24 April 2009

Chowhound versus The Phantom Gourmet

One popular sport on Chowhound.com's Food Media and News board is Phantom Gourmet bashing. For non-locals, the Phantom Gourmet is a weekly WSBK-TV program that reviews New England restaurants and retail foods. The show is owned and produced by Dave Andelman, son of Boston sports-talk radio legend Eddie Andelman, and hosted by Dave's brother Dan. The titular Phantom is their undercover reviewer, actually purportedly a team of anonymous hired mouths. Boston Chowhounds mercilessly mock the show for a few reasons:
  • Its poorly-disguised appearance of shameless prostitution. The hosts routinely praise restaurants that many Chowhounds consider awful, like The Kowloon in Saugus, MA, an enormous, Vegas-cheesy purveyor of gloppy American-Chinese food: magenta spare ribs, crab Rangoon, a huge buffet. (Chowhounds sniffily prefer authentic Chinese, ideally in dumpy Chinatown joints.) The obvious conclusion is that the Phantom’s opinions are for sale: advertise on the show and you’ll get a rave. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for this; sponsors do seem to get mentioned frequently and positively.
  • The hosts’ relentlessly lowbrow tastes. The Andelmans love to gush over simple, fatty comfort food in huge portions, the kind of cuisine pushed by national chains like The Cheesecake Factory. While they claim to appreciate more refined cooking, they devote a lot more airtime to casual fare like pizza, wings, and subs, and sweets like cupcakes and doughnuts. They frequently discuss frozen foods, McDonald's-level fast food, and other highly-processed convenience foods. I call their supermarket segments, “Your Guide to the HFCS Aisles”.
  • The awful prose and voice-over work. The Phantom relies on a gaggle of stock clichés to describe food (see the Phantom Gourmet Drinking Game below). Many Chowhounds find Dave’s narration especially obnoxious: he reads everything to the exact same singsong tune and rhythm. If Shatner went to a cheap broadcasting school instead of training as a Shakespearean stage actor, Dave’s voice-over work might be the result.
  • The chumpy production values. There’s an overlit, cut-rate look to the show (and its sponsors’ commercials, which appear to be done by the same production company). Like the copywriting, the camerawork relies on a collection of tired food-porn visual clichés, e.g., the flood of a sauce or syrup over food. (Mercifully, shots of the Andelmans stuffing their well-fed faces are more limited.)
  • A dubious numerical rating system for restaurant reviews that overemphasizes factors such as parking.
  • The Andelmans themselves. I think Dan has gotten smoother and more charming in his role as host over time. But many Chowhounds find Dave tougher to take, with his smarmy, spray-tanned, hey-ladies persona, and the fact this his on-camera segments add little critical value to the show -- he just seems to crave airtime. Third brother Mike, credited as VP of business development, puts in occasional appearances in the role of “dumbest of the Dumb Brothers”, not something the show really needs more of.
  • The show's insistent pimping of for-profit Phantom Gourmet “parties”, food festivals like their annual barbecue event, some of which reportedly have been badly organized, oversold, and understocked: a swindle. (Even the better-run ones have been knocked for bringing in lame food and beverage vendors.) This underlines the impression that the brothers are hucksters, crass money-grubbers.
In short, the Andelmans paint big red targets on their backs, especially in the eyes of Chowhounds who by nature distrust media types and self-styled experts in favor of individual research. We find great restaurants and dishes on our own, often before the critics ever notice them, and we have a lot of range. While we may love to dissect our experiences at Chez Hoity-Toity, we also recognize that any jerk with a couple hundred bucks can find a great fine-dining meal. It takes real determination to ferret out the best cheap burger in town. The reason we think the Phantom sucks isn't his nakedly commercial outlook or cartoonish not-a-food-snob act -- it's that we usually know better alternatives, and when the Phantom misses them, we suspect it's because they're not paying the graft.

Nevertheless, to my surprise, my appreciation of the Phantom Gourmet's TV show has grown over time. Here's why:
  • Whether or not you agree with its recommendations, the show promotes a love of good food and dining out, keeping one kind of lively food discussion going. And it frees me of any obligation to review popular but awful casual-dining chain outlets like the newest Olive Garden outpost: someone else on the local food-crit scene has that crappy niche covered.
  • It provides coverage on restaurants in the far-flung Boston suburbs and around New England. Few local food-media outlets demonstrate that much geographic range.
And in all candor, I have to admit real envy for the Andelmans’ ability to turn food reviewing into a lucrative enterprise. My professional restaurant-critic gig is an avocation: I still need my day job in a wholly unrelated field to pay my bills. If I could figure out a way to better monetize my food criticism while maintaining ethical integrity – something the Andelmans clearly haven't done, either – I’d gratefully pursue it. So even if the Phantom Gourmet is just a new spin on the world’s oldest profession, you have to tip your cap to the Andelmans’ success. Whoring may not be the most honorable line of work, but it’s still hard work.


I’m one of those Phantom Gourmet TV show viewers who finds Dave Andelman’s voice-over so grating that I usually watch with the sound muted, but you’ll have to turn it up to play this one. Take a drink every time you see:
  • Dave or Dan uttering any of the following Phantom Clichés:
  1. an overblown superlative: "the greatest on the planet", "world's greatest", "greatest in history", "the country's most", "world-famous" for some dish unlikely to be heard of outside of Boston
  2. "addictive"
  3. "ultimate"
  4. "awesome"
  5. "impossibly"
  6. "outrageous" or "outrageously"
  7. "ooey-gooey"
  8. "smothered with cheese"
  • A close-up of too much sauce/syrup being poured over something, a/k/a the Phantom Money Shot.
  • A rave for a sponsor, e.g., Upper Crust, or an obviously awful restaurant (inevitably a future sponsor), e.g., Ciao Bella.
  • A plug for an upcoming Phantom event, e.g., the Barbecue Beach Party. Forfeit the game if the entire show is devoted to pimping an event, as happens every few weeks.
  • A shot of Dave's repulsive hairdo, which is so larded with greasy pomade that he appears to have cheap hair-transplant plugs over his entire scalp.
  • A shot of Mike, the Zeppo of the Andelman brothers* (whose entire shtick seems to be acting brain-damaged) nodding like a bobblehead.
I’ll update this over time with more entries as I uncover them, but this collection is probably enough to get you hammered before the typical show is half-over. Proceed with caution.

* I must credit this awesome wisecrack to fellow Chowhound tamerlanenj.