New York – How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Pete Wells, The Times’s restaurant critic, discussed the tech he is using.
How has tech transformed the world of dining?
There are lots of incremental, behind-the-scenes changes that affect restaurants more than consumers, such as more sophisticated reservation systems and point-of-sale software, but I think the most powerful, sweeping change has come from digital photography hooked up to the internet. Photography is now the main way we communicate about restaurant cooking. As a word guy I hate to say this, but it’s true.
I wrote an essay about this a few years ago, when the outlines of the new world were just coming into view, and it’s much more clear now. At the time, restaurant designers were just starting to think about lighting the dining room so people could take better pictures for Instagram. Now they talk openly about it, and you see it everywhere. It’s the thing that killed off the last trend in lighting, those amber-colored dangling Edison bulbs.
Now everybody is installing pin spots in the ceiling pointing straight down at the table, which is why you see all these very sharp and high-contrast pictures of plates on Instagram. The restaurants are doing this because it’s largely free marketing. (Some Instagrammers are so popular that restaurants will invite them in for a comped meal, so it’s not entirely free.) I was told that one major restaurant publicity firm in New York has a full-time employee who does nothing but help restaurants with Instagram.
This solves one of the main problems that restaurants used to have in the days when “old” media was the only game in town: How do you keep people talking about your place after the initial buzz dies down?
Besides the marketing, there are creative implications. For one thing, chefs are much more focused now on sending out food that photographs well. So I end up eating a lot of flowers and leaves that don’t really taste like much but make the plate more colorful, because most cooked food is brown. Ditto all the boards and slates and rocks that are being asked to stand in for plates.
It has also sped up the rate at which ideas about food travel from one place to another. Chefs don’t just use photography for marketing. They are also documenting their work for their peers; you see this in the way René Redzepi in Copenhagen uses Instagram. It’s one reason his style has spread around the world in the span of just a few years.
And how has it changed the way you do your job? What are the pros and cons?
The best thing about having everybody take pictures of food is that I can do it without giving myself away. I used to be really self-conscious when I took out my phone; I’d run to the restroom and take surreptitious notes in the stall. Now I just snap away all night long, and I look like everybody else. And photography is the first stage of my note-taking now. After I get home I reconstruct my impressions of the meal, starting with my pictures of my food and the menu. When I started this job, a former critic advised me to steal menus when I could get away with it, and that’s completely unnecessary now.
What’s your opinion on Yelp, where everyone is a wannabe food critic?
I probably look at Yelp more than some other critics because I’m convinced there’s valuable information in there. The hard part is extracting it from all the useless stuff, which is what most people in food media see when they look at Yelp.
The basic problem is that Yelp was built to reward frequent posting rather than knowledge or insight or expertise. And yet there are people on Yelp who know a lot about food and eat around and have a pretty solid basis for comparison. I find that Yelp is most useful with Korean, Chinese and Japanese food, because, for a number of reasons, there tend to be a lot of Yelpers who know those cuisines pretty well.
How do you feel about delivery apps like Instacart, Caviar or UberEats? Do you use them much?
I don’t. I almost never eat at home, and when I do, I want to cook. I did use Caviar in the context of a restaurant review a few weeks ago and was pretty happy with how well it worked.
Sites like Yelp give people plenty of information about restaurants. Yet many restaurants still have their own websites. Is this necessary?
The most valuable thing a restaurant can do on its website is post the current menu and drinks lists, with prices. All the other data you might want, and there’s not really very much, can be served up much more efficiently by Google, although I still think website designers who don’t put the restaurant’s address and phone number and hours right on the home page should be sued for malpractice.
As our food critic, you have to stay unrecognized when you try new restaurants. How do you do that in an era that demands us to sacrifice privacy on the internet?
This isn’t a major issue. People are always surprised when I say that, but it’s one of the things that has been least affected by technology.
Before we had digital photographs, restaurants would get their hands on some old head shot of the critic from a book jacket or something — Ruth Reichl, William Grimes and Frank Bruni had all written books before they were restaurant critics — and then photocopy it and share it with all their friends in the business. I remember, in the 1990s, a friend who worked as a waiter showing me a picture of Ruth, who was the critic at the time. It was probably a 15th-generation photocopy, but you could still recognize her.
Now the fidelity and resolution are higher, but the picture of me that most restaurants seem to have on their wall is about 10 years old. There are a few more recent shots, taken across a dining room while I was eating, that are in circulation, but they’re pretty terrible. My friends know they’re not supposed to put pictures of me on Facebook. I don’t take selfies, but I probably wouldn’t be a selfie guy even if I had another job.
Most of the time when I’m recognized it’s because somebody is working in that restaurant who waited on me in another place I’ve reviewed. I don’t get caught by technology; I get caught by human memory. It’s sort of reassuring, I guess.
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