Things Got Heated at This Year’s Philly Chef Conference
Day Two kicked off with a bang at "The Responsibilities of a Restaurant Critic" panel.
This year’s Philly Chef Conference — the Drexel Center for Food & Hospitality Management’s fifth — was different.
After 2017’s revelations about sexual harassment and abuse of restaurant staff by lauded male chefs and restaurateurs like John Besh, Mario Batali, and Ken Friedman, the center announced that its 2018 conference would include deeper, more reflective programming around topics like sexual harassment, the state of women in the industry, and self-care for chefs.
Day Two’s programming started with a panel on perhaps the hottest topic at the conference — one that was added to the agenda last. After Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan‘s January 23rd column on his concerns about the role of the restaurant critic in the age of #MeToo was widely received as problematic, program director Mike Traud assembled a panel of critics from around the country who have tackled topics like this to weigh in.
On the panel sat Joshua David Stein, Village Voice food critic; Priya Krishna, food writer and GQ columnist; Stephen Satterfield, editor of Whetstone magazine and food writer for Food52.com, CivilEats.com, and the San Francisco Chronicle; and Helen Rosner, a former Eater editor and current food correspondent for the New Yorker. Evan Kleiman, the James Beard Award-winning host of KCRW’s Good Food radio show, would moderate.
A name not listed in the panel description? LaBan’s. Traud had asked the critic to participate in the panel, but LaBan — who goes to great lengths to maintain anonymity and avoid fraternizing with the culinary professionals he covers — said he could only Skype in. Traud decided that a video call wouldn’t suit the format of the discussion.
Stein touched on the ideas put forth in his excellent “Babbo in the Bardo: Life After Mario in a Village Landmark,” a meditation on the roles of perpetrators, diners, and critics post-scandal that was published on the Village Voice site last Friday. Krishna spoke about the role of public relations firms, some of which have found themselves in the difficult position of representing chefs accused of immoral or illegal behavior, while grappling with the fact that their own staffers are often targeted by these same individuals. Oakland-based Satterfield noted that Chronicle writers had just published a story over the weekend on new sexual harassment allegations from female staffers against chef and confessed perpetrator Charlie Hallowell, reporting that the total number of complaints against him had increased from 14 to 31 since the story first broke in December.
Then there was Rosner. A few months ago, she had responded to LaBan’s “heartbreakingly callow” column — titled “It’s not my job to pass judgment on a chef’s character” — with what the Washington Post called a “thunderous tweetstorm” dissecting the ways in which the Inquirer columnist had characterized his role as a restaurant critic. Rosner later had a long phone conversation with LaBan — in which he seemed to begin to understand where this blowback was coming from — before writing a column of her own on the issue.
During the panel, Rosner spoke about Eater’s recent decision (made after she’d left the organization) to scrub their site of stories about “bad actors” in the restaurant community; so far, they are the only media outlet to take such action. She also pointed out that a critic like the Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times, who doesn’t offer star ratings, is shining a spotlight on a restaurant owned by a harasser by simply reviewing it. Kleiman and Stein brought up that it can be challenging — and is ultimately unlikely — for bad actors to be fully financially divested from a restaurant, making it near-impossible for conscientious patrons ever to be confident that their food dollars are in fact supporting staffers who were victimized, rather than perpetrators at the top of an organization’s power structure.
Kleiman introduced “a ringer from the Inquirer,” and Molly Eichel, the paper’s Arts & Lifestyle editor, stood up from her seat at the front of the audience. Rather than appearing bodily to engage in debate and face his readers, LaBan had sent a surrogate to read a prepared statement. And while the entire panel is worth watching, Eichel’s reading begins around the 52:00 mark in the video below.
We’ve transcribed LaBan’s statement, as read by Eichel, in full here:
I’ve learned a lot from my experience writing this column, both writing it and processing the wide range of responses it received. The fact that it spurred a dialogue we are continuing today is a good thing as we figure out how to move forward and navigate a landscape that is changing dramatically as food journalists show that our stories can grapple with far more than what is simply on the plate. And I strongly support the kind of investigative reporting we’ve recently seen to expose sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry and beyond that has helped fuel the #MeToo movement. And please make no mistake: under no circumstances would I or my colleagues at the Inquirer look past such allegations and proceed with a review or other feature without first doing some serious reporting to get to the truth.
These instances have been exceedingly rare locally to date, and my column was written in some respects from a hypothetical perspective because I personally have never yet been confronted with evidence of sexual misconduct about a chef or a restaurateur I was preparing to cover. The thrust of my column was not at all an argument to avoid including such details in a review — I absolutely would have if they were well reported.
My essay was more targeted to the challenges food critics face as they filter through the vast gray area of hearsay information that is not yet risen to the level of reported certainty. It was also a call for concern that we proceed to cover this issue aggressively, that we maintain clear and high journalistic standards as we move forward so that our coverage remains fair, consistent, well-reported, and independent. Recent directives from the [James] Beard Foundation to its judges referred simply to “concerns” as well as statements of a “no shit-head rule” from Bon Appétit are obviously well-meaning, but they also left me alarmed that these standards are in danger of eroding the squishy and vague guidelines for no coverage, tempered praise, or negative coverage based on casual personality judgements or rumors that can lead to a potentially dangerous slippery slope — one that could easily erode the credibility of professional independence many food critics have carefully strived to maintain by appealing to old-school ethical standards like insisting on paying for our food, striving for anonymity and to, as a result, maintain a delivered distance from the people we cover in order to deliver reviews based on the critic’s real experience in a restaurant’s performance. This is not to say I believe the “character” of individuals doesn’t matter — it certainly does when it effects the culture of a restaurant.
Though critics should beware of making promises to readers that we cannot keep — like the notion that we can constantly vet restaurants for good behavior as a prerequisite for coverage — what I can promise is that we at the Inquirer will attack new revelations with vigor.
These were my first impressions as accusations landed quite recently in Philadelphia, too, with the allegations regarding Chris Painter of [Wm. Mulherin’s Sons] — a moment of surprise, and a call to get to work as a team. Kudos to Philly Mag for what was a well-reported piece. I will surely have to grapple with a whole new set of questions beyond the pizzas and pastas the next time Mulherin’s comes up in a review setting. I will be looking very closely at how this restaurant as a whole handles the situation as I weigh where Mulherin’s sits in the city’s restaurant landscape.
Until I get to that moment, I’ll continue to watch and learn from the examples of talented counterparts around the country. Allison Cook in Houston and Jonathan Gold in Los Angeles have already gone with their reviews of restaurants touched by scandal and one of their overarching messages was one that resonates with me: The issues must be aired to the public, but restaurants are also complex organisms and their experiences are often the sum of many talented and blameless employees. Should their work also be considered despite the ugly actions of certain individuals? My instincts say yes.
Near the end of the statement, an audience member interrupted Eichel. “So is he just going to take over the whole panel from [afar]? What is happening? I want to hear from them,” a woman calls out.
The tone of LaBan’s statement does not differ substantially from that of his original column, except for the fact that the Mulherin’s allegations had not yet been publicly reported.
Kleiman asked the panelists to discuss the statement and the issues it raised. Satterfield raised the issue of the power a restaurant critic has and how it’s used. “When you have the kind of platform that we’re discussing, essentially what we’re talking about is a system of power,” he said. “Across these systems of power in the industry, we have seen examples of men exploiting those positions and systems of power. When you have another man who is a restaurant critic in a position of power…shining a light on other men who have smoke billowing around them, that’s problematic…’Wait and see’ is exactly the wrong advice, and that’s exactly what that sounded like to me.”
Stein agreed: “If you think of restaurant reviews as service journalism —this is good, this is bad — it’s problematic,” he said, “unless you shine the light to raise the issue…to really grapple with, ‘Are we as a society really saying that delicious is more important than how people are treated?'” Krishna had brought up The Spotted Pig’s third-floor party space, known by female staffers as “The Rape Room,” earlier in the conversation. “You can’t separate The Rape Room from the dining room, the front of house from the back of house,” Stein said. “When you come to a restaurant, you come as a whole person, and you’re responsible for every aspect of that…You can’t divorce your moral culpability from your professional calling.”
Rosner didn’t see much difference between LaBan’s column — which she called “poorly articulated” — and the statement read by Eichel. “He was setting up this series of hypotheticals that made absolutely no sense, and even if they did make sense…it didn’t make sense to talk about them to a broad readership,” she said. “He’s talking to his friends and his fellow food critics. Why would you want to stand up and tell all the people in the city of Philadelphia…that you believe in things like slippery slopes? That’s such a key word for anybody who covers these ethical issues. He had a phrase, ‘substantiated [proof],’ — what does that mean? It means something that’s been verified. Well, how does harassment work? If you have any experience with harassment or assault, you know that literally the only evidence is testimony…and testimony is another way of saying ‘rumor.’
“What he’s saying [in the column],” Rosner continued, “is that there is no standard of proof high enough for him to care, and I know that’s not true [based on speaking to him]…I came away from our conversation thinking he regretted what he wrote, but I guess that’s not the case.”
Again, the discussion turned to power. “You have a lot of power [as a critic],” Rosner said, “and power requires moral nuance. Power requires paying attention to the fact that every single word that you say in public carries louder, stronger weight than the words that other people say in public. So for Craig to say, ‘Hypothetically, I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to do this unless there is substantiated rumor,’ is for him to choose, based on nothing — at that point, Philly had not had any sort of sexual harassment scandals that had been revealed in public — […] he was coming out there for no reason, preemptively saying that he didn’t think there was a standard sufficient enough for him to care. And I find that repugnant….to preemptively say that what is worth paying attention to [at a restaurant] does not include the health and well-being of the people who work in this restaurant is maybe something that [would fly] in the ’50s, but that is not okay any more.”
“I can’t write about a restaurant without endorsing the chef behind it. That translates into real financial gain,” said Krishna, explaining that high-profile coverage is what attracts investors to fund restaurants. She recalled her own childhood, reading food magazines and looking up to chefs as godlike figures: “If a chef can’t be a role model, I don’t want to write about them.”
As Rosner put it at the panel, as a critic, “You should care more if the service is on point. You should care more if the chef is a shithead. If your standard is lower, you’re saying ‘I’m bad at my job.'”
Rosner then addressed Eichel as LaBan’s editor. “You guys made the wrong call publishing this. I think that his moral examination was a good thing. I’m really glad that he’s having these thoughts…But the decision to put that in public, the decision to put that kind of headline, is basically what [Stein] was saying: ‘we separate our moral accountability from what we do as a news organization.'”
Rosner pointed out the systemic nature of harassment across society, noting that the issue isn’t perpetrated only by the small number of individuals that have been accused. “This is in almost every single restaurant…It’s every single workplace, every home,” she said. “For somebody with the authority and the platform of Craig fucking LaBan to stand up and say ‘I don’t care’ is not good journalism.”