As I was reading through the list of finalists for the Pulitzer Prizes yesterday, I was thrilled to find Laura Reiley’s name in the Criticism category. An alum of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Baltimore Sun, Reiley is currently the restaurant critic for the Tampa Bay Times. (She lost to The New Yorker’s theater critic Hilton Als, another one of my favorite writers.)
Reiley is a gifted stylist and astute critic, and she's been using her platform to push for greater transparency in restaurants. It’s been a year since she published the first installment of her barnstorm of an investigative series, Farm to Fable (also up for a James Beard award), an exhaustive, months-long investigation into the deliberate misrepresentations that nominally “farm-to-table" restaurants in Tampa Bay engage in when they deploy buzzwords like "local" and "artisanal." That's how I first came to know of Reiley's work; here was that rare piece of local reportage that manages to permeate the echo chamber that is New York media. It was an investigation with impact, sparking a statewide investigation into these shady practices.
It’s inspiring to see a food critic command the same respect that's typically afforded to other cultural critics. Reiley's citation by the Pulitzers is a reminder that the only other food or restaurant critic to contend for a Pulitzer, to my memory, was LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold, who won in this category a whopping decade ago.
Here are Reiley's pieces that the Tampa Bay Times submitted to the Pulitzer committee:
With the tagline “Local, simple and honest,” Boca Kitchen Bar Market was among the first wave of farm-to-table restaurants in Tampa Bay to make the assertion “we use local products whenever possible.” I’ve reviewed the food. My own words are right there on their website: “local, thoughtful and, most importantly, delicious.” But I’ve been had, from the snapper down to the beef.
People are being duped. Some restaurants, grocers and outdoor markets routinely misrepresent the nature of the foods they sell. So what are you going to do about it? Arm yourself and fight back.
This is the real issue: For millennials' love and dollars, chains are losing out to independents. Independents, many with a farm-to-table aesthetics and claims of sustainability, fit with millennials' tendency toward ethical eating. Sensing a paradigm shift, nearly every major chain has begun to embrace the idea that it's good business to do good. As long as customers know about it.
At Turkey Hill Farm in Tallahassee, Louise Divine grows fruits and vegetables, ginger and turmeric, sugar cane and elephant garlic, lettuces in the winter. When the man arrived at the farm, they sat on the porch for an hour or so and talked. Which restaurants bought her produce? Which restaurants said they did, but really didn’t?
The United States imports 90 percent of the seafood we eat, many of the wild-caught species overfished to a critical degree, some of them now threatened or endangered. The evening's aim: By celebrating lesser species, we can take some of the pressure off at-risk fisheries.
You're thinking, how good can tofu be? It's just a white cube of texture.
A successful restaurant is hundreds of tiny details, layers and strata of decisions that hover just below diners' radar. They add up, working synergistically to tell a cohesive, coherent story. Like a beautifully tailored suit, seams and stitches are invisible, tucked away close to the skin, the drape falling effortlessly. The new Ox & Fields in Seminole Heights has hundreds of tiny details alright, but many are jarring and incongruous.
Colonial Portuguese fusion. That's a lot to unpack right there.
We need farm-raised fish in this country, and we need them pronto.
He's wearing shorts, flip-flops and a 10-gallon cowboy hat covered in jelly beans and rhinestones. Behind him is Candyman Kitchens, more than 6,000 square feet of candy, Necco wafers and Bit-O-Honey and Angel Mints. It's David Klein's next big thing. You've even heard of one. Klein is the inventor of Jelly Belly.
Read all of Laura Reiley's work for Tampa Bay Times here.