The curried chicken ramen at Asiatique. To know what's in it, you have to ask chef Peng Looi; you don't assume. | Photo by Steve Coomes

On any given day, I could be asked by a reader, “How do you know so much about restaurants?” and then be told in so many words by a restaurateur that I don’t fully understand something I’ve written about.

Neither comment is humbling. When a reader thinks I know a lot, I’m reminded that I’ll never know it all, that there’s much more to master in this dynamic industry. And when a restaurateur points out that I need more information and insight, class is in session for me. I love learning about this business.

What’s troubling is how few restaurant writers really know their subject of coverage, yet there are more people reporting on this business than at any time in history. That’s not surprising since this is a fun industry to cover and readers can’t seem to get enough of it.

But I hear regularly from restaurateurs all over the U.S. that a reporter “has no clue” about the business because he or she never set foot in a kitchen or waited tables or washed dishes. Many times I’ve been told by sources, “I can tell from the first few questions they ask whether they know their stuff or not.”

Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca
Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca

There’s a lot of truth in those statements, but to be fair, such criticism is only half merited. Thousands of great reporters have never worked in the fields they cover. But they mastered coverage of it by being diligent, asking questions whether stupid or intuitive, and accepting criticism from editors and readers. The great ones are constantly open to learning.

Those journalists also know how to report. They know how to dig for and affirm facts, and when they cover controversial subjects, they do so with balance and use multiple sources. They also don’t believe everything they’re being told—even by sources they’ve grown to trust.

That kind of reporting is lacking in this business, and since most diners also aren’t experts, such misreporting gets a pass. That’s likely because restaurant reporting isn’t like sports reporting, where every statistic is readily available to reporters and readers alike. Serious sports fans know what’s going on with every team and can call out reporters who don’t to their jobs.

In restaurant reporting, detailed information isn’t so readily available or abundantly clear. In an industry where so many dishes are mere fusions of others, and classic drinks become the concoction of the week under Old School names, it’s not easy to determine the provenance of so many things with consistent accuracy.

Yet that doesn’t stop a lot of restaurant reporters from writing as if they really know what’s on their plates. Worse, they feel no reluctance about criticizing a restaurant for not meeting their understanding of how a particular dish or drink should be made—though it might even be wrong. Too often, opinion rules in restaurant reporting when fact gathering is needed. The notion that everyone’s opinion counts on social media has crept into actual reporting, where such slanted views should always be avoided.

So to my restaurant reporting peers nationwide, resolve this year to get the facts right by doing the following:

  • Double check the spelling of names. Just because a chef has a heavy Iranian accent doesn’t excuse you from asking her to spell her name out—letter by letter if necessary. Trust me, I struggle here, too, because it makes me feel a bit dim. But better to look slow and get it right than not say anything and screw it up.
  • Double check the spelling of culinary and drink terms, and be sure you’re using them correctly. Chefs will tell you they’re usually terrible spellers, so they don’t always care. But hell hath no wrath like a studied mixologist or oenophile who knows you didn’t even check the label of a bottle you mentioned. If you want to earn their respect as a reporter, then respect their craft as much as they do.
  • Don’t trust Facebook, Twitter or any social media user to get anything right. If you see a possible story lead, address the source directly and privately without sharing a rumor.
  • Just because you’re a great home cook or drink maker doesn’t mean you know how to do that for 200 people. Home cooking can fine tune one’s palate, but it won’t teach much about restaurant operations. If you can’t learn by spending some time in a restaurant owner’s or employee’s shoes, then ask to shadow them for a day. I bet you’ll never hear “no” to such a request.
  • Find more stories on your own rather than waiting for publicists to drop them in your laps. Contrary to some of my peers, I love using publicists. But I also know they’re paid to execute an agenda.
  • To Louisville-area food, beverage and business reporters: Acquire a better-than-basic knowledge of bourbon. Horses and hoops aren’t even year-round things here, but bourbon and restaurants are in the spotlight every day, and they’re inextricably intertwined. It amazes me to me to see how poorly reported bourbon is by the home team.

And to all our sources: Call us out when we get it wrong, but do it respectfully and privately. Everyone’s human, everyone makes mistakes and everyone needs a lot of grace. Understand that you are our teachers and we need your guidance to improve our craft. A better-educated pool of reporters means better quality writing, and better quality writing means increased positive exposure for everyone. It takes a village to work this out.

Happy New Yeer to all! (Oh, sorry, Year.)

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Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, WhiskeyWash.com and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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