In a world that worships chefs at a celebrity level, covering food and drink can be like covering sports. There's a temptation to run with the cool kids. To be in the 'scene.'
The "why" is simple: These people are creative. They're often young. They make good food and good drink and are eager to share. They work late and are usually game for an after-shift drink. We frequent the same places.
But for all the connections I have to this world on social media, email and text, I've never gotten too close with the chefs, bartenders or owners in the city in which I live. Not in Kansas City, not in Chicago and not now, in Little Rock.
Since late 2009, I've made a living as a journalist. And often, I write about food and drink. When I graduated from journalism school and started my career, I promised to uphold the same set of ethics that reporters covering far more important subjects do. I promised to stay impartial, and give readers facts unencumbered by personal bias.
I promised not to get too close.
When I go to restaurants and bars, I don't introduce myself. Not when I'm on assignment, and very rarely when I'm not. Of course I'm friendly if I run into someone I know — I'm a (nice) human. I've chatted with sources outside of work. I've loaned them books, asked them about their families and messaged them about making a reservation for a bigger group. I hug the huggers.
For the majority of the time, it's professional. After all, it's not easy to walk into a restaurant and give an honest critique if you're meeting up later with the owner for a beer. In a handful of situations, I've handed off reviewing duties to someone else when I've worried that I can't be imparital.
But the food writing landscape is changing. People want photos and menus and opening dates faster than one publication or writer can keep up. Foodies can go from hobby bloggers to full-time bloggers overnight — and it's not an easy gig.
The food we review is expensive. And if you're not working for a company who covers expenses, freebies at festivals, opening nights and sponsored dinners can help add content without draining a budget. Non-traditional media has to find a way to make money and survive, just as traidtional media has to find new ways to engage their audience while maintaining their ethos. Sometimes both push the line, blurring marketing and editorial.
The food industry can be tempting. Watching chefs interact can be like watching the cool kids table. But join that table and you sacrifice your ability to be impartial. You sacrifice the ability to say you are a news organization and the ability to call yourself a journalist.
It's my job to just watch, analyze and report what I take in. And I like it that way. To me —and I hope to a few food news consumers— the divide between me and the community I cover is an essential one.