There’s a short answer to the final part of this question so we’ll deal with that first. Yes – food bloggers and food critics are different. And yes, recognising that difference is kind of important.
But let’s rewind. From the outset, let’s be clear that this post, as ever, is just my opinion. It’s just the ramblings of someone who has been writing about food for quite some time now. Some of it for money, but most of it for fun – because I enjoy writing and I enjoy eating. Pretty simple really.
For argument’s sake, this little ramble doesn’t really relate to my job writing about stuff. It’s about this weird and wonderful world of food blogging and Eat with Ellen – the little corner I annexed for myself in that.
So strap in and let’s get down to it. You might not think it’s important, but perhaps a little look at this might shed some light on why a lot of us bloggers do what we do, why we approach it the way we do, and why that’s a bit different from how a food critic might. It also might help add a bit of context for those who think blogs like this should be about a thick black line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – and explain why really it’s never that simple.
What’s the difference between a food critic and a food blogger?
There are a million similarities between food critics and food bloggers – and a few key differences.
I’ve never claimed to be a food critic – not many bloggers with an ounce of self awareness would. The best food critics have more experience, knowledge and writing skill than most of us amateur writers can manage in a month, let alone a lifetime. They hone their craft, reviewing restaurants and food day-in, day-out, under the watchful eye of editors who, quite simply, will get rid of them if their writing doesn’t keep people interested, informed and entertained.
Ask any decent food critic and they’ll say it’s never just about the food. They don’t claim to be chefs. They’re writers. Their skill is in writing, description, storytelling. Bringing a meal to life so you can almost taste it as you read their words.
Plenty of bloggers aspire to the same thing – and plenty of them achieve that. This blog post is definitely no attempt to say that bloggers can’t ever be as skilful, as talented or as entertaining as food critics. In fact, I’d go as far to say that some bloggers could probably do a better job than some critics when it comes to writing about food and doing it an entertaining original way.
But the point of this isn’t to look at the similarities between food critics and food bloggers. It’s about the differences – or one difference that you should really be aware of and a difference that really does matter.
You see, when it comes to blogs like this one and those that are similar, there’s often a very personal driver. It takes time and effort to write stuff, upload it, then to try and share it so people actually read it. That means to do this you really do have to care about some element of what you’re doing. That might be visiting swanky restaurants, or sharing some home cooking. For some, it’s about shouting where we live and what’s on offer there, whether that’s a lot or a little.
That motivation is fairly different to the general work of a food critic. Yes, of course they might discover something on their doorstep and want to shout about it, and overall their job description is to basically seek out great places that people like you and I can read about and immediately book a table.
But I’d wager that the vast majority of places they go to have very little personal meaning for them. They’re not local to them, they don’t live in that community. There’s a distance, geographically and metaphorically, that is not only necessary given they can’t have a personal connection to every single place in the country, but is also pretty useful when it comes to being ‘critical’.
That distance allows them to swoop in, say what they think, in as scathing or effusive way as they like, then disappear as quickly as they came. It means they can remain detached, emotionally and physically, and escape the fallout (except for the online trolls because, let’s be honest, nobody escapes them).
It means they don’t have to deal with friends of friends telling them they’re wrong about their view of a meal, or watching the closure of yet another local cafe or pub that their review may well have been the final nail in the coffin for – either putting people off going, or making the owners think that perhaps it really is time to throw in the towel because what’s the point if someone is going to publicly humiliate your hard work on the internet.
For bloggers – especially those who focus on their local community, it’s an entirely different ballgame. From the people keen to point out that your recommendation was wrong or tell you that they had an awful experience because YOU told them to go, or to ask if you ‘really’ thought somewhere was good, to the worry that you may no longer be welcome in a local place if you point out that something was a tiny bit overcooked.
That distance just isn’t there. Everything is immediate, it’s on your own doorstep, and you are very much there to witness the fallout – unless you plan on moving town’s every time you write a blog post.
Does it really matter?
Well yes, it kind of does. That difference explains why the two just aren’t comparable, and why your local food blog is an entirely different beast to that restaurant review you chuckle over, cringeing as a place is torn limb from limb through words written by someone who probably never has to go back there.
It’s one of the big differences between most food critics and most food bloggers. Food bloggers do what they do usually because they love their community, their town, their city. They love it warts and all and want to see it succeed, even if their favourite curry house drops a ranking in the council’s food hygiene ratings or a pub’s Sunday roast isn’t quite the best in town, or as good as the one in the next town.
I’m not saying that affection, that proximity, means anyone should lie about their experience. In just the same way we would all hope that being paid for a post or given a freebie wouldn’t mean someone would completely lie about somewhere, we hope that any amount of love for a local area wouldn’t see a blogger tell a complete untruth.
But what is does lend is context. When you’re reading your favourite local food blog, wherever that might be, it’s important that you remember they’re not a food critic (most of them anyway). They’re probably not even an aspiring food critic. They may just be someone who loves where they live, wants to back their local businesses, and maybe be a bit helpful along the way by helping people find new places to try.
With that in mind, are they likely to systematically document how a cheese sandwich could have been done better? Or rejoice in highlighting an error that meant their meal wasn’t perfect? Probably not, I’d say. They undoubtedly won’t say it’s the best they’ve ever had, but if they want to eat in that restaurant, have a laugh with that landlord, and enjoy a Friday night curry without reproach, there’s every chance they’ll take the high road and hold back from the kind of scathing criticism you’ll see in the Sunday papers.
Is there anything wrong with that?
I think not. For many cities, towns and rural areas, local blogs have done a huge amount of good in the last couple of years in helping them advertise, helping people find new places, and undoubtedly offering decent feedback behind the scenes.
Is this to say that any blog shouldn’t be, and can’t be, critical? Not at all. I’m all for honesty and fair criticism. But should we bear in mind that for many people – those who write them and those who read them – that’s not what blogs are about.
They’re all about context, which means every subjective opinion on whether a meal is nice or a place is worth visiting is never just about the food. It’s about the people, the experience, and that person’s relationship with those things. As much as we’d all love for them to be detached, it’s highly unlikely they will be, and as long as the reader is aware of that and can recognise it, that really isn’t the worst thing in the world.
What kind of blog is Eat with Ellen?
In case there’s any doubt, or I’ve expressed myself clumsily, let’s be clear.
Eat with Ellen is a hobby – a hobby born out of a love for food, for writing and an appreciation for where I live. Here’s what you’ll find:-
- Honest reviews of places I go, with constructive criticism where appropriate.
- An appreciation of local places and the effort that goes into them, the people behind them, and an understanding of the context of that and quite how hard it’s been for them.
- A recognition of the positives, even if something isn’t perfect.
- A recognition of context – is a £10 pub meal going to be as good as a £40 gastropub equivalent? Probably not. Is Maccy D’s as good as a gourmet burger? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that each doesn’t have their place, budget and moment for us to enjoy them. Let’s not be naive enough to think it’s a fair comparison.
- Full disclosure if I’ve been given something for free.
Here’s what you won’t get:-
- Me telling you something is great if it isn’t – if something’s pants I will feed back to the restaurant, and we’ll find a way forward. Depending on their response I may write something, but if it’s a genuine error, issue or lack of experience, I just won’t review it. I also won’t encourage you to go there.
- Cheap takedowns. I could write some beautifully scathing reviews. Maybe I should. I’d probably get more hits. But I didn’t start this blog for that reason, so unless the situation merits it – like someone really doesn’t care, or a venue is consistently poor – then I don’t feel the need to publicly flay someone for what is often just a bad day, or a difficult period of time.
- Some kind of expert opinion. I’m not an expert. I eat a lot, I drink a lot, but I am not a food critic. I don’t know enough, have good enough writing skills, or generally spend enough time practising this hobby of mine to call myself anywhere near an expert. I just try to help you find new places, or tell you about places I’ve been in a way that might be interesting or fun to read. You’ll probably disagree with me along the way, and that’s absolutely fine.
It’s not often we get serious on this blog, but sometimes it’s worth pointing things out. I hope you enjoy what you read here. But it’s just my opinion. Will I tell you somewhere is great if it’s not? No. Will I say somewhere is the best meal lunch I’ve ever had in the world if it’s not? No.
But if somewhere local to me, run by people who care, is doing everything to succeed – or maybe just to stay alive – and keep our community full of places we can actually visit without having to travel elsewhere – doesn’t get it right every time, will I make a big deal out of it? Probably not. Because personally, I’d rather have those places on my doorstep that aren’t perfect, and see people make their businesses work, than have nothing.