In the dispute between Raleigh chef Scott Crawford and Indy Week dining critic Emma Laperruque, I believe both sides made mistakes.
Last month, Crawford, the acclaimed chef who owns Crawford and Son restaurant in Raleigh, declined to be reviewed by Laperruque and turned her away after she was spotted by staff and seated at a table. He cited her previous coverage as unfair and inflammatory.
Laperruque says she was doing her job but wrote about the incident on the Indy’s website: “Scott Crawford Refused to Sell Us a Plate of Food at Crawford and Son.”
Crawford then posted a response online, writing, “I do not believe Ms. Laperruque has the professional experience to review the restaurant.”
Good restaurant criticism can help elevate the dining scene, offering constructive feedback to chefs and helping consumers navigate which restaurants are worth their time and money. In this modern world of constant feedback via Yelp reviews, Instagram photos and Facebook posts, chefs can suffer from criticism fatigue, and pushing back against negative reviews occupies more and more of their time.
Still, it’s uncommon for it to happen with a professional critic, and it’s even more rare in the Triangle food community, which continues to draw national attention.
In 2010, Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila had her anonymity blown when a restaurateur snapped her photo, posted it online and refused to seat her. In 2014, Dallas Morning News reviewer Leslie Brenner endured a campaign by at least 10 restaurants refusing to take her money, a tactic intended to create an ethical conflict for her, over what chefs and owners say was her unfair rating system.
“It’s not so much a trend as something that happens from time to time,” said John Kessler, who lives in Chicago and who reviewed restaurants for more than 20 years, including at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “A feeling bubbles up in a town about a critic and somebody does something about it.”
This time it was Crawford, but I’m not persuaded it was the right decision. If he had let her dine that night and suffered a negative review, he could have then spoken out about what he considered unfair coverage. Then the debate would have focused on her review, qualifications and professionalism and not his refusal.
Instead, he pre-emptively declined the review, which may have been a positive one. Now we won’t know.
While Crawford says he was trying to protect his staff, I believe anyone who goes to work for that high-profile a chef should understand that more scrutiny comes with the job. Crawford is a four-time James Beard semifinalist and came from the world of luxury hotel and resort dining, including The Umstead in Cary. Diners and critics are bound to bring high expectations to any dining experience offered by Crawford and his staff.
When it comes to criticizing a fellow writer, I remind myself that I have on occasion written flawed stories, which still make me wince today. Those stories negatively affected people’s lives and institutions, and the weight of that has stayed with me and, I hope, has made me a better, more careful reporter.
I believe Laperruque crossed a line when she compared this incident to something said by President Trump’s controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon, who blasted the media last week. She wrote: “To what extent should the media, as Stephen Bannon puts it, ‘Keep its mouth shut’? And who does that serve? Who benefits from training your staff to ‘catch’ a critic, to refuse her service, to throw her out? Is this good business? Or hospitality?”
In interviews this week, both Laperruque and her boss, Brian Howe, Indy Week’s managing arts and culture editor, defended the comparison, citing the current atmosphere of critical media suppression. “I think it would have been myopic to not give that parallel,” Howe said. “I judged it was an important theme to the piece.”
Really? I’m sorry, but to equate Crawford’s actions to Bannon’s is beyond the pale – especially given the fact that Crawford was not given the opportunity to explain his decision in the story about his refusal.
Fairness is a bedrock of journalism, including restaurant criticism. The Food Critics Guidelines from the Association of Food Journalists state: “Negative reviews are fine, as long as they’re accurate and fair. Critics must always be conscious that they are dealing with people’s livelihoods.”
Journalists, like this critic, are served by understanding the weight of their responsibility. And, chefs, too, must understand that they set a tone in all they do, not just with the food they serve.