Lyndsay Green Is the First Black Restaurant Critic at the Detroit Free Press — And She Feels Invisible

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In the grand tradition of food writing, over the weekend Detroit Free Press restaurant critic Lyndsay Green offered readers her reflections on her first year on the job. But it didn’t look like the typical roundup of food news fodder. Instead, she did something that many BIPOC journalists usually only do behind the scenes, amongst each other: She shared a vulnerable account of what it’s like to be one of just a few, if any, Black restaurant critics at a major daily U.S. newspaper — and how, at times, the experience has made her feel invisible.

“What does not being noticed say when you’re a Black woman — a majority in the city you report on, but a minority in Detroit’s fine dining spaces? Could it be that my superpower of being invisible when crossing the threshold of a dining space is perhaps more sinister when examined with more scrutiny?”

Green, who joined the Freep in November 2021, recounted her interview process in which the paper’s editor and vice president Peter Bhatia asked her how she felt about the concept of anonymity in restaurant criticism. Green recalls telling Bhatia that at 4-feet, 10-inches tall, Black, and with (at the time) platinum hair, she doubted she could manage to remain anonymous for long.

She was wrong.

“It’s like you have this expectation that — and that’s been my entire career — that once you get this title, that you’re going to have more visibility, and then that doesn’t happen. And you wonder, like, is it race? Is it me? Then those thoughts get real low. It’s like, ‘I’m just not worth remembering,’” Green tells Eater.

Green isn’t looking for pity or to gain acclaim. But she does want there to be recognition that having Black voices like hers in the conversation about food, and specifically fine dining, is long overdue — and that her face and humanity are worth remembering.

Green pointed to a 2019 Eater article in which food writer Korsha Wilson recounts an unsettling feeling after she realized that she had just eaten at one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in New York at the time and she was one of only two Black guests in the dining room.

“The whole point [of what Korsha was saying] wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we should be hiring more people of color to be restaurant critics for the sake of diversity’ — that wasn’t really the point. The point was that a perspective is missing,” she says.

Green, who grew up in predominantly Black city of Mount Vernon, a suburb of the Bronx, notes that restaurant critics of the past have had the privilege of bringing a perspective of having worked in the restaurant industry or having been exposed to Eurocentric culinary traditions throughout their lives, and thus possess the authority to incorporate those experiences into their writing, “but they can’t speak to what it feels like when you walk into a restaurant as a Black person.”

Adrian Miller, a Denver-based historian and James Beard Award-winning food writer, says that in his early days conducting research on his first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, when he turned to other notable Black food writers for information on where he could find documentation on Black food traditions, he was told time and time again that he wouldn’t find anything because these stories were just not told — because of racism, he kept hearing. He was able to eventually unearth mountains of stories but says that a vast majority of the decades-old archived newspaper articles and other historical documents that he reviewed were written by white authors for a white, often racist gaze.

“One of the things that really struck me [in my research is that] I would be reading publications from cities that were either majority Black or had a significant Black population and I noticed that they weren’t getting proportional representation in the pages of those newspapers,” Miller says. “For a long time, restaurant criticism has been bent towards fine dining and for other structural reasons, we haven’t had African Americans in that space.”

Over the past few years — as old-guard restaurant critics at major dailies have exited the industry — food writers of color have been making inroads to climb the ranks in a field that has historically been dominated by the fine dining industry and the largely white and male voices that write about it. Green was among them, taking up the reins at the Freep when predecessor Mark Kurlyandchik took a buyout.

Green’s hiring felt like the right choice for a majority-Black city like Detroit. And in the months that have gone by, Green’s candid yet casual approach to documenting the lives of people in the Detroit restaurant world has brought a fresh perspective to a scene that’s coming into its maturity.

She’s made it a habit to highlight her favorite everyday meals, from the leafy greens-wrapped sandwiches at the Black-owned Breadless to the tastes-like-homemade mole verde served at Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week from El Palenque. She’s also chronicled the many efforts of Black and brown-led pop-ups and hospitality groups that are changing narratives in the fine dining space. And as a critic, Green hasn’t shied away from looking beyond the typical evaluation of how a dish is plated, or pointing out the lack of diversity in greater downtown’s dining scene.

Sure, that’s the sort of thing BIPOC folks in the local food circles have been lamenting for years, but they’ve never been uttered by the critic of record and printed in Michigan’s newspaper of record.

That’s what makes Green’s trajectory in this space all the more essential — but it’s also been a learning curve for her. The New York native came to restaurant writing from the world of fashion journalism. She relocated to Detroit with her husband, whose family is from here, in 2017, and only then made the leap into the dining space, working as managing editor for Hour Detroit and as the magazine’s dining editor.

Green says she wasn’t exposed much to fine dining growing up — she’s neither worked at a restaurant, nor staged in a fine dining kitchen, and she hasn’t had any culinary arts training. When she came into her current role, she focused her attention on the types of dining establishments that she might organically gravitate toward. And more importantly, she’s focused on the people who live in the city who define the culture of the dining space.

That’s endowed her with credibility in some circles. But for every time she is proud of amplifying the voices of people like the Black barbecue vendors whose stalls dot Gratiot and have been frequented by her husband’s family for years, she’s also reminded that her presence in dining circles is met with surprise or questions.

Perhaps being an outsider is Green’s superpower: She hopes that sharing her vulnerabilities in a public space will help those who relate to her struggle feel seen. And maybe her writing will inspire the next generation of Black chefs to take chances in the city’s dining scene that have yet to be explored.

“I would love to just see new ideas, cool ideas, even different kinds of spaces that [aren’t] in the traditional restaurant setting. I want to see our people especially doing more of that,” she says. “You know, just like creative, cool, out-of-the-box ideas.”

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