There has long been an unspoken etiquette among local food writers and restaurants: When criticism is dished out, it comes sweetened with civility.
Until two weeks ago. Over the holidays, Mitch Omer, a tall, white-haired Minneapolis restaurateur with a proclivity for cowboy boots, lashed out at Travel Channel star and longtime local food critic Andrew Zimmern.
Omer's celebrated 10th Street breakfast spot, Hell's Kitchen, has never been the subject of Zimmern's widely read column in Mpls.St.Paul magazine, but he nonetheless has a bone to pick with the Twin Cities' most famous foodie. In a screed posted on The Rake's website, Omer claims that Zimmern "bludgeons local eateries with a blunt instrument: his pen" while "sucking the gastronomic dick" of "stupid fucking elitist" establishments.
Drawn into the feud are two other local food critics, a food critic's husband, and the editor of Mpls.St.Paul magazine.
It started on Thanksgiving, at the home of The Rake food writer Ann Bauer. Omer, an old friend of Bauer's, arrived clutching a copy of Zimmern's December column. "For years, I have wondered why someone who criticizes a restaurant for being ordinary...is derided by fellow Minnesotans for being unsupportive of our restaurant community?" Zimmern wrote. "Tell me why I should get excited about this year's gaggle of boring and ordinary new restaurants ... if they all went away tomorrow, would we notice at all?"
Omer took this as evidence that the influential critic and star of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods had come to look down on the quaint, Midwestern audience that launched his career.
Bauer defended Zimmern at her home that night, but suggested Omer send his opinion to her editors at The Rake. So Omer set to work assembling a sort of manifesto, complete with extensive quotes from Zimmern's columns. The Rake published the harangue on a new blog called Food Fight.
Hours after Omer's piece appeared, Zimmern updated his own blog, Chow & Again. Although he didn't address Omer directly, and would later say he had not yet read the complaint, Zimmern cranked up the heat: "I have been poring through local food writers' best-of lists," he wrote, "which is a sure-fire way to stoke the fires of my small-minded and punitive judgmental thinking."
Then he picked a familiar target at The Rake: "Seeing [Ann] Bauer's piece touring us through the highlights of her year of eating was the buzz kill of my day," he wrote, encouraging The Rake to send Bauer and her colleague Jeremy Iggers to better restaurants and with more money to spend.
Bauer was quick to return fire. First she called Zimmern on his typos. Then she declared that she was not a "foodie" (describing herself instead as a "food writer who also writes about art, history, religion, and politics"). "In order to get a rise out of Zimmern I'd have to eat great-spotted lizard eggs or suck down the testicles of an endangered wildebeest," she sniped. Defending her employer from suggestions of stinginess, she lashed out at Mpls.St.Paul magazine, asserting that at The Rake, there is less money to throw at food because "they let us say absolutely anything we think, without regard to how it will affect advertisers, which is what I call journalism." But, she added, "We're not here to debate the flimsy firewalls at Minnesota's lifestyle magazines." (This last comment earned Bauer an irate email from Mpls.St.Paul restaurants editor, Adam Platt).
The bald, always grinning Zimmern did not respond publicly, and on New Year's Day, Iggers stepped into the fray—postponing his own year-end list to defend Bauer and jab Zimmern (again) for his diet of grotesque animal parts.
Along the way, several pointed comments appeared at The Rake's and Zimmern's blogs—including one from Bauer's husband (again defending her list, and sweetly so) and one from Don Saunders, chef and owner of Fugaise ("Pretty harsh, but couldn't agree more," he said of Omer's critique).
Bauer says this sometimes excruciating back and forth is Minneapolis witnessing the pains of a shift from rock-star restaurant journalism to "more substantive food reporting."
Zimmern is simply amused. "I loved it," he says. "Lutheran DNA—a lot of people call it Minnesota Nice—is a cultural phenomenon in this town. People are afraid to come out with bold opinions and stir the pot."
But the globe-trotting critic can't resist a subtle jab at the relative station of his critics: "When you're watched by people in 70 countries, you develop a thick skin."
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