On The Problems Of Comping In Food Writing

It’s funny because when I blogged about health and diet I was often accused of being a shill for meat or dairy or whatever. I wasn’t, but now writing about restaurants I actually am now in a minefield and worry I might become a shill if I’m not careful. That’s because of something few people are willing to talk about, which is comps: free meals or other food products paid for by PR companies, restaurants or other food and drink producers. I thought about this today because of this interesting piece in Eater.

By and large I don’t do restaurant reviews. There are a great many reasons for this, but one of the main ones is it irks me that there is a pretension of anonymity with little reality behind it. Not that anyone makes much of an effort to try to even achieve anonymity. The era of elaborate disguises is largely long past. 

Then there is the pretension that someone even with anonymity that they would be able to represent the experience of the average diner. Try submitting a study to a scientific journal with an n = 1 and 1-3 points of data and see how far you get. It might be useful to some or interesting, but let’s not pretend it’s more than it is. The best reviews don’t get caught up in that, they focus on uncovering what’s interesting about a restaurant and what it achieves in executing a particular vision.

Finally there is a ton of unscientific nonsense about bias. Some people actually seem to believe they are above bias because they don’t take any free products. But yet there are many other types of bias that are probably more of a factor, though it’s difficult to quantify them all. I would say personally I am more worried about the bias caused by friendships and other social ties to people in the business, which are pretty much endemic in the field. I have a handful of friends who are bartenders or chefs. I’d like to think I can be objective about their work, but I can’t prove it. If you really want to hear stories of truly extravagant treatment of food writers, it's usually from friendships, not comps. For example recently on a year-end list, a Chicago reviewer described a truly insane-sounding meal not available to normal diners at an incredibly expensive establishment where he is friends with the chef and owner. And then they said they no longer write professionally about that particular restaurant. But the list was itself writing. And it's pretty hard to write in Chicago and avoid writing about this prominent group of restaurants helmed by this chef and owner. 

And maybe if he doesn't write about it we are losing out on a perspective you gain from such a friendship, which while it might not represent an important data point for diners, may still be interesting and valuable. Someone on a Facebook thread said they believe that mere disclosure doesn't resolve an ethical dilemma, but I disagree. Coming from open-source software I believe transparency is in itself an ethical act, that allows people to understand your work better and therefore makes it more useful for everyone. 

Then there is bias caused by all kinds of things outside my control, like my race, gender or looks, which can affect how a staff at a restaurant treats me for better or worse.

The biggest problem with comps in my opinion is not bias, but opportunity cost. If a writer doesn’t go to one restaurant because they were comp’d by another restaurant, the restaurant not doing the comping is losing my attention. If I’m drinking a type of vodka because a company sent it to me, I won’t have gone to the store and consider other vodkas. This is why after this month I am ceasing to take comps. Not because I think they are wrong or evil, but because I want to spend more time with food and drink that I’ve personally chosen myself.

However, I do not believe this will make me more ethical or anything as loftly as that. The hope here is that I choose the best things to write about and I believe doing this will improve my ability to do so. If it turns out this is untrue, I may resume accepting them. Also if people give me something without asking at a restaurant I'm not going to send it away. At that point they already know who I am and have decided to not treat my like a normal diner. Wasting food and being ungrateful to make a point doesn't interest me. To Chicago's credit, I can't think of a single restaurant that started to treat me differently when I started writing about restaurants. I've also never had anyone ask me if an article I'm writing would cost the business anything. 

Comping also does nothing about my main bias, which is location. Where I live and work is the most powerful factor that affects what restaurants I choose to go to. I try hard to range far and wide, but honestly the places I go the most are in a range not far from my office or apartment. One thing I can say for comps is sometimes they pulled me out of that range. 

Comps also often take the form of previews before a business's opening, where it does make perfect sense to offer the press something different than the public. I think this is perfectly fine as long as the writer doesn't pretend what they are getting is an accurate predictor of what a business will be like for better or worse. 

On the positive side comping allows more a more diverse set of people to write about food. Otherwise food writing about certain restaurants will mainly consist of people who have money from their family or other jobs, a usually homogenous group in terms of class and age, as well as a tiny also fairly homogenous handful who manage to snag some of the few available jobs, or more likely freelance assignments.

Comping allows younger writers and those without disposable income to write about restaurants they might not ever be able to afford. The opportunity cost for these people is also lower because the odds are that they might not dine out at all if it weren’t for comps. Do you believe these people have valuable voices in food writing? I do. And I will continue to allow writers who work for me to take comps because of this, as long as it is disclosed. I personally find it difficult to understand how a freelancer would visit these restaurants otherwise, given the precarious financial position of nearly every freelancer I know. Even when I freelanced in a relatively high paying field (not food writing, certainly), I did not feel comfortable eating at many restaurants. 

Also by giving up comps I am losing out on many networking opportunities. Many comp’d dinners are where you meet and socialize with other food writers. I am hoping to contribute to efforts to create a more neutral space for networking.

If food writing wants to be truly dedicated to non-bias, it would have to completely restructure. It might look more like this study on discrimination in restaurants I wrote about. Food writers would need to cease being personalities and become interchangable workers with carefully protected identities. We'd gain some insight from this and lose some as well. 

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments.