Food Blaggers and Influenzas: How a Pandemic Caused Their Mask to Slip

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Their stance on food is one I share about their act: I don’t buy it.

For posterity—this was written at the height of Covid so arguably a bit less relevant now, but was 'forgotten' by the publication who asked me to write it so I'm doing it my bloody self, aren't I?

I am not immune to influence. As someone who loves food and restaurants in particular, having a pool of people I trust implicitly is vital. If I’m taking a punt on somewhere new it needs to be an educated one, as I’m not exactly minted. I can rely on these people as credible sources because they have no ulterior motive, which is precisely the reason their opinions carry weight. They’re not out to be influencers as an occupation; any clout they possess is more a byproduct than anything else.

Then there are those who specifically set out to be an influencer, whose motives are therefore innately suspect, sometimes brazen. 'DM for pr/collabs/invites' it says in their bio, or for those trying to be a little slicker, simply an email address. Maybe a blog. Often these accounts have just a few followers but sometimes thousands which, although they can be bought, at least makes the proposition understandable. In any event, both seem to get what they’re after. Even if it is absolutely cringe when the freebies come from large chains in exchange for reels with the captions of 'IFYKYK' or 'I found a hidden gem' set to generic lo-fi hip-hop. But sometimes they target smaller businesses with the same entitlement. Often behind what they think are closed doors.

I will concede that #ad, #invite and #gifted meals are of use. There are some influencers with enough of a pull and who put in the graft to make it a worthy transaction, which can be a lifeline for a business. Then there are those who, despite being incredibly influential, will not only always pay (unless pressed not to by the owner) but will genuinely use their influence to help the hand that feeds. In the wake of Covid, pizza fanatic Dave Portnoy put his money where his mouth is and began a fund to save pizzerias across America.

They implored us plebs to help them throw water on a fire they’d knowingly stoked for years

And then there were those who saw a global pandemic as an opportunity for something more nefarious, outside of PPE contracts. In my hometown of Bristol, The Foodie Influencer™ whose grid typically resembles a mood board of the same hues of melted cheese, something deep-fried and neon signage, can be characterised as someone who “loves burgers”. They also tend to be as clueless about food as they are about their own apparent brain damage, due to all the crayons they ate growing up. But I don’t want to let them off the hook entirely, because during Covid they knew exactly what they were doing, and giving back to the industry was demonstrably the last thing on their minds. Unlike the Portnoy’s of the world, their actions didn’t correspond with their words. Almost as if we wouldn’t notice.

As Covid’s grip began to choke the service industry I grew ever more belligerent, watching in disbelief as they used old photos of #ad and #gifted meals to then promote supporting local businesses. Carefully cropping out the hashtags, they then implored us plebs to help them throw water on a fire they’d knowingly stoked for years. As with the impending collapse of any corrupt regime, sensing the bottom falling out and scurrying like rats before an earthquake, these frauds actually had the gall to then reposition themselves as those to ‘show us the way’. Fleeing now the jig was up, they scrambled to melt back into the landscape of popular opinion, virtue signalling to cover their tracks. Like the Vatican suddenly doing charity work for the NSPCC.

The ways in which the service industry contorted itself to satisfy government policy were eye-watering, but so too were the mental gymnastics you had to do in order to reconcile behaving like a charlatan during an actual pandemic. Back in 2020, New Zealand pastry chef Brian Campbell famously took to social media to drag entitled foodie influencers over the coals for such behaviour. They of course took umbrage at this, whilst the rest of us rejoiced.

They use the food industry as a vehicle for vanity, a stepping-stone to a wider self-interest

AA Gill said that the Michelin Guide was the 'Brutus of haute cuisine' and that the guide 'created a new type of customer — the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit'. But with the increase in non-Michelin-starred restaurants as sources of clout and social currency too, it’s no longer the preserve of The Guide to dictate the trends. This isn’t actually a bad thing, as The Guide is equally guilty of virtue signalling in a bid to stay relevant; issuing Green Stars completely unironically, in an effort to assuage the guilt of a fuck-off carbon footprint by praising others for their efforts in reducing theirs is so stunning. So brave.

Regarding The Foodie Influencer™, Gill’s sentiment remains. There’s a pervasive feeling of having their cake and eating it too, when thinking about their rise and the eternal drive in pop culture to become famous in some way, somehow. It’s as if food, particularly of independents, is thought of as a laughably easy means to this end, incidental, even, which is the most cynical thing of all. This duplicitous irreverence towards livelihoods has to be called out, especially at the local level. They walk among us, trying to get something for essentially nothing, in order to feel like they’re somebody. They use the food industry as a vehicle for vanity, a stepping-stone to a wider self-interest.

Of course, there isn’t a necessary correlation between social media presence and substance of opinion. Consider master-bellend Jonathan Cheban (3.9 million IG followers) when compared to the actual food writer Jonathan Nunn (16.5k IG followers) who frequently denies offerings of free food on principle. One charges a $30,000 minimum appearance fee, had a maskless party during Covid and legally changed their name to FOODGOD (which I suppose sums up my point entirely). The other is Jonathan Nunn.

The Foodie Influencer™ is a threat to the service industry because of how insidious their dishonesty is

'May you live in interesting times' is an old Chinese curse with which the last few years have been generously anointed. Eat Out To Help Out irked me. You should go to restaurants to help your local economy, rather than Rishi dangling a tenner to prompt you. Perhaps not surprising then, the foodies who professed to love the industry so much, who raved in story after story, post after post about how they were “doing their bit” sprung into action with their call to arms that is the word ‘discount’.

To say The Foodie Influencer™ is a vulture would be unfair because vultures have the courtesy to at least wait until their prey is dead before feasting. In reality, these people are parasites, with a vested interest in keeping their host alive motivated solely by their own survival. But rather than a single host they hedge their bets with several, concurrently. By burrowing themselves into the industry's vital organs and skimming any meal that comes their way, they ensure the free ride doesn’t end by always giving a Fisher-Price review never culminating in anything short of top marks. But how can every place they visit be the best or — to use their favourite and most unfounded word — ‘perfect’ every time, without fail? Either you’re incredibly lucky, have no standards or are full of shit.

The Foodie Influencer™ is a threat to the service industry because of how insidious their dishonesty is. They’re on the take. Should one of their hosts snuff it, they cry crocodile tears and move to the next, telling us it's because we didn't do our bit, all the while shifting the onus onto us to get out there and spend, so they won’t ever have to. Although the pandemic has all but passed, the loss of restaurants as a result of the fallout continues, which is only really bad news for the restaurants and the people who actually love them. Those who put their own money where their mouth is.

In reality, these people are parasites motivated solely by their own survival

Here’s a radical thought for all you brunching cretins feeling seen right now — just pay. Did a struggling restaurant offer you food in return for a post? Be a decent person, pay and, — get a load of this — advertise for them anyway. They owe you nothing, especially in this climate and you’re allegedly more aware of that than anybody. And hey, feeling seen is a good thing — it means you've developed a conscience and what's more, you did it all for free. That's what you like, isn't it? Stewart Lee said it best when hearing that James Corden was a fan: '’s like a dog listening to classical music’. That’s you. You’re a dog in a world of classical music with the unfortunate addition of opposable thumbs and access to a phone but still with an uncontrollable need to lick your own arsehole.

Am I fun at parties? Of course not. But I love writing about restaurants and will do until I pop my bitter little clogs. They’re one of the finest things we’ve managed to achieve as a species and the caustic agendas of these freeloaders will do more harm than good in the long run. They’re feeding off the vital signs of an industry in critical condition, whilst those of us who actually give a shit are doing all we can to keep the life support on. But what do they care? It’s just food.