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.

13 April 2009

Todd English sobs quietly into a big pile of money

In a fascinating and funny article in the April 2009 issue of Boston Magazine, Amy Traverso makes a winking, half-ironic case for reconsidering the reputation of Todd English, Boston's most famous and successful celebrity chef. English is now derided by many locals for reasons Traverso aptly captures: “The English brand has come to eclipse English the chef… These days the high priests of the food bloggerati, in particular, seem to take special pleasure in framing him as the epitome of a sellout celebrity chef. ‘Yeah, Chowhound has beat me up a lot,’ English says. ‘I don't even read it anymore. It probably took me a couple of bad articles to realize that maybe I was misunderstood.’"

Mea culpa: I’m one of those Chowhound.com contributors who excoriates Olives Boston as a pale facsimile of the days when English actually cooked there, and thinks other English outlets like Bonfire are pretty terrible, too. I recently wrote a piece in Stuff Magazine in which I revisited Olives and other former It Places to see if they still deserve the crowds they get. I was relatively kind to Olives, not mentioning the sight of men’s-room partitions falling off the walls, nor how the giant bucket of deep-fried onion strings called to mind The Cheesecake Factory, nor that the tagliatelli Bolognese was the worst fine-dining pasta dish I’d tasted in years: an ugly, gloppy mess grossly overseasoned with cinnamon, frankly disgusting.

But why would English care what Bostonians think at this point, anyway? He’s a multi-millionaire, a national celebrity. As Traverso documents, he has 21 restaurants (including an L.A. joint venture with Eva Longoria), a deal for more restaurants in Thompson hotels, Top Chef appearances, his own TV show Food Trip, and so on and on. English could just say, “Please. My job hasn’t been about being a chef for years. My role is to promote Todd English, The Brand. Expecting the original Olives to maintain its old quality is naïve. Don’t hate the player; hate the game.” That kind of candor and self-awareness would be refreshing, wouldn't it? No such luck -- English actually wishes the masses could appreciate his ambition as something noble. Says English,
"Go to Dallas, go to Tampa. I go to Tampa once a month because of my Home Shopping Network gig [where he flogs his own line of cookware]… and it's chain city. I don't eat for three days." Can't you feel his pain? You see, he just wants to help people in culinarily-benighted towns across America.

Look, we all tend to rationalize the compromises we make in life. But I get a little incensed when English's rationalizations extend to why he couldn’t settle for being a one-restaurant, one-town kind of guy:
“‘I watched the stars [at NYC's bygone French restaurant La Côte Basque] fade away and the ambition fade away. I learned from a ton of really burned-out chefs at the Culinary Institute. That's what this business will do.’" (Aha: so it wasn't about chasing rock stardom, but running away from burnout.) Traverso continues: “English never wanted to end up in a precious little bistro, recalling his glory days while plating his millionth serving of steak frites.”

To me, this fish story is not only lame, but belittles the dedication and staying power of many talented Boston chef/owners who have chosen to helm a single restaurant precisely because it's so hard to scale up those qualities that make their cooking unique and wonderful. I’m guessing Gordon Hamersley hasn't done a casino or cruise-ship restaurant because he recognizes that if he’s not at the stove, it’s not really his cooking -- and he's too proud to collect a check just for stickering his name over some lieutenant's work. Bostonians know the real deal when they taste it, too, which is why Hamersley’s Bistro landed in the Top 10 of Boston Magazine’s recent ranking of Boston's 50 best restaurants and Olives didn’t even crack the list. That’s a long tumble down for a place that many critics and consumers, myself included, once called the best restaurant in the city.

So when English expresses chagrin at not feeling the hometown love, I have scant sympathy, though I'm kinder than my friends who speak with the bitterness of the jilted: “We loyal fans put Todd on the map, and he never shows up anymore. We're like the first wife who slaved to put her husband through medical school, then got dumped for a young hottie with big fake boobs the minute he finished his residency.” While you can't blame those folks for burning their old snapshots, I think their attitude unfairly discounts English’s net-positive influence here, like his mentoring of some bright young chefs. But it partly explains why many of us who fondly recall Olives' heyday just shake our heads when English cavils about being misunderstood. We understand his real motivations perfectly, and we don't fault him for grabbing the brass ring. But the bottom line for Bostonians is that a chain -- no matter how gifted the man at the top, nor how skillfully and glamorously he markets it -- is still a chain. Maybe you can fool your new fans, but it's tougher to put one over on the old ones.

03 April 2009

A Lesson in Hospitality Workforce Management from the Waltham Tavern

The bygone Waltham Tavern on Shawmut Avenue in Boston's South End
I don't always love my bosses, but at least I don't worry that they might murder me. As a Boston-based food writer with a few recurring professional gigs, I sometimes chafe at my editors' changes to prose I’ve sweated and fretted over like an anxious new mother. But at the end of the day, it’s just a restaurant review, a snapshot of a place and time. My work has a short shelf life, and if a little detail goes amiss, nobody’s going to get hurt.

I try to keep this in mind when I recall my old local in Boston’s South End, a half-lit, low-ceilinged, battered bucket of blood known as the Waltham Tavern. This tiny dive bar was the last holdout of the old neighborhood, a dank remnant of the hardscrabble decades before the gay men moved in and rehabbed the South End into a hip, attractive place to live. The 'Ham was owned by Philip "Sonny" Baiona, an Italian-mafia wiseguy who grew up on the block when it was a war zone and made himself rich through various illicit activities, some of which he'd done hard time for: a giant illegal sports book and the accompanying loan-sharking, large-scale mortgage fraud, cocaine and opioid dealing. And though he’d relocated to an exurban mansion, Sonny still returned to the block every day to conduct his business, mostly out of a little social club just up Shawmut Ave from the tavern.

I became a ’Ham semi-regular within days of moving to the neighborhood, but as one of the yuppie interlopers who were ruining the local ambiance, I kept a low profile. I’d sit and nurse my $2 Bud longnecks at the far end of the bar, grateful for a place close to home to have a quiet smoke and play the one Gorillaz single on the jukebox. I was the dork shrinking into the corner when guys threatened to throw hands over some imagined slight amidst the hammer-headed bar banter, or when tempers flared over a Jäger-fueled dispute at the dollar pool table.

In most bars, these kind of incidents might have sent me packing, but the tavern had an imperturbable calming center behind the stick, a man I’ll call Joe. At 6’4” and 260 pounds, a former state-college linebacker gone slightly to seed, Joe was strong, sober, and unflappable, the toughest bartender I’d ever had serve me a drink. I watched him head off more than one drunken set-to with a couple of basso profundo words, or a step that suggested he might come out from behind the bar and really take things in hand. His deportment was that of a becalmed giant with a temper: even the dimmest roughnecks knew better than to stir him from his equanimity. If Joe got aggravated, the party was over: some dumb drunk was going to the ER.

So it was chilling to be present one night when the Boss Himself made an appearance. I knew Sonny by sight from the neighborhood -- his black Town Car sat double-parked in front of the 'Ham all day with nary a ticket -- but he rarely set foot in the tavern. Yet here he was, in the flesh, in high dudgeon, livid. Some schmuck had won at Sonny’s daily numbers game, and he had to pay off, clearly a rare and galling occurrence. Though in his seventies, he was still a menacing badass: a compact, muscular man in a black leather car coat with thick, slicked-back white hair and a glacial, dead-eyed stare. You might guess he was 50, and you'd surely step the hell out of his way.

Sonny strode behind the bar, reached up to place a palm on Joe’s solar plexus, gently shoved him aside, and began to empty the till, counting out five and tens and twenties into piles. I sat frozen, stunned to see Joe standing mute, board-stiff, visibly sweating. At last Sonny scooped up the cash, unhappy but satisfied, and silently stalked out. The bar exhaled a collective breath. Joe later told me that if the register had come up light that night, he'd have been a dead man, a grease stain.

The ancient mob solider's business ventures eventually came to a bad end: the DEA caught up with Sonny, forced him to relocate from his plush Walpole address to another, less inviting one. The authorities finally noticed that the Waltham’s liquor license was in the name of his long-dead wife and revoked it, swiftly closing the place forever. The building soon sold, to be converted into luxury condos, driving one more nail into the coffin of the old, precarious, interesting South End.

I sometimes think fondly of those days, when a buttoned-down newcomer could peaceably hang with the late-stage alkies who lined up outside for the tavern's 10am opening, the old-timers who remembered when the block was lined with rooming houses, the Southie hood rats who slunk in to buy Oxy, half-tabs made conveniently available with the pill saw on the bar. I regularly brought the staff my wife's excellent cookies: they knew I was harmless, kept an eye out for me.

Not that it was all charmingly-seedy color. One night when Joe was off, I witnessed some cheaply-inked brawler flattening a pathetic, pickled old bum who had given him the wrong look and then unwisely stood up to him. After that poor soul crawled out of the bar, the tough guy gave me an unasked-for justification: "You know, he could've had a shiv.”

But what sticks with me most is Sonny's stone-cold, half-lidded gaze -- the way he made Joe, the biggest, hardest guy I knew, fear for his safety without uttering a word. Recalling that moment, I'm looking at the big pussycats who are my editors in a newly appreciative light. Somehow I don’t want to complain much about any tinkering they might do with my writing. We could wrangle over this word choice or that turn of phrase, but in the end, it's just about food and drink. It's not ever going to be a matter of life and death.