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Rise of the food blogs

At the Monkey Bar Bloggers Table.  

There is noise. So much noise. A barely penetrable fog of shrill, impulsive, unabashedly opinionated voices. The attack of the Internet trolls? If you’re picturing a The Lord of The Rings-style scene, stop right there. As always, the reality is considerably less romantic. For the ‘bad’ guys are armed with nothing more dramatic than overblown egos, a breezy disdain for spell check and a propensity for Caps Lock.

As the Internet explodes with self-styled critics, food has become an unexpected battlefield. Aided by social media and blogs, a legion of ‘foodies’ are taking over the once-hallowed ‘art’ of critiquing restaurants. Admittedly, it’s debatable whether established critics — traditionally from the print media — should be the arbiters of good taste. However, this new strain of influencers has introduced an unexpected facet to the conventionally formal discipline of reviewing. They’re fast. They’re casual. And, very often, brutal.

Looking through Zomato, Burrp and food-centric Facebook Groups underlines just how raw, and often inarticulate, this social media-spawned genre of criticism can be. A random example? “One of the Worst food [sic] I have ever tasted. After tasting it, my stomach is completely ruined.” Moving on to a positive review: “Crazy awesome place with delicious delicasies [sic].”

Clearly, even if you overlook what seems to be an allergy to grammar, this new world for food reviewing is riddled with problems. Yet, no one can deny that it’s becoming increasingly popular. Especially when it comes to the food bloggers, many of whom are multi-dimensional, operating across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, in addition to posting regularly on their blogs.

“There are accusations that these are monsters created by the public relations (PR) community,” says a PR person, requesting anonymity. “But restaurant reviews in newspapers are few and far between these days. So how do you generate publicity for a client?” There are both good bloggers and bad ones, she says, “some are evolved and objective, some are just looking for a free meal. But undeniably, these bloggers reach a different community from the ones professional reviewers target: regular people. And restaurants can’t serve just niche customers.”

While there are a lot of bad amateur reviewers trolling their way through the blogosphere, there are also exceptions. A small group of committed food bloggers from across the country continue to eat out and post about it regularly, proving that an amateur’s opinion can be relevant. Pawan Soni’s popular Indian Food Freak (http://www.indianfoodfreak.com/), which serves as a platform for a group of bloggers, has a following of about 20,000 people. “I started five years ago when food blogging was not so fashionable,” he says. “I am not a food critic; I am the voice of a customer.”

Discussing their attitude to reviewing, Soni says, “Readers expect you to be candid. We don’t just say, ‘I didn’t like it.’ We try and explain what went wrong with a dish.” He admits that, for many online reviewers, this has become a way to extract a free meal. “But readers aren’t stupid. You can fool them once or twice, but after that they will look for bloggers they can relate to.” Soni casually adds, “None of the bloggers can increase or decrease by more than 10 per cent.” Given the number of readers they have, in actuality, those are pretty impressive numbers.

In Bangalore, Ruth D’ Souza Prabhu (www.bangaloresrestaurants.com/) gets about 17,000 views a month. She insists that she’s not into the ‘numbers game’ and still does it because she enjoys writing. The scene, she says, has changed rapidly over the years, especially after the big food blog boom a few years ago, when ‘Bloggers Tables’ (where food bloggers are invited to a restaurant to interact with the chef) got popular. “At one point I don’t think anyone was even reading the blogs; the PR people only cared about how often their product was mentioned. Bloggers gave rave reviews so they would get mileage from the restaurant. And more invitations.”

Chennai also saw the rapid rise of food bloggers in 2012, of whom only a clutch is still active today. Dr. Wasim Mohideen, a medical doctor who blogs as the Chennai Foody (http://www.chennaifoody.com/), begins by stating he still proudly calls himself a foodie. “To me it means someone who enjoys eating,” he says. “I think the word went bad because of all those ‘foodies’ who assume that just because they like eating food, they can write about it.”

Mohideen began writing for fun. “I used to post my reviews on Orkut, and they were read by just 10 to 20 people.” Then in 2011, he went for a food photography class. “Once I started posting good photographs, it took off. Now I get about 45,000 visits a month. I see my role as a writer, not a critic. Traditionally, I don’t write bad reviews. I just want to describe my experience.” Discussing the angst against ‘foodies’ on social media, he says “I’m worried that it might, over a period of time, kill food blogging. But it means that only the good ones will survive. In 2012, I knew of 50 food blogs in Chennai; only eight are still functional today.”

Anoothi Vishal, an established food critic in Delhi, says that “considering they came up as a younger, faster, alternative medium to the mainstream space, blogs could have redefined the scope of writing on food in India.” However, she says, quality tends to be “strictly pedestrian.” She adds, “Being unregulated means a free-for-all; there is no accountability…” Hotels, restaurants and PRs pampering these new, so-perceived influencers means that any individual can be out for a free meal with his ‘blogger’ tag.”

Chef Manu Chandra — Executive Chef and Partner, Monkey Bar (Bangalore and Delhi) and The Fatty Bao (Bangalore) and Executive Chef, Olive Beach, Bangalore — discusses what it is about this genre of food writers that worries him. “In many ways, food is the easiest, most tangible thing to talk about, but it’s hard to do it intelligently. When it comes to restaurant reviewing, I respect everybody’s opinion, but unrehearsed articles on food shouldn’t be posted; they’re harmful for the establishment as well as the reviewer’s credibility.”

Like many other chefs, Chandra also hosts bloggers’ tables. “Over the past decade, a lot of newspapers have discontinued their food columns. It’s the worst possible time to do it, considering how big food is now,” he says, explaining why chefs have to look beyond traditional media. The bloggers’ tables, he cautions, are not about free meals. “I’m explaining the menu, not just making a sales pitch. It’s an educational experience as much as is it for me…”

Of course watching bloggers photograph their food for 20 minutes can’t be fun. “If it’s not the bloggers, it’s the customers,” shrugs Chandra, “I was sitting in my restaurant in Delhi today watching eight youngsters take selfies with their food for an hour. It’s a malaise that’s just there now, and we have to deal with it.”

Chef Rajesh Radhakrishnan, Director of food production at The Park, says that, despite misgivings, chefs are going to have to accept that online reviews are the future. “There is a paradigm shift in reporting because of social media,” he says. “It’s not just bloggers. I tell chefs that everyone is equally important now, more than ever. You can’t say this person is a critic and this one is not. Everyone has about 1,000 people on their Facebook friend list; so opinions can very easily be made.”


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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 4:18:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/rise-of-the-food-blogs/article6510646.ece

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