After serving 31 years as the Chicago Tribune’s food critic, Phil Vettel took a buyout in January and left the paper. And now comes word that the Trib’s longtime dining editor, Joe Gray, is also departing. In an era when consumers can get their food recs from social media and websites, some speculate there won’t be a replacement, or: some have argued that there’s no longer a need for major food critics.
These people are wrong. Chicago needs a food critic or two — better yet if they bring a fresh and diverse set of perspectives.
I know this is true because I’ve seen the future and the resulting fallout. The decline of the major food critic didn’t start weeks ago when Vettel retired. It began a decade ago, when Vettel’s chief competitor, Pat Bruno, was fired from the Chicago Sun-Times. The Sun-Times named me as Bruno’s successor, but two and a half years later I was also let go when the Sun-Times killed the dining section.
What we know about monopolies is that they often lead to laziness and exploitation. In the absence of another critic pushing him, what would Vettel get lazy about? To understand that, you need to understand what a food critic does and how they do it.
A food critic is an arbiter of taste, with respect to a restaurant’s food and also in the cultural sense. They examine what is on the plate and in the dining room, and, ideally, what the people who are serving them are doing for the community. Different critics pursue these ends differently, but almost all of them like to champion places that return value for your hard-earned money and keep you away from the spots that would fleece you.
Because the critic represents the diner, they should aim to experience their meal at a restaurant in the exact same way a reader would. Preferably, this means the critic visits restaurants anonymously, their publication pays for the meal, and they gather as much data as they can by visiting the restaurant multiple times.
For most of his career, Vettel was a champion of Chicago and our dining scene. Vettel’s work and that of a generally strong class of professional food critics helped Chicago shed its meat-and-potatoes image to emerge as an innovative American food city. Daring restaurants like Paul Kahan’s darling Blackbird, three-Michelin-starred Alinea, and molecular-gastronomy pioneer Moto would likely have been built anyway, but without critics like Bruno, Vettel, Time Out Chicago’s Heather Shouse and David Tamarkin, and Mike Sula of the Reader competing feverishly and intelligently, would Chicago have become a must-eat destination?
Chicago is often derided as being a part of flyover country. But when Vettel gushed about Trio and a young Grant Achatz in his 2001 review, New York Times critic Frank Bruni paid attention and made sure to visit Alinea on opening night to throw back bowls of Achatz’s signature Hot Potato, Cold Potato soup as if they were shots of Malort.
But why should we care if a food critic or their national counterparts celebrate expensive restaurants that cater to the elite? When international diners fly out for a Michelin-starred meal they read about in the paper, they eat at other restaurants, influenced when the chef or general manager tells a table, “You gotta check out the Isaan sausage at Spoon Thai and the chapli kebab at Khan BBQ!” A rising tide lifts all ships, not just the luxury yachts in Monaco. When a critic manages to lure a culinary tourist to Chicago for a Michelin-starred meal, the city’s lesser-known restaurants — ones just as integral to its fabric — benefit.
I believe Chicago’s food scene peaked about a decade ago, and now — without the celebration and encouragement from food critics — it’s in danger of again being perceived as a simple oasis for meat. This could result in fewer out-of-town diners visiting and fewer dollars supporting the scene.
Vettel was always a cheerleader, but in his early career, he was discerning while shaking his pom-poms. As his competitors dropped off, he abdicated some of his responsibility. Chefs and waiters started calling him “Three-Star Phil” because he awarded stars like investment bankers once sold subprime loans. In order for diners to trust what you believe to be good, they have to know that you know what’s bad. Even if Vettel awarded a place one star, his prose told stories. His words now come off almost exclusively in a dad-jokey voice full of rote descriptors of dishes and decor, reading like a four-star review.
I believe this happened in part because where once Vettel was forwarding the inspiring examples of Achatz’s early work as a lone gunslinger, near the end of his career, he took a victory lap, attended media dinners, and consorted with chefs before writing reviews.
In his last few years, Vettel renounced his anonymity and indulged his inner Kardashian, taking a parade of Instagram and Facebook selfies with the chefs and restaurateurs he was supposed to objectively and anonymously cover. I believe he lost the capacity to be truly honest about his subjects, because he subconsciously worried more about hurting his friendships and relationships with restaurant people. It’s difficult to speak truth to power, even more so when the powerful are your pals.
Whenever I go to a family event or a friend’s barbecue, almost every single time, someone will ask me, the food critic, “Well, how would you rate the experience?” Even though I am known as a truthful, sometimes brutally honest food critic, I never tell any of my friends the answer, good or bad. It’s because I’m truly grateful that someone would cook for me or give me something for free, and also, I know my love for them will cloud my judgment. As a critic, you can admire from afar, but you can’t mix too closely with the people you cover.
It’s not all Vettel’s fault. The Tribune likely put a lot of pressure on him. When the Sun-Times let me go, the very next day the Tribune’s RedEye paper hired me as its food critic. Having lost one dream job, I was hungry to prove myself again. In the early days at RedEye, I often wrote reviews of the same restaurants that Phil did. My style has always been to examine things beyond the plate. Sometimes this was just inconsequential meanders, like dropping references to obscure Taylor Swift tracks into a piece. But if someone was abdicating their responsibility to their staff or their diners, or to ethics, I talked about that. I was told by my editors that Tribune higher-ups didn’t like that, that I should just stick to the food.
Including pay and meal reimbursements, I cost the Tribune roughly $15,000 annually. In return, they got about 30 pieces, mostly reviews. They eventually told me that was too expensive. Vettel also got too expensive for Alden Global Capital, the Trib’s chief investors. He recounted in a recent interview, on Mike Muser’s Amuzed podcast, that the “bean counters” at the Tribune were not happy that he had decided to review Muser and chef Curtis Duffy’s Ever — maybe the most important restaurant opening in Chicago last year — because of the cost.
While Vettel couldn’t control these cost pressures, he could control the selfies he took with Muser and Duffy a year or so before that review. Toward the end, Vettel became less of a critic and more of a new media influencer. Ironically, many people suggest the reason we don’t need food critics is because of the rise of influencers.
Influencers can do good things, but they aren’t critics. Ask yourself why you see the same over-edited photos on every Instagram account. It’s because some PR firm sent every influencer the same free meal or paid a stipend to get a mention for their client.
These mentions get amplified by blinder-like social media algorithms which reinforce and feed you things you like and keep you away from things you don’t. And what are the influencers and algorithms serving you? It’s generally not immigrant-owned global cuisine or even great high-end restaurants. It’s often a lot of pics of pizzas stuffed inside deep-fried burritos covered in rainbow sprinkles. At worst, they’re propping up well-pocketed restaurant groups who lust over controlling narratives.
A critic is less likely to be indebted to the zombie church of “likes” versus an influencer. A critic’s expense account insulates, allowing them to evaluate restaurants independently across multiple visits. However, as I just discussed, the major papers are starting to reign in the accounts. My argument to preserve the food critic role in Chicago also requires a publication to make an investment so the critic can maintain their independent multi-visit evaluations. Newspapers will argue that they can’t afford to allocate these budgets because of declining advertising revenues. The Tribune continues to pay out millions in bonuses to executives. It can surely divert a small percentage of those bonuses to support its actual mission: pursuing good journalism.
While a principled journalist, the critic is also often a student of history and food, possessing a level of professional courtesy and understanding. Critics generally can be held more accountable than influencers. If a food critic intentionally or cruelly misrepresents a restaurant or chef, industry colleagues will make the critic’s beat hard to pursue.
Even if an influencer is independently pursuing their craft, their medium restricts deep exploration. I recently experienced an incredible meal from Dear Margaret, a Chicago riff on Canadian cuisine. When I had the budget and the column space as the critic for the RedEye and Sun-Times, I’d have told the story of owner Lacey Irby, an ambitious entrepreneur innovating during a pandemic.
Now, without the wide readership and with the time- and resource-limiting requirements of a second job, I posted a photo celebrating my pirate-like excess of dipping Dear Margaret’s beef tallow frites in a lustrous vat of its duck-liver mousse on Instagram. I am certainly responsible for my actions, but I’m also limited by the confining nature of modern media opportunities.
If you buy my argument that Chicago’s restaurant scene has diminished, and that it’s in part due to the decline and disappearance of our food critics, then we would expect that the cities which have made an investment in well-funded and well-performed food criticism have thriving growing restaurant cultures.
While New York and San Francisco are still tops, Los Angeles is arguably the best American food city right now. The Los Angeles Times doubled down after the revered critic Jonathan’s Gold’s death by hiring two replacements, Patricia Escárcega and Bill Addison. Escárcega has highlighted the richness of Latinx culinary contributions in a deeper way than even the culturally sensitive Gold.
But Escárcega, a Latinx woman, was also paid less in wages than her white male counterpart. She was marginalized in the same way as many of those she covered, and she had the courage to expose this fact. Escárcega’s counterpart at the San Francisco Chronicle, Soleil Ho, has also examined inequality in kitchens in the context of her reviews, unlike her predecessor, Michael Bauer.
In Chicago, we now know sexual harassment, racism, and other bad things were happening, but like Bauer, Vettel wasn’t discussing these ideas in his reviews. I don’t think it was nefarious neglect. Unlike Bauer, Vettel never declared that he didn’t think it was his role, but it was clear from his style that he felt he was limited to mostly capturing breezy eating experiences.
While I believe we need a food critic in Chicago, we don’t need the old established food critic role, as practiced by Vettel or Bauer. We need critics who are democratizing forces for positive change like Ho, or even an empathic, intelligent old-guard guy like Pete Wells of the New York Times.
Some people believe that even today, a critic should only judge what’s on the plate. While I disagree, I suspect those people would still support the maintenance of a food critic in Chicago on the basis that they’re sort of like a baseball radio play-by-play announcer or a must-see television show. The critic is a touchstone for a community living in a particular time or place. That Vettel fit into that mold and lasted decades is a testament to how a singular critical voice alone holds inherent worth.
But a great critic, like an athlete or celebrity, can also inspire. As the grandson of an immigrant sausage maker and the son of a blue-collar laborer, I grew up mostly believing I could only be a butcher or a machinist. But when I read renowned food writers like Ruth Reichl, Jonathan Gold, M.F.K. Fisher, and Vettel, I discovered there was a better way to live.
A food critic is not essential like oxygen. However, as long as eating is a requirement for livelihood, we need smart voices exploring and challenging who gets food, when they get it, and how they get it.
If the role matters, the name does too. These days, I’m more of a food writer then a devoted critic. However, I tell people outside the media world that I’m a food critic. I claim the “critic” title deliberately, because it is the role that the non-foodie public understands. It is one of the most dependable ways into the hearts and minds of readers.
Michael Nagrant is a longtime Chicago food writer, and a former dining critic for the Sun-Times and RedEye.