For months, Alison Cook, restaurant critic for the Houston Chronicle, avoided dining at Aqui, the expansive Southeast Asian concept created by Paul Qui, a celebrated chef with a James Beard Award and a “Top Chef” victory on his résumé. Part of her delay had to do with Hurricane Harvey, which crippled America’s fourth-largest city for weeks, and part it had to do with Qui himself.
The Austin-based chef had been arrested in March 2016 for misdemeanor charges of assault and unlawful restraint after Qui had an argument with his girlfriend that turned violent. The details of the incident are at once stomach-churning and heart-wrenching: An East Austin apartment was in disarray, according to the arrest affidavit. The chef had blood on his face, arms, legs and clothing. Qui’s girlfriend was inside the apartment, clutching her small child.
Qui denied the assault charges in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman, but he also said he would be checking himself into rehab. Several months later, Qui acknowledged to the Austin newspaper that he was coming to grips with a drug addiction.
“I feel like people should believe what they want to believe,” Qui told reporter Matthew Odam for the American-Statesman. “But I guarantee this will never happen again.”
Cook wrestled with all this information, and more, as she pondered how to approach her review of Aqui — or even whether to review Aqui. The critic ultimately elected to write about the place, although her editors decided at the last minute to hold the four-star review until after a feature story about Qui was published and after they knew the start date of his trial, which had been scheduled to begin Monday but was postponed. Cook’s editors always intended to run the review, said Jody Schmal, the Chronicle’s food and travel editor.
“A lot of my thinking is based on my increasing conviction and realization that restaurants are very complex organisms,” Cook told The Washington Post about her decision to review Aqui. “They’re not just one guy. . . . They involve lots and lots of people. I need to keep those people in mind.”
In the past several months, reporters across the country have not just exposed chefs and restaurateurs who have assaulted and harassed women inside (and outside) the workplace, but they have forced their food critic colleagues to rethink their jobs. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, food critics are considering more than just the small plates, the service and the sleek ambiance when reviewing a restaurant: They are weighing the baggage of individual chefs and owners who have been charged or accused of serious wrongdoing.
When the time comes, how will critics address the sexual harassment scandals of superstar chef Mario Batali or restaurateur Ken Friedman in Manhattan? Or those of chef and restaurateur John Besh in New Orleans? Or those of chef and restaurateur Charlie Hallowell in Oakland? Or the assault charges against Qui? Should such accusations factor into a review and a critic’s assessment? Or should they, in fact, be grounds for nixing a review altogether to prevent the further glorification of chefs who perhaps no longer deserve it?
And what about the allegedly complicit behavior of people such as April Bloomfield, the acclaimed chef and Friedman’s business partner at the Spotted Pig in New York, where a third-floor space was nicknamed the “rape room”? Do their behaviors impact a critic’s perceptions? Do the restaurants get a pass if the accused person has stepped away from daily operations, as Besh has in New Orleans, even though he still owns the business?
Critics from New York to Los Angeles are fumbling with these questions. Critics of the food critics, of course, say the reviewers aren’t even entertaining the right question in the first place and need to ask themselves how they’ve contributed to this abusive patriarchy in American restaurants.
“I don’t have much sympathy for the ‘moral quandary’ of the food critic — or the career food writer who covers the restaurant scene,” emailed author, TV personality and provocateur Anthony Bourdain. “Because chances are, in this very small pond, where ‘access’ is often so important, the overwhelming likelihood is that they have known and heard and observed things and kept silent. They, as much as anyone, are responsible for creating and sustaining a Hollywood-style star system that has been almost entirely male.
“So many other factors other than the merits of the food and service have influenced supposedly impartial restaurant reviews for so long that the question is almost ludicrous,” Bourdain added. “Whatever the new parameters are will be and should be decided by women. The men have clearly s— the bed.”
A sea change is evident even on the awards circuit. The James Beard Foundation, the group that bestows the hospitality industry’s coveted Beard Awards, issued a statement to judges, who include influential food critics and writers. The statement reads as a de facto guideline for those who select the semifinalists, finalists and winners of the Beard Awards.
“When considering the candidacy of a person or restaurant, bear in mind that award winners are held up as role models,” the statement reads, in part. “If you have concerns about a chef, restaurateur or beverage professional, or about the culture around a restaurant or restaurant group, leave the person or business out of your nominations.”
Going by comments on stories and on social media, a sizable segment of the dining public wouldn’t care if they never heard about Batali again, or any of the other alleged offenders. But restaurant critics, and their editors, say it can be tricky to inject moral judgments into the basic decision-making of what to cover. Would a writer refuse to cover a Bill Cosby stand-up show because of the many sexual assault allegations against the comedian? No, but the context of his legal and personal problems would inform such a review.
Bon Appétit took a stab at inserting a character standard into its recent list of Best New Restaurants in America. The editors took into account not “just the food and the vibe but whether or not the chefs and owners seem like s—heads,” senior projects editor Julia Kramer wrote in a December essay titled, “Dear Male Chefs: Talk Less.” She and Andrew Knowlton, the magazine’s deputy editor, selected this year’s winners.
Bon Appétit’s list, like all restaurant criticism, is a subjective exercise. So the magazine’s definition of “s—head” is unlikely to be a universally accepted one — is that even possible? — but a personal one based on behaviors that the critics deem boorish or reprehensible. Craig LaBan, restaurant critic and drink columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, found both Bon Appétit’s “s—head” meter and the Beard Foundation’s “concerns” too arbitrary for his tastes, possibly even dangerous if exercised with no caution and standards.
“[S]hort of any hard evidence, the proposition of judging a restaurant or chef on anything other than the dining experience itself is a dodgy pursuit fraught with blurry borders,” LaBan wrote last week. “We definitely don’t want known sexual abusers winning Beard awards. But the door to those other feelings marked ‘concerns’ has suddenly been opened a crack.”
LaBan’s essay received support from a few fellow critics, including Pete Wells at the New York Times, but he also ran into a stone wall of opposition. Her name is Helen Rosner, former executive editor at Eater who recently was hired as a national food correspondent for the New Yorker. Rosner dismantled LaBan’s essay in a thunderous tweetstorm, culminating (at least in LaBan’s mind) with an accusation that the Philly critic was just trying to protect himself.
LaBan didn’t engage on Twitter with Rosner, but when contacted by The Post, he denied the charges.
“I don’t think that’s it at all,” LaBan said. “I’m trying to make sense of where we fit into this and how we move forward. . . . I’ve never shied away from dealing with difficult things. I think we’re trying to figure out our role in this.”
Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Los Angeles Times, recently reviewed the Hearth & Hound, a new Hollywood restaurant owned by Friedman and Bloomfield. Gold’s first visit to the vegetable-centric restaurant came shortly after the New York Times reported allegations that Friedman sexually harassed staff.
“It was hard to avoid the idea that to dine there was in some way to endorse the supposed reprehensible acts of Friedman, who is on an indefinite leave from his restaurants,” Gold wrote. He then acknowledged Bloomfield’s outsize influence on American gastronomy and noted her grace at packing large flavors into small packages.
What followed was a series of questions in the middle of a review. Questions almost impossible to answer with anything approaching certainty, such as “If you boycott the Hearth & the Hound to express your distaste for Friedman’s alleged acts, are you silencing an important woman’s voice?”
“I think it may be more important that Bloomfield’s talent is heard,” Gold concluded. “But I’m a white dude — this line is not mine to draw. And whichever side of the question you lean toward, it is hard not to feel queasy at the result.”
Both Cook and Gold did what other editors or critics say they plan to do with future reviews that delve into restaurants with a troubled past: They will lay out the details of the allegations. They will provide context on why they opted to review the place. They will not tell readers how to feel about the situation.
Sam Sifton, the former New York Times restaurant critic who serves as the paper’s food editor, said there’s a journalistic obligation to cover the restaurant scene in all its messiness. Imagine, Sifton said, that one of these restaurants owned by a serial harasser rejuvenates itself and becomes a major gastronomic attraction in New York. “I want to go there and figure out what’s going on,” Sifton said.
In the end, Sifton said, critics are journalists, too, not Supreme Court judges. They don’t set precedents about Who Will Be Reviewed, which will then be followed by every other critic in the land. The critic’s role, Sifton said, is to “try to figure out what . . . we’re supposed to think as consumers” about a restaurant.
“We’ll be wrestling with these things in real time as we have to,” he said.
Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune and the reporter behind the Besh investigation, hasn’t yet had to re-review a Besh restaurant since Anderson first reported that 25 current and former employees alleged sexual harassment at the chef’s establishments. But Anderson did have to update his list of the top 10 restaurants in New Orleans, only weeks after his October exposé on Besh. None of the chef’s restaurants made the cut, even though they had in the past.
But Anderson said he was following the paper’s protocol: When a restaurant experiences a major change — say, a new chef — the critic must wait at least six weeks before setting foot in the dining room. Those standards, Anderson said, applied to Besh’s restaurants, where there has been a major management reshuffle.
The story continues to unfold. Anderson said he’s still following open lawsuits. And he’s not sure how he will factor all this information into a review on the day that he finally decides to reassess a Besh restaurant. However it shakes out, Anderson said he expects to rely on a basic tenet of journalism:
“We’re in the business of reporting on the truth,” he said, “and that includes restaurant reviews.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Houston Chronicle editors wanted to review the verdict in Paul Qui’s upcoming trial before moving forward with a review of his new restaurant. In fact, the editors say they always intended to publish the review, but wanted to wait until they published a feature story about Qui and until they learned the date of his trial. This version has been updated.