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Foodies and Freebies: Where’s the Line?

June 30, 2010

By now, most everyone in the foodie world has heard about Josh Ozersky. The food critic recently got married, and wedding guests were treated to Sullivan Street Bakery breads, lasagna from Marea chef Michael White and other tasty treats from high-profile chefs. He wrote a column on the food, published on June 15 on Time’s Web site. In it, he encouraged would-be brides and grooms to ditch the caterer (whose only job is to “to put something edible on the table that looks fancy and is warmer than the average body temperature,” Ozersky writes) and hire restaurant chefs to provide a wedding meal. A fine notion if you happen to be friends with the likes of Ed Brown and Michael Psilakis, though perhaps not as meaningful for us hoi polloi.

Ozersky foolishly neglects to mention that he received all of these favors for free, prompting Village Voice restaurant critic Robert Sietsema to call him out in an open letter posted on the Voice’s site last week. The most controversial part of the letter not-so-subtly accuses Ozersky of trading meals for column space, what one might call a big no-no:

“One of the assumptions the reader might make is that you’d promised these chefs, many of whom do high-end catering and expect big bucks for it, to mention them in your magazine column. If you did, I would think Time would take a dim view of that.”

Ozersky responded in a clarification at the bottom of his original post, explaining that he asked his chef friends to contribute meals in lieu of gifts, and admitted that full disclosure would have been prudent on his part.

New York Times reporter Julia Moskin chimed in on the situation yesterday with her take: reporters should stay away from free meals for ethical reasons, though restaurants can’t afford freebies anyway (read the full story here).

Not until I read Moskin’s article did I realize that food writers commonly receive free meals. Considering that I’m extremely low in the food critic food chain (we’re talking like phytoplankton low here), I’ve only faced the issue of receiving a free meal for my work once. In July 2008, I wrote a profile on a Sardinian chef for The Baltimore Sun. When interviewing Chef Daniela Useli, she offered me some snacks and later, a meal, at the restaurant Sotto Sopra. She was an amazing cook, and it’s no fun to write about a meal without eating it, but ethically, I felt a little queasy about receiving a comped meal. As an intern, I wasn’t about to take any chances, so it was an easy answer — no, thank you.

Perhaps when I’m an established food writer with famous chef friends (ha.), the lines may become more blurry. But for now they seem pretty clear. Sadly, free is no good with me.

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