There are those who say the New York Times‘ website has gotten so good you don’t need to read the newspaper anymore. But Website-only readers are missing two of the most interesting things in today’s paper: The full-page ads taken out by formerly beloved airline JetBlue and crotchety restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow.
The JetBlue ad, an extended letter of apology that I have not been able to find on the company’s Website (although you can watch CEO David Neeleman apologize here), is a model of frank corporate communications in the face of embarrassment. “We let you down,” the airline tells its customers after a week of canceling flights and stranding passengers, and the message is that they won’t let it happen again.
And here’s the thing: I believe them. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I have no hesitation about flying JetBlue in the future. If I had actually spent the weekend at JFK, the epicenter of the JetBlue mess, I might feel different. But I didn’t, and I’m willing to take all those abject apologies and promises of betterment at face value. So here’s my guess about how the mess will affect JetBlue’s business: Some significant percentage of the people whose lives were messed up by the airline over the past week will never fly it again. The impact on the rest of the customer base will be minimal.
Then there’s Mr. Chodorow, who took out a full page in the Dining In/Dining Out section to vent his frustration with the negative review of his new restaurant, Kobe Club, that was published in the paper a few weeks back. (There’s a link to a pdf of the ad at the end of this blog post.)
It used to be said (by Bill Clinton, among others) that one should never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. That’s no longer really true–Chodorow and anybody else with a computer and an Internet connection can now get barrels of pixels virtually for free. So Chodorow is starting a blog in which he will, among other things, critique the work of Times restaurant reviewer Frank Bruni and New York magazine’s Adam Platt, who also didn’t like Kobe Club.
So far, so good–in fact, I have already bookmarked the chod-o-blog. But I won’t be reading it for good information about New York restaurants. I’ll be reading it because Chodorow is so willfully, entertainingly obtuse. He has taken control of the message, as PR people advise their clients to do, but his message makes him look far worse than any restaurant critic could.
Here, for example, are his problems with Bruni’s review:
1) Some other critics liked the restaurant, and it’s drawing big crowds. Okay, great, so why are you complaining?
2) The review “was as much or more about me than it was the restaurant.” Actually, only about 10% of Bruni’s 1,125-word review was about Chodorow. Which seems pretty reasonable, given that Chodorow is a famed restaurateur most widely known for having played the heavy in the 2003-2004 reality-TV show The Restaurant. And now every future review of a Chodorow restaurant will probably also have to make mention of his crazy blog, too.
3) Bruni’s background is in political reporting, not restaurants.
It is this last one that really gets me, mainly because Chodorow appears to be entirely unaware of why the Times has, twice in a row, picked people without a professional food background to be its lead restaurant critic. The reason is that anybody who has been writing about or working in New York restaurants for years is way too compromised to meet the standards the Times expects of a restaurant critic. Veteran Times food writer Amanda Hesser caught all sorts of flack for her friendships with chefs when she filled as critic for a while in 2004. Food writing is by its nature an incestuous, favor-filled business; critics shouldn’t be playing that game.
So the Times can either bring in a foodie from out of town, as it did when it hired Ruth Reichl from the Los Angeles Times in 1993, or assign the job to somebody who comes to the topic fresh. My personal opinion is that Bruni predecessor William Grimes was an inspired critic, while Bruni’s reviews are pretty dull. I don’t eat out at fancy restaurants enough to judge whether their reviews were right. But I’m certainly not going to put any stock in Chodorow’s reviews of the reviews–although I will of course read them for laughs.
Update: Mimi Sheraton, who knows of what she speaks, has her say on the food fight here.