March 12th, 2013 | Martin Cizmar Food & Drink | Posted In: News

Can You Trust a Chef to Write About Food?

sheerfest-clare-gordon
Chefs can be great food writers: They certainly know the product, the players and the trade. If they’ve got a way with words, they can be a joy to read. But chefs don’t—can’t—have objectivity. They have allies and enemies. They owe favors. They too often see things through the lens of their own career.

Or so it seems to me.

Which is why something in a Portland Mercury blog post caught my eye yesterday: Clare Gordon, food writer, wrote to endorse a wine event at the Woodsman Tavern. It was only a mention, and buried in a post about other related events. But it did not mention that Clare Gordon, pastry chef, works at the Woodsman’s sister restaurant, Ava Genes, also owned by Duane "Stumptown" Sorenson.

While there was no disclosure statement on the original Sherryfest post (see above), Merc editor Steve Humphrey later added one, telling me the omission was “an oversight on our part.”

Gordon, for her part, said that “while a disclaimer may have been appropriate, I don't think it was necessary to the integrity of my post.”

“I consider myself to be a food writer," she continued. "The Mercury has given me my first opportunity in the field, and I try very hard to navigate the ethics involved in working and writing about the restaurant industry—I'm not infallible, certainly, but I feel I've done a pretty good job. I also check in with my editors when I feel there may be a conflict of interest, but generally they trust my judgement,” she wrote. “I consider every single mention I make of anyone I know and/or have worked with in my career in portland—I'm sorry you disagreed with the ethics of my mention of the Woodsman Tavern's involvement in Sherryfest, but I argue that not describing the dinner as one of the major parts of said event would be a blatant omission... I am still learning the trade and forming my own sense of journalistic responsibility, and appreciate a certain amount of understanding as I do so. “

And just so it’s clear I’m not picking on a young writer: I'd argue that David Sarasohn, a senior Oregonian editorial writer who has long dabbled in restaurant criticism, also skirted the ethical line in his review of Ava Genes. In that review Sarasohn swooned for Gordon’s pastries without mentioning his paper’s connection to her father, who writes for the O. (Sarasohn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

“Clare Gordon's desserts make major waves,” he wrote. “From swooningly creamy gelato that vividly embodies flavors like cherry and espresso, the list goes lighter in body but no less intense in impact with chocolate and other sorbettos. Gordon's ethereally silken panna cotta with pine cone syrup can remind you that maple also comes from a tree, while a textbook lemon torte with a rich crust barely contains its tart, oozy filling.”

Sarasohn did not mention that Gordon’s father, Ken, is an Oregonian food columnist who has contributed to the paper for more than a year. Did the critic take special note of the desserts made by the daughter of his colleague? It’s hard to say, though he doesn't typically pay so much attention to desserts.

And just so it’s clear just how tangled this web gets: Gordon, the Merc writer, daughter of Ken, the Oregonian writer, is the ex-business partner of former WW writer Nick Zukin and current WW writer Michael C. Zusman. Neither Zukin or Zusman has an active stake in the restaurant now. Michael did not write about food for WW while he owned a share of any restaurant. He does not write about any restaurant he is connected to. He was not invited to our bagel taste-off. Yet I’ve been asked about his role by people who wonder how straight we play these things.

The answer: as straight as we know how. Nick, for example, is a good writer with a deep well of specialized knowledge on several tough-to-crack world cuisines and yet you haven’t seen his byline here in almost two years. Why? Because it’s just too damned hard to be sure he has no conflicts of interest. For my taste, anyway. Would he ignore Emily's, the pho shop down the block from Mi Mero Mole, because it's competition? Or is it just not good?

That gives me a headache. But maybe I’m being too much of an obnoxious journalism major.

So, back to my question from the headline: Can you trust a chef to write about food?

Well, can you?
 
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