Chris Shott’s desk barely had time to gather dust before Washington City Paper decided to fill his old position as food columnist and blogger. Editor Michael Schaffer announced earlier today that he has selected Jessica Sidman, editor at Dining Bisnow, as Shott’s replacement.
Schaffer gushed over the hire in his internal e-mail:
I’m really excited about the things Jessica brings to City Paper. She’s an immensely well-connected reporter who’s been a scoop machine for Bisnow. She demonstrated her chops as an elegant, thoughtful writer in prior intern stints at Washingtonian, the Dallas Morning News, and USA Today. She’s also a deeply entrepreneurial journalist: Recognizing that food is a big piece of the culture and the economy of a city, she conceptualized and launched Bisnow’s dining newsletter—which today has thousands of subscribers.
Seemingly minutes after the announcement, Amy McKeever over at Eater DC broke the news that Sidman would forgo the difficult/controversial/accepted practice of anonymity, in which food critics/columnists reserve tables under false names, use credit cards with fake names and generally try to avoid the restaurant’s notice. Sidman’s approach will be somewhat groundbreaking for a person paid to pass judgment on food in this town. For instance, anonymity — or at least the attempt to conceal one’s identity — has been part of The Post food critic’s guiding philosophy for as long as Tom Sietsema can recall, to the 1970s and perhaps earlier.
“Part of me envies her,” Sietsema tells All We Can Eat. “My work life would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to try to eat under the radar anymore. But I still think there’s value in at least aiming for anonymity, something the primary restaurant critic of The Post has practiced seemingly forever. With anonymity, there’s always the element of surprise working in a critic’s favor.”
The practice also breaks from the recent past at Washington City Paper, where the previous Young & Hungry columnists (including yours truly) tried to maintain some shred of anonymity, even while cranking out reported food stories that often required face time with chefs and restaurateurs. (Trust me, it was a dual approach that did not help with remaining anonymous.)
Sidman’s approach to the job, however, may veer away from the traditional columnist/reviewer role, if Schaffer’s internal e-mail is any indication.
“When we interviewed her, I was particularly impressed with her not being hung up in the old-school, Voice of God restaurant reviewer model of food writing, instead producing journalism for a world where outlets compete to break news, make provocative arguments, and deliver conceptual scoops to a readership that’s more engaged with food than ever,” Schaffer wrote. “Here’s hoping she can help turn Y&H into the Loose Lips of culinary D.C.”
In an e-mail exchange with Schaffer this afternoon, I asked him about the decision to take the mask off his new Young & Hungry hire. Here’s his response:
There are a bunch of different ways to be a food writer, and I’m essentially agnostic between them: What I wanted in a hire was someone who could dive deeply into the world of food and write compelling stories about it. There are some awesome journalists who’ve done this really well while remaining anonymous. They’re following the model where the food writer does reviews for the average diner, and need to be anonymous in order to ensure that they’re getting the same treatment as everyone else. On the other hand, there are some equally stellar food journalists who’ve focused more on the reporter and feature writer part of the job than on scientifically anonymous reviews. I’d have been just as happy with either model, but this one is Jessica’s preference. For whatever its worth, I think it makes a lot of sense given the way the food-media universe has changed in the age of Yelp. Once upon a time, the Young and Hungry writer produced a single food column each week, which lent itself to reviews; nowadays, the world is full of food opinion, and we’re also producing a blog that needs to also break news or engage with the food world in other ways. Still, we remain a publication where writers are encouraged to have and state their own opinions, so if she thinks someone’s calamari is lousy, she’ll be able to say so!
Schaffer reiterated that Y&H’s new non-anonymity is not a reflection of a paper that’s struggling and needs to cut its dining budget. “That wasn’t really an issue for us. I’m assuming Jessica is going to be eating out a lot, even if her work involves a smaller proportion of full-dress, multiple-visit reviews. She’s still expected to be someone who is intimately familiar with the D.C. dining scene, which requires chowing down at new places and old ones alike. That’s going to be expensive no matter what, but it’s something we regard as part of the basic cost of food journalism and are willing to pay for. One thing that won’t ever change is that we don’t want journalists accepting free stuff from the people they cover.”
Brett Anderson, a former Young & Hungry columnist who’s now the restaurant critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, understands the hassle of being anonymous. He also still believes in it.
“My take on anonymity? I wish I still enjoyed it to the extent I used to when I first moved here,” Anderson wrote via e-mail. “I live in a relatively small city, and after 11-plus years most of the people who’ve made it their business to know what I look like know what I look like. But I still think anonymity is worth trying to preserve if you’re working as a critic. If nothing else, anonymity makes eating out feel like less of a production or, if you prefer, less like work, which is sorta what it is when you eat out 8-10 meals a week. I maintain that a reviewer can still get a fair read on a restaurant where he/she is known and even getting his/her butt kissed. But I have to say the process would be less complicated if I felt 100% certain I was never being treated any differently than anybody else.”