Tag Archives: pseudonyms

Towards a Code of Ethics for Food (and other) Bloggers!

I have come across a blog called “Food Blog Code of Ethics”, compiled by two food bloggers in America, which has raised the important issue of ethics in food blogging, which principles can apply to wine and other blogging too.  The Code raises important issues for South African bloggers in dealing with the ethics of blogging.

Brooke Burton writes the blog ‘FoodWoolf’, subtitled “the restaurant insider’s perspective”, and Leah Greenstein’s blog is called ‘SpicySaltySweet’.  They got together with other food bloggers to create an ‘union of ethical food bloggers’, setting “Reviewers’ Guidelines” and compiling the Code of Ethics.   We do not necessarily agree with all their principles, but welcome it as a foundation for a Blogging Code of Conduct that we may jointly subscribe to as members of the Food & Wine Bloggers’ Club.

The blog post on reviewing restaurants states the following principles they subscribe too – our comments are in italics.

1.   One should visit the restaurant more than once, and state if the review is based on only one visit – we do not agree that a review should be based on more than visit, as the strengths and weaknesses of a restaurant are usually the same and apparent immediately.   Restaurants should strive for consistency, so that the reviewer should experience it in the same way on any visit.  Reviews help restaurants improve their food and service quality, if they are smart about facing them and learning from them, not always a strength of restaurantsMultiple visits are expensive, as most visits are paid for by the reviewer.  On our Blog we will update our impression with a Postscript, as we did recently for La Mouette, for example, in that the experience was vastly different compared to previous ones, highlighting a consistency problem.

2.  One should sample the full range of dishes on the menu – this is a hard one to implement, as many menus are excessively big.  Taking a partner to lunch/dinner and ordering different dishes helps, so that the reviewer can try a larger number.  Recently we were criticised by Richard Carstens’ sister-in-law, Leigh Robertson, for not having a starter at Chez d’Or, and that writing a review based on tasting three dishes only was not fair to the restaurant.  I doubt if a starter would have made my review any more positive.  Having a wide range of dishes, when paying for it, is a cost and a space consideration.

3.   One should be fair to a new restaurant and wait for a month after its opening, to give it a chance “to work out some kinks”, and should qualify reviews as ‘initial impressions’ if the review is done in less than a month after opening – bloggers have become very competitive, and some want to write a review about new restaurants before their colleagues do.  Our reviews state when the restaurant opened if it is new, so that the reader can read such “kinks” into it.  The first ‘Rossouw’s Restaurants’ review of La Mouette raised the issue of how quickly one can/should review a new restaurant, one of Rossouw’s inspectors having been at the restaurant on its first or second day of opening.  Two visits to Leaf Restaurant and Bar on two subsequent days showed their acceptance of customer feedback by moving the ghetto-blaster they have set up on the terrace from on top of a table, to below it, after my comments to them about it.   No other business, play or movie has a second chance in reviews being written about it, in that they are normally done after opening night – so why should restaurants be ‘protected’ in this way?   No business should open its doors when it is not ready to do so (Leaf held back its opening because it had problems in getting a credit card machine installed by the bank)!

4.  One should specify if one received a meal, or part of it, or any other product for free, and should also declare if one was recognised in the restaurant – absolutely agree on the declaration of the freebie, and we have regular Blog readers and Commenters who delight in checking blogs for the freebies.  Some bloggers are labelled by such readers as not having credibility, in that they usually only write about meals they received for free, and usually are very positive about them, so that they can be invited back in future!   The recognisablity of the reviewer is an interesting issue.  I always book in the name of “Chris”, with a cell number.   If I know the owner or a staff member of the restaurant, I will state that in the review.

5.   One should not use pseudonyms in writing reviews, and reviewers should stand up and be counted by revealing their names – absolutely agree.  In Cape Town we have a strange situation of Food bloggers who hide behind pseudonyms.  Andy Fenner (JamieWho) wanted to remain unidentified when he started blogging, yet appointed a PR agency to raise his profile, and was “outed” by Food & Home, when they wrote about him, using his real name.  He is now open about his real name (probably being irritated by being called Jamie more often than Andy, I assume).  One wonders what bloggers using pseudonyms have to hide?  Wine bloggers seem to be more open and upfront about who they are.   I would like to add here how difficult it is to make contact with Food Bloggers in particular .  Most do not have a telephone number nor an e-mail address to contact them on their blogs, and one has to use a Comment box to contact them, which most do not respond to.   Yet many of these bloggers are looking to make money from advertising on their blogs. 

The Code of Ethics which the two bloggers prepared with their colleagues is as follows:

“1. We will be accountable

  • We will write about the culinary world with the care of a professional. We will not use the power of our blog as a weapon. We will stand behind our claims. If what we say or show could potentially affect someone’s reputation or livelihood, we will post with the utmost thought and due diligence.
  • We understand why some bloggers choose to stay anonymous. We respect that need but will not use it as an excuse to avoid accountability. When we choose to write anonymously for our own personal or professional safety, we will not post things we wouldn’t be comfortable putting our names to.
  • If we review a restaurant, product or culinary resource we will consider integrating the standard set of guidelines as offered by the Association of Food Journalists.

2. We will be civil

  • We wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech, but we also acknowledge that our experiences with food are subjective. We promise to be mindful—regardless of how passionate we are—that we will be forthright, and will refrain from personal attacks.

3. We will reveal bias

  • If we are writing about something or someone we are emotionally or financially connected to, we will be up front about it.

4. We will disclose gifts, comps and samples

  • When something is given to us or offered at a deep discount because of our blog, we will disclose that information.  As bloggers, most of us do not have the budgets of large publications, and we recognize the value of samples, review copies of books, donated giveaway items and culinary events. It’s important to disclose freebies to avoid be accused of conflicts of interest.

5. We will follow the rules of good journalism

  • We will not plagiarize. We will respect copyright on photos. We will attribute recipes and note if they are adaptations from a published original. We will research. We will attribute quotes and offer link backs to original sources whenever possible. We will do our best to make sure that the information we are posting is accurate. We will factcheck. In other words, we will strive to practice good journalism even if we don’t consider ourselves journalists”.

The above aspects are clear and need no elaboration.  The last sentence of the Code is odd though, in that we are “new age” journalists, and must play by the same rules as the print, radio and TV media do.  That means we must research our stories, to ensure their accuracy.   One can correct a blog post if one makes an error, including spelling and grammar ones.  An American food blog recently added a note about getting the name of a restaurant reviewer wrong – she did not change it in the blog post, but wrote an apology at the bottom of her post, highlighting the error, which most readers probably would not have picked up.  A controversial issue is the announcement of Reuben Riffel taking over the maze space at the One&Only Hotel Cape Town, which Riffel has denied.   No correction or apology to Riffel or the hotel has been posted,

We encourage Bloggers and Blog readers to give us their views on the Code of Ethics as well as the Restaurant Review guidelines, which we will be happy to post.  I would like to get the ball rolling by stating that the Code should include the publishing of Comments, even if they are controversial, as long as they do not attack the writer or the subject of the blog post with malice, and the Commenter is identified, as is the family or other relationship of the Commenter (e.g. JP Rossouw’s and Richard Carstens’ sisters-in-law).   I would also like to hear views about revealing to the restaurant that one is writing a review, in that I was recently criticised by the co-owner of Oskar Delikatessen for not asking permission to write a review and to take photographs, which contradicts the Code on writing unidentified.  A third issue is the acceptance of advertising on one’s blog, or accepting sponsorships for brands, and how this should be revealed.

POSTSCRIPT 22/8 : Reuben Riffel’s appointment as the new operator of the restaurant at the One&Only Hotel Cape Town has been announced in the Sunday Times today.   We congratulate Spill blog on having had its ear to the ground in announcing this news ahead of all other media.  The One&Only Hotel had denied speaking to Spill about Reuben’s appointment at the time that they wrote the story, and Riffel had denied it too. 

POSTSCRIPT 29/8:  Since writing this post, the identity of The Foodie as being David Cope has been revealed by Crush!2.  Furthermore, Clare “Mack” of Spill Blog (with her husband Eamon McLoughlin) has been identified as being Clare McKeon, an ex-Irish TV chat show hostess, columnist, author of “The Emotional Cook”, magazine beauty journalist, and owner of the Bliss Beauty Salon.  

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com

Restaurant Reviewer receives harsh ‘reviews’ about restaurant review

Rossouw’s Restaurants is South Africa’s only restaurant guide (Eat Out may have more glitz and glamour, but it does not come close to this ‘Platter’ equivalent to restaurants), and its owner JP Rossouw has established himself as a credible source of restaurant information, despite one not actually knowing what credentials Rossouw has to be a restaurant critic.  That credibility has now been questioned, with readers of his largely negative review of the new La Mouette restaurant in Sea Point grilling (pardon the pun!) Rossouw on his use of other reviewers, yet marking them with his initials, as if he had written the review himself.

Whilst knowledgeable about wines, and earning a living from them, in that he often wrote about wine in the Cape Times, is said to compile restaurant winelists, and consults to restaurants about wines, Rossouw commendably has been focused on only writing about restaurants in his blog (even though he does not know the difference between a blog, a blog post and a website) and in his annually updated Rossouws’ Restaurants hard copy guide.   Confusingly the book may contain some reviews that his blog does not, and vice versa.

On Friday, after publishing his very critical review of La Mouette, the first critical commenter “Eric” lashed out at Rossouw for his review: “Phew JP, you were mean! This review is so out of character for you – long, nitpicking, nasty, disparaging. You must have been having a bad day before you went for lunch to La Mouette. I hope you go back to get with the programme”.  This was followed by a further critical comment by “Cormac” (someone using the name of Portofino Cormac Keane, or the man himself?) “I am also quite surprised reading your review, it is unduly harsh for a restaurant that has been open for two weeks. I have eaten there twice and found the food to be very good, and I am not easily pleased”.

Rossouw’s loyal fans “Bazil” – could he be a Rossouw reviewer, the same Bazil that is a ‘Food Fanatic’ on Eat Out’s restaurant review panel, who lists La Mouette as one of the restaurants that he has reviewed, and who wrote in his 2 May Eat Out “review” that he had been to the “new and officially not open” La Mouette? – (and likens Rossouw to AA Gill, the “revered and feared London food critic”!) and “Michael” quickly jumped to Rossouws’ defence, and a spat developed, which led to the closing of the Comments section of the restaurant review, an unprecedented move.  Rossouw later explained that he felt that comments had become personal between commenters, and removed the offensive comments. When this writer had exposed Carne in not being truthful about its “organic meat” and Karoo origin claims, Rossouw allowed commenters to attack the comment writer without censorship.  This was picked up by one of the commenters and questioned.

Impatiently wanting to get her point of view across, and reacting to Rossouw’s comment censorship, “Sisteranna” used another restaurant’s comment box to give Rossouw a most articulate piece of her mind, questioning:

1.   Rossouw’s censorship and deletion of comments

2.   The cowardice of commenters in using pseudonyms

3.   Writing restaurant reviews after one visit only

4.   The credibility of reviews published with Rossouw’s initials JPR but not written by himself :”I am afraid thie (sic) entire state of affairs has cast serious doubt in my mind as to the integrity and veracity of any reviews published here”.

Every time she wrote a comment, Rossouw wrote back, and he clearly started tripping over his words, in that he had to admit that he had sent another reviewer to review the restaurant.  Here things become a little hazy, especially as Rossouw had removed a response by him, in which he had admitted to “Cormac” that he himself had not been to the restaurant, but that his reviewer had written the review.  He added that what was posted was far less harsh than how the reviewer had written it, implying that he had edited it to tone it down (one questions why the ‘truth’ should not have prevailed, given that it was a pretty harsh review anyway).  

When he was challenged about not writing all reviews himself by the commenters and on Twitter, he changed his tune, and implied (in a fudgy sort of way), that he had first sent a reviewer, and then had gone to the restaurant himself to review it.   However, observing this as a regular Rossouw’s Restaurants blog reader, it is quite out of character for Rossouw to review a restaurant within 2 weeks of it opening.  In the past Rossouw has been surprisingly slow on restaurant opening and closure news, and reviews of new restaurants.  Many reviewers will give a new restaurant some time to settle in before they attempt a first review, and one saw Rossouw’s time delay in the past to be for this reason. 

Then he tripped himself up by stating that his reviewer had been to the restaurant for dinner, yet he quoted lunch prices (La Mouette has different prices for its dishes for lunch and dinner).  Had Rossouw been at the restaurant himself, he would have known about the price difference.   Rossouw claims his reviews are independent, paid for and unannounced, which is how it should be, but he his well known to established restaurateurs.  Restaurants would pull out all the stops were they to see him arrive.   One wonders how he deals with the “independence” issue if he is paid by restaurants to consult to them about their wines.

Rossouw further claimed that he had written the review himself.  However, it was unusually long, and very critical, especially about the wine prices, and this again is out of character with Rossouw’s “Mr Nice Guy” image, according to “Eric”.  Rossouw normally only writes three paragraphs or so, and often one has been frustrated that he has not been critical enough, but he clearly does not want to offend restaurants (generally).  Rossouw replied to “Sisteranna”: “Where I do use a team is for the reviews that appear in the printed guide.  …. the blog and the book are separate but are linked”.   Does this mean that Rossouw will publish the review in his 2011 printed guide?  He continued: “All blog reviews on this website are written by me and only after a meal which I pay for”, contradicting himself again.

One of the commenters has told me that his comment was edited by Rossouw before being posted, to make himself look good and the commenter look apologetic, which was not what he had intended.

Many of the 33 comments to date (as at 10h00 this morning) are the diatribe between Rossouw and the tenacious “Sisteranna”, who, when challenged, revealed her identity as Sonia Cabano.  A Google search identified her as a chef (who trained in London, at Kensington Place amongst others, where La Mouette chef Henry Vigar was the head chef until a few months ago), cookery book writer (KOMBUIS) and as having presented cooking programmes on kykNET and SABC3, a lady who clearly knows what she is talking about.  She is persistent in her questioning of Rossouw’s inconsistencies in his comments, and subsequent responses. 

In having created a stimulating debate and raised a few laughs, the La Mouette review and the comments received have raised important ethical and procedural issues about restaurant reviews.

Rossouw’s review and all the comments can be read here.   Read our review of La Mouette here.

POSTSCRIPT: JP Rossouw has written a very calm and reasoned response to this post on his website.

POSTSCRIPT 8 JUNE: In response to a request by JP Rossouw to “correct” my blog post, I replied to him on Friday 4 June, and asked him to meet with me, to tell me the whole story and to show me the two La Mouette invoices for the meal for himself and for his reviewer, to prove that both of them ate at the restaurant.   He has not replied to this invitation to date.   We also note that Rossouw has edited some of his comments on his website relating to this issue, to emphasise that he and another reviewer went to the restaurant on separate occasions, telling a different story to the way he originally told it via his responses to comments to his blog post.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com