#016 | In Digestion With Joe Rosenthal

Mixing media, food antagonism, and pizza in all its guises

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A mock-up by Joe Rosenthal addressing his reporting on Prince Street Pizza

If a restaurant finds itself on Joe Rosenthal’s Instagram account, it probably isn’t going to have a good day. A mathematician by trade, the self-described “food antagonist” has documented the false mythology of pizzaiolo Anthony Falco; the mouldy jam part of the mouldy jam story at Los Angeles darling Sqirl that was part of a much bigger story about poor working conditions; and the various sketchy behaviours of the former Bon Appétit Test Kitchen staff following Tammie Teclemariam and Rachel Premack’s reporting in the summer.

He does most of this on Instagram, a platform whose status has metamorphosed in the past twelve months. Protests following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis occasioned a rise in information sharing and activism — and, yes, lots of white people posting black squares and going back to posting brunch the next day. Its advantages were speed and shareability; its disadvantages were that on a platform that prizes striking visuals above all else, a well-coloured infographic could gain authority that its content might not deserve.

This tension is at the heart of Rosenthal’s work and forms the body of this interview, alongside a running discussion of how it applies to food media.


The first question I normally ask, at this time of year would be possibly not ideal But you've had some fairly busy times with a well known New York pizza restaurant in recent days.

And becoming a well-known LA restaurant, they’ve been written up by Eater LA and LA Times. They were also doing promotional pizza-influencing for The Bachelor, but that’s not happening any more so I wonder if someone there got a look at what I’ve been digging up.

Can you talk a bit about the process, both the bits that people may have seen on Instagram and the work that goes beneath that?

Yeah, so, I hadn’t thought about Prince Street in a while, despite being quite deep into what’s going on in pizza. And then I came across a tweet from Caity Weaver, who’s a style editor at the New York Times:

So that, at the time, was little more than a “huh” moment. But then she followed it up and it seemed that a lot of people were having the same issue. So I posted it on Instagram, but didn’t really think much of it. Then a little later I thought about what their Yelp page might be like, because they’d been famous for having quite aggressive responses to customers, in that kind of way that people sometimes valorise in restaurant owners. Fairly basic stuff. Anyway, I went to look, and I found some pretty distressing stuff. People mentioning being subjected to racism from the owners.

A post shared by Joe Rosenthal (@joe_rosenthal)

Which I can’t confirm, but there were responses from a representative of PSP — Frank M, so, Frank Morano, who’s one of the owners of Prince Street. It could be another staff member, but, that’s the name: saying “go shit in a hat,” using gendered slurs, calling an Asian customer a mongrel, really disgusting stuff. Then I had a look at what Dom Morano was up to, who’s the current owner, I think. Son of Frank. And I found a video he had posted joking about running over Black Lives Matter protesters. So, it was at least to me, adding up to a pattern of extremely problematic behaviour on the part of the restaurants its ownership.

So I posted what I had verified on Instagram, people shared it, and eventually Prince Street responded to someone who tagged them. Late December. They responded with a meme basically saying, your problem is you don’t think this is funny. Unrepentant, given the racist behaviour on their Yelp profile. There was a series of Blue Lives Matter signs and symbols posted in their windows too, over several years. So it amounted to a long term pattern of problematic behaviour, and then the second part is trying to get someone with more power than me to give a shit about it.

Can you expand on that a little bit? The “giving a shit” part.

At this point… I have a reasonably sized audience and they were getting pretty fired up. But as of now, there’s nothing written about it, and no news. Maybe there will be. Eater LA and the LA Times wrote about the LA expansion, and I’d expect that Black readers in LA would like to know that a Black customer was subjected to gendered slurs when she reported racism from the restaurant. I’d expect that people would want to know that the owner has doubled down on a video showing BLM protesters being hit by cars. I think that is newsworthy to those people and should be newsworthy to a lot more people than that. And I think outlets that have served to build up the reputation of somewhere that has proven to be monstrous therefore have to account for its monstrosity.

For sure. We’re going to talk more about the relationship between and perceptions of media platforms later, but on this particular point — do you feel like subjects of your reporting sometimes consider your documenting of things less significant, or likely to lead to less consequence?

I blew up with Sqirl, and had it not gone to Twitter, I don’t know how quickly stories would have been written, with the story from LAndmag being reported in the background. I think Twitter is often more of a barometer for writers and journalists, because the metric of shareability is more visible on that app – with retweets — and on Instagram I think it’s harder to read. I had a pretty good sense that the Sqirl thing was going viral but I think that that was quite a special case, it was a very graphic photo. But most of the reaction, even to that image, was logged and sourced from Twitter when it came to being written up, and I think at the moment it remains more transmissible in terms of its relationship to “media.” When things go viral, I think people tend to judge that based on tweets.

But I also think Instagram is considered less legitimate than Twitter, still.

What made you decide — or if not conscious, why wasn’t it — to use the article format for discussing Anthony Falco and Matt Hyland and not, say, Adam Rapoport or Sqirl?

That’s a good question. I was in a different world when I wrote the articles. And I think I actually wrote the Matt Hyland article for a different world than the one I was in at that time; I think it ended up ringing truer at the time Sqirl happened than the time I originally wrote it. There was more thinking from new people. The ideas within it felt somewhat “radical” at the time, to be writing about a popular pizza owner taking very personal issue with a journalist, off the kind of, platforms that they present themselves on. I wrote the article up because I think it needed context for people picking it up in not real time, to emphasise that it had the most impact as it happened, maybe less so long-term.

Anthony Falco, that was a long time coming — I interviewed a lot of people who worked with him and knew him, and only really saw it as a part one. It was in my story in a while but I wanted to make it a long-form piece — perhaps because there was a stronger chance that I could get people to care if I had longer to talk to them… There’s only so much I can say in an Instagram Story, and it’s fleeting; it goes to highlights but… It wasn’t really until Sqirl that people actually went back and read those things.

When you’ve been talking to sources, how has being both across two platforms and being independent affected relationships?

It’s tough. I don’t treat sources any differently for a longform article than for an Instagram Story. Each of them are taken equally seriously — if I’m making or corroborating a serious accusation about somebody I make sure that it is corroborated, I make sure it is from a suitably proximal source. I think the Sqirl thing has given me some … notoriety? A lot of people come to me now and kind of say, “help, I’ve got this problem.” It was very hard to manage for a while and it still is. But I don’t think even the people who are coming to me are even fully aware that I have … Dug into things. A lot of people latched on because of Bon Appétit, or Sqirl; I think some people assume I have connections to US food media publications or organisations. It’s hard to say.

I certainly don’t treat people differently and I don’t make distinctions based on which medium the information might end up on. A lot of the time, it doesn’t actually go anywhere. I talk to people a lot and I almost never publish any of it.

That’s interesting, because a lot of the time a pressure on journalism is that for any given conversation its result can be a long way off. Whether that’s for a 5,000 word article or a collated Instagram Story, there’s the expectation that it is going to take a final form. The relationship is based on the fact that “something will come of this,” whether it’s something tangible like a piece of media, or consequences for a given person.

There’s a lot of things here. So many things don’t see the light of day but the having had a conversation can be fulfilling itself. I might note something and then not do anything with it for months because it isn’t in context. In a lot of cases I want to help someone and I just don’t get what I need to do that. Recently, I got tagged in a lot of stories sharing a similar message about a large restaurant group having coronavirus problems. Then when I asked the lot of people who shared it for proof of employment at that restaurant, one got back. That’s a familiar situation to a lot of journalists I think.

I keep nearly everyone anonymous and off the record, and I ask for proof of employment where it’s needed. If I responded to nearly everyone, half of everyone, who got in touch, I couldn’t keep up. I can’t take on stuff if I can’t confirm it and I can’t take on stuff without corroborating it even if I believe it to be true. There’s also stuff I won’t touch because I don’t think it’s appropriate. I wouldn’t talk about someone say, having an affair, unless it related to the position of power or not that they are in. There have been countless examples where I just can’t go forward.

Do you feel like one of the benefits and limitations of Instagram as a tool of reporting is that it remains a very interpersonal platform; the relative ease of establishing an initial relationship . But on the flipside, an angry subject of a story probably feels it’s easier to send some aggressive DMs or a dismissive meme response because they see it, relatively speaking, as a platform of no consequences.

I certainly think that’s how Prince Street felt when they responded to me. I think that’s really true. At the same time, Matt Hyland had an issue over the summer where someone said they were a witch and threatened his family. It cuts both ways and follows the same power structures as normal life; people who feel they will face no consequences can say what they want and do harm to people.

What do you think the problems are with Instagram-as-media-platform? There have been some interesting pieces recently, one by Soleil Ho on restaurant call-out accounts and restorative justice.

I liked that piece by Soleil. Interestingly I don’t really remember them existing, or being given prominence, before this summer. I can’t speak to stratagems, what their threshold of importance is, whether there is corroboration, beyond the fact that they are reposting restaurant workers’ accounts. I think the thing that stands out is that they are often not adding commentary; it’s presentation of an account of something and it’s giving it wider voice but that’s it. And I think a large part of what I do is adding commentary, adding context, explaining why a certain thing might matter or not matter or follow a pattern or not follow a pattern.

There’s editorial, I guess, that I exert — I might get a message that offers facts and context but also includes just, abusing someone. I won’t include the abusive part.

I think that what you’re saying about commentary is an interesting metatext for the structural problems with Instagram, the fact that it doesn’t allow links, that it doesn’t easily allow citation, that one of the hardest things to do on the platform is to share where something has come from if it isn’t already on the platform. And alongside that, there’s the existing kind of hierarchies of media that put Print Media and Digital Media above social media. What are some of the kind of limits you find on Instagram, and are they limits you impose on yourself or are they just baked in?

Before Sqirl and Bon Appétit I had like, 1,600 followers. I started doing Bon Appétit mock covers and I went up to 3,000. You can’t do links in Stories unless you have 10,000 followers or are verified, as you allude to, and that’s a major limitation. I’m talking about coronavirus stuff and I can’t link to a research paper. Now that I do have the ability to swipe up it’s no longer an issue but for a lot of people that is a major, terrible limitation. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder people were trying to get donations to bail funds at scale, stuff that’s pressing and important, and they can’t direct people to it in Stories. On sharing, Instagram is wilfully obtuse. You can share posts to a Story but you can’t share a Story as a new Story unless tagged; there’s screenshotting and all that. It’s significantly easier to share on Twitter and Facebook.

And then on Instagram, the share metrics are hidden away from audiences, so people don’t know how far something is going unless it’s their own post or Story. I think people use Twitter more for information, currently, ultimately, but I like it for the ways in which it allows me to tell a story graphically — I can squiggle to highlight, I can fade out stuff that’s outdated, they’re really useful tools for telling a story at speed once the corroboration part has been done. Going back to the article split, I had a key goal for Anthony Falco: I wanted to dispel the myth built up by food media and I saw it as a closed chapter in a longer story. For Sqirl and Bon Appétit I have so many highlights, so many spin-offs into jokier stuff, and the ability to have those coexist is a key benefit of Instagram.

I think it’s interesting that it seems particularly good at capturing the ways in which things accumulate critical mass across different spectrums and audiences, which can be both useful and very dangerous, again owing to the air of authority visuals can lend to uncorroborated information or disinformation, or even something that’s unserious. It’s become a powerful tool for resisting existing power structures, but that isn’t a neutral good. How does that manifest for you?

The infographics are scary. You don’t know where information is from and you don’t know if it’s been analysed. And you don’t know — maybe this is more in sociological stuff — if the information being put up would actually pass any muster in a different context. And the same is true of food media and stories in restaurants and about people — I think Instagram’s growing status is affording things on that platform clout that they maybe wouldn’t otherwise get.

Are there cases sometimes — because of the interpersonality we’ve discussed, the less transactional expectations, when the more important thing for someone you’re talking to is just to be heard and validated?

Sometimes. There’s the old thing about bartenders being therapists and I think I am sometimes invited to, or even expected to play that role. A lot of the times I’ll get stories about restaurants not enforcing COVID-19 regulations, table distance — someone looking to me as a scientist even when I can’t give a definitive answer. But there’s also fear there, that they get sick; their family gets sick; they lose their job; they won’t have money to live on. They want to know things will be okay.

How does that sense of responsibility impact on you yourself?

I don’t know if I can give a tangible answer but it’s certainly emotionally challenging. Right when Sqirl especially was happening it was so intense. I think you’re right that sometimes it’s just a case of people wanting to be heard. Lots of people responded to my Stories on Alison Roman saying “thank you just for saying this matters, nobody cares.” And I think a lot of people are just feeling unheard and feeling like people don’t care, and sometimes just showing that people do care is enough, even if it doesn’t lead to a piece of work, say.

Do you perceive yourself as part of food media, and when you say you’re a food antagonist, what are you antagonising?

So, I got my start making pizza at home. I fucking sucked at making pizza. I made a lot, tried to get better, and posted about it as I did. I became “friends” with people in the industry. And I quickly became invested in wanting to change the pizza status quo. I think the status quo is rarely acceptable for the majority. And so I became viewed as an antagonist, the person rocking the boat: “Anthony Falco was always nice to me, I like how the pizza tastes, why are you starting shit? It’s fine.” So that’s why I got, or took the moniker I guess. As a tongue-in-cheek way of saying I’m here to challenge this. As far as viewing myself as part of food media I think that’s an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about the lack of coverage on Prince Street and, yeah, we just got off of a holiday break. Things are slower than they might normally be. I should have taken a break probably rather than doing this. It’s entirely possible that an article comes out this week about this [editor’s note: they did] but I’m sceptical. And it feels a little like people haven’t learned much since Sqirl, aside from maybe the Mission Chinese reporting that Chris Crowley did at Grub Street. I thought after Sqirl there might be more of a … Scrambling to things like this? And I wonder often if I should say “we” haven’t learned anything instead of “they” — I think a lot of times people like me influence things in ways that aren’t necessarily going to be revealed in pieces. But ultimately I think if I ended up being the status quo, I would want to stop, and I would also love not to feel like I have to do what I do.

How do you think you could reach a point where you could measurably feel like you could stop, or indeed like you were the status quo?

Sometimes it feels like I’m being gaslit, and therefore I have to ask how all the people who were subjected to racial abuse on Yelp feel. Gaslit in that, the implication is that this Prince Street stuff isn’t important, when I’ve got people on Instagram telling me they think this stuff is absolutely crazy. But, on the other hand, I’m so close to it that it can be hard to judge if that’s really the case.

I think one of the elements in this is that the way you use Instagram Stories — I kind of think of it like “showing your working” in a maths or science problem. Which the platform lends itself to —

Yeah.

Not just an attribute of the way you use it, but an attribute of its features — the graphical advantages Instagram has. You can use a colour to show something new; you can add things on top of things to show the process of getting through a story very contemporaneously. It’s difficult to do that kind of work in a publication, because the expectation with media remains that what is produced is more of a finished product, or a final word — which is ironic because one of the chief issues with social media is that people tend to perceive people’s posts as the totality of their thinking, rather than a small part of it.

If you take Sqirl — journalists at LAndmag were working on Sqirl for a long time before the mouldy jam came to light. I was covering that more as a public health issue, than anything else; people with mould allergies eating mould. Not good. It might appear, say, that my The Fungal series of highlights on Sqirl were being presented as kind of, chapters in a story. But they’re not: I literally just ran out of space, I reached the limit of what Instagram Stories can present. It’s a false discretisation of something that is actually more of a continuum, like you say, more of a “stream of consciousness.” Even then, I put more into that in the background than it might seem, which I think is one of the fundamental problems with Instagram. But then, when people look at either of these things, they respond, and if you have 5,000 — 7,000 people watching a highlight, then I hear a lot of things from a lot of people, and I often repost them, anonymised, not really to add to the story per se but to kind of get a pulse of what people think of a given element of a story. I don’t tend to do that for more serious stuff, though. So I think kind of with my Stories, highlights, posts — there’s a sort of internal hierarchy and discretisation that I am editing.

Which isn’t actually all that different from the way publications work. The final thing I wanted to ask you was, the running theme, the connotations and connections of and between different forms of media.

A couple of germane examples from this year would be how your taking of one branch of the Sqirl story was one strand of another, broader story being reported by LAndmag; Tammie Teclemariam’s tweets and investigation into Adam Rapoport were one strand of a broader story being reported by Rachel Premack at Business Insider. And each became part of the other’s story. So do you think there’s a way in which the still fairly oppositional framing of “media” and “social media” can become more parallel?

I think Substack is interesting in this regard because it’s I guess, tidier than social media. Personally speaking, if someone was asking me, how do I best see your work on Anthony Falco, I’d say go to the article. But that’s never — obviously — the entire story, that’s part of the Anthony Falco story. And if I do part two, do I reference my own Instagram Stories? I don’t know. I don’t work as a journalist, I’m a mathematician, but I think I have principles that are similar to being a journalist? I think there remains a stigmatisation of social media and possibly rightly so, because there are probably more people doing it thoroughly than not, but there are also plenty of examples of journalists not doing things thoroughly enough. And I don’t know if journalists have had enough experience yet of developing method for determining whether an Instagram account is like, a credible source or not.

I do think journalism could do a better job of citing things across medias, not just to give credit but to make arguments stronger — which is something Instagram makes very difficult, so I think there are limits there. In my pizza articles I might link to something that says, oil doesn’t make dough crispier, even though I just know that. I do the citation to strengthen my argument, the perception of my argument, as much as to give “credit” sometimes.

This feeds into something else — when people give you credit for looking at something, saying, thank you, “people didn’t care.” That makes me think because, evidently, a lot of people did care, because they thanked you for saying people didn’t. So what do you think that’s actually saying?

If I posted the things that I posted about Alison Roman or Sqirl in their respective comments sections, I would have gotten far, far more people responding and seeing it than me posting on my own profile. Now, it would have constituted lots of people telling me I suck, because these people have droves of sycophantic fan, but it would have been far more people. I think my followers are following me because they expect me to talk about things that are being perceived as not being talked about, whether or not they are, and I think to get “people” to care beyond that community, it needs to diffuse out from Instagram into wider media, as things did with Alison Roman, Bon Appétit (from Twitter), Sqirl, and so on. I need media to back me up but people, people harmed by these things, need it too. People also care that, say, a fast food chain drops a new menu item, and publications write about that. And they could care about this Prince Street situation, and god knows that you’d expect a Black customer or Asian customer to care that the ownership thinks they can abuse Black or Asian customers because of their race. But I sort of see the point of articles, whether about menu items or racism, as an opportunity to make people care, and I think journalists should be applying that to everything they write. Asking “why should people care” in some situations isn’t really enough — sometimes it’s a case of making people care.

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