An Open Letter to Tom Sietsema

Liz Cox
Liz Cox
Oct 4, 2018 · 4 min read

Dear Tom,

We live on opposite sides of the same industry, and we’re overdue for some two-sided communication. Your most recent review of La Vie, the Mediterranean restaurant on the new District Wharf, generated quite the buzz, much like your 2016 zero-star piece on Founding Farmers — which I imagine is the whole point.

I get it. Readers look to your articles for sharp, honest assessments of where to spend their money in search of a good experience. I’ll bet you are under pressure from the Washington Post for total online engagement. And while going out to dinner at a high-end restaurant is a joyful, relaxing experience for many, for you it is work.

Those of us who make up the backbone of the industry on which your career and livelihood are based have some thoughts that I’d like to share with you.

To start, we tend to notice changes in dining trends before most. Let’s imagine that over an entire year, you eat out each night with a friend and I work five nights a week serving 25 people dinner (a low count). In that time, you will experience 730 meals come out and I will handle 6,500. With this conservative estimate, I witness nine times as many dinners as you and therefore am seeing some things that you, the non-industry worker, are not.

Our behavior is often an adaptation based upon ongoing experiences with patrons. For instance, the act of asking for appetizers first. You found it so appalling you even tweeted about it that same night, as well as going into depth in the La Vie review. I can tell you that the trend of coursing meals is going out of style; the shared meal and tapas styles of eating are replacing it rapidly. Frequently I have patrons order appetizers as their main meal, and it is something I do as well. It is possible you were asked this after the server had one too many guests get aggravated due to the food coming out early — not due to a disconnect from the desires of patrons. Perhaps it is you who is not “woke” enough to emerging dining patterns.

As the senior food critic at the Washington Post, you could also write something about the myriad of issues facing the D.C. restaurant industry. It is not your primary job to write things other than restaurant reviews, but you find the time, sometimes.

For example, I have not read your thoughts on sexual harassment and assault in the industry. During the debate over initiative 77, which would have raised wages for tipped restaurant workers, you wrote nothing on the matter. Immigration is currently a pressing issue, with 1 in 10 restaurant workers in D.C. holding undocumented status. Addiction rates are also unconscionably high among restaurant workers, and treatment is tough to find due to the difficulty of getting non-employer sponsored benefits.

The restaurant sector is growing rapidly yet most of us face steep obstacles to health insurance and retirement savings, despite working full time. These factors leave an enormous segment of the population uninsured and ill-prepared for retirement. If one wants to see the health of a city, look at that of its workforce.

Arguably the biggest issue you have yet to address is the labor shortage in the D.C. restaurant and hospitality industry. By failing to acknowledge that the area is facing a major staffing crisis, a fundamental piece of information is missing and the full picture is not shown.

I’m not surprised La Vie and other fine dining establishments cannot find experienced staff. There are more than 10 upscale restaurants on The Wharf alone; not many have staff bringing home what fine dining servers and bartenders once did. Bartending at an upscale restaurant used to be a stable lifelong career plan. But the surge of new restaurants, combined with the declining popularity of fine dining, creates an environment in which it rarely pays more to be serving at La Vie than pouring a beer at the corner bar. (The corner bar also tends to be less stressful.)

If you happen to want to be able to take your kids to the doctor, and an insurance plan on the exchange — a service under attack by the current administration—is out of reach, then it is unlikely you are serving at La Vie. You left for a job at a hotel, casino, or large restaurant group that provides benefits a small business cannot.

Tom, you are known for brutal honesty and scathing reviews. At the end of the day, everyone reads reviews. After writing for the Washington Post for 18 years, you are an esteemed critic, but it may not occur to you how it looks from our side. Without providing full context about timely, relevant, impactful issues facing the restaurant industry in D.C., your reviews fail at telling the full story. And that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This story was updated on 10.25.18. It originally stated Sietsema had no restaurant experience. He worked at Pizzeria Uno briefly out of college in the early 1980s. He has not worked in food service since leaving Pizzeria Uno.

by Henry Martin for The New Yorker

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