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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.13.08

Chef Phillip Foss Carves up the Critics

Bites: News and Miscellany


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Note: a few days after we wrote this, Foss erased Heather Shouse’s name from the blog post discussed below. He says he did so “begrudgingly”.

Chef Phillip Foss of Lockwood takes issue with food critics on his blog. The piece really seems mostly like a thinly veiled attack on Heather Shouse of Time Out for her negative review of the place. Why doesn’t Foss also talk about Anne Spiselman of the Chicago Reader? Her review was middle-of-the-road at best.

I do applaud Foss for responding, as I feel like lots of chefs fear retribution and never respond to critics, or if they do, they take shots at bloggers and leave the big critics alone, because that’s where all the perceived media power seems to lie. Still, I don’t agree with Foss on his piece overall.

If you’re going to criticize a critic for what you perceive is an unserious effort, you need to be doubly serious in your effort. Instead he spreads mis-information, trying to dismiss Shouse as unserious because “I was told she also doubles as their music critic”. Shouse is Time Out’s Food Editor, (even if she were doubling as a music critic, does that mean she can’t be an expert in both fields?) and she’s probably one of the more qualified critics in town. While I don’t think you have to be a chef to understand what good food is, Shouse has worked professionally in Chicago including at Vong’s Thai Kitchen back when it was something. I don’t think that’s something you can say about most of the locals in the profession. It’s tough to impeach her as having a lack of understanding of food fundamentals.

Two, Foss suggests Shouse only visited Lockwood once and goes on to say that critics should visit multiple times for a review. I know that it’s Time Out’s policy to visit a place twice before writing a review. If you read Shouse’s review, she makes reference to a lunch and dinner, so she definitely went twice.

The part I really take issue with is how Foss paints critics as careless quick-witted hacks. He says of Shouse, “Anyhow, I built this restaurant up for months on end with blood, sweat and tears. Then with a few taps on the keyboard of her laptop, it seemed as though all the anticipation and excitement came crashing down to Earth with her venemous criticisms.” Those of us who take this profession seriously don’t just kick out a “few taps”. We labor at this and work at our craft as much as any chef. I work late in to the night most days reading, eating, learning, and writing so that I’m ready when I’m at the table. I’m pretty sure Shouse does as well, and even though I’ve never been a big fan, I bet even Pat Bruno of the Sun Times probably does too.

What I think would be more interesting to hear from Foss on the subject of food criticism is an actual response to Shouse’s written criticisms. Was there any merit to her issues with certain flavors? Did he go back and change anything after reading it, or was it really to him all sour grapes? For example, Shouse says in her review “…the wine list assaults diners with boring bottles marked up, in some cases, 500 percent…” That’s really easy and objective to refute or deny…on a whim, I grabbed the first sparkling off of Lockwood’s wine list to do so. It’s a Gloria Ferrer, Sonoma Brut, which though, yes, I’m being subjective, I think most would agree is pretty damn boring.

Ferrer retails for $14.99 at Binnys, but sells for $52 at Lockwood…not quite 500%, but more than 3.5 times cost at Binnys (and I’m guessing Lockwood gets a sizable wholesale discount). This is not a fair mark-up for a commodity bottle. Ferrer is not some rare vintage Haut Brion bought at auction. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, this kind of mark-up is gouging. Two to three times (I feel three is even pushing it) a bottle’s retail price is more than acceptable to cover storage, service, and glass costs for this kind of bottle.

Finally, Foss writes, “The bottom line is that things can go right or wrong in many different ways on any given night in a restaurant.” I don’t disagree with this premise, but it also sounds like a bit of an excuse. Things go wrong at The French Laundry or Alinea or Daniel for example, but rare is the night where the wholesale experience is ruined such that a critic, even on one visit, would walk away thinking Keller or Achatz or Boulud were as bad as Shouse had evaluated Lockwood in her review.

(Full disclosure: I freelance for Time Out on occasion. I also freelance for the Tribune and Chicago magazine which are also mentioned in the piece.)

2 Comments on "Chef Phillip Foss Carves up the Critics"

Heather Shouse

Interesting post, Michael. I typically don’t do this, but felt that as the main subject, I should toss in my two cents. First, I am most definitely not Time Out’s music critic, however I did work as a music writer for other publications long before Time Out launched. I also used to work in restaurants, good ones, and for 11 years. I worked for Joe and Lidia Bastianich, Wolfgang Puck (pre canned soup days), Vong in the early JG days and a bunch of other nameless but solid restaurants. Regarding Lockwood, I did visit twice. I dined on one occasion with my fellow food critic David Tamarkin, who agreed that the food was unimpressive to say the least. My companion for the other meal was a man who won a charity auction for dinner with a food critic. Turns out he was a LTH blogger, under the name Kenny Z. It was my first time meeting him, and I did, out of curiosity, read his assessment of the meal online, but only after my piece was already published. I’ll think you’ll see that he agreed.
I should also say that in an effort not to appear mean-spirited, I left out some specifics that I felt were random missteps (my meal with “Kenny Z” included mashed potatoes made with cream that had turned, resulting in the most incredibly unpleasant flavor you could imagine, and my lunch with Mr. Tamarkin included desserts so disappointing that even he could take only one bite, and he is a dessert whore). I also declined to include specific details about the service, which was wobbly at best and consisted of no less than four different waiters, none of whom knew a thing about the wine list or the food for that matter. You’ll see in the beginning of the review that I really struggled with it—I take no delight in delivering bad reviews and don’t discount the Lockwood team’s “blood, sweat and tears.” But if I see no value in the experience, if I wouldn’t recommend it to friends or spend my own money there, I’m simply not going to recommend it to readers. We make an effort every week to turn readers on to creative chefs, fantastic values and hidden gems, but occasionally we also have to use our outlet to warn readers not to waste their money on an experience we feel they would be disappointed by. We know our readership the same as Phil Vettel, who I respect very much, knows his. I’m sorry that Mr. Foss is unhappy with that decision, but if the basis of his complaint is that I only visited once, he is wrong. If the other complaint is that I pounced too early and didn’t give the kitchen time to get their sea legs, they opened the first week of December. I visited the first week of January. Full price and a month in equals full review.



Proud Vegetarian

Shouse’s rants against vegetarians have ticked me off badly enough that I just don’t read Time Out’s food section at all anymore. If she can dish it, she should be able to take it, too.



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