An Open Letter to Josh Ozersky

Categories: My Rant, Sietsema

Dear Josh:

You and I have known each other for years, and I've always regarded you as a knowledgeable and sometimes even scholarly observer of the culinary scene.

But I found your piece ("Great Wedding Food: Tips from a Newly Married Critic") in last week's Time magazine disturbing, and felt the need to ask a few questions to clarify what actually happened. The column concerns your wedding, and no one could be happier than me that you finally found a love match. It's the way you went about catering the affair and then writing about it that raises red flags.

Normally, according to the Wedding Association of America, the average cost of a wedding banquet is $82 per person. Assuming 150 people attended your nuptials (again, an average), that would bring the cost to about $12,000. But you didn't want to hire any old caterer; you wanted the job done by celebrity chefs. That's akin to having the Archbishop of Canterbury pronounce your wedding vows. While it's impossible to put a price tag on, say, that lasagna made by three-star chef Michael White of Alto, Marea, and Convivio, I think it would normally cost a bundle.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say that, with the added value of celebrity chefs, the banquet would cost at least $24,000. And that's not counting the rooftop space provided by Jeffrey Chodorow, one of the city's most controversial restaurateurs.

You don't make clear in the article how or if you paid for all this booty. Nowhere in the article does it say, "I paid the chefs fair price for the services and products they provided, and Jeffrey Chodorow for the place where the banquet was held," which is what a journalist who acquired these services and then wrote about them should have done.

Why is this a problem? Well, leaving open the possibility that you accepted free food without acknowledging it, and then praising the food to the skies -- as you praised it -- looks bad. One of the assumptions the reader might make is that you'd promised these chefs, many of whom do high-end catering and expect big bucks for it, to mention them in your magazine column. If you did, I would think Time would take a dim view of that.

Such a mention represents extremely valuable publicity for these chefs, especially since it reaches millions of readers who are not New York food-scene insiders. Your piece contains glowing descriptions of each item served, with extravagant praise for every chef. While it would normally be enough to applaud the food in general and single out a dish or two, you seem to have written about everything and everyone.

It's hard for me to believe these extremely busy people, who often cater fancy affairs for a living, would simply volunteer to do the catering with nothing in return. Do you see the sorts of questions your piece naturally engenders? You even extolled a Jeffrey Chodorow restaurant -- Red Farm -- that hasn't opened yet. Launching his pending establishment via a glowing mention in Time seems like a favor he doesn't really deserve, especially since no one has eaten there yet, making it impossible to form an opinion.

The most painful part of the article for me is the headline, in which you declare yourself a food critic. Since the function of a critic, anonymous or not, is to eat food and render an unbiased opinion, you seem to have failed on that account with your unstinting praise for your own wedding banquet. And remember, you're addressing literally millions of uninitiated readers, and giving them the false impression that food journalism operates via palsy-walsy contacts among chefs and the journalists who write about them.

There are other problems with the piece. You unfairly malign caterers, seemingly oblivious that many caterers are talented cooks. Also, the piece is couched as a set of "tips" to the readers as to how they should cater their own affairs. That's useless advice, since virtually none of them could ask a gang of chefs to cook their wedding meal, and probably couldn't afford it if they did. As a fellow food journalist noted, "It's really a 'let them eat cake' kind of move."

I'm hoping you'll respond and convince me that you paid full price for all this gastronomic firepower, and didn't receive it for free without making a disclosure. Or maybe you can find some other way to convince me that there isn't something sleazy going on here, even though your article appeared in the pages of Time, which normally operates according to strict journalistic standards.

And by the way, your line "most foods are better when reheated" is a bunch of hooey. If you believe that, Josh, I've got a bridge to sell you.

Sincerely,

Robert


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