A few of my friends recently went to a Michelin-star restaurant in Chicago. They enjoyed the experience, but they weren’t too impressed. They left with the gastronomical equivalent of Paris Syndrome — they expected more, especially with how much they splurged.
My immediate thought was that we put too much emphasis on food reviews.
After all, being a foodie is a relatively accessible hobby for a lot of young people. Many of us haven’t had the opportunity to build our net worth enough to go traveling a bunch or own project cars, so we turn to eating as a personality trait. I certainly do, I have written quite a few articles about food!
And the first thing you do as a hobbyist is to seek out community. Instagram pages, sub-Reddits, YouTube channels, meetups etc. How else are you going to know what’s good?
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but as I have learned throughout the years as a foodie — and programming nerd — is that nothing is free of bias. Especially when it comes to knowing what’s good in the world of food.
The Michelin system itself is a good example. While it’s highly regarded as the most prestigious award in gastronomy, the system has biases.
Michelin has been accused of bias towards classical French cuisine, but that makes sense. After all, it’s a rating system that originated in France. It was originally a guidebook on where to eat if you had to stop to get your car serviced somewhere.
But Michelin has also been accused of bias towards Japanese cuisine. There’s no doubt that Japanese cuisine — paired with their culture of service — is spectacular, as we know all too well from the Bay Area. But investigative reporters have suggested that the disproportionate number of stars in Japan is likely used as a tool to win over hearts so that the Michelin company could sell more tires to a country with a high number of automakers.
There have also been other allegations of poor reviews, erroneous awards, a shortage of inspectors in some countries and other Michelin mishaps. If this is the best system in the world, what’s not to say that other centralized rating systems also come up short at times?
Decentralized rating systems are also imperfect. I’m talking about the modern way we gauge restaurants we want to try: by googling ‘good restaurants near me’.
The results tend to be a mixture of Yelp, Tripadvisor and Google review comments. In theory, this is great. A crowd-sourced rating system will statistically account for anomalies and mishaps.
However, this assumes that people are fair reviewers, and that search engines are perfect.
South Park once satirized the cultural phenomenon of self-aggrandizing Yelp critics. In the episode ‘You’re Not Yelping,’ the citizens of South Park try to leverage their ‘influence’ as ‘food critics’ to get free meals and perks at restaurants. This leads to a feud between Yelpers and restaurant owners in a hilarious episode brilliantly written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Maybe that episode is more of a criticism of influencer culture than gastronomy per se, but the point is salient: Eccentric people are more likely to engage in reviews than the average person.
The other side of the bias is the search engine bit. The computer tools we use can technically be broken down into math operations. As a computer science major, my job is to understand what goes on in the background. The business majors’ job is to sell it to businesses.
Restaurants compete to be the first ones to show up on Google searches. This is a practice known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and renowned educational institutes have boot camps for it. Some agencies cater to restaurants specifically.
When you search “good restaurants nearby”, you might as well be googling “restaurants that invested in tech marketing nearby”.
That’s the problem with social media. It’s social, yes. But when money is involved, professional teams take over. Not just for food reviews like Yelp or Tripadvisor, but all those Instagram pages with new food spots to try are also run by market professionals.
Maybe I’m a bit cynical, but I truly believe that no rating system is perfect. The best thing about food though, is that you can always eat it yourself and reach your own conclusion.