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Amanda Hesser's spice market review sparks debate over foodie ethics and tableside manners

Given that it had gone on for a week, you'd think the Amanda Hesser bashing would have died down by last Wednesday. That's when The New York Times published an Editors' Note (sub. required) admitting that Hesser's March 24 three-star review of Spice Market should have disclosed that the restaurant's owner and chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, had given Hesser a loving blurb for the cover of her 2003 book Cooking for Mr. Latte.

But the ad feminem attacks continued on the Internet. Some of the dish was clever; most was anonymous snark from critics who didn't want to hear any exculpatory evidence. In a rare defense posted on the Eurotrash blog, someone who knows Hesser wrote that she is actually nice, smart, and unpretentious and "knows a hell of a lot about food."

What has some foodies pissed off is that the Times seems to have lowered its standards. Traditionally, critics don't reveal their identities when they dine, don't fraternize with the chefs they cover, and don't accept free food or drinks. Jonathan Gold, who reviews restaurants for LA Weekly, says, "Serious critics have to build serious firewalls between themselves and the subjects of their reviews." But now, those walls are coming down, according to insiders. "Most critics now make no attempt to be anonymous," says one, "because they love to have their asses kissed in restaurants."

According to a Times spokesperson, "Restaurant critics for the Times try their best to remain anonymous. They do not fraternize with chefs [and] they do not accept free food or alcohol."

Hesser's specialty is feature writing, and her primary job at the Times has entailed befriending chefs, hanging out in kitchens, and writing about chef culture. The problem, according to some insiders, is that she lacks the proper sensibilities to be a critic, and Times editors should have picked someone else as interim critic when William Grimes resigned. Alas, the Times now seems to prefer celebrity to anonymity, given the rumors that Bill Buford and Jay McInerney have been considered as potential Grimes successors.

Professional food writers call Vongerichten one of the best chefs in America. No one disputes the four-star review his flagship restaurant, Jean-Georges, received from the Times in 1998, or the three stars his Jo Jo received in 2002. The question is: How did Spice Market earn its three stars?

Some background on the Times system: Four stars means extraordinary, three means excellent. The Times website currently lists five four-star restaurants and 38 three-stars. In the past, restaurants did not typically get three stars right off the bat. In the past, three-star reviews often identified the pastry chef and a few culinary weak points. But Hesser tossed three stars to a startup, loved everything, and omitted the names of consulting chef Gray Kunz and pastry chef Pichet Ong.

A Times spokesperson explained, "As they have limited space, reviewers often hang the success (or failure) of the restaurant on the restaurateur who has risked his or her money to open the doors. In the case of Spice Market, that was Mr. Vongerichten." The spokesperson adds that Hesser tried to remain anonymous at Spice Market, and succeeded, "to the best of our knowledge."

Some alternate views: On March 24, Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post gave Spice Market two and a half stars, noting that "the place is counting on its party animal clientele to laugh off inconsistency and illogical conception." One insider calls the restaurant "cynically bad" and dubs its main purpose "harvesting money from rubes." Mimi Sheraton, who made reservations under her own name, told me, "I would have no problem giving that restaurant three stars."

The Times denies the rumor that Hesser plans to co-write a cookbook with Vongerichten. But it would make sense. Hesser's stories about the chef date back to June 1998, when he told her about his penchant for buying live turbot. She proceeded to write about his fennel-and-apple salad, his turbot poached in buttermilk, and so on. In 1999, she led a feature on "postmodern plate design" with a peek at Vongerichten doodling, and in 2002 she described how the chef's brother brought her a pineapple on a silver platter and dramatically sliced it into ribbons.

Here's a solution: Let Hesser be Hesser, a great writer who's allowed to charm and inspire chefs. But for the sake of consumers, strip Spice Market of its stars and start from scratch. The spokesperson says the Times stands by the review.


Timesfotogs fight for the right

On April 2, Timeshonchos including executive editor Bill Keller, associate managing editor William Schmidt, and acting director of photography David Frank received a letter signed by about 300 people who collectively oppose a contract Schmidt sent to the company's freelance photographers on March 1. Among other things, the contract announced that the Times and its freelancers will hold "joint copyright" to their images, which will now be deemed "works for hire."

Though the freelancers were being asked to share their lucrative copyright, they were told they would still be paid the standard rate for a day's assignment. They were also told that if they didn't sign by April 1, they would get no more work from the Times.

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