Jonathan Gold revives critic anonymity debate

Flickr/Mark Sebastian

Jonathan Gold -- the only restaurant critic ever to receive a Pulitzer Prize -- yesterday “dropp(ed) the charade of anonymity,” as his employer put it in a caption accompanying a video of him in conversation with a fellow L.A. Times food writer.

Very few people who keep up with food culture are likely to be surprised by Gold’s appearance: His fleshy face, framed by thin, flaxen shoulder-length hair that sprouts from around his temples, has been familiar since before Instagram was invented. Still, the Times is promoting Gold’s decision to go public as big news, perhaps because – in fine Hollywood fashion – he’s the subject of a documentary looking to make a splash at Sundance next week. It makes good sense for Gold to drum up a little extra publicity beforehand, and to free himself up to make the talk show rounds without a dinosaur mask.

What I don’t understand, though, is the characterization of anonymity as a “charade.” I’m familiar with the weird dance that Gold describes as “pretending not to notice that a restaurant staff is pretending not to notice me noticing them noticing me.” (I was awfully fond of the way the situation was handled at The Drawing Room, where I once dropped by while off-the-clock: A manager told me he knew who I was; knew I didn’t like to be fussed over and wished me a pleasant evening.) But I don’t think the contrived dynamic undercuts the purpose of anonymity, or makes its primary tenets fraudulent.

At the end of the L.A. Times video, Gold sums up the ultimate significance of his decision by saying that when people say “hello, Jonathan,” he can say hello back. I totally get that. But I think the general public will instead hear the message that anonymity doesn’t matter. I think it matters a great deal, but I define anonymity through actions, not appearance.

This morning I tweeted a link to a short essay on anonymity I posted on Aug. 21, 2013, about a week after I moved here. My guess is it was received skeptically then, since Charleston doesn’t exactly nurture aloofness: It’s long been common practice for food writers to make friends with restaurant owners, chefs and publicists. I’ve taken a different approach.

I’m reprinting the original essay here, since I stand by everything in it – including the call for comments, because there’s nothing saying anonymity is the opposite of availability. Feel free to get in touch anytime.

Features editor Teresa Taylor was kind enough to conduct a very comprehensive Q-and-A session with me, so you’ll find more than you ever needed to know about me in today’s food section: I’d wager I’ve taken road trips with folks who couldn’t tell you what my mother served for Thursday suppers (taco salad) or my primary form of transportation (a 2009 Trek Soho.)

What the column doesn’t include, though, is a picture of me. Via Twitter, we immediately heard back from a reader who wondered why. Since I made a point of stressing openness and transparency in my responses, he wrote, why not put my picture out for all to see? It’s a legitimate question, and one which deserves more than a 140-character answer.

It’s a truism today that there’s no such thing as anonymity. Eater’s published my photo so many times that when I’m meeting someone for the first time, I spare them the descriptions of my hair color and height, suggesting they just pull up my picture on Google beforehand.

If anonymous means nobody knows what I look like, I haven’t been anonymous for years – and neither has any other critic of note. But equating anonymity with invisibility is a very narrow definition of anonymity indeed. Anonymity has much more to do with actions than appearance: It demands a kind of wallflower mindset. When critics practice anonymity, it doesn’t mean they live in a guarded turret and run errands in disguise. Rather, it means they dine under assumed names; avoid fraternizing with industry types; rarely attend organized dinners and never make a spectacle of themselves.

“Anonymous” isn’t the perfect word for such behavior: Maybe it’s better to think of serious critics as “aloof.” The internet may threaten anonymity, but it can’t do much to overpower aloofness.

In Judaism, there’s a teaching which says you should carry a note in your right pocket reading “The world was created for my sake” and a note in your left pocket reading “I am but dust and ashes.” Although the rabbis didn’t specifically comment on food criticism, I’m pretty sure the pocket lesson’s applicable here. There’s no shortage of glitz and gifts in the food world, as many bloggers have discovered: It’s frighteningly easy for writers to skate from one lavish dinner to another, and to believe they’re the center of the dining universe. Anonymity -- or whatever we choose to call it -- is a constant nudge toward the humility needed to properly cover restaurants.

As for my anonymity, I don’t foresee any difficulties in shunning free food and drink or using aliases, but imagine I’ll end up interacting with chefs and bartenders far more than I ever did in Seattle. I think that’s OK: The goal of dining incognito is to replicate the experience of the average customer, and I can’t imagine there are too many customers in Charleston who don’t know somebody in the restaurant when they go out to eat.

Still, I plan to maintain my professional distance and to refrain from publishing my photo. I will occasionally participate in public events – a critic’s goal is to stimulate conversation, so I don’t have any quarrel with critics appearing on panels, giving interviews, judging contests or attending events designed to inspire or inform – but it strikes me as unseemly to broadcast my photo, since that looks to me like a plea for preferential treatment.

I’m so glad @glitterisgone posed the photo question. One of the reasons I don’t live in a turret is I really enjoy trading tips and ideas with readers. Feel free to get in touch anytime with your questions, suggestions or other feedback; I’m at (843)937-5560, or hraskin@postandcourier.com.