While I was out of town last week, The Stranger's Bethany Jean Clement posted a lengthy treatise on anonymity, concluding that a critic who personally engages with chefs is better situated to understand and explain their work. That's fine by me. Like so many important topics, anonymity isn't a question with one right answer. So long as a critic is consistent and transparent, it doesn't much matter to me whether he decides to wear a fake mustache or post his picture on Facebook. Ultimately, it's up to readers to decide if reviewers' methods enrich or devalue their writing.
Eater will forever persist in labeling me as unanonymous because a party crasher surreptitiously took a picture of me wearing a name tag at a private event, but I maintain I'm closer to the anonymous end of the spectrum than many of my colleagues. I make reservations in fake names; pay with cash; don the occasional disguise and always do the floppy hat and sunglasses thing if I'm participating in an event, such as our recent poetry reading at Columbia City Farmers Market, at which I'll be identified but unable to control whether folks take pictures.
Whether or not those tics are essential to my doing my job well is probably debatable. What's clearer, I think, is how much I'm helped by never attending press events or public events at which attendees might mingle with chefs.
As Clement writes, Seattle is a small town: I haven't been able to completely avoid meeting a few of the big names. I appeared on a Voracious tasting stage with Tom Douglas; taped a radio show with Douglas and Ethan Stowell; served on a judging panel with Matt Dillon and chatted with Maria Hines at last week's State Department reception for the American Chef Corps (Hines approached me, saying "I don't know if I'm supposed to talk to you.") Still, my guess is none of those chefs would describe me as overly outgoing: I purposely kept all my conversations short.
I was reminded of the reason why while trying to gather background on Saimin Says, the subject of this week's review. I loved the restaurant, and was really looking forward to talking to its owner about Spam and fried rice. But either the owner had no interest in talking to me, or her staffers weren't giving her messages. My calls were never returned, and when I finally managed to get Colleen Shoda on the phone, she was initially chilly in response to my questions. As my frustration mounted, I momentarily wondered whether her teriyaki really tasted as good as I recalled.
Of course, Shoda turned out to be terrific. And I completely understand a restaurant owner's hesitation to talk to the Weekly, since it's sometimes hard for a blindsided source to distinguish between a reporting call and an advertising solicitation. But even that brief interaction threatened to color my opinion of Saimin Says, which is a thoroughly unacceptable situation.
There's surely merit to the argument that food writers who interact with chefs get stories that aren't available to those of us who've made specters of ourselves. But I never want to worry about whether a review will sit well with an acquaintance, or wonder if I'd feel the same way about a restaurant if I felt differently about its chef.
I write for restaurant-goers, not restaurant owners, managers, bartenders or chefs, and think it's important to have the same perspective as my readers. Online pictures and aliases are the most trivial aspects of anonymity: For me, what matters most is making sure I'm in no way a member of the dining scene I cover.