I’m With Mario


Today I was asked by one of my esteemed colleagues, Doug Cress at Blogsoop.com, what I thought of his response to Mario Batali’s recent comments on Eater as it pertained to his dislike of food blogs.

Sadly, I must side with the bad guy in this instance, and it’s not because we’re both hefty red-bearded guys with highly opinionated, in-your-face personalities. I agree with Mario to the extent that bloggers and forum posters frequently hide behind the shield of anonymity when saying critical things about restaurants. If you are going to food blog, or post on a prominent discussion site such as eGullet or Chowhound, then at the very least you should have the balls (or a suitable substitute organ) to put your reputation on the line. This is why I have always gone by my real name and my public persona, no matter what community I’ve participated on.

I have always felt that posters on food boards and blogs that were unwilling to disclose their true identity do so primarily because of their fear of repercussions — losing their job, receiving nastygrams from libel attorneys, or facing public ridicule. A few are in the minority of having genuine concerns about stalkers and their privacy. To those people I say, please get the hell off public bulletin boards or refrain from blogging. You can’t have your cake and throw it at the restaurant too — while being concerned about whackos tracking you down. That’s a risk that my wife and I live with every day of our lives.

I have always held anonymous opinions in less regard than those willing to put their reputation on the line. In real life, if you insult someone in public, are quoted in print, on the radio or on TV, there are consequences. Speaking without the fear of repurcussions is speech without value at all. If the Internet is ever to be accepted as a valid media outlet, and we are actually to get out of the stigma of not believing anything you read on web sites, then we need to toss anonymity out the door.

As to Mario, I don’t really think he hates the concept of bloggers or amateur criticism or web based restaurant reviews per se. What he hates, and what I hate, is the fact people can write nasty sniping stuff without any accountability. And on that level I agree with him completely.

Mario is a chef first, a restauranteur and a business owner second, then thirdly a writer and a media personality. He uses the Internet but he doesn’t make his living or engage in his primary Internet activity writing on web sites that I or Doug or any number of prominent bloggers do. Not understanding all the grey areas of online food writing and the dynamics and politics that are involved is not a sin on his part. Frankly, its not an easy and clear cut subject for even me to explain to most chefs and restaurant owners. They just don’t understand why random people want to sling anonymous garbage on the Internet about them.

If Mario is guilty or wrong about anything, its that he’s lumping all of us into one big box, but like with any community, we have a few (ok, maybe a lot more than a few) rotten apples that spoil the reputation of the entire thing. Mario is just being taken to task for vocalizing something that most restaurant owners and chefs keep to themselves. I could name a few other chefs and restauranteurs even equally prominent as Mario that feel the exact same way, but I feel that would be putting them on the spot unfairly. We have some savvy chefs that use the Internet, blog themselves (like Chris Cosentino) and participate on forums (like Grant Achatz) but they are a minority. I will also note that Mario had the guts to put himself on the line at eGullet some years ago, and I commend him for that.

There is also the ever present issue that blogging and amateur food writing/web journalism threatens traditional media. It currently does not have the level of respect from restaurant owners and chefs that something like the NY Times, Saveur or Gourmet does, nor does it command sufficient respect from the traditional media itself. We clearly have influence, and we can make a big difference sometimes, but we are still bottom feeders as far as most of them are concerned.

So to summarize, I think his beef is legit, but he’s directing his anger at a larger whole rather than specific bloggers. Its kind of like saying all Islamics are wack jobs and terrorists but its only small groups of fundamentalists that are responsible for most of the terrorism out there. Same with food bloggers.

In my opinion, he has a legitimate reason to be pissed off about it, but may need some education about the actual dynamics of the food blogging community by the more responsible and respected Internet food bloggers who are willing to have a productive dialogue with him and other chef/restauranteurs with similar concerns. Only then can we move from bottom feeder to responsible and respected food blogging.

27 Responses to I’m With Mario

  1. Doug says:

    Nice post Jason, you make some good points, though I still feel you are giving Mario too much credit.

    His poorly constructed critique of the food blogosphere serves as a perfect example of the, “shoddy journalism that will be picked up and promulgated by the rest of the gray zone and march its merry way toward the center of the road.” [Mario Batali - Why I Hate Food Bloggers]

    While he may be a chef and restaurateur first, he is also a savvy media personality. “Not understanding all the grey areas of online food writing and the dynamics and politics that are involved is not a sin on [Mario's] part.”

    Even if he does not regularly use the net, he went so far as to comment on it – in a very public space. I believe he should be held accountable for his shoddy journalism.

    Its what Mario would want.

  2. Still, you and I are in the minority of what I would consider to be responsible food blogging — and there are very few food blogs that I can count that operate in the wide open. What Batali is concerned with is anonymous attacks.

    Certainly, I dont think Batali would characterize Off The Broiler, Snack/Jennifer Leuzzi (Who’s husband Laurent Gras worked for him), Andrea Strong, SeriousEats, Megnut, Ruhlman, Grub Street (which runs under the auspices of New York Magazine), Eater or Gothamist as food blogs he hates. But all of those are written by people with public personas.

  3. daisy says:

    nicely said.

  4. Doug says:

    I guess my criteria for deciding what constitutes responsible blogging goes beyond revealing one ‘s identity.

    In neglecting the concept of community – a writer’s relationship with one’s readers – Mario failed to understand a critical aspect of the Web. Even if a blogger writes ‘anonymously, he/she may still operate in a responsible manner and have a connection with readers – ultimately validating a negative review.

    I suppose the larger point in my article was that anonymous attacks are virtually nonexistent in food blogs. And that not all blogs are viewed in the same manner by readers. He’s unfairly pigeonholing the blogosphere, like you said, “based on a few bad apples”.

    The sites you mentioned better approximate true media – as (most of) those bloggers make a living, at least in part, food blogging. But what makes the medium so great – and potentially threatening – is its accessibility.

  5. So Doc, explain to me why you choose to operate under an alias on food discussion sites rather than your real name?

  6. TJ Jackson says:

    err…..by RF.com, do you mean Roadfood.com?

  7. So, as I said, if you’re worried about vindictive people, then don’t participate as a poster on discussion sites or engage in blogging. There’s something called lurking. We determined on eGullet during the height of its popularity that we probably had 100x the amount of lurkers than we had actual participants.
    If you’ve got a strong personality — one which others may find abrasive — and you have concerns about people that might not appreciate your point of view, then I think being an active participant on blogs or forums is inadviseable, irresponsible and just simply an excuse to hind behind the sheild of anonymity without worrying about the consequences of your actions. If you’re going to be an abrasive opinionated jackass, then i think people should be given every opportunity to seek out where you live so they can send you tokens of their appreciation or to thank you for your comments in person.
    Me, I’m really looking forward to when the first whacko decides to come to my doorstep in anger over something I wrote. I have a NJ self-defense law I’m just waiting to test.

  8. ubuwalker31 says:

    I am shocked that you think that posters shouldn’t be able to post anonymously and poo-poo our first amendment prerogatives.

    It is well-settled that the U.S. First Amendment shelters the right to speak anonymously. In Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 65 (1960), the United States Supreme Court held that anonymity is protected under the First Amendment because forced “identification and fear of reprisal might deter perfectly peaceful discussions of public matters of importance”. People are permitted to interact pseudonymously and anonymously with each other so long as those acts are not in violation of the law. (Think slander and libel or encouraging violence against an individual.) This ability to speak one’s mind without the burden of the other party knowing all the facts about one’s identity can foster open communication and robust debate.

    I agree that there should be legal repercussions for posting libelous or threatening comments on websites. However, reviewing a restaurant or other businesses is fraught with peril, because one persons honest review is anothers libel. But not permitting people to speak anonymously would bring the internet to its knees, and would chill the free flow of information about restaurants and the food they serve.

    Obviously, the 1st Amendment only applies to the government prohibiting you from speaking your mind. You can set up what ever rules you want for the comments on this blog. You can make everyone sign up and post with their real name and you wouldn’t be violating anyones rights. But the same arguments apply…the richness of the discussion would suffer, and only people willing to put their reputation on the line will contribute.

  9. ubu: freedom of speech is mutually exclusive of being an anonymous twit. Through our constitution we protect the right of the people to do all sorts of things that are contrary to ethical, moral, and generally accepted civil behavior. I’m certainly not advocating that we prevent anonymous people from posting things on the internet via legal means. I’ll stalwartly defend and fight for the right that assholes be allowed to say whatever they want, while at the same time calling them assholes. I’m calling anonymous posters that take pot shots at restaurants who have no accountability for their actions assholes.
    I do, however, advocate that privately run food websites should be able to use any technological means necessary to ensure that the posters do not post anonymously. I’m also advocating that people abstain from posting anonymously because they’d be doing everybody and us bloggers who work so hard to maintain our good reputation a huge favor.

  10. I thought any news was good news? Unless it is negative news from the health inspector, I suppose.

  11. Anthony A says:

    Jason,

    Mario Batali is one of my favorite chefs, but his rant about irresponsible food blogging is much ado about nothing. Aside from the lease issue with Del Posto and the reported orgy that took place amongst his staff at the now defunct Bistro Du Vent, he has pretty much been the darling of the foodie community in terms of press coverage, whether it be with the mainstream news organs or the “blogosphere” for that matter.

    As for having the onions to face a Q&A with E-Gullet community, he wasn’t exactly facing a 60 minutes grilling at the hands of Mike Wallace. Almost everyone fawned all over him in the discussion and treated him as a demi-god.

    Don’t get me wrong it is pretty hard to criticize Batali/Bastianch, they are saavy restauranteurs and the food served in their establishments is creative and impeccably prepared. But Mario has used all channels of press exposure shrewdly for close to a decade to promote everything from new restaurants to frozen food lines bearing his name. Somewhere, along the line because of his notoriety, he is going to be on the receiving end of some bad press. Ironically, because of his exalted status in the gastronomic community he probably gave these anonymous bloggers an element of credence that they did not have yesterday by even dignifying them with a response.

    If he is going to get his nose all out of joint over a cranky or ill informed internet postings, then he should of just stayed and continued cooking at the restaurant that he built with his first partner (Steve Crane); instead of electing to build and empire. Then again if he had elected to go this route he would almost ensure that no one was speaking evil of him and he would never have the opportunity to admonish us all about those pernicious bloggers on a website dedicated to food blogging.

  12. Doug Cress says:

    Well said, Anthony.

  13. Point well taken. But the fact that Mario is famous and should learn to accept the things that come along with it does not diminish the fact that anonymous posting and restaurant sniping is still a problem that the blogosphere needs to address before we are taken seriously.

  14. Anthony A says:

    Jason,

    You have created the most recognized food posting site in the world and a kick ass blog that has interviewed some of the most prominent chefs in the country.There is absolutely no reason for you to have an inferiority complex.

    Don’t worry, these guys know by now that it is not just the NY Times and the food publications that they need to reckon with. Those that are smart realize that they need to bring their “A” game every night because, they are being watched and the last thing they want to jeopardize is future patrons that are looking to pay a special visit. Overall, blogs like yours are raising the stakes and making for better food for the diner.

    I enjoy your work and look forward to continually posting here in the future.

    Thanks.

  15. Doug Cress says:

    Jason, I really think you are blowing this anonymity thing out of proportion.

    I rarely (if ever) come across them in my weekly perusing of the restaurant-reviewing blogosphere – and I browse upwards of 400 post/week – in my role as editor of blogsoop.

    Provide some links to posts by anonymous, sniping bloggers (who actually garner respect and page views) and I will listen.

  16. Jon says:

    To me this seems to be less about what is “allowed” and more a call to responsibility. There’s no abridgment of free speech or rights when people monitor their own behavior.

    Urging people to be responsible is no big deal. And setting rules for privately owned websites which require non-anonymity isn’t suppressing anyone’s rights either. The Blogiverse itself, as a whole, may be able to hold onto anonymity, since it takes nothing but an email address to set one up, but individual site owners can choose to require registration for comments, if they so choose. Or they can simply express a strong preference to their readers–a less strict line in the sand which still shows a desire for sane and reasonable discourse.

    Batali appears to have been a bit blunt in his expression of concern over this, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to what he’s saying. It simply means that people should be trying to prove him wrong–to educate him that responsible behavior is possible.

    As for those who don’t want to prove him wrong? Who actually DO enjoy anonymous posting so they have a platform to soothe their egos without consequence? The key appears to be to respond to these people with the same level of respect they dish out. In other words… ignore them and when they don’t get the attention they seek, they will go away. This will prove true not only to people responding to blogs, but for the blogs themselves. And when they get large enough to be noticed, they can hardly hold onto their anonymity anyway.

  17. Jim says:

    I never even realized how much attention restaurants and chefs pay to blogs–even our little site has gotten concerned responses from owners and cooks when we’ve badmouthed restaurants. I gotta say, I think you’re right–fond as I am of anonymous internet throwdowns and bitchfests, when you’re making comments that could hurt someone’s revenue or damage his reputation, you should have a little credibility.

  18. TJ Jackson says:

    My credentials? *laff* That I like good food, and I read food-related websites/blogs. In any case, I merely interjected here because I was wondering if by rf.com you meant roadfood.com, and it would appear you had. It is very interesting that you claim to be from Maryland :) a certain infamous multiply-banned, ketchup-blend-loving RF.com poster also hails from Maryland, and claims to own a certain bbq restaraunt there :-)

  19. Polecat says:

    Jason,
    With all due respect to you and your wonderful posts, I have to disagree with you here.

    1. What’s in a name, or an alias for that matter? I could post as Ted Kozinski, Mortimer Snerd or Captain Beefheart – who’s to say which monikers are real or not? – but what would come across above all is the substance, or lack thereof, in what is written. I have peroused and posted on C-hound, your site and a few others, and am glad to say that, amongst the blogs that I consider worthwhile, there is a very small percentage of what I would consider to be tasteless, egotistical and/or obnoxious posts. Regardless of whether I read one that piques my interest, or one that gets my blood boiling, I am far more focused on the point being made than the poster who is making it. For all I know, a name such as “John Smith” could be an ingenious pseudonym – the likelihood of which I realize is low – it’s his recommendation of some great hole in the wall in some far corner of the universe serving kickass noodle soup with pork dumplings that I come away with. For that matter, if Mr. Smith so dislikes a particular eating establishment as to post unfounded suggestions of rats in the kitchen, just to discourage other potential customers, that poster is opening himself/herself up for public criticism on that thread just the same as anyone else, phony handle or not. So I tend to think that what’s important is that we’re ultimately rewarded for classy, respectful, objective posts, and, with respect to the nasty ones, the boomerang will curve back and expose things far worse than our secret identities.

    2. I can definitely see how Batali, and other chefs, world famous or not, would feel this way. So much BS is hauled their way on a daily basis, that I’m sure I would feel the same way. But, again, I think if the criticism is presented objectively, and respectfully, with an eye on the possibility that your experience may not be the all- encompassing end word, like it or not, it’s just a part of the karmic circle you get going when you start feeding the public. Criticism is either accepted or rejected, helpful or not. If it’s not coming from a close friend, or someone whose opinion you covet, that’s one thing. But chances are Batali doesn’t know most critics any better than he knows me. What he comes away with is the feedback, to be accepted or discarded as he pleases. Now, if we’re talking about the juvenile, bathroom wall variety that you see on Gothamist, all bets are off. I’m not so sure I would want to read that site if I were a chef; I’d search the city for anonymous bloggers, blunt weapon in hand, foaming at the mouth.

    Anyhow, there’s my two cents. Now, I am left to check back here and take to heart any and all posts that trash it. Either way, it’s my stance.

    Or may name isn’t Polecat (Stokowski).

  20. JLee-Schriff says:

    The beauty of the Internet is that it’s based on anonymous connections. You can buy from, play games with, chat with, and read about random people whose faces and names you don’t know. Surely that doesn’t take away from, but rather enhances the experience. Just because someone’s comments are anonymous, doesn’t make them false or less valid. In fact that’s why lots of surveys are done anonymously …… because people tend to be more honest.
    Frankly I feel anonymous commenters and undercover bloggers tend to be more honest, because they have nothing to lose and nothing to gain. Unlike some of these bloggers who reveal their real names, but half the time are hawking their new book that is about to come out or are fame-hungry and trying to launch a lucrative writing career. Anonymous writers have no alterior motive (or at least no bankable motive).

    It’s a little silly to be patty yourself on the back for revealing your true identity for the whole world to see. It’s easy for you, as you are a professional food blogger. This is your job. No one’s every going to fire. Alot of bloggers are just part-time hobbyists and have real jobs that they are trying to protect. Why don’t we just institute new rules mandating real names, a 4′x4′ color photo, and proof of address. Come on now. I thought blogs are supposed to be fun.
    And in regards to Mario’s complaints. Unless he names the blogs and the exact offenses, he’s just boxing with shadows. If you’re going to go after someone, at least have the courage and the intelligence to use specifics. Also two wrongs don’t make a right (Unnamed people attacking him. He in turn attacks unnnamed people).

  21. Jon says:

    Actually, JLee-Schriff, Jason is a professional computer journalist and consultant. The food stuff is his hobby (although obviously a hobby he puts a lot of time, effort and money into). If he’s reached a level of professional credibility DESPITE it not being his “real job”, that only helps prove his point that being “in the open” helps build a reputation.

  22. Marco says:

    You hit the nail on the head. Anonymity is the guise and enables people to take pot shots at restuarants. Out the window, as you say.

  23. Leigh Long says:

    Some of the preceding post are a good example of why anonymity works for some people. It allows them to re-write the truth to suit their own needs. While there may be legitimate reasons for people to “hide”, too often it is done to facilitate distorting the facts.

  24. Ned says:

    I don’t think Mario’s comments are all that considered. He was pissed and spoke out. He’s a busy guy. And with a valid perspective. On the other hand, food blogs aren’t going to go away and people are always going to make snarky comments and many of them will post anonymously.

    I will always slap at a mosquito when he bites me.

    Me, I choose to use my own name, my full name, at eGullet and at Moutfulls. When I read these forums, I take comments by people who use their own names more seriously.

  25. Leigh Long says:

    Interesting where this topic has led…

    I post anonymously after having someone send me messages riddled with inappropriate and hateful comments as well as my address and threats they would show up at my house. This after insignificant disagreements over topics that should never reach that heat setting. Since then, I have shied away from giving my real name. I understand that doing so makes my comments less reliable or meaningful to some, but I can live with that consequence better than the one mentioned above!

    My bottom line is I am happy to have people know who I am when I know who they are, but in an open forum, you just never know!

  26. I’ve deleted the last few comments because I felt they violated someone’s privacy. I’d appreciate keeping this discussion civil, and without malice.

  27. Van Gearhart says:

    As an esteemed member of the bar and a man of fine breeding and exemplary grooming (thanks to my wife, proprietress of a successful laser hair removal salon), I too must rise and state my opinion that Mario Batali, so-called “television personality” and owner of “fine dining” establishments in New Yawk City is crying over “spilled milk,” as it were.

    He should be glad that internet “blogs” pay any attention to him at all! I am well traveled enough to know that there is more to “gourmet cooking” than artichokes and pancetta. And, frankly, I wouldn’t be seen wearing orange clogs anywhere — not even around the pool in my retirement village.

    Had Mario spent more time with books and exams and less with touque and tongs he would understand that “fame” is fleeting and that someday soon the “lemmings” will stop frequenting his dining establishments. It doesn’t take advanced degrees like mine to understand that ANY mention of him on the worldwide internet — even by bloggers who “spew venom” — is good for his business.

    Mario needs to wake up and “smell the coffee.” And by that I DO NOT mean those disappointingly tiny cups of so-called espresso. I mean real American “drip” coffee, a beverage he seems to have quite conveniently forgotten.

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