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:
“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: