Last week’s Parisian scandal raises interesting questions about food critics and freebies

Given that Indian media is fielding charges that range from sting operations to paid news to the most recent charge of blackmail, the relatively lesser complaint of a food critic quaffing down a free lunch sounds merely unappetising. But clearly the capital of gastronomy does not think so. Paris is in the thrall of a delicious scandal, where Jean-Paul Ludot, the director general of Marie Claire, is being accused by restaurateur Pierre Jancou of holding out for a free meal.

On October 19, Ludot’s office sent a mail to Jancou, the acclaimed owner-chef of Paris restaurant Vivant, requesting a dinner invitation. Ludot, the mail said, had picked Vivant as restaurant of the month for his column and would like to refresh his memory about the dishes and ambience. Jancou sent back a short and savage reply saying that in his 24-year career he had never invited a journalist and he thought the request sounded shady and fraudulent. When Ludot wrote back saying this was common journalistic practice and Jancou could have merely refused rather than get odious, he got back a nastier reply that asked him, in effect, to stick to fashion and leave food criticism to the real (and paying) critics. It all went south after that, with Ludot calling Jancou a miser and so on, and all of it reading even better in excitable French with each signing off cordialement after saying the rudest things.

Of course, the chef — famous as much for his spleen as for his spoon — went viral with the email exchange, and soon Le Monde, Le Figaro, L’Express and every other publication had carried the story, resulting in a public apology from Marie Claire and Ludot.

The affair raises some interesting points, especially in France where both gastronomy and gastronomic writing are elevated to quasi religions. One of France’s most famous food critics François Simon, who writes a weekly column for Le Figaro, is known in the industry for eating anonymous, always paying, and writing brutally frank reviews. Although, after close to a decade in the business, he is known to many top chefs, he still books tables under a pseudonym. But here’s the thing. Even in Paris, Simon and his ilk have become a rarity, with most restaurants routinely inviting journalists to dine.

While Simon’s approach is undoubtedly the best way to critique anything, it is also true that most media outlets or independent critics can seldom afford (or are unwilling) to pay the fairly exorbitant bills at the premier eating houses. Equally, restaurants regularly employ PR agencies to chase journalists. The understanding, although a tad tenuous, is that the journalist need not necessarily give a glowing review just because he or she is there by invitation. The restaurant takes the chance that the critic might still trash the place or ignore it. In practice, the critics find it difficult to be completely dispassionate and the worst that usually happens is that the eatery is damned by faint praise.

What’s interesting is this. Marie Claire is a large publication house (with 5,00,000 readers as Ludot points out) and Jancou’s thumbing his nose at a favourable review shows a change in the old order. Obviously, the online world of instant tweets, Facebook updates and food blogs are proving more than adequate for restaurants. Alas for freeloading food (and travel) writers, it looks like the economists who insist that there is no such thing as a free lunch could soon be proven annoyingly right.