Room for local food critics diminishes as influencer culture shifts food review landscape
By Emily Lyth
Alexandra Gill first began writing restaurant reviews as The Globe and Mail’s western arts correspondent when she moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 2001.
The food scene in Vancouver at the time was vibrant, Gill says, and new trends like heirloom vegetables and sustainable seafood were beginning to take the city by storm. There wasn’t anyone writing hard-hitting reviews about these changes though, and Gill quickly began to carve out a niche for herself. In 2005, the gig evolved into her own weekly newspaper column—and hundreds of food reviews later, Gill is still writing her column for the Globe.
But the career of a food critic isn’t always exquisite entrées and delectable desserts. After writing a particularly negative review in September of 2016 dubbing the downtown Vancouver restaurant Nightingale “a hard miss for a Canadian culinary leader,” Gill was confronted by the establishment’s owner, David Hawksworth.
“I saw him two days later at an event, and he accosted me. He almost hit me, and he was just seething mad,” says Gill of Hawksworth, an internationally renowned chef. After telling Gill her review was “a bunch of bullshit,” Hawksworth promptly banned her from his dining establishments, which also include Bel Café and Hawksworth Restaurant.
“I think a lot of people aren’t willing to be hated, you know, or aren’t willing to be banned,” says Gill. “And so it takes a serious professional critic to be willing to say, ‘I don’t care if that guy hates me. I’m gonna write.’”
Over the span of Gill’s career, a rise in online bloggers and social media foodies has left traditional restaurant critics with a diminishing role in the industry. The critical narrative format of honest, news-style restaurant reviews is being replaced by conflict-avoidant Instagram captions, short-form blog posts and sponsored reviews.
As paid restaurant critics continue to disappear, writers such as Gill are rare. In the digital age, most reviews are pay-for-play, and unfailingly positive.
Richard Wolak is the founder of the popular food review blog Vancouver Foodster, which he has been running since 2008. Wolak says he no longer writes negative reviews because of complaints from chefs that he received when he published a few critical blog posts.
“It’ll come back to haunt you,” says Wolak. “The problem is chefs say, ‘Oh, please tell me your honest feedback.’ Then if you actually give them the honest feedback, they don’t like it.”
“The Globe and Mail is the only one that will write negative reviews now, because they are backed by a huge organization,” says Wolak. “It’s crazy, right, but that’s the way it is.”
Wolak has embraced a career in multimedia food journalism, having written and hosted a weekly radio show on CKNW for over six years before it was cut from the air at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, running Vancouver Foodster is Wolak’s full-time revenue stream; in addition to blogging, he hosts his own weekly podcast, and spends upwards of 10 hours a week promoting his content on Instagram and Twitter.
In an increasingly competitive field, Wolak says that food bloggers need to be creating content across a variety of online platforms in order to earn enough revenue.
“Right now you’ll see a lot of influencers in Vancouver that are just doing Instagram; they’re not really doing much else,” says Wolak. “But for people who actually want to make it a career, it won’t work.”
Brenda Yim is a Vancouver-based foodie who runs the Instagram account and food review blog Pistachiopicks. Running her brand helped Yim land a full-time job doing digital marketing for a healthy snack food company.
Yim says the plethora of features on a platform like Instagram makes food reviews more accessible and convenient for consumers compared to traditional print journalism. “You can automatically see a bunch of reviews, or a bunch of photos at once,” she notes. “You can use the location tags so you can immediately see where the restaurant is and whether you can go there or not.”
Many of Yim’s reviews are written after having received an invitation from a restaurant asking her to visit and post about it on Instagram. However, Yim says these types of collaborations are usually unpaid.
“If I don’t like the experience, or I’m not confident about it, I don’t post about it. I might just do a story saying I’m here, but I never really dive deep into what I don’t like,” Yim says. “I don’t want a business to close down because of what I’m saying.”
Gill, on the contrary, says she doesn’t write for restaurant owners; she writes for consumers, and has “no qualms about pulling the rug out” on a restaurant coasting by or receiving undue praise. The pandemic, however, has prompted her to take a softer approach to criticism in light of how difficult it is to run a profitable restaurant nowadays.
According to Gill, critical restaurant reviewers have become a “dying breed” in Vancouver. This can largely be attributed to the cost of writing food reviews: Gill spends an average of $300 to $500 in expenses on each restaurant she reviews, often more. Because she has a reputation as a respected critic in the city, The Globe and Mail is still willing to cover the cost of her reporting.
Gill says that without the support of a news organization willing to stand behind their journalist, many internet-age food critics may not choose to expose themselves to the backlash that comes with negative reviews.
The way in which a critic decides what restaurants to review can blur the line between honest journalism and advertorial content, Gill says. When a critic receives an invitation to a restaurant, they are usually expected to write a positive review, especially if they’re being paid.
“There has become a divide—and social media is not the place for critical reviews,” says Gill. Sponsored food writing doesn’t stop at social media, though. According to Gill, it’s been creeping into widely read news publications as well.
“There’s a lot of digital newspapers—Daily Hive, Vancouver Is Awesome. And the issue with those publications is that they do a lot of food journalism, but a lot of it is paid content: Advertising disguised as journalism. A lot of it is sponsored,” Gill says.She worries about the implications for readers trying to get the honest goods: “It’s very difficult for the average reader … to distinguish what is real journalism and what is being paid for.”