December 13, 2018, 22:58

James Beard, Paul Qui, and the Role of the Restaurant Critic in the Age of #MeToo |

James Beard, Paul Qui, and the Role of the Restaurant Critic in the Age of #MeToo |

In March of 2016, a year and a half before the Harvey Weinstein
revelations ignited the #MeToo movement, before Brett Anderson‘s
remarkable reporting at the New Orleans Times-Picayune exposed the
culture of sexual abuse in the kitchens of the restaurateur John Besh
(who has since apologized and stepped down from his company), the
celebrity chef Paul Qui was arrested at his home on charges of domestic
violence. Qui had for a long time been a golden boy of Austin, Texas, a
charismatic cook with an up-from-the-bootstraps backstory and a
mini-empire of perpetually mobbed restaurants. In 2012, he achieved
national fame when he competed on “Top Chef” and won. Now, according to
a police report, he was found at home in his underwear, blood on his
limbs and face; his girlfriend had a swollen jaw, with a cut and fresh
bruises on her arms, and her young son was present at the scene; blood
was smeared on the walls and floors; broken glass was everywhere. (Qui
has denied the assault charges.)

Qui’s arrest was a watershed of sorts for the restaurant industry.
Culinary stars had, in the past, tended to skate through P.R. crises
without much friction from the food media, and without lasting damage to
their reputations or their businesses. Also in 2016, the Napa Valley
celebrity chef Michael Chiarello was hit with a sexual-harassment
lawsuit by
a former employee and a class-action labor-violations suit by others;
the next year, he opened an “Eataly-style food emporium” that the San
Francisco Chronicle called “a compelling experience.” (In a statement, Chiarello called the lawsuits’ claims “unfounded,” and later settled the harassment suit.) In the case of an act as apparently gruesome as Qui’s, though, the people who write about food
for a living weren’t entirely sure what to do. In the year after his
arrest, Qui closed his namesake restaurant. But then he opened a new
one, in the same location, with a new name, Kuneho. So what could the
critics do except review it? The Austin Chronicle’s Melody Fury framed the
reopening as a play for public redemption, one that Qui ultimately
earned, in her view, through the capability of his kitchen: “The
question of whether Qui has redeemed himself lingered in my mind
throughout the meals. When focusing on the food alone, the answer was a
resounding ‘yes.’ ” In a glowing review in Texas Monthly, Patricia
Sharpe tripped a delicate minuet around the assault arrest, mentioning
only the chef’s “unfortunately well-publicized stint in rehab.”

It’s been less than a year since those reviews were published, but
today, in the midst of a massive cultural reckoning with gendered abuses
of power, they read differently. As stories of sexual harassment in
high-profile kitchens continue to spill forth, food writers and
journalists are facing a reckoning of our own: Why weren’t we addressing
these questions earlier? Why didn’t we do more? And how should we
approach knowledge of abuse moving forward? On Monday, the digital
food-media juggernaut Eater (where I used to work as an editor)
announced, in a newsletter, that its four food critics would no longer
review any restaurants affiliated with people who are, as the site’s
editor-in-chief, Amanda Kludt, put it to me in a phone call, “bad actors
with credible public accusations.” Restaurants owned by Mario Batali,
Besh, Chiarello, Qui, and others are also being scrubbed from the site’s
maps and will be off the Instagram rotation. In her announcement of the
new policy, Kludt wrote, “Why, with so much talent out there, with so
many compelling restaurants to cover, would you review the one veiled in
controversy? If you find yourself writing soul-searching paragraphs or
essays about why you’re reviewing a place before you even get into the
amuse[-bouche], maybe that’s a sign you shouldn’t be writing it.”

At publications without such blanket policies in place—which, so far, is
everywhere except Eater—critics are left to make tricky calls on their
own. The L.A. Times critic Jonathan Gold made one, for instance, in his recent review of the Hearth & Hound. The restaurant is co-owned by Ken Friedman, whose
years-long pattern of alleged sexual harassment and assault was
exposed in
a Times report in December, which also highlighted the complicity
of his business partner, the chef April Bloomfield, in allowing his
behavior to continue. (Friedman released an apology and went on an
indefinite leave from his restaurants; Bloomfield said in a statement, “I
feel we have let down our employees and for that I sincerely
apologize.”) In the weeks following the release of the Times piece,
the Hearth & Hound virtually disappeared, going from L.A.’s buzziest
newcomer to the subject of a veritable media blackout, with even its own
social-media channels going dark. “I have friends who refuse to set foot
in the place, and I respect their values. I think it may be more
important that Bloomfield’s talent is heard,” Gold wrote, of the Hearth
& Hound, looking to reconcile his distaste for management with his
appreciation for the restaurant’s excellent cod-roe toasts. “Whichever
side of the question you lean toward, it is hard not to feel queasy at
the result.”

Craig LaBan, the restaurant critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer,
expressed no such discomfort in a January 23rd essay titled “It’s Not My
Job to Pass Judgment on a Chef’s Character.” “I’m troubled by the notion
that now restaurant critics individually are expected to focus on a
dining experience, but also simultaneously make casual character
judgments before doling out reviews on a weekly basis,” he wrote. It’s
“a crazy notion,” he added, “to suggest that a professional diner, in
the course of their normal duties, can somehow look through a plate of
heirloom carrots and swirling sauces to see beyond to a dark heart at
the stove and foretell a future of abuse and personal destruction.” The
glibness of this argument quickly became clear even to LaBan. When I
spoke to him by phone last week, he acknowledged that expecting critics
to confront allegations of abuse is hardly the same as asking them to be
clairvoyant; as A. O. Scott put it in a recent essay about Woody
Allen, “No
judgment is ever without a moral dimension.” LaBan posited that the
current moment might be comparable to the beginnings of the
farm-to-table movement. “Over the years, we critics have subtly and
subconsciously promoted those people more than the people buying from
the Sysco truck,” he said. “It’s become part of our moral values. And
maybe we now have a new thing that’s part of restaurant culture, a new
moral value— I’m totally open to that.”

LaBan was writing from a purely hypothetical position—so far, no chefs
currently working in Philadelphia have been outed as abusers in their
personal lives or in their kitchens. Back in Texas, by contrast, the
problem of how to handle Paul Qui has collided directly with the demands
of the #MeToo moment. On February 5th—the scheduled date of Qui’s
trial, which at the last minute was postponed until May—the Web site of
the Houston Chronicle published a review by
its restaurant critic, Allison Cook, of Aqui, Qui’s newest restaurant
and his first in Houston. Qui was once covered regularly in national
food publications like Bon Appétit or Food & Wine. In the two
years since his arrest, those magazines haven’t mentioned him at all.
But Aqui, which opened in the summer, is the biggest opening in Houston
in years; barring a policy like Eater’s, the critic at the city’s major
paper has to say something.

In the end, Cook gave the restaurant four stars, the Chronicle’s highest
honor. The paper published the review in print on a Wednesday;
on Friday, it also published a long companion piece by Cook explaining
why she decided to review Aqui at all. ”Though nobody contends Qui’s
sins extended to the kind of systemic abuses now being exposed in some
kitchens,” she wrote, “he’s a reminder of poisoned male/female relations
at a time when sensibilities—including mine—are rubbed raw.” Out of
trepidation, Cook says, she waited four months after Aqui’s opening to
visit it—longer than she would normally wait to review a restaurant—and
when she finally did go she found the food “terrific,” the staff
radiating “intelligence and esprit de corps,” and Qui nowhere to be
found; according to his employees, he only comes into the restaurant
around once a week. Ultimately, Cook emphasized that her four stars are
an honor that belongs to Aqui’s chef de cuisine and pastry chef, and not
to Qui himself.

Does this reasoning hold up? In the Web version of her companion essay,
Cook linked out to an interview with Aqui’s pastry chef, Jill Bartolome,
who spoke about the rare opportunity that working at Aqui offered her.
“As a Southeast Asian woman, as a Filipino woman, to be surrounded by
food that I find familiar and to be surrounded by people who understand
this facet of my culinary experience is crazy,” she told the Web site
Chef’s Feed. “To say that I could find that in any other restaurant . . . I haven’t so far, and I’ve been doing this for about a
decade.” Perhaps this is the silver lining: no matter which approach
individual publications take in confronting abuse in the industry, the
culinary world will, I hope, be pushed to finally elevate more women and
minorities in an industry that has been historically hostile to both. On
Thursday, the James Beard Foundation, guided by a new set of “values,”
announced its semifinalists for the 2018 James Beard Awards. Jill
Bartolome made the list for Outstanding Pastry Chef, an individual
honor; in the Best New Restaurant category, both Aqui and the Hearth &
Hound were pointedly excluded.


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