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Show me the pros

Everyone who eats or cooks is free to hang up a virtual shingle and call themselves a culinary “expert.” Blogs, Yelp!, Twitter, Foodspotting—they’ve democratized (some would say degraded) the arts of restaurant reviewing and recipe writing.

Whether this is a positive or negative trend was the subject of  “Yelp? Help!: Is There A Return to Actual Expertise in Food?”, a panel held at New York University’s Fales Library on March 14 as part of the Critical Topics in Food Series. The panel was moderated by restaurant consultant Clark Wolf and included Eric Asimov, chief wine critic and former temporary restaurant critic for The New York Times; Scott Hocker, editor-in-chief of TastingTable.com; Jonathan Milder, research librarian at The Food Network; Sara Moulton, chef, cookbook author and television personality; and Krishnendu Ray, author and NYU Food Studies faculty member.

With the ton of culinary information circulating online, all agreed that some sort of benchmarking is needed to separate the bad from the good. “There’s a lot of fascinating food discussions going on—along with a lot of inane comments,” stated Asimov. “It’s wonderful that everyone can have their say, but the question is ‘who are the experts?’” Some of the commenters try to manipulate a conversation or review and clearly have an agenda, he added.

“The Food Network changed everything,” Moulton said. “People today feel they know everything about food and cooking.” When it comes to recipes, many of those posted on the Web are not tested, she contended. Eager cooks download and prepare them and they don’t work. Clark pointed out that one food blogger was actually sued over a posted recipe that “exploded” when users tried it.

Hocker agreed that there’s lots of junk on the Web. “Food is very subjective, but that said, the viewer has to make sure the information is correct and comes from a reliable source,” he noted. At TastingTable.com, the writing staff  has magazine and culinary backgrounds and everything is fact checked.

On the plus side, said Hocker, when everyone has a say, you can listen to and participate in food discussions from every ethnic group and every segment of the restaurant world. “People are learning so much more about diverse food cultures,” he pointed out. Another benefit—the Internet has allowed tight, interactive communities to be formed around specific foods and culinary interests, said Asimov.

Ray brought up the point that The New York Times restaurant critic is more important than ever, prompting Wolf to pose the question “how do we feel about The Times reviewing a hamburger stand?” [Referring to the recent review of Shake Shack]. Asimov, who used to write the "$25 and Under" column for the paper, felt that Shake Shake should have been reviewed in that section instead. “The role of the critic at The Times is to examine a more complicated restaurant, so you can explain the nuances of the meal to the reader, and why you loved or hated it,” he added.

With The Los Angeles Times dropping its star ratings recently, the audience naturally wanted to know what the panel thought about that system. While the shorthand is handy, “it’s so difficult and irritating to boil down a restaurant review to stars,” claimed Asimov, “and it’s not that useful to consumers. Better to bring your own sensibility to a review.” Concluded Milder, “a restaurant critic should do more than just a ‘thumbs-up or thumbs-down.’ It’s important to offer context.” Otherwise, a diner might as well go to Yelp!

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