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.