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Anonymous critic Questions Karl Wells’s credentials

Diners in St. John’s – and the restaurateurs who serve them – are chattering about a recent “Rant Farm” entry at The Scope’s website.

The Rant Farm feature enables readers to vent anonymously about whatever irks them. Previous rant subjects have included people who don’t stoop and scoop poop, charging 2.99 on Twonie Tuesdays, and the sound system at Mile One Stadium for IceCaps games. Most items are brief and to the point; just two or three sentences.

On Thursday of last week, someone posted a scathing attack on Karl Wells, restaurant critic for “The Telegram” and host of Cable 9’s “One Chef, One Critic”.

The 769-word essay accused Karl of a number of transgressions, from poor writing to lack of foodie credentials. I will post some excerpts here, offset in italics, but you can read the full item at:

http://thescope.ca/rant/for-the-love-of-food

 “While I do not wish to discredit anything that Karl has done in his career as a media personality, or for maybe telling someone in Toronto that Newfoundland is doing good food, Karl has been continually doing our restaurant industry a disservice with his weekly Saturday column, ‘Dining Out’. His nonsensical commentary, lack of culinary knowledge and audacious comments, going as far as suggesting that he taking credit for the national success of such local restaurants as Atlantica, are embarrassing.

“Week in and week out Karl takes to the restaurants in and around the Avalon Peninsula, reviewing and re-reviewing anyone that will take him – from the fish and chip joints to the fine dining restaurants in downtown St. John’s. While he undoubtedly filled a niche of a St. John’s ‘restaurant critic’ (using the term VERY loosely) and initially raised the profile of local restaurants, he has now resorted to writing articles that include little to no insight into the great food that is coming out of our province and the chefs at the forefront of this movement. Instead he has been dedicating the majority of his column to quirky commentary and self-validating dribble that one would expect from a gossip column.

“Instead of using his profile to help foster a community amongst local restaurateurs and chefs, he is acting as a dividing force – focusing his attention on backroom drama, backhanded smears and politics – three things that have no place in an unbiased critique of a restaurant and their cuisine. One does not need to look far to recognize what Karl is doing is not the work of a restaurant critic, but of someone who has eaten in restaurants and likes the attention. Do not get me started on his poor grammar, inadequate and often wrong description of dishes and his lack of editing.

“I have worked extensively in the restaurant industry, and I know a lot of restaurateurs in St. John’s. Above all else I am a food enthusiast who loves to dine and is interested in what is happening in Newfoundland cuisine and how it relates to what is happening Nationally. That does not give me grounds to be a restaurant critic, so I am at a loss as to how Karl is where he is. While I do often read his article, it is not for increasing my food knowledge, but to see what nonsense he has taken on this week. If it is him reviewing a club sandwich, using a whole column describing a take out dinner with two young children, or letting us know that some anonymous girl is wearing designer sunglasses, Karl column, and attitude, has become a both a joke and a thorn in the sides of most downtown restaurants.”

I have my own opinion about this piece of commentary, and will share it in a moment. First, what does Karl Wells think of it all?

I sent him an email, asking for his reaction and prompting him with a few questions. First, I asked if he thought the writer had a personal ax to grind (there’s a whiff to the bitterness to this criticism that leads me to believe there is a history here).

“I think I know where all this is coming from and why,” Wells replied, “but since the individual and his friends did not have the guts to say who they are, I’m not going to bother to speak to the comments.

“As for cheffing credentials, well I can only say that I work regularly in national organizations with some of the most prominent food writers and critics in Canada and not one of them is a chef. (By the way I do have a personal chef’s diploma and I’m a damn good cook.) The last point I’d make is that of the last four New York Times restaurant critics not one was a chef or had any cheffing credentials. Frank Bruni was the Times’ Rome correspondent and the last, Sam Sifton, just moved to the paper’s national news desk.”

And that’s Karl Wells’s view.

My biggest problem with this critique – and I use that term loosely –  is its total anonymity. For all we know, this is a restaurant owner or chef who is exacting revenge for a negative review. The piece does have that feel to it; of someone writing with a chip on his shoulder. And that would be fine, if the person had identified himself and challenged Wells on the specifics of a review. But attacking a person’s reputation anonymously, with such an apparent personal agenda, well, that’s just lower than low.

I think this anonymous ax grinder needs to understand that there are no credentials required to be a restaurant critic, outside of having an ability to write, a love of food, knowledge of its preparation, and certainly an ability to cook. In fact, based on his own self-description, Mr. Anonymous is highly qualified to be a food critic, and I would have hired him in a second when I worked as an editor. It is pretentious twaddle to suggest that Wells is not qualified to do what he does.

On previous occasions, I have expressed reservations about Wells’s high public profile, when visiting local restaurants. With his face on TV several days a week, every restaurant owner, chef and server in town knows who he is. Won’t Wells get preferential treatment wherever he goes, thus diminishing his ability to have an “everyday” experience at an establishment? I put this question to him again.

“As for anonymity I don't think many critics have that. Before Bruni had written a word of criticism, his photo was pinned to the wall of every fine dining restaurant in Manhattan. GQ’s Alan Richman has his photo published regularly, as does James Chatto of Toronto. I don’t make reservations in my name and often I just walk in. There’s really not much a chef can do at that point, especially if I am ordering off the card. If servers fuss over me I cotton on pretty quickly.”

To sum up, the “Rant Farm” entry might have been useful, had the author identified himself (or herself) and debated specific points about Wells’s restaurant reviews. However, the snide, anonymous attacks on Wells's reputation and credibility lead to me believe there’s a hidden agenda, and none of the writer’s complaints should be taken seriously.

I side with Karl Wells on this one.

On a side note, if you’d like to read more about well known versus anonymous restaurant critics, check out this link. It’s a pretty contentious topic:

http://eater.com/archives/2010/04/19/anonymous-restaurant-critics-field-guide.php

 

 

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Lyndsey Hamen
    January 05, 2013 - 20:11

    As someone who moved to St. John's with no prior connections to anyone in the restaurant business, I am confused by Mr Jackson's peculiar suggestions that Anonymous is someone who does maintain some such family-friend restaurant-relationship vendetta... the ranter, who I perceived as presenting an intelligently phrased, critical, and remarkably accurate said many things I've thought and stated time and time again myself for years now. Since when has offering well-supported criticism become a crime? Isn't that what Karl attempts each week? Afraid of open opinion? Stay away from journalism, and for that matter, the internet.

  • johnnybobby
    April 27, 2012 - 03:13

    mr.wells is doing a great job for our culinary scene.to me his critique has improved markedly.i used to hate on his column but to do so now would be ignorant.the man is a pretty fair and honest judge.plus,as many may disagree,i dont think you need cooking experience to critique.ive been cooking for 10 years and i like mcdonalds bk kfc and anything i dont have to cook

  • localchef
    November 16, 2011 - 09:19

    I have to say there are some very valid point that Mr. Meeker brings up. Karl delivers a viewpoint of a diner by someone who loves and has a passion for food. I can guarentee if Frank Bruni was reviewing half the places Karl gives great comments for would probably not receive nice a review. Karl has done a great deal for numerous places throughout the city and always posts restaurants happenings in the city. The work he does with the telegram will be bashed by anyone who is not happy with the review but instead of lashing out at karl maybe they should look at the product they are putting on the plate first. I also know first hand that if a restaurant is that terrible he will not write about it. Maybe he should start and then you will see all these mediocre restaurants who charge top dollar for what tghey refer to as fine dining change for the better

  • Ken Meaney
    November 15, 2011 - 12:42

    Geoff, I do enjoy your blogs, but it's a bit frustrating that you update so infrequently.

  • Karl Kautsky
    November 03, 2011 - 23:01

    Who urinated in Peter Jackson's Mini Wheats this morning? If good ole Pete thinks that rant was "bordering on libel", I suggest he go and re-check what libel actually means. Anyways, I do agree with Meeker and pissy Pete about the rant. The ranter is a complete buffoon, and I quite enjoy Karl's column. Some of my favourite ones have been about the takeaways and greasy spoons. Some of us don't fancy those fine dining hoity toity 'establishments', and Karl's opinion of the takeaways and greasy spoon places is very welcome!

  • Sharon
    October 30, 2011 - 07:49

    Mr. Meeker, thank you for this little piece of reason. Mr. Jackson, I urge you, once you are able to move beyond your anger, to take something away from this whole event. Criticism is a great means to the end of a better product. I have personally observed on occasion that Mr. Wells' description of dishes is factually inaccurate (as it refers to their contents, the preparation, etc) more often than I would like. Just as I would expect an art critic to double-check the medium before sending to print a review of a wood cut as a lino cut, I expect that, as part of his job, Mr. Wells would fact-check more thoroughly. I believe that this is what the anonymous ranter was referring to as "wrong." Something the ranter brought up briefly was that the review column often reviews "take out". I must assert, Mr. Jackson, that one cannot properly review a restaurant if one has never sat and eaten in that restaurant. Otherwise, it's a food review... and one that sets the food at a disadvantage, at that. It's unfair to the restauranteur, and it looks like laziness to the readers. Cowardice or no, criticism is criticism. It is your job to make Mr. Wells' column as good as it can be. Now that you've had your rant, go make the column better.

  • Peter Jackson
    October 28, 2011 - 10:52

    As Karl Wells' editor at The Telegram, I was gobsmacked that The Scope was willing to post that anonymous character assassination of Karl, along with the vile comments that followed. I don't doubt there is a circle of people out there who aren't fond of Karl's column. Their distaste often stems from a place being burned by a lukewarm critique; friends and fans will gang up to defend the establishment. This backlash is expected by critics, and I am familiar with its sting from my own time as a music critic at The Telegram. What's most alarming, though, are the comments from people who think they know what a critic is supposed to do, and obviously have no idea. I note some of the following comments in the Scope, along with my annotation: "He often compares fine dining apples to corner diner oranges." Karl does nothing of the sort, but rather considers the merits of all sorts of dining experience based on the expected standards of the genre, which is a cardinal rule for criticism; "Whatever went on with the business side of things was none of our business." This, in reference to Atlantica, was a tell-tale comment, since what's going on within the local restaurant scene is exactly what a critic should include in his column. It's clear the rant (and many of the comments) came from offended parties in this saga, or at least very close to it. "If I was going to critique a restaurant, I would critique it all including service (which he omits all the time)." This must be from someone who has never read anything Karl Wells has written. He refers to service in almost every column, and singles out both good and bad service. "Maybe if we had a proper food critic or two, the quality of service and food would improve (although it is getting much, much better!)." Does this sort of muddled thinking even merit comment? "Do not get me started on his poor grammar, inadequate and often wrong description of dishes and his lack of editing." This, from the original rant, totally boggles me. The last observation directly attacks my reputation, so I'll just ignore that for now. But what does "inadequate and often wrong description" mean? Is he not using enough adjectives? And how can a critic's description be wrong, when it is his honestly held opinion? The most ridiculous charge here is that of "poor grammar." As a longtime editor who has seen all manner of raw writing from every imaginable source, I can assure you that Karl's grammar is absolutely impeccable. It requires minimal editing. The person who wrote this clearly has no idea what the word "grammar" even means. "Well said, anonymous, you deserve a metal (sic) for speaking up!" This best sums up the absurdity of the whole exercise. In what world does posting a vicious personal attack on someone without giving your name qualify as "speaking up"? It is nothing more than an act of pure cowardice, and reflects much more on the character of the person who posted it than on the subject of his scorn. I like the Scope, as I feel it fills a need for a more hip, flexible voice aimed primarily at younger readers. This Rant posting, on the other hand, was neither hip nor avant garde. It was a vile personal attack, bordering on libel. The Telegram allows anonymous comments, but with a much more stringent degree of oversight. I suggest the Scope exercise a similar degree of moderation.