If you’ve been keeping up with food media for the last two days (Eater LA , Grub Street LA , L.A. Times ), you might have heard about the recent expulsion of Times critic S. Irene Virbilia from Red Medicine , a new modern Vietnamese restaurant. Tuesday night, restaurant management spotted Virbilia while she was waiting for her table, snapped her picture, and asked her and her party to leave. Managing partner Noah Ellis then posted the picture of the anonymous critic on their Website, along with a statement claiming that “her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational,” and “she is someone we choose not to serve here.”
Since the story broke there have been passionate opinions on both sides of the debate. Was the restaurant out of line? Do conventional food critics still serve a purpose? Is this a call to arms about criticism in general? Or an insecure chef afraid of having his cooking critiqued? We wanted to hear what our own anonymous critic, Patric Kuh (who was also a chef, having worked under Michel Richard at Citrus for two years) had to say about the whole brouhaha. We caught up with him via phone last night:
“Yes, restaurants have the right to refuse service, but usually that’s based on whether a customer is ruining other people’s experiences. A critic, a real critic, is a paying customer, and the grounds upon which you would normally refuse service—somebody being too drunk or annoying other customers—is completely lacking here. But more than that it just strikes me as, these people doubt their own professionalism and they’re not ready to be judged in the marketplace like every single writer, filmmaker, fashion designer, journalist. You don’t have to listen to the person’s opinion. You can feel free to throw the publication across the room, ignore it, curse it, whatever. But to not put yourself in the position to be reviewed reveals great doubts about your own abilities. And to put it under a guise of battling the establishment or solidarity with other cooks, that is a very self-serving explanation.
“Of course, you can criticize a critic. Anyone in the world can say that I don’t know what I’m talking about or I’m completely out of touch—whatever. We’re not people who cannot be taken down ourselves. But it’s not just us. Other people will come in who may or may not care for you or your cooking. You’re a real chef, and that’s part of being out in the market. When you’re a professional, you step up and say, ‘This is what I do. This is my vision. I’m putting it out into the world.’ Refusing to be criticized doesn’t reveal solidarity with other chefs. It shows that you lack the courage of other chefs.”
What about publishing the photo? Do you think that’s crossing a line?
“It just reaffirms why it is we always pay for our meals. If you recognize me, us, it’s ultimately not a deal breaker because our opinion is not compromised in any way. That’s why magazines, who have tiny budgets, still feel that it’s a worthwhile investment. The idea of an independent uncompromised critic is a bigger discussion. I know I’ve been recognized in restaurants. Ultimately, the fact that I accept nothing for free is why my opinion is not compromised. Go ahead, publish the picture. Anybody who goes through any trouble can find my picture in the back of my book on restaurants. I do think that if any serious blogger is publishing Virbila’s picture, they’ve really gone to the other side.”
What purpose do anonymous, unbiased critics serve these days?
“Is the idea of the classic critic Darwinianly obsolete? I don’t know. But that’s beside the point. I’ve always felt that chefs live in a cocoon of positive affirmation. The publicist isn’t going to say anything, the owner isn’t going to say anything, the sous-chef isn’t going to say anything, the maitre d’ isn’t going to say anything, and the customer isn’t going to say anything—at least not in that moment when the chef comes by the table. Where do they get unbiased, uncompromised, and disinterested—not uninterested but disinterested—opinions from? The only place they can get it is a critic who is going to move on to the next place and who has no reason to whip them unnecessarily or praise you unnecessarily. You move on—that’s what being a critic is.”