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An Unhealthy Level of Boosterism

August 22, 2013

Three months ago I did something naughty. Maybe you happened to catch the post, and maybe you didn’t. But I’m going to quickly rehash the important bit that got buried in the story about The Capital Region’s Good Side.

Here’s what I wrote [bold added for emphasis]:

The Capital Region is filled with what can sometimes be an unhealthy level of boosterism. One local food blog boasts the following on its masthead: “The Capital Region has a tremendous culinary scene, while at the same time, we are rich with sommeliers and even a smattering of mixologists. That needs to be recognized, appreciated and celebrated.“ No. It doesn’t. It’s improving. But one of the reasons Albany has a bad reputation for food is that far too many places over-promise and under-deliver.

I stand by this statement, and continue to believe that this kind of irrational enthusiasm–largely from restaurant industry insiders–is a big part of the problem.

The naughty part was that I passive aggressively called out a local blogger, without any links back, or any attempt to alert the author of the snipe. For those who didn’t Google it, the quote comes from MHA Innovations and its founder Michelle Hines Abram.

Well, turnabout is fair play. To be fair, the latest post on MHA Innovations doesn’t call me or the FLB out by name either, but it’s not hard to connect the dots. So my passive aggressive days are done. Now it’s time to settle this thing.

You can read Michelle’s story here in full. It’s long and a little circuitous. But I’ll pull out a few block quotes from the intro and conclusion and you may be able to recognize a few familiar themes.

The introduction to the post is a little oblique [bold added for emphasis]:

So what’s got me all in a lather now? It’s the way that people think about our Capital Region Food Scene right here in the Capital Region. I’m not talking about City-folk who think that Albany and Buffalo are both Upstate NY. I’m talking about the folks that are the self proclaimed local foodies. You know the ones I’m talking about.

I am loudly critical of the food scene in the region, and I know that Michelle considers me to be a blogger and not a journalist. I’m not a chef. And unlike DerryX I’ve never worked in my family’s deli. So by some accounts that could put me squarely in the derided “self proclaimed local foodies” category.

But it’s the conclusion that nails it for me. Remember that piece where I called out her blog? Well, in it I also suggested that I would take out of town guests for our unique regional specialties of mozzarella with melba, Fish Fry or mini hot dogs, before taking them to her beloved Yono’s. This is how Michelle’s piece ends:

The Capital Region has a Food Scene and it has nothing to do with mozzarella sticks and fish fry. I don’t call that unhealthy boosterism, I call that knowing what’s good.

Yeah. That’s my tag line too. And since she claims in the diatribe to read every post from every food blog in the region, I find it hard to believe that’s an accident. And then there’s the matter of that “unhealthy boosterism” part.

Like I said, turnabout is fair play. But did I mention she also didn’t approve my comment? Twice. Maybe someday she will and you can read my thoughts on the differences between a food scene and a food culture. Or maybe she won’t and I can share it with you here.

But today I really need to clarify the part about an unhealthy level of boosterism. Perhaps I can best explain it by means of addressing the plea Michelle gave to her readers at the end of the post:

What I really want to convey is that we’re lucky to be a part of an emerging food scene. It has layers and layers of talent that are growing every day. I wish the general public could experience it the way I do….Oh but wait, you can. It’s very simple, this is exactly what I do: Go out and dine. Dine at these restaurants, be adventurous, do it often.

No. No, they can’t. Chef’s put extra effort into the food they cook for their friends and colleagues. I know this first hand. One friend (who got his chops at some of the best restaurants in NYC) went above and beyond when I visited his place on Miami Beach. Another, who was a chef at Zuni in San Francisco treated us to off menu delights. And there are some chefs and restaurant owners locally who will graciously share something new or a dish that isn’t on the menu yet.

Whenever I’m aware that I’ve been identified in a restaurant, I have to evaluate the meal through a different lens. My hope is that every table will get the same attention to detail, but I cannot be certain.

That is why I was thrilled when Mrs. Fussy reported back that her anonymous visit to the Lucas Confectionery was just as great as my initial impressions. I generally try to keep a low profile, but I was compelled to interview Vic before the opening when I saw him restoring the antique Faema espresso machine.

Getting back to the matter at hand, It is also a little hard to take such adulation from a person who has such close ties to so many chefs in the region. Michelle apparently is involved in raising money for lots of charitable causes, and I have no interest in besmirching her or her good works. But it’s fair to say she has a vested interest in promoting her chef partners.

The funny thing about all of this is that at its heart, I totally agree that we’ve got an emerging food scene in the capital region. EMERGING. But to read her post, it makes it seem as if there’s an army of chefs doing great work. There aren’t. There are a small handful. Most of the food in the Capital Region is still overpriced for what it is. Not that it’s bad. But we can do better. We should do better. And I really wish there were more voices demanding for better.

For a city our size, we’re doing okay. It’s a vast improvement from where we were five years ago. But still, it’s nothing to brag about.

The reason why Michelle’s kind of boosterism is unhealthy is that when someone hops up and down saying how great the food is in Albany, there are a few potential outcomes. One, people will go into their dining experiences with high expectations, only to be disappointed when it fails to deliver. Two, people will believe the hype, eat an overpriced and unexceptional meal, and think it was the bees knees. Three, chefs hearing their praises will become even more complacent and blame their lack of reservations to cheap Albany restaurant-goers.

Honestly, I don’t know which one is worse.

I’m just thankful for the places that are actually doing good work. The Capital Region is not a culinary wasteland. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years finding very positive things to say about scores of dishes across the area. And there are already things I’m starting to miss in my absence.

More on that later.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2013 9:41 am

    I think you’re exactly right on this one, Daniel. No one will ever confuse the Capital Region with Paris or Campania. There are some restaurants trying to do good things, and they’re getting better and better, but “striving” seems like a good word (which you used) to describe them. And as long as they try to get better, it’s hard to fault them. But they aren’t the French Laundry.

    You mentioned Zuni Cafe… I went in there a few years ago, and Judy Rodgers herself came out, and I ordered the famed chicken. And she described exactly how they cooked it, and there it was. And it was simple, and elegant, and it was succulent and had an amazing flavor. Until a local restaurant can approach that level of commitment and exactitude, I don’t think the area deserves discussion in the “best culinary destinations” regard. Will it get there? I hope so? Is it there yet? Hell, no. But we can keep trying to advance it, and your blog has gone a long way toward doing that, as I’ve said before.

    • karen opalka permalink
      August 23, 2013 4:29 pm

      I’m sorry, was ANYONE thinking about comparing French Laundry here? Some of you bloggers are very cruel. Being positive as Michelle is, is not appropriate, what? Are you kidding me? And having gone to so very many of these chef’s competition working together, what is your point? Poking her in the eye and the rest of supporters of the wonderful culinary generous chefs? Please stop this. I guess you like to just show the hell off…………. you are pretty darned mean-spirited….for WHAT POSSIBLE REASON rather than to tout yourselves as better than those of us, who support and appreciate what our chefs have accomplished and continue to do….. shame on you, ugh!

      • August 23, 2013 6:12 pm

        I don’t think anyone is trying to “stir the pot,” Karen. The only thing I was pointing out is that we’re all trying to make this a better place to dine and source quality food generally, but posts like Michelle’s aren’t particularly helpful. I’ve been here for roughly three years now, and I have a pretty good idea about which restaurants and grocery stores I like, and which ones I don’t care for. We can agree to disagree, but my opinion is based on a considerable amount of experience going out there and spending quite a bit of money at local tables. There’s nothing wrong with “being positive”… but being unrealistic is completely different. And please keep in mind that many of us grew up in different areas of the country, and we compare what we get here to what we experienced when younger. So if you expect me to hold my tongue when I have a crappy Thai meal as opposed to one I actually had in Bangkok, or shut my mouth because we “simply can’t compare” what we have in Albany to a decent Chinese restaurant in Daly City (like Koi Palace), no. No. Not gonna happen. Simply get out a bit, go to a few countries, come back, and then dare to comment. Until then, go to Friendly’s. I really don’t like being harsh, but that’s the way it is. And we can all do our part to patronize the places that are trying to do good work and improve the dining climate around here.

  2. August 22, 2013 9:44 am

    Should have been a period instead of a question mark after “I hope so.” Sorry, Daniel… these things happen when I’m trying to type when waking up. ;)

  3. August 22, 2013 10:41 am

    Good post, Dan. I read Michelle’s post as well and found it needlessly defensive. (And BTW, I’ve tried to submit a comment on Michelle’s blog and it wasn’t approved either. I was not rude or offensive, I merely questioned an insider type food event she was raving about that was prohibitively expensive for the general public…how dare I?)

    That being said, I agree with your points and while I can get where Michelle is coming from, I just don’t agree with her rah-rah everything is amazing style of boosterism.
    A lot of the places she calls out are doing good things. But some of the others suck. Some of the others are overrated. Some of the others don’t deserve their reputation and some of the others survive because people either don’t know any better or they don’t care.

    I’m not naming names though because at this point in my life and career, I need to be a little more careful in my criticisms.

  4. Jessica R permalink
    August 22, 2013 11:51 am

    As she says in her header, her blog is meant to be “a positive place for chefs, foodies, oenophiles, and aficionados to converge.” By definition that means she can’t be negative or call people out for their shortcomings. So, yea, I see her blog as an antithesis of your blog, but maybe there is a need for her optimism in this area.

    I do agree with you that it seems she gets special treatment everywhere she goes.

    • August 23, 2013 11:25 am

      In my experience the special treatment thing is simply part of the business. When I worked in a medical practice in Manhattan and needed to see a specialist for care, I received “professional courtesy” and was given an immediate appointment and not charged for the visit. Years ago when Bobby Flay wanted a table at the booked restaurant where I managed the reservations, I bumped a party (it all worked out) to give him a table because of professional courtesy. At this point in my serving career, I often am given some sort of preferential treatment – a glass of champagne or after dinner drink, a great table, an amuse bouche, because It’s the hospitality industry and we like to take care of people and each other. Fact of life.

      • Jessica R permalink
        August 23, 2013 1:23 pm

        That’s cool, and I respect that people in the industry look out for each other. I just think there is some truth to Daniel’s point that her restaurant experience may be different than ours (Case in point, her post about Apertivo).

      • August 27, 2013 2:40 pm

        I agree with your comment, but that pushes her even farther away than those of us who don’t have the same connections and makes her opinions totally unreliable.

  5. August 22, 2013 12:00 pm

    Ha! Passive aggressive local blog sniping sessions are just about my favorite thing in the world. So thanks for this. It almost makes me want to become one of the dominant voices on “the blogs” so I can join in and start stirring the pot.

  6. August 22, 2013 2:29 pm

    You’ll remember that fin – your fishmonger treated you no differently than anyone else, even though we knew who you were and when you were coming in. You got the same fishsticks from the freezer as everyone else. ; )

  7. August 22, 2013 2:45 pm

    I had a lot of these same feelings after reading Michelle’s recent blog post, so I’m glad you took this one on (and took the gloves off in doing so–unlike Mr. Dave, sometimes I prefer just the aggressive sniping, no passivity, though maybe that’s just the hockey fan in me).

    I absolutely get where she’s coming from, since her job is marketing and public relations, so she has a vested interest in these chefs’ success. Doesn’t mean she’s wrong about the good stuff, but her audience should sure be aware of the context–and bias–of her position.

    And I think that her position is, for the most part, very much based only on high-end dining in this region. I’m more concerned with the more reasonably-priced places, which, in my still-limited experiences, are typically overpriced and mediocre.

  8. August 22, 2013 4:22 pm

    Well, she approved my comment, guys, for what it’s worth. Maybe because (though I didn’t say that to Michelle) I don’t have any problem with what she’s saying because it obviously IS boosterism and branded as such. It hs its place. Even the SF Chronicle has its “Life” section full of social goings on.

  9. Stevo permalink
    August 22, 2013 7:21 pm

    I quickly perused her website. She has a post about Aperitivo Bistro. We’ve been recently and it’s way overpriced. I was shocked at just how expensive it was. Both mine and my wife’s dish were ok, but nothing more. But wow! If you read her piece you’d think it was the greatest restaurant from here to the Mississippi.

  10. August 22, 2013 9:20 pm

    I would rather read someone giving their honest opinions about things than a blog consisting solely of fluff pieces. It’s just advertising, otherwise.

  11. PatriciaN permalink
    August 24, 2013 1:14 am

    The Purnomos need a girl Friday. Michelle needs a job. This isn’t the BIG CITY, and the fact that it’s getting so much attention is astounding. If things appear in print, blogs and Clipper, they are big around here, it’s all Kardashian, big hat, no cattle. It’s This Is Spinal Tap, a perfect reference, please read this, Steve Barnes. And whomever doesn’t get it, Google the movie.

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