While most people in the local food world tend to tread very lightly when it comes to speaking ill of longtime Chronicle critic Michael Bauer or his boyfriend Michael Murphy, for fear of business-damaging reprisals or perhaps worse, having their restaurants be ignored by the pair San Francisco Magazine food editor Rebecca Flint Marx takes the gloves off in the August issue, penning this in-depth takedown focusing on Murphy and the apparent conflict of interest represented by Murphy's work as a consultant for IfOnly. The company, founded by local rich person and son of Dede Wilsey Trevor Traina, is kind of a "Make-A-Wish for rich people" service, as Marx puts it, in which pie-in-the-sky gifts and experiences the likes of which are sometimes offered at charity auctions can be asked for and arranged, like a "quarterback camp and chalk talk" with Joe Montana ($12,500 per person) or a heli-ski weekend with an Olympic gold medalist ($14,500 per person), or one with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. ($9,000 per person). Murphy was brought on to provide access to local chefs, some of whom like Mourad's Mourad Lahlou and State Bird Provisions and Progress chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinsky have signed on to offer unique culinary experiences some of the proceeds from which go to the charitable cause of the chef's choosing.
Marx reports that eyebrows were raised throughout the local restaurant scene after the site offered a one-on-one review dinner experience with Bauer himself, for $2,000, promising "You will be lavished with kindness and treated like a royal as Michael is respected, beloved, and sometimes feared in some circles." The experience has, not surprisingly, disappeared from the IfOnly site, but a number of restaurateurs questioned the appropriateness of the listing, and the way it compared dining with Bauer "to hanging out with the world’s biggest rockstar," especially given Bauer's longstanding insistence on remaining anonymous.
Murphy's role as Bauer's constant dining companion and his influence over Bauer's reviews has long been a point of concern for chefs who feel like they have to please two critics instead of one. They've been a couple for 25 years, and one friend compares them to the Clintons saying, "they’re a machine, and they’ve always been a machine."
Also not surprisingly, plenty of chefs, publicists, and restaurant owners were perfectly willing to speak anonymously or off the record with Marx about Murphy and the implied pressure they felt to sign on with IfOnly, but things went totally silent as soon as she wanted to get on-the-record quotes from people. Marx does point to the fact that Murphy is godfather to the young son of restaurateur Anna Weinberg (Marlowe, Park Tavern, The Cavalier), who appears with dad James Nicholas and Murphy in the Instagram photo below, and all of whose restaurants enjoy excellent reviews in the Chronicle.
Of course, longtime Bauer hater and Hapa Ramen guy Richie Nakano spoke up, as he first did way back in mid-2010 when he believed that Murphy, disliking things Nakano had said on Twitter about Bauer, told Nakano's employers at the time (Laurence and Alyson Jossel of Nopa) that he was a "punk." That led to some public feuding on Twitter, and the animosity lingered five years later as Nakano opened Hapa Ramen in the Mission in 2015, receiving a decent if not great write-up from Bauer. The restaurant closed weeks later amid disagreements between Nakano and the restaurant's ownership.
Traina suggests to SF Mag that he only brought on Murphy for the consultant job at IfOnly at the suggestion of his wife, Alexis Swanson, saying he believed Murphy "could use [his] access to do something really positive." And Marx suggests that both Traina's shock at the notion that this could in any way present a conflict of interest, and the Chronicle's continued defense of Bauer against any such accusation, represents the "innate provinciality" of our city in a nutshell, despite our position as one of the world's culinary capitals. "San Francisco is a village," she writes, "one that’s full of chefs who have spent their entire career under a single critic and have been conditioned to please him and to not, with very few exceptions, ask any questions."
Several chefs said they felt no pressure to work with IfOnly, and that they see Murphy and Bauer as separate entities. SPQR's Matt Accarrino says he just saw it as a great opportunity, and former Quince wine director and St. Vincent owner David Lynch says he was just "flattered" that he was asked to be involved.
Murphy, who regularly posts Instagram photos from restaurants Bauer is reviewing, has been silent on social media about the piece so far, and declined to give any comment to Marx. Bauer responded saying he's not paying attention to Murphy's work at IfOnly, and "To survive [in this role] I have to have a thick skin and to be able to justify what I’ve written. I can do that with a clear conscience. It can be lonely and uncomfortable at times, but I always strive to be honest and fair.”
Murphy and Bauer are apparently on a three-week trip to Italy, so we likely won't be hearing anything from either of them for a bit.
Previously: Someone Launches 'Impeach Michael Bauer' Campaign, Offers $2K For New Chronicle Critic
Chef Jeremiah Tower Calls Critic Michael Bauer A 'Troll'
Local Chef Won't Take Michael Bauer's Criticism Lying Down