A new era in Bay Area food criticism
There’s a lot of talk about food journalism right now. Two heroes of the genre recently passed: TV host and writer Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold of the LA Times. Tributes to them showed how food writing can be about so much more than food. They showed how deeply appreciated these two writers were for bringing attention to food culture beyond “fine dining”.
Here in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer wrote his last column last week, after 32 years. The past president of the association of food journalists led the paper’s food and wine section to four James Beard awards for outstanding food journalism, and he was influential in the city’s rise to become an international food capital — but some voices in the local food scene are hoping Bauer’s successor will take the prestigious role in a new direction.
Like most chefs, Preeti Mistry worried when Bauer didn’t review her first restaurant, Juhu Beach Club. But after a couple years, “I was like, Anthony Bourdain and Jonathan Gold have been here and they love my restaurant. I don't give a f*ck if Bauer ever comes. In fact, I hope he doesn't because he's irrelevant.”
A lot of us take for granted the style of food criticism that Bauer was all about. He stuck to fine dining, mostly the kind that can be categorized as “Western”. If you were a tourist looking to shell out hundreds for the newest haute cuisine, Bauer had your back.
But, Preeti Mistry says that look is outdated. That’s not where the exciting food is and that’s not what the role of a critic should be. For her, it boils down to, “Are you in service to the one percent or the 10 percent, or are you in service to the people?”
Mistry appreciates critics that have a real curiosity about culture and cuisines other than their own. She says, with Bauer, “the vibe you got was that he didn't really feel like he needed to educate himself on the difference between, you know, Burmese food and Thai food and Nepalese food and Pakistani food.”
Another outspoken critic of Bauer is chef Richie Nakano, the former owner of Hapa Ramen. He says the PR machine can dictate food coverage these days. High-end restaurants have huge budgets for opening publicity, and orchestrate all kind of gimmicks to get noticed. But he hopes the next Chronicle critic won’t ignore places that can’t buy that type of attention.
“It’s always like, ‘This is new and this is hot.’ It’s never like, ‘This place has been here for 20 years and it’s been serving this community and people love it and they have a relationship with these people,’” says Nakano. “It shouldn’t be the kind of thing where certain types of food or a certain level of restaurant is only mentioned in a ‘cheap eats’ issue that comes out once a year. That sucks.”
Bauer specifically has been accused of more than just snobbery. He’s also been challenged on his code of ethics as a reviewer.
He didn’t take his anonymity very seriously and was known to hobnob and befriend certain chefs. There’s also a potential conflict of interest in his long-time boyfriend’s restaurant-related business and charity ventures.
There have been several local media critiques of the couple and the allegedly unscrupulous power they wield in San Francisco. Maile Carpenter’s 2001 San Francisco Magazine takedown “Eating in Michael Bauer’s Town” won a James Beard award, the food criticism equivalent of a Pulitzer.
Rumored quid pro quo aside, Nakano says the effects of having such a singular dominant voice is felt everywhere.
“I think a lot of people saw that a review from him was like a ticket to getting nationally recognized,” says Nakano. “People knew that if they played nice with Bauer they could get into that higher club. It felt gross to have to play his game.”
Bauer’s game ends up influencing the food we eat. For example: “There was a big onslaught of beet, goat cheese, walnut salads [in the Bay Area],” says Rachel Levin, critic with Eater SF. “I think that was because Bauer liked them.”
Bauer was best known for his star rating system, which ranked hundreds of Bay Area restaurants. Levin thinks he allowed his food criticism to be reduced solely to those stars.
“I view restaurant criticism as cultural criticism. It should be a good read,” says Levin. “To be honest, I didn't always read Michael Bauer. I don't know if people did or if they just did to look to his stars. I think his stars mattered more than his words.”
Levin hopes Bauer will be replaced by not just one successor but a bunch of exciting perspectives.
“It's an end of a really long era with him,” says Levin, “and I think that's really good for the city.”
Chef Preeti Mistry says there are already wonderful critics in the Bay Area, they just have smaller audiences. She says Luke Tsai, who’s currently with San Francisco magazine, “was the one review that we got the first year that we opened [Juhu Beach Club] where I was like, he f*cking gets it.”
Juhu, which closed last year, reinterpreted Mumbai street food through a second generation American lens. Her mom’s recipes and imported spices and Mistry’s taste for childhood delicacies like KFC and Top Ramen came to life in seasonal California produce.
“[Luke Tsai] understood enough about Indian food and immigrant culture to understand what I was doing and see it beyond just this plate of food in front of him,” says Mistry, “he got the gestalt of it.”
Juhu Beach Club was bright pink inside, with festive wallpaper. Eating there, with 90’s R&B playing, you could almost feel Mistry hop-skipping around fraught questions of dual identity and heritage and the wild performance of it all. She says it’s a subtle but special thing to be reviewed by someone sensitive to that.
She had a similar experience when Jonathan Gold came to Juhu.
“We were doing this dish, basically like an Indian take on shepherd's pie. And [Gold] posted on Instagram, he wrote something like ‘Shepherd's Pie, Desi style.”
The Hindi word, Desi, used to be used derogatorily to mean provincial or, in the context of Indian American immigrants, unassimilated. “Like, oh they’re mom still only wears a sari,” says Mistry. “But my generation turned it around. We’re like, you know what, we’re all Desis.”
Mistry says when a critic shows that kind of knowledge about another culture, it feels like a sign of respect. That’s what food is ultimately about for Mistry: how we open ourselves to people, how we take care of each other, how we share. She wants more food writing that reflects that.