Bon Appétit magazine on Tuesday debuted its list of the 50 restaurants in the running to be named its top new restaurant of the year. Among the buzzy newcomers is Carpenters Hall in Austin, lauded as “a way-more-than-a hotel restaurant” that offers a “plate-sized cutlet.”
Immediately, sharp-eyed readers identified the eatery as a venture associated with Andrew Knowlton, the former deputy editor of Bon Appétit who was a prominent face of the magazine for nearly two decades and for years was in charge of compiling the very list that now includes his own establishment. Knowlton, who stepped down from day-to-day work at the magazine last year, holds the title of editor-at-large.
Members of the food media quickly pounced, suggesting it was the kind of ethical breach that most news organizations take pains to avoid.
The magazine later appended an editor’s note to the write-up (a spokeswoman said it was added about an hour after the initial publication). “[Ed note: Andrew Knowlton, BA’s editor-at-large, is involved in the restaurant]” it reads.
Knowlton and his wife, Christina Skogly Knowlton, were hired as food and beverage consultants for the restaurant and the group that owns it, the hotel where it is situated, and other properties.
Hanna Raskin, the president of the Association of Food Journalists, said the inclusion of a restaurant with which the magazine has a close relationship is a clear ethical no-no — even with a disclosure. “It’s pretty traditional journalism ethics: Don’t write about your friends,” she said. The AFJ’s ethics code warns members of the media against conflicts of interest and about giving special treatment to pals.
She said that in her role as the food editor of the Post & Courier in Charleston, S.C., she considered Bon Appétit’s list “tainted” and would not write about it, something she might have done if not for the inclusion of Knowlton’s restaurant.
A Bon Appétit spokeswoman offered a fuller explanation of what she characterized as an arm’s-length process by which Carpenters Hall made the list. Knowlton “was not involved” in the creation of the list, she said in an interview with The Post. The decision to include his restaurant was made after Bon Appétit deputy editor Julia Kramer, who took over from Knowlton in spearheading the project, and other Bon Appétit editors dined there and determined it “met the criteria,” she added. The magazine’s editors evaluate restaurants around the country that have opened since May 2018 to find their top 10 favorites, a whittled-down list that will be announced next week.
Knowlton said in an interview that he had “zero say” in the list and that he doubted his involvement was a factor in the restaurant’s selection. “I feel like it’s more of a validation of what the [Carpenters Hall] team has done than me being associated with it,” he said. He said knew when Kramer and her colleagues were dining there but hadn’t expected anything. (The Bon Appétit spokeswoman said she doesn’t try to stay anonymous.)
The Bon Appétit spokeswoman suggested that it shouldn’t come as a shock that the venture with which Knowlton was involved would earn a spot on a list he knew so well.
“If you’ve been compiling the list for 10 years, you have a pretty good idea of what makes a good restaurant,” the spokeswoman added.
Knowlton was not contacted about the list until after the story was published, the spokeswoman said, as was true, she said, for the 49 other listees. (Knowlton said that this was true and that he was “surprised” at the recognition.)
Flagging the journalist-turned-restaurateur’s connection in the editor’s note was meant to provide transparency, the spokeswoman said, though she said she didn’t know why the disclosure wasn’t included initially. “Given that he’s on the masthead, being transparent was the intention,” she said.
Soleil Ho, the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, says that readers could still feel “like they’re being played” when they see the magazine touting an establishment run by an editor. Ho was one of the people who initially criticized the magazine on Twitter after the list was published.
“Then they should have explained all that,” she said, when given the Bon Appétit spokeswoman’s account. As a reader, “if it wasn’t an ethics breach, I would have wanted to know that. ”
A spot on the list isn’t just about bragging rights — it can be a huge financial boon for a young restaurant.
Genevieve Villamora, whose Washington hotspot Bad Saint was named the second-best restaurant on Bon Appétit’s 2016 list, says the accolade immediately changed things for the then-fledgling restaurant. “I don’t think there’s a way to overstate the effect that it can have on a restaurant,” she said. “It can totally transform your trajectory — no matter how you were doing before, after is a totally different universe.”
After the list was published, she said, lines for the no-reservations restaurant almost immediately began snaking around the block. Villamora said she couldn’t put a dollar figure on the impact but said the attention to the lists’ new restaurants comes during their make-or-break infancy stage. “For a restaurant, those are the tough days when you are getting your reputation established — whatever experience people have with you in those early days is crucial.”
Three years after being featured in the magazine, Villamora partly credits that exposure with Bad Saint’s success. “It put us on a different path than we would have been on. Of course, we’ve had ups and downs, like any other business, but we’ve been very steadily busy, and that is not the usual restaurant story,” she said. “Because we were in Bon Appétit, that has served as a buffer to what could have been more volatility.”
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