The common wisdom is to never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. But Raleigh chef Scott Crawford did just that when he refused to serve the Indy Week’s restaurant critic, Emma Laperruque, at his Crawford and Son restaurant.
The reaction across the Triangle has been divided. Some food and beverage folks cheered Crawford’s decision to push back against a critic whose work they say is unprofessional and unfair. Others said Crawford seemed unable to handle the criticism that comes with being a high-profile chef.
“A restaurateur is allowed to refuse service to anyone, but most people think it’s bad form to do this,” said John Kessler, who reviewed restaurants for more than 20 years, including at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In that job, Kessler favorably reviewed Crawford years ago when the chef was at The Cloister at Sea Island.
Crawford, 44, a four-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist for best chef Southeast, is upset over Laperruque’s previous coverage of his former restaurant, Standard Foods. Crawford opened Standard Foods with developer John Holmes in fall 2015. Five months later, Crawford left to open Crawford and Son a few blocks away.
That’s where Laperruque, 24, went to dine on Jan. 21. Laperruque, an engaging, conversational writer, was recently named Indy Week’s sole restaurant critic, a formal role that hadn’t existed before. The Hamilton College graduate, who brings her kitchen experience at Durham’s Scratch bakery and Raleigh’s Kimbap Cafe to inform her criticism, has also written for Food52 website and Our State magazine.
With Laperruque’s new role, Indy Week’s part-time food editor Victoria Bouloubasis said they formalized rules for dining reviews. The weekly paper pays for up to three meals, and the restaurant has to have been open two months before the critic visits.
Dining anonymously, as many critics try to do, was going to be a challenge for Laperruque, who has grown up in a digital age. Photos of her are easily found online via Google image searches. Her Facebook profile photo shows her running the 2016 Chicago marathon.
While Laperruque made the Crawford and Son reservation under her partner’s name, the waitstaff spotted her. Crawford informed her that he did not want to be reviewed. In an interview Wednesday, Laperruque described the incident as “uncomfortable but cordial.”
She 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.”
Laperruque defended herself: “I stand by my work. I feel qualified to do this job. My editors feel the same way.”
Crawford’s beef with Laperruque dates to her January 2016 review of Standard Foods, which she found to be a great concept but producing inconsistent results. In an interview this week, Crawford said he’s not afraid of criticism and has been reviewed by hundreds of critics during his 20-year career. However, Crawford took issue with how his staff was depicted in Laperruque’s review, specifically this sentence: “Like most of the staff, the bartender was young and stylish, in a plaid-shirt-meets-tattoo-sleeve-meets-Apple Watch way.”
“I vividly remember how a valued team member felt about the way he was written about in that review,” Crawford said. “He came to me that day concerned he had affected the outcome of the review.... It was because of the way he looked, his personal appearance, his watch – none of which affected the way he served his guests.”
Laperruque countered that she described the bartender to convey the restaurant’s style. “A good review is not just a catalog of dishes or how successful they were,” she said. “It’s also a visual depiction of a restaurant — its setting, it’s the culture they create.”
Bouloubasis, who herself grew up in a restaurant family, added, “This is a hip, modern person in a hip, modern restaurant.”
Last month, Laperruque published a second review of the revamped Standard Foods with a new culinary team. The headline: “Can the Reopened Standard Foods Thrive Without Its Star Chef?” Her answer: Yes and the food was better without Crawford.
In that review, Laperruque referenced the breakup of the original partnership between Crawford and Holmes, who in interviews had steered clear of going into details and spoke highly of each other. She wrote: “Was the original Standard Foods really about the farmers and producers and butchers and bakers and cooks and you and me, as it claimed? Or was it about Crawford and Crawford and Crawford? Was that the iceberg that sunk the ship?”
Again, Crawford was not pleased.
“This was followed by later coverage using inflammatory language when talking about my time and exit from Standard Foods,” he said. “At that point, I decided not to expose my staff to that kind of writer.”
Crawford noted that Laperruque has never interviewed him. Several other chefs and restaurant owners say they also were not contacted before Laperruque’s reviews were published.
“She never gave us a phone call for research or fact checking. I have never experienced that in my life,” said Gray Brooks, who owns Durham’s Pizzeria Toro and who tangled with Indy Week over the original name for his Littler restaurant in Durham.
Laperruque said she will call to fact check if needed but defended her practice of not interviewing chefs prior to publication. “I don’t think a chef’s voice has a place in a review,” she said. “It’s not a feature. It’s a review.”
Restaurant critics are varied in their practices. Some insist on anonymity; others do not. Some always call the chef or owner before publication for reporting purposes; others don’t find it necessary to do so all the time. Some give a heads up if the review is favorable so staff can prepare for increased business; others feel it is necessary to alert the chef or owner if the review is significantly more negative than expected to warn investors.
The News & Observer’s longtime restaurant critic, Greg Cox, dines anonymously, and the newspaper pays for his meals. He typically waits two months before he visits a restaurant, and he dines there at least twice before writing a review. He always alerts restaurants of upcoming reviews, after his anonymous visits. He interviews chefs about their backgrounds, cooking methods and ingredient sourcing.
Crawford’s choice to not serve a dining critic has certainly stirred up the Triangle’s food community. Debate appears to be starkly divided based on whose Facebook feed you’re reading.
Dean James of Hillsborough’s Bona Fide Sandwich Co., who also is a partner in The Wooden Nickel Pub and La Place in Hillsborough, applauded Crawford’s stance: “He’s trying to hold them to the standard that they project for themselves.”
Meanwhile, Scott Howell, who owns Nana’s and several other Durham restaurants, thinks Crawford made the wrong decision: “I think he should have paid attention to that table, gave them the best meal they’ve ever gotten, let them pay and leave.”