Who’s sitting on table 41?


 critic

Did you ever see the episode of Heat in The Kitchen when critic Matthew Evans and his dining companion walk into Aria on a night when chef Matt Moran isn’t there? You might remember the premise was that Evans had taken away Aria’s third hat, and the restaurant was doing everything to get it back.

It was scary. The entire kitchen went into panic mode. What to do? What to serve him? What if we fuck up? I’d hate to have been a paying customer that night. There were only two people in the room. And neither of them would have been me.

What did the sous chef do wrong? What do restaurants do wrong when critics walk in the door?

They forgot their raison d’etre – feeding people – and thought only of the award, the elusive third hat.

The main problem:  awards have become a goal, and not a reward.

I’d like to take you through the restaurant experience from the critic’s point of view.

I began using restaurants  as a boy in short trousers, when I was taken by my mother as her ‘companion’ when she reviewed restaurants for Sydney’s Daily Mirror newspaper, a profession (restaurant reviewing) which, following in her footsteps, I have practiced  at various times in various parts of the world.

I’ve reviewed restaurants for Gourmet Traveller when it was Australian Gourmet and Australian Gourmet Traveller. I’ve reviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Good Food Guide, the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday and the Saturday Financial Review and  was for many years a reviewer for and co-editor of Sydney Eats, which was Cheap Eats and which was – sadly, it is no more, due to incompetence and misunderstanding ­–

the oldest restaurant guide in Sydney. And when I was living in Spain, I reviewed for an English language newspaper under the pseudonym S Panza.

 

All of which I tell you so that you know I do have a bit of experience in the business of summing up a restaurant. What qualifications do I have? About as many of most of our top chefs. Neil Perry started as a hairdresser; Tetsuya Wakuda  studied business at a university in Tokyo; Christine Manfield was an art teacher. Like them, I learnt on the job.

My qualifications are that I love food, I love to eat and I have made it my business to learn as much about it as  I can. And I’ve cooked a few times professionally – nothing serious  – but I’ve felt the heat in the kitchen.

But before we even look at restaurants, let’s look at the one question any critic of anything – restaurants, films, plays, operas, novels  – asks when evaluating whatever it is they’re criticising?

 What are they trying to do – and how well have they succeeded?

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This question is key to the business of the critic. So if I walk into a hamburger joint in Glebe, I’m not going to judge it against Rockpool. As a matter of fact, I may score the hamburger joint in Glebe (my favourite The Spot) higher than Rockpool – because they’ve achieved what they’ve set out to do – and Rockpool hasn’t.

Of course you have to weight that – it’s harder to be Rockpool than The Spot. But it’s the right place to start.

 

How does a reviewer look at a restaurant? Leigh Prentice, architect and restaurant designer (Sydney’s Bennelong, Catalina) told me how he approaches a restaurant design.

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He looks at the room, the chair, and the food, in that order – I realised that is exactly the way a critic should enter and begin to examine a restaurant.

So let’s look at it that way.

 

The room:

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Just walking into a restaurant I can learn so much. But first, I have to get rid of me. You know because you see people walking in. How do I look? Am  I cool enough? Will they see through me. Nah. Get rid of it. Feel the room

 

Firstly, is it full? Nothing worse than walking into an empty room.  The restaurant manager’s nightmare. What does the critic do? Well, depends on the critic, the deadline and how the place feels. You can walk out, go somewhere else – or give it a go.

 Second – how does it look? Does it  look like a well oiled machine or maybe I can see empty boxes in the corner, holes in the carpet. I’m more interested in a place  looking well run that the coolest décor. In fact, I have to actually make myself notice the décor – but that’s me.

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Are the other customers looking happy?

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Relaxed? Do they look fidgety, agitated? If so, blame the waiters. Beppi Polese, a classically trained waiter who has trained more waiters than anybody in Sydney told me the secret: “When I walk through a restaurant, I look at every table as I go. If I see a customer moving, I stop and ask if there’s anything they want.”

When a customer has to wave and swivel constantly looking for service, when the waiters walk through the room looking at the ceiling – this is not good.  I can tell a  lot from  standing at the door for 5 minutes.

Actually maybe 5 minutes is too long. How I get to my chair is critical. It’s my first contact with the people in the restaurant (besides the booking, but that’s another story).

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Who takes me? Has the booking been observed? From now on, I’m observing the rhythm of the restaurant.

 The chair

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The late Anders Ousback pointed out to me that there are 20 minute chairs, 60 minute chairs and two hour chairs. If I’m sitting down to eat a leisurely meal and I’m shown to a 20 minute chair, I’m not going to relax. Even before I’ve eaten a mouthful, I’m on edge.

Now I’m seated I can check out the table setting, the crockery, the cutlery. Is it of a standard to match the restaurant? Is it – very important – clean?

How long does it take me to get a card? Am I offered a drink?

Do  I feel  comforted, looked after, relaxed ?

Do the waiters know what they’re serving?

What does the service feel like? Let me explain.

I was chatting to a friend once  –  a successful restaurateur and chef – about my disappointment after eating at a very good restaurant – I said I felt the service was way too mechanical. He said:

“There are two ways you can be treated in a restaurant: processed or nurtured.”

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If on my first visit to a restaurant, the service sucks, chances are, I won’t come back.  If I’m looked after, given an enjoyable experience and the food isn’t the world’s best – I probably will come back.

I don’t need any new best friends – and that goes for waiters. Let me quote Beppi Polese once again:

“A waiter must be fast, gentle, patient and above all attentive…..people don’t like to be disturbed…..And remember, they don’t come here to talk to the waiter – if they do want to talk, they must take the first step.”

Finally:

The best food in the world,

 delivered badly by a surly waiter,

in an inhospitable room,

will not taste good,

 and will not induce a customer to return

 

 The food

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First, the menu. The modern Spanish chef  Ferran Adria  (El Bulli) said, in an interview “A menu is  like a film – it’s made from different shots that have to be spliced together in the best way possible to create a story.”

Now, it’s your job to tell the story, and my job to interpret the story.

Does your menu tell a story? Or is it just a list of dishes? Do the dishes themselves make sense?

If your chefs are inventing dishes – do they know what they’re doing? Or are they just bunging ingredients together?. Check out these actual menu items from a restaurant in The Rocks not so long ago:

Risotto of Japanese Scallops and fresh herbs with a green coconut curry sauce

 

Breast of Chicken filled with a Smoked Salmon and Shallot Mousse, accompanied by lemon peppered potatoes, green beans with a light dill cream sauce.

 

Our own sun-dried tomato Fettuccine, Fetta, Olives and Asian Vegetables in a roma tomato sauce

 

 

What am I looking for?

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1. Authenticity.

If you’re serving a coq au vin – is it really a coq au vin or is it just chicken stew? As a critic, I know the difference. And if it’s the chef’s interpretation – coq of our chef – make sure the menu tells me that.  A long gone restaurant in Bondi. I ordered a Greek salad. It arrived with hard little white cubes of stuff tasting of – nothing. What is this? I asked politely. Oh,  said the waiter, it’s tofu – we ran out of feta. Chef thought no one would notice.

If you’ve got tarte tatin on the menu, is it tarte tatin or, as I have been served twice, stewed apples on soggy cake? In both instances, the words ‘caramelised apples’ were on the menu. Again, know what you’re serving.

2. Simplicity.

Less is definitely more. Every ingredient has to have a reason to be there. Every garnish should be edible.

3. Flavour.

Flavour. Flavour. Flavour.

In Japanese cooking there is a principle known as mochi agi o akasu. It means that everything on the plate is there to support or to amplify the flavour of the main ingredient on the plate. This is something that all chefs could well take notice of. It is about both simplicity – and flavour.

4. Balance.

The Thais have a word for it. Rot Chart. Even though a dish may have 20 ingredients, they have to be in balance. Balance is second only to flavour

5. Attention to detail.

Peter Evans told me that when he served breakfast at Hugo’s in Bondi he would personally make sure that every piece of toast was buttered to the edge. A true horror story. I was reviewing a long gone restaurant in Newtown. Every dish that came out smelt of rancid anchovies. We sent every dish back. Finally, when the waiter came with the bill, I asked “didn’t you wonder why we sent everything back?” The waiter replied “I just thought you weren’t hungry.”

6. Provenance

 The founder of the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini said “an environmentalist who isn’t a gastronome is sad. A gastronome who isn’t an environmentalist is stupid.” The more we learn about the environment the more we learn how important it is for us to know where our food came from, and how it was farmed or caught. At Sydney Eats, that became one of the things we looked at in assessing restaurants for prizes. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones.

7. Skill

Not show offy foamy things with prosciutto dust all over them, but  evidence that someone – or better still many – in the kitchen who know what they are doing, and do it well.

Believe me, I know how hard it is to do properly. Every meal in a restaurant is a live performance. Each table is a separate audience. There are no rehearsals, no out-of-town tryouts, no script writer, no special effects. Just a waiter and perhaps a floor manager (maitre’d) between the chef, the brigade and the customer.

Whereas a theatre audience may include people who have never before seen a live performance, everybody in a restaurant can eat, and has eaten before their visit to that restaurant. Many can also cook. So the restaurant audience, unlike that for a play, could conceivably consist mainly of people with similar technical abilities to the technicians in the kitchen.

And they’re all experts.

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Especially the pesky critic. And don’t forget, every critic has his or her own likes and dislikes and you can’t please ‘em all. Just do what you do do, well.

Finally, remember this.

What do you do when a critic comes into your restaurant?

Exactly the same as you do when anybody comes in.

Your very best.

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