Pot Luck

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

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."

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.

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."

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katharine Shilcutt