experiences online in a burst of a few short paragraphs. He’s a great critic. One any city would love to have as an arbiter of its dining scene.

Last night, DC restaurant worker Liz Cox wrote a blog addressed to Sietsema that quickly made its rounds on DC-food Twitter. I encourage you to read it. In her piece, she critiques Sietsema’s own criticism, citing the critic’s most-recent zero-star review (the title: “La Vie on the Wharf is so bad I’m only writing about it as a warning”) as an example of his attempts to generate “buzz” for the Post. “Which I imagine is the whole point,” she writes.

As someone who works in the industry, she writes from a learned position. Though she doesn’t say which restaurant she works for, she estimates that she handles some 6,500 meals each year — “with a conservative estimate, I witness nine times as many dinners as you”. It’s here she begins lobbing criticisms at the veteran critic. And though the specific questions she asks of him are different, her overarching issue with Sietsema is clearly a willful ignorance or disinterest in exploring the ways the industry is changing, and how that might affect the end product. She writes:

“…you are an esteemed critic, but having never made a living working in a restaurant yourself, it may not occur to you how it looks from our side. Without providing full context about timely, relevant, impactful issues facing the restaurant industry in DC, your reviews fail at telling the full story. And that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Her points are fair; her criticisms are not.

Taking her post at face value, she misreads the scope of criticism as a form of writing. Disregarding her comment about appetizers and small plates (my opinion: if they were meant to be brought out at the same time as the entree they wouldn’t be called appetizers — literally something to whet the appetite), her concern over the labor shortage facing area restaurants — “I’m not surprised La Vie and other fine dining establishments cannot find experienced and trained staff in full etiquette.” — is central to her point: because he doesn’t talk about the issues at play within the industry, Sietsema’s reviews fail to tell the full story of his meals.

I disagree.

I do agree with Cox that labor shortages, cultures of sexual harassment and assault, and addiction rates are real problems in restaurants — particularly in DC. These are real and important issues that, undoubtedly, affect the quality of food and service offered. It’s true in DC. In New York. In Los Angeles. In Chicago. In Philadelphia. These concerns are not unique to restaurants in the District, but go ahead and click the links in this paragraph. They’re from the Washington Post. Cox avoids citing the paper in her own blog for whatever reasons, but the paper is covering these issues, even if Sietsema is not. And he’s not because that’s not his job.

Food criticism has a clear purpose: to help diners make informed decisions about where to eat. That’s it. And in 2018, when restaurants will trade free meals and restaurant swag for Instagram love, the job of the critic has become harder. And more important.

Meals are expensive. For two, a meal at La Vie can easily run north of $100. That’s not a small decision, even in a place like DC where its residents tend to earn more than the rest of the country. And, yes, the lamb chops at La Vie might photograph well and that influencer you follow will tell you to “TAG A LAMB LOVER”, but someone like Sietsema, who combines a well of knowledge with wit and enthusiasm for food, appeals to our rational side. The side that makes decisions and controls our wallets.

And he’s fighting a losing battle. Yes zero-star reviews draw buzz, but Sietsema is hardly a firebrand or a click-bait machine. His reviews are layered and, I’d argue, fair. He rarely gives zero-stars and when he does goes to painstaking lengths to defend his decision, as a critic should. In the age of Instagram, that doesn’t sell. dcfoodporn, our city’s preeminent food influencer, posted a video to his Instagram on Sept. 1 of a cheese pull. A month later, it has nearly 47,000 views. What did that cost the restaurant? A free cheese dip? A comped meal? Let’s say the restaurant gave him $50 worth of food for free: that’s still just over $1 spent per 1,000 impressions. Sure, Sietsema’s La Vie piece probably eclipsed dcfoodporn’s cheese pull video in views, but he’s not a content machine. He eats at a restaurant a minimum of three times before he files a review. dcfoodporn hits multiple restaurants a day and rarely eats dairy! He probably didn’t even eat that cheese dip. By the time Sietsema filed his La Vie review chances are good you’d already heard about that spot several times over on Instagram.

The problem with bloggers and influencers is that they often ignore food quality in their posts. Because restaurants often invite big parties of bloggers to dine together, service is artificially great, too. Bloggers are waited on hand and foot. Their experience is not your experience. Sietsema isn’t paid or coerced in any way to eat at, say, La Vie. But his content hardly generates the same impressions. The service he provides is important; most times his reviews come after Instagram has given us an unrealistic first look.

Compare the job of a food critic to a film critic or a literary critic: Do we call out the film reviewer who was critical of a $5 million movie when that $150 million movie clearly had budgetary advantages? Or the literary critic when s/he pans a novel written by someone who also carries a full-time job? No. They judge the work, all work, on level terms. Restaurant critics grade restaurants the way a diner would: as an experience that marries food and service quality. Critics critique through the eyes of a customer. This is their purpose.

Of course Sietsema understands the restaurant business — anyone who reads his reviews can see that. He knows what it takes to get a dish from the farm to his table. He cares about it, too. But he knows one thing that Cox seems to forget or ignore: his readers don’t. His readers just want to know if a spot is worth their time and money. All they care about is the output.

Luckily for Tom Sietsema, caring about the output is the only way for a restaurant critic to remain objective. Said another way: it’s the only way to know he’s doing a good job.

One thought on “On Tom Sietsema And Objectivity

  1. Pingback: Erik’s 2018 In Food | Erik Payne

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