A couple days ago I started writing a post which led off with the following line: "Not to go all Ozersky on you, but I just ate a couple free meals from a chef who I idolize and now I'm going to tell you how great there were." Then I realized: (1) such an admission might compromise my credibility with readers; and (2) some of you who do not compulsively follow the national culinary interwebs might not even know what I was talking about. Plus, Blogger was refusing to load the photos from my freebie meals.
So first, a recap, though the story has been covered extensively and others have had many smart things to say about it already. Josh Ozersky, a/k/a "Mr. Cutlets," is presently the master of ceremonies of Ozersky.TV and a regular food writer for Time.com, and formerly the online food editor for New York Magazine, editor of Grubstreet NY and Citisearch NY, grand poobah of The Feedbag, and restaurant critic for Newsday. A couple weeks ago, he penned a piece in Time.com entitled "Great Wedding Food: Tips from a Newly Married Critic."
The premise of the article was more than a little goofy: catered food sucks, so instead, why not have some of the top restaurant chefs in your city provide the food for your wedding? Ozersky proceeded to describe how, instead of having a caterer for his recent wedding, he somehow managed to convince several of the top chefs in New York City to each cook something after he "cherry-picked my favorite dishes from half a dozen restaurants": mezes and hummus from Orhan Yegen of Sip Sak; salad from Ed Schoenfeld of Red Farm, bread from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, lasagna from Michael White of Alto, Marea and Convivio, moussaka from Michael Psilakis of Kefi, smoked tofu from Doug and Laura Keiles of Ribs Within, steak and scallops from Ed Brown of Ed's Chowder House, wedding cake from Heather Bertinetti, pastry chef for Michael White.
Broad generalizations such as "most caterers aren't really good cooks" infuriated people who make a living in the catering business (plus just seemed stupid and ill-informed, if for no other reason than that many restaurant chefs, even very highly regarded ones, also run catering operations); while precious statements like "There are restaurants all around New York City that are objects of my special passion - why wouldn't I want their best stuff at my wedding?" and advice like "Forget the caterer! Plug directly into the source of your hometown's culinary delights, and happiness, enduring and radiant, will immediately follow" sounded distinctly like a 21st century version of "Let them eat cake." The notion that any shmoo could somehow command a half-dozen of the city's top chefs to cook up a little something for 200 people at their wedding just seemed a bit ridiculous.
The story prompted Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice to raise some pointed questions in "An Open Letter to Josh Ozersky": who paid for all this bounty? Why was there no disclosure of that information? If it was free, would chefs really provide such things gratis with no expectation at all of anything in return? And do the circumstances call into question the credibility of Ozersky's over-the-top praise for the food, to say nothing of his general advice on wedding food?
It didn't surprise anyone in the know that Ozersky, a notorious freeloader and hobnobber with celebrity chefs, didn't pay for any of the food (On the other hand, readers of Time.com with a more casual interest in food would have had absolutely no reason to harbor such suspicions). In fact, he didn't even pay for the venue, the Rooftop Bar atop the Empire Hotel, which was provided for free by Jeffrey Chodorow - the restaurateur behind places including Ed's Chowder House and Red Farm (a restaurant that has not yet opened from which Ozersky somehow managed to "cherry-pick" a "favorite dish"). When New York Times' Diner's Journal picked up the story, they estimated that the cost of such an event would range between $200 to $500 per person.
Ozersky and Time.com issued a "clarification," prompted, according to Ozersky, by the notion that Sietsema's open letter "makes me look unethical rather than dumb." In it, he attempted to explain that some his closest friends are chefs and "when they asked me what I wanted for a wedding present, instead of a crystal decanter that I would never look at, I told them to just cook some lasagna or bake a few loaves of bread that I could share with other friends." (I will not bother dissecting the preposterousness of that statement, as it's been very effectively done already by New York Journal in "Josh Ozersky Still Doesn't Get It"). After a "mea culpa" for not being "more explicit about the fact that I did not pay for any of their delicious contributions" (yes, saying nothing at all leaves plenty of room to be "more explicit"), Ozersky attempted a bit of defense, noting that "I am not an anonymous critic and I don't review restaurants for TIME (or anyone else)" (never mind the "Tips from a Newly Married Critic" headline). To the New York Times, he protested that "Bob makes it sound like a sinister plot to extort lasagna."
Suffice to say that "unethical" and "dumb" are hardly mutually exclusive.
Not quite end of story. In a follow up piece, "When Is a Free Meal Just Part of a Writer's Job?," the New York Times noted that the Ozersky story "started a debate among chefs, publicists and writers about the widespread and longstanding practice in some circles of trading "comps" - free meals - in return for coverage." In it, restaurant owners said that "requests - and even demands - for free meals from writers of food blogs, magazine Web sites and online restaurant guides are proliferating."
All of which, along with my abandoned blog post, got me thinking that it would be worth a few moments to make clear my thinking on such things. It won't be nearly as funny as Ruth Bourdain's disclosures, but it will hopefully provide some transparency:
Freebies: I don't like them, they make me uncomfortable. I have the good fortune to be able to afford the culinary lifestyle I've chosen, and so I happily pay for my meals. I don't accept, and I certainly don't solicit, free meals. If you are trying to use the fact that you write a blog as a free meal ticket, you are probably an asshat. Occasionally, at places where I am a regular, a little extra dish may be sent my way from the kitchen. I always try to add the value of whatever I have received to the tip, which effectuates a little redistribution from the restaurant's food budget to the waitstaff that makes everyone happy and relieves my conscience. When we do our Cobaya dinners, I pay full freight just like every other diner. Every once in a very rare while, I will go to "media preview" or "friends and family" type events; if it's a free meal, and I write about it, I will make that clear. In fact, if I've previously been to a free event at someplace I later write about (even if I'm not writing about that meal), I will try to make that clear too.
Relationships: If you dine out often enough and return to the same places repeatedly, you will eventually become a regular - particularly if you show a genuine interest in their food. There are several places where I'm now a regular, and where we know and are recognized by the chef and/or the manager. Some of them have figured out that I write here; others may well have no clue. There are undoubtedly a few chefs who I've become close to and who I'd call friends, both from relationships via the food world and otherwise. Fortunately, for most of those people I'm close to, I've had the opportunity to get to know their food before I got to know the people who made it, and have some comfort that my opinion is reasonably unclouded. But I can't imagine a circumstance where I'd praise lousy food because I knew the person who made it (other than extended family; that's a different story entirely, but one you won't be reading here).
Anonymity: I don't use my real name here, for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I have a "real job" and don't necessarily want my dining habits and opinions to be the first thing to come up if someone happens to Google my name. It's not so that I can bash away at chefs from my secret lair without fear of retribution. It's not because I have some secret hidden agenda (I've been asked this before, and no, I am not in the food biz in any way). There's certainly more accountability here than a nameless posting on some community board, or even a first name, last initial "review" somewhere like Yelp. You always know where you can find me.
If there's anything else you want to know, just ask.
In the meantime, I've now actually paid for a meal at the restaurant which prompted these musings (well, not quite - a friend picked up the check, but he owed us a dinner) and my picture uploading seems to be restored, so maybe that post will be coming sometime soon after all.