Food Writer Busted on Free Wedding Meal

Jul 012010
 

Befriending chefs and purveyors when you’re a food writer can be perilous. Worse yet, the practice can come back to bite you in the butt.

And that’s exactly what happened to Josh Ozersky, a food writer who got married recently in New York and showed poor judgement when planning for his wedding.

The trouble started when he accepted food from his buddies in the business as  presents: free bread, dips, seafood, lasagna, strip loins, and a free place to hold the event.

Then he devoted his column on Time magazine’s website to promoting the food and purveyors, never mentioning that his buddies supplied the goods for free, and saying most caterers “aren’t really good cooks” anyway.

Another food writer, Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice, busted him in an open letter, suggesting the food and venue could have cost $24,000 and asking whether he paid. And then the New York Times did a fascinating story about not only Ozersky but the whole issue of restaurants getting an increasing number of requests for free meals.

Time got so many comments on Ozersky’s column that they closed it, and later issued a statement: “Josh is friends with a variety of chefs and those relationships inform much of his writing. Usually, those connections are clear in his work. This piece describing his wedding, however, lacked adequate disclosure. Josh should have made his personal ties to the chefs in the piece clear and disclosed that the food and the venue he was describing were gifts. Josh understands that such proper disclosures are to be made in the future.”

So obviously, Ozersky screwed up. It’s best to disclose when you get a free meal or product, at the very least. Whenever you’re being treated in a way that’s not identical to the way your readers would be treated, you have to fess up.

So let’s discuss: Are you friends with food purveyors and chefs? Have you ever considered whether this might cause a conflict for you? Or do you think it’s inevitable to have friendships with the people whose food you admire, and whatever happens, you can handle it?

Thanks to Cynthia of  Life of Cyn and Carole Bidnick for sending me links.

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  29 Responses to “Food Writer Busted on Free Wedding Meal”

  1. I’m not friends with anybody important like that, but if I were, I would either disclose that relationship in any post relating to their food, or not talk about it at all. Doesn’t matter if I paid for their food or not. You shouldn’t hide that relationship from the reader, because it affects your credibility.

  2. He really showed blatant stupidity there. I certainly don’t have friends in high places like that..I’m a little jealous!

  3. I’m actually kind of shocked. I think accepting gifts from friends for your wedding is perfectly acceptable – but as a journalist, full disclosure should have been a given.

  4. Why discuss “payment” at all if is was a gift……this was a personal arrangement. I would have mentioned it only if it had been a “bartering” arrangement…… maybe? Even with bartering – it is a sensitive situation. One does not disclose, to even friends and sometimes family, who gave you what as a gift at your wedding.

    • Agreed that typically you do not disclose who gave what at a wedding, but typically the bride and groom do not write influential columns for Time magazine.

  5. I wasn’t bothered by his neglecting to mention the “free food”, but I was annoyed at the way he bashed caterers and wedding food. To me, he implied that you can only have good wedding food if you have good connections to people in the culinary world, and that’s not true. Nonetheless, the point of a wedding, no matter who you are, isn’t eating “good’ food anyway. Though I know I/we thought long and hard about the menu when we got married, I can honestly say I hardly remember what i ate that night, and most others didn’t either (except the pound cake wedding cake. yum!).

    as for the “free food”, big deal! it was a wedding gift and he’s not required to explain who gave him what. clearly, the point of his column wasn’t about cost, so how the food was procured really isn’t the issue, and he did credit the chefs who provided the food even though he didn’t say it was “free”.

    • That’s true that we food-obsessed people probably put too much focus on the food at events.

      As for the chefs and purveyors, they got free p.r. for giving him the food, and that was not disclosed. One guy said in the NY Times piece that because of the economy, he couldn’t give away free food, so it’s clear that he was expecting something in return.

  6. I’m surprised that an experienced food writer, one that’s working for Time no less, would “forget” to disclose such freebies. To me, it shows a clear lack of professionalism in a way that reminds of your post about the Water Clarifier pitcher. If you get something for free, you must disclose it. Otherwise your writing becomes informercial. It may be forgivable when it’s done by an overenthusiastic amateur blogger, but by a professional journalist? I don’t think so.

  7. As a caterer, I was really insulted by the assertion that catered food is sub-standard, and that most caterers aren’t “good cooks.” Many of my colleagues were equally dismayed. As a chef who has spent many years in the business, many restaurant chefs are ill-prepared for the rigors of banquet work, which is the essence of good catering. For some, it is a completely different skill set. Rather than bash restaurant chefs, however, I would like to note that there are many career avenues for talented chefs other than running a restaurant. We need to support each other in order to give credibility and respect to the profession. As in any field, it is narrow at the top, but that does not mean that all others are sub-standard. Good food is food you enjoy eating and remember fondly. Sometimes the simplest meals are the most memorable, particulary at weddings. A meal is more than the sum of its parts, and the people who share the celebration with you are often what is most cherished about the experience.

    • That was one of his biggest mistakes, to make that assertion. And as mentioned below, weddings are not just about the food.

  8. It’s all about boundaries. It’s sometimes difficult to understand where they are and stick to them, but it’s so important that food writers do so. Personal and professional standards of ethics and conduct are critical for all writers’ credibility. We learn by experience and training that appearance of impropriety can be as damaging as the actual thing. And Mr. O. is certainly experienced.

    There’s nothing wrong with a food writer knowing chefs and restaurant folk (as long as s/he’s not reviewing their work or their venue) or with accepting their wedding gifts of food. The wrong part is turning acts of friendship into grist for a piece that praises/publicizes the chefly friends, slams caterers as somehow inferior, and aggrandizes the writer’s position and connections.

    While it isn’t uncommon, I find it basically distasteful to commercialize/publicize such an important life event celebrated with intimates (whoever they are) by even writing a paid piece about it–this one’s disclosure issues notwithstanding. But those are just my own boundaries, I guess.

    • It all sounds good, Mary Margaret, but I’m not sure about the “accepting wedding gifts of food” part.

      Would you say to people, “well, don’t get me a present, but how about making my wedding cake for me?” That is one super-expensive gift. And probably the baker wouldn’t dare to say no.

      • Uh uh, nope, I would not, because I try not to take advantage of friends or anyone else. And if a food writer did ask with reciprocation implied or not, that’s just wrong

        On the other hand, I can easily see a cook/chef offering food as a wedding present to a friend–that’s just what food people do. But as your post states, it’s an ambiguous, sticky situation to be avoided; it’s just part of the responsibility of being an ethical food writer.

  9. Oh snap! That’s a pretty big boo-boo. I was thinking about this the other day – the FTC ruling was that we must disclose product, but immediately-consumed food is kind of a touchy area. Does a meal count as a product under the guidelines of the law? Not that it shouldn’t be disclosed anyways, just due to decency and integrity – but I’d be curious to see this if this is a gray area under the law, or if it’s specifically stated.

  10. Everyone loves free food, and it’s hard not to find things even tastier when you’re not presented with the bill. That’s human nature. But when it comes to journalism or any kind of writing {and however you define it} there’s a code of ethics that should override emotion and personal enjoyment. And for that reason, sometimes it’s best if we don’t write about the occasional freebees we enjoy, or make it adamantly clear when we do.

    I love the way Alan Richman handled this delimma in the review of L’Ecole, {the restaurant of the French Culinary Institute where, as he puts it, he has “a snappy title”} appropriately titled “J’Recuse” on his blog “forked & corked.” He brought along a dining companion whom he was entrusting to make some unbiased opinions. Certainly Mr. Richman gets treated quite well at L’Ecole, and thus knew his dining companion would as well, so he cleared the deck by opening with this:

    “I wanted to investigate two potentially delightful establishments where I might be perceived as less than objective. That’s why I have recused myself from offering opinions of what we are about to eat and drink, although you will soon learn that keeping silent is not what I do best.”

    His use of honesty and humor stuck with me, and inspired me to forgive any temporary misjudgment. You can read this review here, http://www.gq.com/blogs/the-q/2009/12/jrecuse.html, which may inspire a new and clever way for the rest of us to disclose areas where we “might be perceived as less than objective.”

    Great topic Dianne, as usual! Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks for this terrific link to Alan Richman, one of my favorite food writers. Indeed, he handled it deftly, and with humor, which is customary.

  11. It seems that if he could have put his “clarification” in the article instead of after having been busted he would have come up clean. What’s the matter with just telling us all how happy he was that his friends provided such great gifts and that everyone enjoyed them as well? Would we have minded that he extolled the virtues of all the culinary delights if we had known how he came to select them? I doubt it. We would probably have smiled and thought how wonderful it was that such generous friends with such great talent provided good food for his celebration. A word to the wise is usually sufficient – we just need to be able to recognize the word when it is whispered to us and not have to suffer the consequences of someone catching us out and screaming it at us and the world!

    • It’s not just that his friends gave him gifts. It’s about the size of the gifts. It’s one thing to give the guy $100 worth of table linens from the Pottery Barn, where he is registered. It’s another to give him several hundred dollars worth of free food to feed all his wedding guests. And since he said he asked them, they probably didn’t feel that they could say no.

  12. Wonder how many columns/blogs he’ll be doing in the future? Can you imagine what he’d come up with for the birth of the first baby?

  13. Dianne, thanks for raising these questions. You hit it with this line: “Whenever you’re being treated in a way that’s not identical to the way your readers would be treated, you have to fess up.” As food writers, we have a responsibility for propagating pleasure – and if our pleasure is somehow enhanced by a relationship with a chef or purveyor, then we owe it to our readers to disclose that. The idea isn’t new: If a restaurant picks up on the fact that I’m writing about them and goes out of its way to serve me something wonderful and I write about how wonderful it was and readers go and it’s not so wonderful…What happens? I’ve lost credibility with readers. I’ve broken an implicit trust.

    • Right. I guess it made him uncomfortable to say so. But look what’s happened. Better to just get it out there in a straight-forward way.

  14. The first misstep he made was in asking “friends” to cater his event. He does wield some power in his position with Time and it is possible that some of the purveyors at his wedding felt pressure to comply with his request. It would be different if they all offered up front. The second misstep was in using his wedding as fodder for his column and then the biggee, not disclosing the freebies. I’m amazed he still has a job.

    • I don’t think it was worth firing him over it. And certainly he’s had to deal with all the discussion, including on this site, so he’s probably suffered enough.

  15. Hmm. We’ve just returned from vacation and had a fantastic dinner at a restaurant in TO. The owner/chef happens to be the husband of a food writer I know only through email and blogs. We had hoped to meet her for drinks while we were at the restaurant, but it wasn’t meant to be. We did, however meet her husband and he was generous in providing us with dessert and one drink. However, I had/have no intention of writing about this. So a hearty thanks and great appreciation of his kind and generous hosting was all that was required. But, if I had planned on blogging about it you can bet I would have struggled with identifying his generosity. Not because I wouldn’t want to acknowledge it, but because I wouldn’t want to set up expectations for someone else who might think to drop the writer a note.

    • If you did write about it in a favorable way, you could say it the same way you said it here, and what’s wrong with that? This sounds perfectly reasonable. I wouldn’t infer from it that I could write a note to his wife and therefore expect a freebie.

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