Foodie Rant - The Ethics of Free Food

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 30, 2010 3:40PM

2010_06_30_dennys.jpg Last night, when I got home from a late-night appointment, I found a package in my mailbox. Some other tenants in my building were there to watch me open it - it contained a bottle of spiritous liquor. "You're so lucky, I want your job," seemed to be the common refrain. The bottle had been sent as a free sample by a company that wanted me to try mixing it into some cocktail recipes, and at the time I didn't give it a second thought.

However, a New York Times article about an evolving food scandal gave me pause. Josh Ozersky, food writer for Time magazine had his entire, very expensive, wedding catered at no cost by the very best New York restaurants. Then, he wrote glowing reviews of the food and the chefs in his columns. Some claim that this is simply an honest exchange - the chefs allowed him to sample their products, he endorsed the ones he liked. Others cry foul, arguing that this is yet another example of how food writing is a corrupt business, tainted by PR and filled with scams.

This is not the first foodie scandal. Numerous high-end food writers — most notably, Esquire food writer John Mariani — have been accused of demanding free meals and special treatment, and restaurants have treated food critics (when unmasked) like celebs for years. I have accepted invitations to media dinners, free samples and bottles of booze gratis. I know many PR agents on a first-name basis. What is acceptable and what is bribery? This is a question that every ethical writer constantly ponders, but I can take a stab at it.

Restaurant reviews must be done anonymously. That doesn't mean you won't be noticed or recognized - I have been, with amusing results. But if you are, you probably shouldn't write the review unless you go back incognito. I often see other bloggers and writers preening, loudly talking about their status and snapping flash pictures all over the room in an effort to be noticed - not me. I am invited to free meals, but I only take them from restaurants I have either already written about or don't plan to write about. On the other hand, there are lots of things I wouldn't get to do without PR people - you wouldn't get to see pictures of pastry, or learn about the finer points of pig dismemberment. Access is important, but there is a difference between access and bribery. Gothamist LLC policy prevents me from accepting comps in exchange for coverage, and FTC rules require that I disclose all gifts (Ed. Note: here at Chicagoist we've always tried our best to adhere to the restaurant review guidelines set by the American Association of Food Journalists. We've also erred on the side of transparency whenever content was the result of a media invitation or sample and will continue to do so. — C.S.). I will never demand anything be given to me for free. Above all, it's important to remember that free food sways even the most cynical foodie - that filet ALWAYS tastes better when someone else is paying for it.

What about that bottle of booze? When I first started writing for Chicagoist, my father scolded me, arguing that I was being bribed with free products and access. My only response has been that I do my best to provide even-handed coverage. Sometimes, a free sample is the only way I hear about a new product. On the other hand, sometimes a free sample is laughable or disgusting, and I do my best to say so. Every bottle of spirits is offset by packages of horrible gel candy, but I still ponder it every time I get something in the mail. The best I can do is be evenhanded and ethical, moment by moment, and I continue to refine my position. I also rely on the readers - If I endorse a restaurant or product that you know is disgusting, feel free to call me out.