I don’t care for Kevin Sousa as a chef. And what I really mean by that is this: I haven’t enjoyed my dining experiences at his restaurants. I have never met the man personally. I’ve sold him things and he was perfectly pleasant. I have friends who love him personally & professionally and friends who hated working for him professionally. He’s a polarizing figure in Pittsburgh, and I already spent too much time on Facebook today talking about him and Superior Motors, the restaurant he’s opening in Braddock. So really, this post isn’t about Sousa (who again, I have never met and have been assured is a lovely man), but about what happens when people try to talk about him.
I lived in New York for almost fourteen years, where being bitchy and mean about anyone and everyone was de rigueur, to the point of exhaustion. Someone would open a bar or exhibit or restaurant and it would be hot for six weeks and then garbage after that. It was terrible and not a good way to live. And for every good food critic or journalist, there were ten snarky assholes who wrote bad reviews of everything, because it’s easier and more fun to be a dick than to think about what art, music, or food actually means to you.
I don’t ever want Pittsburgh to become like that.
That said, I feel that Pittsburgh is way, way too far in the other direction. When I first moved here, I am not exaggerating when I say that it took five years for me to read a single bad restaurant review. Every broadway show that the Cultural Trust put on was touted as an event when really, it’s just a matter of touring schedules and contracts. In short, there was little to no critical voice. And why is that important?
I can understand that in past decades, when Pittsburgh was down on her luck, we needed boosterism. And there’s something to be said for that. But Pittsburgh is back on her feet now. We’re becoming a hip (some would say too hip) city. Steel City is becoming a destination, and people are not just staying here after college but starting to move here on their own, like I did in 2008.
And good, constructive criticism is necessary. For restaurants, visual arts, theater, architecture, virtually anything people create as a social experience. It helps raise a higher bar for everyone involved, and doesn’t let people get away with sloppy work. Good criticism is borne of a love of what you critique, because you want to see people do their best work. The Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself dealt with this, and Ebert’s response was always that he loved movies and wanted the best for them, even if it meant offending friend Martin Scorsese by panning After Hours.
So let’s look at Kevin Sousa (the professional chef, not the person) as an example. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article today that was somewhat critical of Sousa, or at least investigative. Sousa was interviewed and had time to respond. In a post on his own blog, Sousa defended himself & his business but also never claimed that he was misrepresented. The headline of this article referred to Sousa as a “visionary.” In short, I felt it was a fair appraisal of a very public project. Sousa’s blog post seemed to be aimed towards assuring Kickstarter funders of his due diligence, which made total sense. Everything’s cool, right?
Instead, people online reacted with insanity. How dare the Post-Gazette attack the beloved Kevin Sousa? Countless tweets and messages reproaching the writers for daring to challenge Sousa. It was craziness (A fair complaint about the Post-Gazette article is that the webmaster at the PG site was at some point deleting comments that they found to contain personal attacks. This was misguided of the webmaster, but shouldn’t have a bearing on the article itself. It’s fair to criticize the paper for taking down comments, but it’s a logical fallacy to dismiss the article and its points out of hand, just because the Post-Gazette webmaster got nervous).
And again, this was such a mild critique of Sousa. If you want to read a real critical takedown, check out some of Frank Bruni’s scathing reviews in the NYTimes or our old friend Roger Ebert’s legendary review of the film “North” (which at this point is probably more famous than the film itself).
But as fun as these negative reviews are, they’re also smart. They don’t just trash talk; they site specific critiques and back up their pithiness with well-reasoned knowledge and experience. For instance, Frank Bruni isn’t mad because a bartender spilled white wine on his date; he’s mad because he waited almost an hour for a reservation and the food was bad.
And yet Pittsburghers still get upset if you write anything negative about anything in Pittsburgh. Countless times I’ve heard “well they’re a good person” or “they mean well,” or “they’re really nice.” I’m sure they are. To return to Sousa (who is getting the brunt of it today, but really he’s just an example here), if I don’t enjoy my dining experience at one of his restaurants, or express doubts about his Kickstarter project, people instantly respond with stories of how nice he is. Great. Fine. That has no bearing on what I’m talking about.
I can judge Sousa’s work professionally without commenting on him personally. The same goes for critics. When Melissa McCart’s poorly-researched piece on Conflict Kitchen ended up contributing to an already volatile and potentially violent situation, I was outraged and said so publicly. But again, people went after me as though I was attacking McCart personally. She works in the public sphere, and attacks on the quality of her work are valid, just as criticisms of Sousa’s work in the public sphere are equally valid.
Critics should be critical. And in doing so, they open themselves up to dialogue as well. If you’re just parroting press releases or singing everyone’s praises, then nothing ever gets better. “Everything is Awesome” is a great song in the Lego Movie, but it’s a poor model for any kind of criticism.
And let’s address one more topic: an issue that people brought up time and time again with Sousa specifically but also something I hear about a lot of restaurants, artists, and new businesses: “At least they’re trying something.” Yes, that’s true. It takes courage to put your art in front of people, or share your cooking, or jump up on stage and perform. But it also doesn’t grant you a magic immunity pass that means no one can have an opinion about your work.
The “At least they’re trying something” argument isn’t good enough anymore. There are lots of people trying things. Hundreds of them, thousands of them. If you don’t believe me, go to Soup N’at to hear those ideas. Or startup weekend. Or the library’s new “Show Your Work” series. Or talk to your neighbors or just walk down the street – things are happening. But they need cultivation. And they need work. And they need responsible people who are willing to sing their praises when they have a great idea, or speak frankly when an idea isn’t quite fleshed out or needs work. That’s what makes us all collaborators in society at large. It’s what encourages people to try harder or not rest on their laurels. It’s what makes good people great.
I don’t want to see Pittsburgh descend into thoughtless criticism where everything is snark and bullshit. But I do think we can embrace the idea that dissenting opinions and constructive criticism can be useful and don’t need to be taken personally. Pittsburgh is strong enough now; we can take it. If anything, we should expect more. I don’t want people thinking “well, this is good enough.” We should be asking “Is this good enough? Is it good enough for me? Is it good enough for Pittsburgh?”