"Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing," reads a blurb on the Website Restaurant Report On-Line. "This mighty democratic mainstay, however, gives restaurant critics the power to impact a restaurant's future. Is this fair?"
Of course the answer to such a black-and-white question is gray: maybe. On this particular Website, readers are encouraged to post their own opinions, and it's pretty clear there's a critic behind the keyboard if it reads like this: "Whether it is the new Bruce Willis movie, an entertaining Broadway show, our town's professional football team, or the latest sport sedan from Chevy, the public as a whole lives by and trusts in the all-important critiques we read in print; those that categorize and measure most every product and service we may consider using at one time or another.... Ultimately, the public enjoys and expects to read and hear the truth about a restaurant -- warts and all." Just as it's obvious the restaurateurs are fairly unanimous in their opinion: "Restaurant critics should be made to go to school. Most reviewers do not know what they are talking about. Food is very subjective -- just ask any two chefs. I am all for freedom of the press, but some of these reviewers walk around like their shit don't stink."
Indeed this question seems to have chicken-egg appeal. As does one posed by another Website called mediabistro.com that takes the opposite tack. At "Dishing with the Food Media," a seminar held during the last week of February at New York City's Obeca Li, speakers such as Amanda Hesser from The New York Times and Terry Brennan, executive chef of Picholine and Artisinal, squared off against each other to decide whether "the media [are] mere handmaidens to these master cooks" or if "they [have] created a booming interest in fine dining."
So what exactly are restaurant critics? Culinary ombudsmen for the dining masses? Ignoramuses with aromatic flatulence? Lackeys to puffed-up celebrity chefs? Or the arbiters of a trend that pumps billions of dollars into the economy?
Now you can decide for yourself without logging on, although you might have to cross a causeway. At the inaugural South Beach Wine & Food Festival free seminars, which take place on Sunday, restaurateurs Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill management), Tony Goldman (Goldman Properties), and Drew Nieporent (Myriad Group) will engage critics John Mariani (Esquire), Hal Rubenstein (New York Magazine), and yours truly (New Times) in debate. I have no idea what ground will be covered, though I suspect it will be insurmountable terrain similar to the above. Fortunately for me I don't think I have insulted (irreparably, at least) any of the proprietors whom I'll be formally meeting, though I can't say the same for the spectators.
If you want a little more return on a bit bigger investment, along with a look-see at some of the people whose columns you read (or hear about) regularly, check into the Saturday seminars ($25 to $45). Suzy Buckley, people editor for Ocean Drive, will moderate a cooking competition between chefs Robbin Haas (Baleen) and Cindy Hutson (Ortanique on the Mile); Herald food writer Victoria Pesce Elliott will be celebrating feminine bonding with Michelle Bernstein (Azul) and Hedy Goldsmith (Nemo). Cookbook author and The Wine News food editor Carole Kotkin hosts the Saturday seminars, while cookbook author and Herald food editor Kathy Martin runs the Sunday seminars. For wine enthusiasts a Saturday-long wine seminar ($200) will highlight Beringer's Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve and Cristal, among others, and a grand tasting ($40) and live auction wraps up the festivities on Sunday.
The festival commences on Friday with a bubble-driven beachside barbecue that ain't cheap ($200), courtesy of Moet & Chandon and local grill guru Steven Raichlen, among others.
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A tribute dinner on Saturday evening (even less cheap, at $300) begins with delicacies supplied by the Miami triumvirate, some of whom I have managed to needle from time to time -- Mark Millitello, Allen Susser, and Norman Van Aken. They'll be followed by gastronomic bigwigs Gary Danko (Gary Danko), Alain Ducasse (Alain Ducasse), Todd English (The Olive Group), Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (Nobu), Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards and Miramonte), and Francois Payard (Payard Patisserie & Bistro). Frankly I'll probably take a well-deserved rotten quail's egg in the face from Nobu, but I'm going to say hi anyway.
It's impossible here to catalogue each event from the festival, but suffice to say this three-day groan-fest takes Miami to the national level. As an added benefit, the festival is a benefit, with funds going to Florida International University's School of Hospitality Management.
Just don't forget to put aside $200 or so from your culinary allowance for the Chef Allen-run Share Our Strength event, which will take place in April this year at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. A gourmet dinner starts at 6:30 p.m., with tickets going for $150, and it will be followed by a dessert-and-dancing party, complete with DJ, for $50.
I know, I know. Miami Life Saveurs, Chefs Across America, Chef's Choice Recipe Contest -- we've been deluged with large-scale charity events this year. But take heart. Soon it'll be summer, and all we'll have to bemoan is the flabbiness of our anemic wallets, not to mention our overfed bellies.