YouTube Sensation: Real Actors Read Yelp

Possibly, I’ve been living under a rock, but I just discovered the hilarious YouTube series “Real Actors Read Yelp,” the brainchild of Gotta Kid to Feed Productions.

Broadway thespians and television bit players provide heart-wrenching (and sometimes downright terrifying) enactments of real reviews from across the country. There’s everything from the Times Square Olive Garden (“The waitresses-slash-waiters smile, and seem … nice, but it feels like they’re doing it just to increase their tips.”) to Crazy Horse Gentleman’s Club (“I’ve never been impressed with the dancers. They either look like they just had a kid, or they’re obviously on drugs.”).

It’s hard to choose a favorite, but I’m partial to this disembowelment of a PF Chang’s, as performed by Tony Award-winner Greg Hildreth.


Dropping the F-bomb: why “foodie” needs to go away

foodieLife used to be so easy. You ate to live. Then, man discovered fire and realized mastodon tastes a lot better with a nice sear on it. Around 500,000 years later, Homo foodieus evolved, and now it’s impossible to go out to eat without camera flashes going off at the tables around you.

Mercifully, there’s a Foodie Backlash taking root in America, and I feel the time is ripe (Did you see how I tossed two food puns into that sentence? Annoying, isn’t it?) to go public with my loathing for this odious word and the obnoxious behavior that too often goes with it.

I realize I’m setting myself up here. I’m a food journalist. Don’t I perpetuate all of this silliness, getting readers in a lather over the Next Big Food Thing? Don’t I eat at nice restaurants and drink expensive wine? Well, yes. And, no (and to that latter hypothetical question, less often that you’d think in this economy).

I like to think that through (most of) my work, I promote importance of understanding where food comes from, and urging localized food security. I’m concerned about protecting the environment, public health, and genetic diversity in plants and livestock; conserving natural resources, and finding more humane ways to raise and slaughter livestock.

Does that make me the culinary equivalent of Mother Theresa, or absolve me of my written transgressions that are less pure in culinary intent? Hell no; I can be a hedonist, too. But I’m trying to make a point here. I realize that my bordering-on-obsessive hatred of “foodie” is really about the culture it’s perpetuating. That said, the word itself is infantile, idiotic, and meaningless, and makes me want to poke my eyes out with a larding needle. Can’t people just say they love food?

My biggest issue with foodie as a concept is that it’s detrimental to the remarkable, burgeoning food culture we’ve finally achieved in the United States. In a mere 100 years, we went from agrarian society to culinary wasteland to possessing identifiable food regions. We established a world-class artisan food, sustainable agriculture, and fine dining scene in certain parts of the country.

What went wrong? We paid $200 (for a bottle of estate olive oil), and instead of passing “Go,” we became a cult of food elitists. It’s the antithesis of why many of us got into the food business in the first place. Yes, care about what you eat, but food shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement attached to it.

Do you really need to be on a first name basis with the person who sells you fava beans? It’s a wonderful thing to develop a relationship with local growers but the posturing and farmer name-dropping one-upmanship I’ve witnessed while working at farmers markets in recent years is over the top. Real supporters of sustainable agriculture–of real food–don’t go trolling for discounts or freebies, because they understand just how hard farmers work for a living.

In a perfect world, everyone should have access to fresh, wholesome, local, delicious food, especially children. Thanks to the good work of organizations like the Chez Panisse Foundation and the increasing number of school lunch programs, community gardens, and other food security initiatives across the country, this isn’t an impossible goal for Americans to achieve, nor is tackling our obesity epidemic in a one-two punch.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to spend disposable income, if you have it, on costly ingredients or dining out. But the fetishizing of food, the pissing contest that is the hallmark of the archetypal foodie is what I cannot abide. This is what’s at the heart of foodieism; the need to belong to a special club, with a language all its own. In our status-obsessed society, we need to separate ourselves from the plebes who think that the Olive Garden is serving “Italian” food.

Eating well (not necessarily synonymous with eating “expensively”) is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and cooking for other people and joining them at the table sustains us in ways that go beyond filling our stomachs. Every food lover (see? doesn’t sound so bad, does it?) has a deep, fundamental reason for why they’re so moved by the act of eating.

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For me, it’s the cultural aspects of food, its intrinsic relationship to travel, as well as the people who grow, forage, raise, catch, and make food on a small, sustainable scale that I find captivating. These are things that I was fortunate enough to experience in childhood, and they made an indelible impression on me, as well as fostered my culinary career.

Good food–be it a ripe peach, a great street taco, or a lavish, multi-course meal–brings me joy. For what it’s worth, however, my parents aren’t “food people.” I grew up on a ranch, but I also ate a lot of frozen vegetables and TV dinners, because my mom had two kids to raise, dislikes cooking, and for her, the ’70’s with its advent of guiltless convenience foods was a godsend.

There’s also the bad manners perpetuated by foodie culture. On what planet is it okay to “just pop into the kitchen” during a packed dinner service to talk to the chef…especially when s/he’s a total stranger? Yet my boyfriend and I witnessed this scenario, while dining at a certain famous restaurant.

After three hours of listening to the ten-top beside us discourse on the merits of Brittany sea salt purchased at the source versus approximately 12 other kinds of hand-harvested salt, we were ready to clobber them. Look, if you want to spend your money on that shit and then have a debate about it, that’s your perogative. Just don’t hold a small, intimate restaurant as captive audience. Few things are more deadly boring than foodies in a feeding frenzy.

We watched their lengthy progression of courses congeal and grow cold as they scurried around the table snapping food porn. At meal’s end, the ringleader hopped up and made her foray into the kitchen. And, because it was a small, intimate restaurant and my boyfriend and I were seated nearby, we heard the following words come out of the mouth of the extremely irate sous chef who blocked her path: “Lady, we’re in the middle of fucking service. Get the hell out of here!”

Cue applause meter.
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Foodies should also remember that while home cooking, traveling, and dining out most certainly give you an education about food, they don’t, in most cases, make you an expert. Yelp serves a purpose, to be sure, but it’s often a means of settling a score or self-promoting. Or, in the case of food blog reviews written by foodies (as opposed to, say, writers with actual journalism and culinary credentials, both) a way to say, “I’m a food writer too!” One food blogger I stumbled across while researching this story had written on a recent post, “I think [foodie] is a very serious title. It’s like calling yourself a writer or an artist. It means you have to have the knowledge, talent and experience to back it up.”

Um, please get over yourself. Knowing about food, winning a Pulitzer, being the greatest chef on earth…at the end of the day, it’s just effing food. Not the cure for cancer or achieving world peace.

I think esteemed food writer and author Amanda Hesser said it best when she was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article last year: “Having more people interested in good food is never a bad thing,” she said, but what she can’t abide is eating dinner with people who “only want to talk about food and every place where they ate, like, doughnuts or something, and where the best doughnuts are secretly found. Knowing a lot about food culture is a good thing. That cataloguing of food experience is becoming tiresome. I’m pro-food experts. I’m just not so sure I want to have dinner with them or have them judge me on the coffee I drink.”

Amen.

[Photo credits: mushroom cloud, Flickr user Juampe López, poster, Flicker user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com]

New York City restaurant grades: would you eat at a place with mice?

I was in the East Village last night and encountered my first sighting of New York’s new restaurant grading system.

Starting last month, every New York City restaurant is now required to post a letter grade that corresponds to its health-inspection score. (Los Angeles has already successfully implemented the system.)

Based on the new system, a restaurant is awarded an A for scores between 0-13, a B for 14-27, and a C for 28 and higher. (Each health-code violation earns a certain number of points, so lower scores equal fewer violations.) Though all signs must be posted in a place that’s visible to people walking by, I found that the Department of Health also has a handy online tool that lets you look up restaurants by name.

So I started inputting a few of my favorite restaurants, and my stomach started turning when I saw the history of violations, including “evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” Surprisingly, some of the affordable restaurants that I searched for did better than the fine-dining type of places. Though many of the restaurant inspections in my search were completed as recently as in May, most of the corresponding letter grades haven’t yet been posted so you can only see recent health-code violations.

Perhaps it’s better not to think about it, but I have the feeling that I’ll be periodically checking up on my favorite places as the final letter grades are awarded and publicly posted. Otherwise, I’m going to have to finally learn how to cook.

Of course, this makes me wonder if health-code violations will just become relative: If I really love a restaurant but it only gets a B, does that mean that I should find a new favorite? Or will B become the new standard?

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[Photo by Amy Chen]

Travel Advice: Five ways to cope with bad restaurant service

Nothing can stain a perfectly planned trip like poor restaurant service. In the hotels, this usually isn’t a problem, as the wait staff is governed by the same fanatical commitment to keeping guests happy as everyone else on the property. But, nobody wants to eat every meal on site, so you’re bound to venture out for most of your lunches and dinners. This is where you’ll wind up rolling the dice. Restaurant service varies. You can do plenty of research and get recommendations, but from time to time, you’ll either make a guess or find out that your friend’s experience was an aberration.

When you get an awful waiter, abysmal food or terrible seating, don’t forget that you have rights. I’m fresh off an awful experience with Citrus, a restaurant in my neighborhood on Manhattan‘s Upper West Side, and while “negotiating” for my food, it occurred to me that most people willingly cede control of the situation to the restaurants that have wronged them. If we work together, this ends now.

Here are five ways to address terrible restaurant service from the start and get the most value for your dining dollars.

1. Don’t ask the waitress twice
If you encounter a problem with your food or drinks — from taking too long to get them to receiving the wrong order — always start with your server. If you don’t see the person walk by within five minutes of identifying the problem, hunt him or her down: doing so sends a message. Make it clear that you will not tolerate substandard service. If the problem isn’t resolved quickly, don’t bother asking the server again … it won’t get you anywhere. Escalate it to a manager.

2. Serve yourself
Part of the point of going to a restaurant is having someone else do all the work for you. But, if the staff isn’t delivering, sometimes you need to take matters into your own hands. Drink order taking forever? Go up to the bar yourself and ask what’s taking so long. Offer to help … you’re not trying to criticize; you’re in the solutions business! Usually, this less-than-subtle behavior can serve as a wakeup call to people who’ve been sleeping on the job.

3. Become the manager’s new buddy
Experiencing continued bad service? Demonstrate to the manager that you will make it your mission to waste his time until his team finally gets its act together. When you don’t get the right food or get served in a timely manner for each course, let the manager know. Getting up to go the bathroom? Find the manager on your way back and give him an unsolicited status report.

4. Don’t settle for discounts
I’ve had problems with Citrus in the past, and on one occasion, the manager offered to knock 10 percent off my next purchase. Idiotic. After the delivery order was screwed up three times (same order, same night), I went to the restaurant to see for myself the stupidity that could yield such results. He immediately proffered the 10 percent off a future purchase. He expected a future purchase from me following a terrible experience and made clear that the current situation was meaningless to him. Learn from this: any offer that is not immediate and substantial is an insult.

5. Recognize the power of the tip

One restaurant forgot to deliver a drink to me. When the waiter realized the mistake, he not only brought the drink, but knocked that one and the previous one off my bill. This is how you turn a service error into a 30 percent tip. I believe in rewarding service, and the standard 15 percent is a starting point, not a destination. Likewise, a staff that underperforms should be compensated appropriately. Don’t be afraid to go under 10 percent — or all the way to zero. On a few occasions, I’ve actually told the manager that the restaurant owed me money following the meal.

Unlike the service on planes, where you are a captive consumer, restaurants don’t have any control. You can leave at any time. And, there are plenty of choices available to you. In major cities, in fact, you can leave one restaurant and enter another within minutes. If you do this, have a frank conversation with the manager: “Look, we just had awful service at [name the restaurant] just down the block. I know you’re crowded, but we’re hungry and, unsurprisingly, not in the best of moods. I’m not looking for anything out of this except to let you know that I’m probably not going to be as fair as I could be … and to tell you that you have a chance to be the one factor that makes my evening amazing.”

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The Ethiopian coffee ceremony

We’ve all heard of the Japanese tea ceremony, but in Ethiopia they have an elaborate ceremony for that other great caffeinated beverage–coffee.

The Ethiopians discovered coffee, surely the greatest of their many cultural achievements, so it’s not surprising they developed a ritual around it.

It was my wife’s birthday last week so I took her to Madrid’s one and only Ethiopian restaurant, Mesob Restaurante Etíope on Calle Manuela Malasaña. Madrileños will know that Malasaña is one of the best barrios in town for eating out, and I’m happy to say this outpost of East African culture is holding its own against some tough competition.

We arrived at the restaurant to find the settings laid out on a mat in front of our table. A portable stove, some handmade pitchers, and an incense burner were the main items. Our hostess sat on a wooden, three-legged stool and filled a small pot with unroasted coffee beans. She fired up the stove and started roasting them over the open flame.

As she shook the pot back and forth to turn the beans, she explained that the coffee ceremony is one of the cornerstones of social life in Ethiopia. Women go from house to house to see friends and end up attending four or five coffee ceremonies a day. She was also kind enough to teach me some Amharic and not smile too much at my bad pronunciation.

The beans were beginning to roast now and occasionally she took the pot off the flames and wafted the steam under our noses. Heaven! To keep us from going crazy waiting for the coffee she brought out some fatiira, which is sort of like a crepe made with honey. It’s a common dish for breakfast or at a coffee ceremony. As we munched she finished roasting the beans and lit an incense burner, which she passed close to our faces so we could get a good whiff. Then she ground up the beans and put them in a ceramic pitcher called a javena.

The javena went onto the stove and she poured some hot water into it. Not too much, mind you, because Ethiopian coffee is best served strong. We each got a nice cup and our hostess went back to making another javena of coffee. It’s interesting that only just enough is made at a time for each person to get a small cup. That way none goes to waste. You can, of course, just keep filling the javena if you want more coffee. We each had three cups but I’m sure the workers who carved all those churches at Lalibela out of sold rock probably drank more!

The whole ceremony took about an hour. I found it very relaxing, with the smell of the roasting beans and incense filling the air, and the soft rattle of the beans as they were shaken in the pot. The coffee was great, of course, but the best part was chatting with our hostess about life in Ethiopia and learning some Amharic in preparation for our trip in February. I’ll be interested to see if the coffee ceremonies are any different in the various regions of Ethiopia.

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