Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Robert Sietsema Must Be Stopped!

Robert Sietsema recently wrote an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that I found very interesting. You can read it here. In the article, Sietsema traces the history of critical food reviewing from Craig Claiborne at the New York Times in the 1960's up to our current restaurant review saturated era. He also makes strong points about anonymity and skewers critics such as Danyelle Freeman, who don't recognize that it's a big deal. Sietsema recounts a troubling conversation between Danyelle Freeman (who can't spell anonymity) and Gael Greene:
“They say I can’t be a critic because my photograph is out there. I don’t think you need to be anonymous.”
“I think you do,” said Greene.
“They can’t bring in a new chef,” Freeman argued.
“But they can insist the chef come in if he’s on his day off.”
If Freeman thinks she's getting the same food as the masses, or that her coziness with food insiders doesn't color her reviews, she's dead wrong. She's not just a famous blogger, it doesn't hurt that everyone wants to fuck her. Her food experiences can't be called reviews, they're just the food diaries of an attractive woman in Manhattan. Very Sex in the City, but what relevancy does it have to the millions of people who want an actual restaurant review?

As I said, Sietsema is totally correct on this point and I admire that he has strenuously kept his anonymity, but by the end of the article he goes off the rails into a lack of self awareness that frankly reminds me of Tommy Wiseau. Sietsema reveals his tone-deafness when he concludes:
I’m all for everyone having his or her say, but when it comes to cultural criticism there is a strong case to be made for professionalism and expertise. As the eminent film critic Richard Schickel wrote in 2007, in response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions . . . . It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”

I've been reading the Village Voice for quite a while now (or for as long as anyone under 30 can reasonably claim), and I've long been a fan of Robert Sietsema. But it really made my stomach turn reading this passage in light of Sietsema's blowup after his ignorance of Reisling was revealed by commentators on his Terroir review (if you haven't read it do so now, frankly it's hilarious). Plus, his negative, one-shot write-up also hurts his case for multiple trips to a restaurant before a review. I don't claim to be a wine expert by any means, but Sietsema comes off as a guy who thinks he knows everything about wine, yet is unwilling to learn. This sharply contrasts with the authoritative tone he takes in his article and is not the attitude you would expect from someone who is reputed to go anywhere and eat anything.

Sietsema has written reviews in the past year of "finds" that were pulled right from chowhound, including the rightfully popular M&T Restaurant, Hunan House and Golden Palace. Yet Sietsema should be seeking out delicious new food rather than piggybacking off the wealth of culinary knowledge on chowhound (while deriding it at the same time). It's not surprising though. Chowhound and other democratic culinary sites have made Sietsema, who was once one of a few food critics with knowledge of the city's ethnic scene, essentially obsolete. Obscure culinary knowledge that once was known only to Sietsema and a few others is now open for everyone. In that sense, I don't blame him for fighting his slide into irrelevency, but it's clear that there are more dedicated people in the NYC food scene.

Right now, the same question that he correctly asks of Danyelle Freeman could be asked of Sietsema: what do you have to offer us? My criticism would not be lobbed at Bruni or Richman or most any other NY food critic, but Sietsema built his rep on finding the hole-in-the-wall. So this is a call for Sietsema to return to his roots and find great food where no one has before. With so many qualified culinary experts, Sietsema faces fading back into the crowd. If he can't adapt... well time marches on.


  1. Recent chowhound thread regarding Golden Palace:

  2. It's not like Sietsema has suddenly started using Chowhound or other online foodie sites as a reference, he's always done that - his hole in the wall finds have, for as long as I can remember, piggybacked on Chowhound, long before it became the corporate Sietsema should simply give credit to Jim Leff, CH's founder, and the legion of people who have posted there for the last two decades or more, for pretty much, well, all his success.

  3. Dan, you're right, he's been doing this for awhile, but it's becoming more evident as the dining public gets smarter. The sheer amount of culinary information on the internet also means that people consult more sources than they used to, so Sietsema's laziness is more easily exposed. I totally agree, Jim Leff and other og's on chowhound should be getting more credit than Sietsema. I find it funny that other bloggers on the VV site routinely give cite chowhound for a find, while Sietsema acts like it doesn't exist.
    If you haven't seen it check out Johnathan Kaufman's article in SF Weekly:

  4. and, sietema's mug is all over the place when he hams it up at VV food events and whatnot; the man is not anonymous by any means.