Every critic has her haters, and Hanna Raskin is no exception. As the food critic for The Post and Courier, she has won a James Beard Award for Local Impact journalism, snagged Association of Food Journalist awards for her criticism, and generally been a part of the national conversation about food and culture. But that doesn't mean everyone likes her work.
(Full disclosure: I worked for Hanna Raskin as a food reporter at The Post and Courier but left after a year upon realizing that daily newspaper work was not for me. Before that, I edited the food section at this paper. I also have the utmost respect for Raskin's ethics and tireless work habits.)
A few weeks ago, prominent Charlestonian Terri Henning posted a pointed message on social media: "I think it's time for a serious conversation about why the food and beverage community deserves a skilled restaurant critic."
The post came soon after not-so-great reviews of Wiki Wiki Sandbar and Tradd's, two restaurants owned by longtime members of the local food community, Karalee Nielsen Fallert (Taco Boy, Park Cafe, Wiki Wiki) and Tradd and Weesie Newton (Fleet Landing, Tradd's). Henning, for her part, is also a significant participant in the food and beverage culture of Charleston and was awarded The Laura Hewitt Award for her Outstanding Contribution to the Charleston Wine, Food and Hospitality World in 2018 by the Charleston Wine + Food festival.
The response to her query, says Henning, was overwhelming, with commenters agreeing with her premise and chiming in about snark, mean-spiritedness, and the need for less personal opinion.
But as Jeff Allen, a former food critic for this paper, points out, "Critics have to be opinionated. That's part of the job."
Allen reached out to Henning when he saw the post — "It piqued my interest because of my experience" — and was invited to attend a meeting to discuss what could be done to counteract the perceived impact of Raskin. A collection of between 30 and 40 chefs, restaurateurs, and others showed up at a neighborhood restaurant on a recent Sunday afternoon for the discussion.
Allen says he was a little scared showing up in that room, considering his past role, and was asked to speak almost immediately.
"They had a lot of questions surrounding the nature of a critic's work," says Allen. "And I made some points that might have been surprising, but I hope it was enlightening." He was not willing to speak specifically to who was there out of respect for keeping that off the record, but he was able to talk about a few things he shared.
The first thing that surprised the crowd, he says, was telling them that the critic doesn't serve the food and beverage industry or the people who work in it. The critic serves her readers.
"The ultimate goal is to provide a viewpoint that the reader is compelled to return to," he says. "The worst thing that could happen for me is that nobody gave a shit what I wrote."
And that's one truth of restaurant criticism: it's generally the bad reviews that get eyeballs. Remember that Guy Fieri takedown? Not only was the 2012 review by Pete Wells at the New York Times eviscerating ("When you hung that sign by the entrance that says, WELCOME TO FLAVOR TOWN!, were you just messing with our heads?"), it was written as a long series of questions directed at Fieri. It was a tour de force that went viral, every writer's dream.
But then so did Wells' 2015 review of Señor Frogs, in which he chronicled the exuberance he felt just giving himself over to the cheeky chain's shenanigans. ("But ... here, hold my Frogasm, I need to stand on the speakers and dance. Because I had more fun at Señor Frog's than at almost any other restaurant that has opened in the last few years.")
Good reviews along with James Beard Awards can increase business significantly year over year, but bad reviews can't close a restaurant, as Raskin pointed out in a recent story entitled "Plenty of things can keep a restaurant from succeeding, but a bad review isn't among them." She writes: "Facts can be fatal. Opinions only wound. And there's no question that those wounds hurt."
And those hurt feelings might be what is motivating this cadre of critical F&B-ers. Over the years, Allen and the City Paper have been subjected to angry phone calls, boycotts, and unfounded allegations of pay-to-play reviews; it comes with the territory.
Critics and journalists tend to develop very tough skins to deal with the level of hate spewed their way. So don't expect Raskin to stop doing her job. She's committed to serving her readers ethically and transparently. I'd even go so far as to bet that Raskin would welcome a forum with these disgruntled readers to discuss the role of a critic since one very important aspect of writing reviews is fearlessness. And she's got that in spades.
After the meeting, Henning sent a letter to the editor at The Post and Courier that contended the industry has "long been subjected to vengeful beratings, riddled with mean-spirited personal attacks" and asked, "How much power is too much for one person to possess?" She referred to Raskin's position on the James Beard Awards committee as causing some in the local industry to offer "silent support" for fear of retaliation.
Allen says he understands the perspective coming from the business side of this equation. "I understand the pressure and risk and investment. People invest millions of dollars and they have an interest in protecting that," he says. "Of course they have the right to be concerned."
But he says he warned the attendees at the meeting that they might end up generating the opposite effect than they hoped by speaking out forcefully against Raskin.
What happens from here is hard to say. While Henning in her letter called for other voices to be heard, newspapers that publish restaurant reviews like the City Paper and the Charleston Mercury offered up their own critics as proof that there are indeed other voices in the mix. In the end, though, Raskin remains the only full-time critic on staff at any publication in town, and that makes her voice impossible to silence. And, as Allen asks, why would you want to?