Partially Anonymous Food Critic Alison Cook Speaks at a Public Event, Is Dismayed When Eater Runs a Photo

Categories: News

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Another photo of Alison Cook at Sunday's Metropolitan Cooking Show, obtained on Facebook.
Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook appeared at a public event over the weekend, speaking in front of a large group at the Metropolitan Cooking Show in Reliant Center. Several audience members took photos of Cook, one of which was published on Eater Houston this morning under the headline: "Chronicle Critic Alison Cook Appears In Public, Sheds Anonymity At Metro Cooking Show."

Cook was dismayed at Eater's decision to run the photo, despite the fact that there's no expectation of privacy at a public event and despite the fact that she has long been recognized within the service industry by her own admission. Cook took to Twitter this morning to express her frustration with the situation.

"So Eater Houston is going to run a photo of me. I knew this day would come. Doesn't mean I have to like it," Cook wrote. And in a reply to one follower, Cook further elaborated on Eater editor Eric Sandler's decision to run the photo: "[A]pparently it's a necessary scalp for Eater to hang on its tent pole. That's how it goes."

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The infamous photo of L.A. Times food critic S. Irene Virbila.
Cook joins the ranks of fellow food critics S. Irene Virbila and Hanna Raskin, both of whom were recently unmasked in the social media arena. L.A. Times critic Virbila received a far rougher outing, with a photo snapped of her by a restaurant owner before she was asked to leave the restaurant. The photo circulated quickly and Virbila's famously anonymous face was all over the food media within hours.

Raskin was outed by Eater Dallas when she arrived to work for the Dallas Observer, as was her successor, Scott Reitz. Interestingly, a few months later, Reitz asked Anthony Bourdain in an interview about whether or not it was fair of media outlets to "out" anonymous critics. Bourdain responded: "Hey, fair is fair. The press takes pictures of civilians, and civilians should feel free to take pictures of press."

Cook's chagrin at Eater's decision to run her photo seems misplaced in light of the fact that she chose to appear in a public arena, knowing that photos would be taken. As the old saying goes, you don't poke the bear. Equally odd was Cook's statement to Eater Houston, in which she placed some of the blame for her unmasking on her employer.

"My comment is that my newspaper wants and needs me to be more visible, and I have honored that request," she told Sandler. "It's not a comfortable situation for a critic who has tried to keep a low profile for many years, and whose photo is not online."

In an emailed statement, the Chronicle senior editor Melissa Aguilar said that the paper did take some credit for forcing the issue, but also admitted that Cook was not anonymous within the industry she covers:

Alison Cook is an integral part of our food team at the Houston Chronicle. She's such a force in print and on social media that we decided it was time our readers meet her in person. I think most folks in the restaurant community have figured out who she is over the years.

And while it's true that -- up until today -- there were no photos immediately available of Cook, she has plainly strived less in recent years to keep a low profile, at least among the industry persons that all Houston food writers cover on a regular basis.

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Robb Walsh chose to shed his own anonymity so that no one else would do it for him.
Keeping a low profile is especially difficult, however, considering the way in which food coverage and interest has mushroomed in the last decade.

It's no longer enough for a food critic to write one restaurant review every one to two weeks. Food critics are now expected to be reporters (often writing 15 to 20 articles a week in addition to their reviews) and public figures as well as fulfilling many other roles for their publications. The shedding of anonymity, as happened with previous Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh, comes naturally as a result.

For my part, I never had a chance at anonymity. I was already known as the Houston Press web editor and as a freelance food writer for the Press -- with unflattering photos galore online -- before I was offered the position of food critic. You can't put toothpaste back in the tube.

I took this job knowing that a lack of anonymity was the single biggest barrier to building trust with my readers (yes, bigger even than my lack of experience or my youth), but I strongly believe it can be accomplished. More importantly, it has to be accomplished in the times we live in, where everyone over the age of five has a cell phone camera and the ability to TwitPic your face all day long.

Cook has clearly already built a huge foundation of trust with her readers over the years. The last vestiges of her anonymity being removed shouldn't change that.

Considering this as well as the facts that Cook has long been known to industry personnel, that she chose to appear at a public event, that anonymity is clearly becoming a relic of old-school food coverage and that Cook's outing appears to have been as close to "on her own terms" as possible, the shock and dismay seems more than a bit overwrought.

Perhaps Cook sees it that way too, as one of her final Twitter statements on the matter indicated.

"The upside to Eater running my photo? One less thing to dread. Onward."



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38 comments
Cory Fitts
Cory Fitts

Also, I concede that 'nasty' was a poor choice of adjectives. "Unflattering" is probably more accurate.

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

I don't really understand. Why is this really noteworthy?  So what if they show their face?  Why did the cloak of anonymity matter? 

 

I believe that she's merely a noteworthy person in the world of foodies but I don't see why this is worthy of an entire article.  This might be a case of people and writers seeking drama where there isn't any.  Just my humble opinion

Cory Fitts
Cory Fitts

Wow, Joshua - what a classy rebuttal. I understand where you're coming from with respect to fairness and not receiving special treatment, but most restauranteurs and their employees know exactly who these people are. I've been reading AC's reviews since her days at the Houston Press, and she's certainly not above snark. I've also waited on her before, ages ago, and she was perfectly pleasant. I'm not suggesting she's a bad person, or that her negative remarks are unwarranted. I just think the preciousness about anonymity is really moot at this point.

devlin2
devlin2

What tickles me is not so much that she finds this irksome and wishes to preserve her anonymity (except when she introduces herself to various restaurant owners), but that much  local media (CultureMap, 002, Houston Modern Luxury etc)  tries to play up the celebrity angle by featuring pictures of their writers. There seems to be a correlation between low writing and high visibility among these outlets,  kinda the inverse of Alison's situation.

Joshua Justice
Joshua Justice

Cory, Critic doesn't mean they write nasty things. The two major critics between them have MAYBE 5 negative reviews in the past 12+ months. The anonymity also has nothing to do with "owning up" to what they say or write, its about balanced fair service and impartial treatment at reviews. Take your Yelp logic and GTFO.

Anse
Anse

Maybe she's really more afraid of being spotted at a McDonald's drive-thru or something.

Blake Whitaker
Blake Whitaker

No kidding. I've never seen Shilcutt or Cook write nasty things in reviews just for the sake of it. Occasional negative assessments don't equal nastiness. And before the Internet basically blew up anonymity, it wasn't about not being a grown up. It was about preventing special treatment. Not a laughable proposition when done right.

Tara Dunn
Tara Dunn

2. I just wonder why the pic was posted - there's being informative and then there's let's expose/tabloid/let's post this to jack up traffic and advertising dollars real world "journalism." Should it annoy her? Yeah. Should it surprise her? Nope. I'm surprised she kept her anonymity for so long.

Tara Dunn
Tara Dunn

1.Alison doesn't exactly write nasty things. In fact, I think she's too kind. ie: El Real. That place is crap, but she focuses on the good things they do

Eric Sandler
Eric Sandler

First of all, I'm not a critic. Second, my picture is in my twitter avatar. People know what I look like.

JKempner
JKempner

Alison's own worst enemy is Alison Cook.

Scott Lynch
Scott Lynch

Not that their identities are anonymous, but it is funny that neither Katherine's nor Eric's pictures are in the article :P.

Cory Fitts
Cory Fitts

I think the whole anonymous food critic schtick is laughable. If you're going to write nasty things about people's businesses, and get paid for it no less, you should be prepared to own your words. It's called being a grown up.

carriebwc
carriebwc

I don't get it.  She has long acknowledged that everyone in town knew her, and wasn't anonymous.  WTF?

Super_Positive_Chuck
Super_Positive_Chuck

I like the fact that now Walsh galavants around town dressed like Tom Wolfe.

iMidget
iMidget

I sat unknowingly next to Alison at a baby Anvil with still brown papered windows.  She had peaked my curiousity as, well...  Have you met the lady?  Her identity became clear when she grabbed Bobby Huegel by the hand and said "Do me one favor.  Make some f'ing money."  His reply?  "Yes, Alison." 

 

Bingo.  Alison Cook. 

jeffbalke
jeffbalke topcommenter

If only I could delete every photo of me online I didn't like. Boy, would that be a great world...for all of us. :)

etee56
etee56

My suspicion was that Alison was engaging in a practice commonly known as "venting [one's spleen]", something one does when one has to do things one would prefer not to, so as to prevent the stress levels from getting so high one feels the need to perform the act known as "going postal all over someone's ass."

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

Walsh left Press just 4 months after shedding his anonymity, saying, "I am no longer an anonymous restaurant critic. My face is out there." Very relevant comment, I think.

Sharon333
Sharon333

At least we still have Ruth Bourdain. Ignore the haters Ms. Shilcutt 'cos haters' hate! Write on.

whitepunkondope
whitepunkondope

give that you are the so-called food editor of HP, you should not be writing about this topic – now get back to what you do best: riding walsh's coat-tails

flaggler
flaggler

 @vydakinfo You might be called jejune. Does a restaurant provide the same level of service to a celebrity? Answer: no.

 

Now a noteworthy critic like Alison or Katharine is like a celeb, only they have the power of the press, meaning they have lots of readers and credibility among those readers. So, if a restaurant provides a different level of service/food/attention to a celeb, does it follow that the same is true of a critic? Only more so.

 

And if you're an everyman you expect your critic to reflect the service/food that an everyman would get. Which would be undermined if the maitre d announces "Alison Cook was just seated at table 12."

H_e_x
H_e_x

 @vydakinfo I think it's perfectly reasonable to write about a food critic on a food blog. 

whitepunkondope
whitepunkondope

 @iMidget you meant "piqued."

 

and your little yarn comes as no surprise; Cook is in Huegel's pocket, just like Shilcutt

conebaby
conebaby topcommenter

 @jeffbalke From your mouth to the flying spaghetti monster's ... hearing parts.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @Kylejack More relevant than the fact that he was leaving to pursue a career in the restaurant industry and to further expand his writing career as a best-selling cookbook author? Just fueling the debate.  :)

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @whitepunkondope Also, I'm a staff writer. Cathy Matusow is our food editor, in addition to being the managing editor of the paper. Staff writers cover news. Staff writers like me who mostly write about food...cover food news. Thanks for reading.  :)

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

 @flaggler Agreed.  Only the more reason to not flash her photo, yet again, on the internet and write a story about it. 

vydakinfo
vydakinfo

 @H_e_x Appreciate the opinion and reply but I disagree.  To me, it would be the same as a TV news show spending 15 minutes of air time talking about a fellow reporter.  I just don't see it as worthy.

Sihaya
Sihaya

 @whitepunkondope  @iMidget

 Yes, if I was as rich with ill-gotten gains as Ms. Shilcutt, the first thing I'd do is run out and get a job with the Houston Press.  Or I'd start a charity for orphans.  But more likely that first one. 

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @kshilcutt What I don't understand is the purpose. Just clicks, I guess, but writing about a talk that Cook gave really isn't aided all that much by a picture of her. It just seems rude to make someone's job so much harder for such a negligible benefit to the article.

janydots
janydots

 @vydakinfo  @flaggler well fine, but kinda newsworthy then right? i mean up until yesterday or so you couldn't google her name and find a pic anywhere. sorta rare for a person who writes everyday for many decades. 

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @Kylejack The purpose of Eater outing her or of us writing about it? If it's the former, the purpose is very clear: It's the Eater model/way of doing business. Eater has an entire, long-running section called "To Catch a Critic." They've done it for years. As to why Cook specifically? Probably because she was making herself publicly available -- and has claimed in the past to be anonymous -- making the decision for Eater to run her photo a fairly easy one, I'd assume. I'm clearly speaking out of turn here, as I'm not Eater...but I'm making educated guesses.

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