Tampa Bay Times Food Critic, Laura Reiley, is retiring after a 10 year run at the paper and heading over to Washington Post.
Laura Reiley was an entity I always knew about throughout the last 9 years I have written this blog, but due to the anonymity of newspaper food critics, I had no clue what she looked like – so I would only imagine what she looked like as I perused her reviews and as chefs and restaurant industry folks constantly gossiped about her to me.
Most of the time we disagreed over the years about restaurants (especially when a top restaurants list was involved) and also the kinds of stories I would read from her, but there was a moment where Laura Reiley made a huge difference to Tampa and to the restaurant industry nationwide.
Laura’s Farm-to-Fable story was a super-sleuth investigation into how Tampa restaurants were manipulating and lying to their customers about organic and farm-to-table cuisine. Laura worked overtime to get to the bottom of this story and to be quite honest I am sure there could be an entire book filled with this topic alone.
The story was incredibly embarrassing for the City of Tampa, but also very necessary for the future of our city. Suddenly, I stopped receiving a thousand press releases claiming organic or farm-fresh cuisine, and when I started to question where the food was coming from when waiters or chefs spoke, they were more careful about their words and I warned them they wouldn’t want to be on another story like that.
For me the story didn’t just speak about the food industry, which is vast and complex, but also about the customers in Tampa who were not demanding more from restaurants. The difference between grouper and tilapia is quite great, yet diners were buying up fake Tampa Rolls at premium prices. Why do people in Tampa continue to support business that lie to them in their faces? I have questions.
Sometimes my discourse with diners in Tampa can be like this and ultimately along the way I came to appreciate Laura Reiley as a necessary being that operated in the shadows.
There is a benefit to having a critic whose job is simply to write and cover food. Not just to consumers, but also for people in the restaurant industry who are working on their craft. Laura asks the questions people do not want to answer and takes deep dives into what makes people and businesses tick and I do respect her for that.
Then – one day Laura exposed her identity and showed what she looked like which was a little strange for me to witness.
San Francisco Chronicle Food Critic Soleil Ho can attest that times are changing though and anonymity is no longer what it once was.
Many restaurateurs would brag to me that they had printed out photos of Laura Reiley hidden behind their counters. Indeed, being anonymous in today’s food critic world may be impossible for someone my age (thanks Facebook).
I wish Laura the best at the Washington Post and thank her for her hard work writing at the Tampa Bay Times.