Monday, July 4, 2011

Rant: Wallflowers & Mediocrity

"I think most people would rather be a fucking wallflower than take a risk."
---Chef David Chang

Chef David Chang has created his own culinary empire in the East Village of New York, the renowned Momofuku restaurants. Momofuku means "lucky peach" and Chef Chang, in conjunction with McSweeney's Publishers, has now expanded his empire to include a quarterly magazine, named Lucky Peach. The magazine will also become an iPad app later this month. I bought a copy of their first issue ($10) and have been eagerly devouring its contents, and would highly recommend it to all food lovers.

One of the articles in Lucky Peach which set me to thinking was a discussion between Dave Chang, Anthony Bourdain, and Wylie Dufresne on the topic of Mediocrity. The discussion is said to have occurred at a cafe in San Sebastian, Spain, and centered on mediocrity in restaurants in the U.S., though it could easily apply to many other endeavors too. The key points discussed are certainly not unique to restaurants, and it led me to ponder their application in other areas, such as blogging.

"I think my definition of mediocrity is people who are scared to take a chance. They're more comfortable just staying in the middle---"
---Chef David Chang

Do you take risks in your own endeavors, or are you more comfortable playing it safe? If you take risks, are they small ones or large ones? How often do you take risks, once a year, once a month, once a week? If you play it safe all the time, why do you do so? Why are you risk averse?  Do you tend to gravitate toward or patronize others who play it safe or take risks?

For myself, I tend to gravitate towards those willing to take risks, who offer something innovative even though they understand they might not always succeed. Some of my favorite books, movies and television shows do exactly that, take risks rather than offer mediocrity.  Consider the recent controversy over the HBO series Game of Thrones, where a main character was executed. Though faithful to the book, it was a major risk for television and I admire HBO for going through with it. Some of my favorite restaurants, such as Bergamotare also risk takers, with menus that frequently change, offering innovative and exciting cuisine.

As for my blog, I believe I take risks as well. My Monday Rants can be a risk, potentially alienating or angering some of my readers, or others including restaurants, wine store owners, authors, and more. My reviews of restaurants, food & wine events, books, and such may contain some negative comments, which always risks offending people. But it is not in my nature to be a blind cheerleader, raving only about the positive qualities of a place or event. I like to think the honest truth is more beneficial to all involved.

Consider your own food and/or wine blog, and think on whether you take risks or not. Or maybe you are happy with your mediocrity. Consider wine review blogs, many which seem to only offer positive reviews. No matter how skilled the writing, there basically appears to be no risk involved. There are restaurant review sites which do the same, offering only the positive, and thus risking nothing. Actually, there is one type of risk these sites possess, the risk of ridicule for being mediocre. Yet, their mediocrity apparently has merit, at least for some people, as such sites can get nominated for awards. Rewarding such mediocrity puzzles me, as it leads to others seeking to emulate such mediocrity.

Other blogs, besides wine and restaurant review sites, have problems with mediocrity. They may address the same tired old topics all the time, never delving into new territory. They play it safe, fearing to take risks that might alienate some of their readers. Interestingly, some of these bloggers even think they are being original, despite addressing the same old topics time and time again. Why are they blind to their own mediocrity?

Chef Chang and his friends believe that the root of mediocrity is often monetary, which implies that the majority of consumers prefer the same old stuff rather than something new, innovative or risky. Opening a restaurant is inherently a risky endeavor on its own, so creating a safe and mediocre menu may help to greatly reduce that risk. It is a series of compromises, from the very beginning, and few chefs and owners are willing to increase the usual amount of risk. Not enough consumers demand risk taking, so the safest bet is for a restaurant to cater to the lowest common denominator.

Now, as few bloggers earn much money from their blogs, you would think they would have a greater incentive to be risky as they are not relying on their blogs to pay their bills. But, some bloggers worry about another element, the free samples, dinners and event tickets that they receive from PR and marketing companies. They feel that negative reviews could decrease the amount of freebies they receive, so they post only positive reviews. For them, mediocrity helps ensure that the gravy train does not stop. You can see that in Twitter tastings where some bloggers always rave about whatever wine they are tasting. They never seem to dislike any free wine. There are food bloggers too who rave about every free event they attend, without a simple complaint.

PR and marketing companies love all the positive reviews, but I believe they also understand the reasons for such. Many bloggers fail to understand that these companies are also realistic enough to understand and accept reviews that contain some negative elements. They know their clients are not perfect, and negative criticism can indicate where those clients need to make changes. I believe these companies most appreciate and respect honest reviews, rather than sycophantic and fawning reviews. I also believe discerning readers feel the same way.

My advice: Take a risk, and then take another. Mediocrity is the easiest route to take, but it is the road most traveled, placing you within a huge horde of others. Make the effort, invest the time, and take a risk. Yes, you might fail but even that failure is likely to be educational and will help you succeed the next time you take a risk. Risk taking is more fulfilling, more satisfying. Stop rewarding mediocrity, and seek to cherish innovation, risk taking, and ingenuity.

Don't be a fucking wallflower.


Rebecca said...

LOL. Love your closing line. A tone that I wish I could use at times, but alas - can't....

Rob Ciampa said...

Richard, this ain't no food blogger piece; it's a poignant business article. Thanks for sharing. As someone who took his entire savings and started a company 1,000 miles away, I appreciate what you wrote. The only part you're missing is a description of the sleepless nights. Perhaps that's why we drink so much espresso.
Rob Ciampa

Maggie said...

Richard, I really love this piece. I often feel sidelined because I don't write about restaurants/companies unless I want to, for me. Instead of ads or pay for play, I started my own business, and regardless of the ups and downs, I ain't looking back. (Rob, I knew you drank tons of espresso. Richard too? I can't get enough...)

Rob Ciampa said...

Maggie, occasionally I attempt decaf. I remember something written on a wall at an antique bookstore in Atlanta: "Live What You Love." I'll mix in some of Richard's piece: "Don't be a fucking wallflower and live what you love passionately." Perhaps my new mantra...

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Rebecca,
Yes, sometimes we all wish we could use that tone, but understand it is not always appropriate in all venues. But we can still think it. :)

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Rob,
I do believe the piece has a broader reach than just blogging. Mediocrity vs risk is an element of many different endeavors, and should always be considered. Kudos to you for your own risk taking. And I love your new mantra.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Maggie,
No expresso for me. I am more an iced tea huy.

Alana Gentry said...

Richard, as always a thought-provoking post. My thought is know your audience and be true to your self. Those two things in themselves are risky. And you my friend, are an original! Happy 4th~

Evan Dawson said...

Classic Richard. Companies should hire you to shake things up. Thanks for the reminders.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Alana and Evan. Like the Razzies do for films, maybe we need Wallflower Awards for wine blogs.

1winedude said...


I had very similar stuff in mind when I posted about print journalists in wine doing the same thing (playing it too safe, I mean).

THe twitter tasting mention hit home for me - in teh last few that I've done, I've started tweeting that wine X was no good, and then got DMs trying to get me to tone it down. I was like "F-CK that, this wine stinks!" So far, no negative impacts in terms of people blacklisting me for events (at least, not yet), but then I suppose they kind of know what they're in for when they invite me so I give them props for taking risks themselves!

Now, YOU also need to take a risk - a risk in using a blog design that is not from 1998. Just sayin'.


Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Joe:
That is a very interesting comment about the Twitter tastings. When I have spoken negative about such wines, I have not yet been DMed about toning it down. Kudos to you to sticking to your guns.

Yes, my site could use an update but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. First, I am largely HTML illiterate, so I would be unable to do it on my own. Blogger is simple, which suits my skill level in that regard.

And to hire someone else to do it would be too expensive for me at this time.

But maybe it is a risk to use an antiquated style, to let the content speak for itself, unadorned by a flashy style. :)

Jeff said...

Great article, thanks. As a new blogger, I've been worried about saying anything negative, but I decided I was going to say it the way it is and have been doing so. Glad to know I'm just a risk taker. :)

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Jeff:
Just be honest and I think you will do well. Constructive criticism is always appropriate, and businesses should be very amenable to receiving it.