Dining

Check Mate

Social media is changing the game for chefs and restaurant critics alike
Nix
Photo: Courtesy of Nix

Ryan Sutton did not enjoy John Fraser’s new restaurant, Nix. This is known because Mr. Sutton, a restaurant critic for Eater, recently published a review of the new hot spot to that effect. Among the nicer things he includes in his widely circulated appraisal is that Fraser, “one of our city’s most preeminent vegetable chefs . . . doesn’t serve very good vegetables.” That cuts to the bone, or, I suppose, the root. Naturally, one might imagine Mr. Fraser did not like Mr. Stutton not liking his vegetables. Normally, this sentiment would be known only through intuition and to those to whom Mr. Fraser confides. But now in the age of social media, private is public, thanks to Instagram.

Upon publication of said review, Mr. Fraser Instagrammed an image (which has since been deleted) of what we are to presume is a check for Mr. Sutton’s meal (Mr. Sutton is tagged in the photo). The total came to $243.88; the tip left was $25. Mr. Fraser framed his caption as a blistering apostrophe: “Sorry you didn't enjoy your experience. . . . It seems we missed the mark. It is unfortunate that you chose to take it out on our hardworking service staff with a 10% tip. For future reference, 20% tip is customary.”  

Immediately, a few things become known:

1) It’s nice Vox has the money to allow critics to eat well and expansively. This is an important, if often undercovered and dismayingly rare, factor in the quality of criticism.

2) Mr. Sutton did not leave a very good tip. Not at all.

3) We no longer live in an era where criticism is asymmetrical. Critique, ye critic, but prepare for criticism.

The exchange also raises a slew of interesting ethical and factual questions. Let’s unpack them. At root, there are two distinct issues. The first is whether Mr. Sutton was right or wrong to leave so shitty a tip. Ten percent is, as Mr. Fraser notes, impecunious. Secondly, the question of whether or not Mr. Fraser is right to share a private decision on Mr. Sutton’s part with the public for the purposes of shaming.

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Firstly, in the absence of mitigating circumstances, such as leaving the tip partially in cash or service being in some way included, we can all agree Mr. Sutton left a very bad tip, indeed. But, was he wrong to do it? This is the meaning of discretionary tipping. That word loses its significance if one must leave a certain amount.

The leaving or non-leaving of a tip is perhaps the sole avenue of expression left open to a diner in situ and directly. Clearly, in the case of a professional restaurant critic, this is not true. But for the hoi polloi, it is. Yelp, for instance, is a replay game, written in a bilious postprandial haze. It is also indirect, mitigated as it is by the platform, just as Twitter is. At the end of the day, a tip is really that voice for the diner.

Mr. Fraser is correct that by choosing to express himself in this way, Mr. Sutton is in effect penalizing the waitstaff for deficiencies in his experience in toto. But whose fault is this? Mr. Sutton did not invent the mechanism of tipping or the system by which tips are distributed within a restaurant. By what other mechanism could he manifest his dissatisfaction? After all, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So was it totally cool he stiffed his server? No. Was he wrong to do it? Not at all.

Now for the next question: Did Mr. Fraser somehow transgress by posting Mr. Sutton’s receipt publicly? Setting aside any potential violations of privacy—for Mr. Sutton clings to his fig leaf of anonymity and surely the last four digits of his credit card could be helpful to nervous restaurateurs—the answer again is no. Just as a tip is Mr. Sutton’s unfortunate avenue for self-expression, so is Instagram Mr. Fraser’s platform. A sense of unease arises, of course, because this is a hairy situation. But examined, our apprehension stems from a deep-seated almost Puritan sense that the criticized should bear their criticism silently. What hogwash. We live in a time of many voices on many platforms used for many purposes. Why shouldn’t one of them be for the aggrieved to present their aggravation? The battle between the anonymous critic and the silent chef has long been obsolete. Transparency goes both ways.

There is, of course, a line between Justice Brandeis’s conception of sunshine as the best disinfectant and Carl von Clausewitz’s of absolute war. And it may be that Mr. Fraser is approaching that line quicker than Mr. Sutton. Both men aren’t acting terribly well, nor are they in the wrong, except, perhaps, that they aren’t questioning the systemic forces that push them into such petty confrontation. But to bastardize Alfred Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” theirs is not to reason why. Theirs is but to do and dine.

Update: Critic Ryan Sutton has since apologized to Chef John Fraser on Twitter for the "unintentional mathematical error." This is good news, of course, but only emphasizes the broad ripples and the sea changes social media has caused within the media firmament. 

Joshua David Stein joins Tasting Table as editor-at-large, bringing his thoughtful perspective on food, dining and culture to our proverbial table. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Eater, New York Magazine, Esquire and many others. Follow Joshua on Twitter and Instagram.

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