First two critics critted: Durack and Griffin

imagesSome time ago (November 3 to be exact) I posted a piece called Criticising the Critics. At the end of that piece I promised to follow up with a review of four restaurant reviewers: Terry Durack [The Sydney Morning Herald], Larissa Dubecki [The Age], John Lethlean [The Australian] and Guy Griffin [until it’s demise the (sydney) magazine]  Somewhat belatedly. I was interrupted first by the death of a dear friend who I wanted to write about – and then much work. Better late than never. This post, the first two, from Sydney. Terry Durack and Guy Griffin Let me start with Mr Durack.

Terry Durack could be said to be the doyen of Australian restaurant reviewers. He has been at it for longer than any others still serving up opinions, and has done it both here and in London, for The Independent. And, like at least two others (reviewer emeritus Leo Schofield and me) he began life in advertising, as a copywriter, before realising that the most interesting part of the day was spent at lunch.

In the days when Mr Durack and I were toiling away as the poets of commerce, there was plenty of money and plenty of free time to lunch well. There is one other reason why so many ex-advertising copywriters have gone on to do well in other word-smithing jobs, novelists Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie being just two. It teaches you to make people want to read what you write. Because nobody wants to read ads, you learn to become very good at first sentences.

Consider the review I am writing about here, of Vincent in Woollahra on October 15 2013 (you can read it here). Mr Durack’s first sentence begins ‘I, for one, can see through their clever little scheme…’ I, for one, defy you not to read on. He is introducing the Baked Comte Custard which later stars in a breakout as the Go To Dish. His description of it makes me both smile and want to slip it into my mouth. ‘This tall, free-standing cylinder’ he writes, ‘wobbles like a strumpet on its way to the table’ and it has ‘the airy-fairy texture of something between a panna cotta and a soufflé and a clean, nutty almost caramel flavour that fills the mouth  like a cloud.’ This is masterful writing about food. Descriptive and, even if some might question the taste of ‘wobbles like a strumpet’ (a tad sexist Mr Durack?) compelling.

Later he does that which is essential in a piece of writing that serves many purposes – historical document, guide to where to go tonight just two of them – it establishes context.We learn the provenance of the owners and the chef. Restaurants rarely pop up out of nowhere. There is history and it is useful to know. Mr Durack is also knowledgeable about the wine, and lets us know that here, it is mainly French and displays a love affair with the Loire. In this he is ahead of Maestro Schofield who loved his wine but was not demonstrably au fait with it. All in all this is a very fine review which, having read it,  leaves me with a feeling for the place, a hunger for the food and a desire to visit. There is, for me, one problem. And it is not in the words.

It is in the picture of Mr Durack above the review. Now I know he has said that there is nothing that the restaurateur can do to make his experience any better than that of the average diner other than make the servings larger.  Balderdash. Some of you may remember the television series Heat in the Kitchen, in which (then) Sydney Morning Herald restaurant critic Matthew Evans is shown deciding on the fate of two restaurants in terms of the number of hats they will receive in the Good Food Guide. There is a memorable scene when Evans walks unannounced into Aria which is desperate to have the hat taken away from it the previous year given back. Chef Matthew Moran is not in the kitchen. The sous chef in charge panics. From then on there are only two people in the restaurant, Evans and his companion. Everything is done to ensure that their meal is perfect, including preparing several versions of each dish they order. I would not have wanted to be eating at Aria that night. In her book Garlic and Sapphires, restaurant critic Ruth Reichl writes about her adoption of disguises. She would visit a restaurant once as herself, then go back disguised as a  little old lady and compared here treatment. Needless to say the LOL was not treated as well as the New York Times reviewer.

So I’m giving only three out  a possible five pens for this otherwise admirable review. Two taken off for lack of anonymity.

My next choice is a critic who, as far as I know, is no longer practicing. Guy Griffin was the restaurant critic for the recently departed the (sydney) magazine which appeared free in The Sydney Morning Herald once a month. It was glossy, it was fashionable and when it first appeared, it was also thoughtful. In my opinion, this quality was generally lacking towards the end of its life. Mr Griffin’s reviews appeared on a page labelled ‘hot’ in thematically chosen colours.

 The greater danger for the restaurant critic, as for the wine critic, is to disappear up his/her own cloaca. Mr Griffin falls into this trap in the first paragraph of his review of Alpha (Issue 126 November 2013 read it here).

‘There are versions of classic dishes you’d call righteous’ he writes, and goes on ‘In Abruzzo this year my buddy’s nonagenarian nonna served her famous lasagne as one course in the family’s annual Ferragosto 15-course celebration.’ Now, I have no problem with his citing of a traditional dish, but citing it in a way that makes Mr Griffin rather than his ‘buddy’s’ grandmother’s lasagne the hero is not really on.

It gets worse.

‘In contrast, two weeks before, there was that vegetarian “cassoulet” cooked by well-meaning former friend.’ So important is food to Mr Griffin we are led to believe that he drops his friends for infractions of his kitchen rules. Were we all to be so stern we would have no friends left.

None of this has anything to do with the review in question which, when we finally get around to it, states that ‘Peter Conistis’ moussaka ranks alongside nonna’s lasagne in the righteous category.’ Well, actually no. The ingredients for the lasagne he quotes as emanating from  the nonna in question’s kitchen (shouldn’t it be Nonna?) are classic. Chef Conistis’ moussaka is famously not. Recognising that the moussaka we know and some love so well was not really Greek but had been invented by a mid-twentieth century Greek chef by the name of Tselementes as one of a series of dishes to expunge any remnants of the orient from Greek kitchens (it’s a long story) Chef Conistis invented his own luscious dish which he called moussaka which, some twenty five years ago, infuriated the Greeks of the city who visited his then restaurant Cosmos. Righteous it is not. Delicious it is.

We learn much bout Mr Griffin in this review, about how clever he is, how well travelled, and in between the selfie gossip, we do get a good a taste of Chef Conistis’  splendid food. And it is well and accurately described: I have eaten at this restaurant know some of the dishes and am an admirer of  Chef Conistis’ kitchen. Mr Griffin gets it and also displays a good knowledge of Greek wine.

We also learn that he is not strictly truthful. Towards the end of the review he writes ‘ “Socrates said desserts are like mistresses” the Midnight Cowboy announces. “They’re bad for you. So if you’re having one you might as well have two.” I had no idea he was a classics scholar.’ He wasn’t. As amusing as it is, there is no such quote either from Socrates or the film Midnight Cowboy.  The quote is attributed to  Alain Ducasse. How very strange to invent a false provenance for a quote.

I’m giving him two pens for good food description and wine knowledge.

Next – and more than likely post-Christmas– I will have a look at John Lethlean and Larissa Dubecki, both from Melbourne, although Mr Lethlean’s brief is the entire country.


Criticising the restaurant critics.

The press mage used by the late Howard Twelftree, who reviewed as John McGrath - and stayed as anonymous as possible.  A wonderful reviewer

The  image used by the late Howard Twelftree, who reviewed as John McGrath – and stayed  anonymous.

What should we look for in a restaurant critic? Firstly, at the very core of the critic’s response are two questions: what are they trying to do, and how well have they done it? It doesn’t matter whether what is being criticised is a play or a poem, that is the core question.

It means your criticism should be based on the aims of the creative person – in this case the restaurateur and the chef. For a restaurant, it means you don’t use the same criteria for a three hat aspirant as you would for a cosy suburban bistro: in fact, the suburban bistro may outscore the higher reaching place because it achieved what it set out to.

For the restaurant critic there are other imperatives. Give me an idea of what the restaurant feels like. Is it warm? Friendly? Snooty? Casual? Elegant?

I want some context. What is this restaurant with this chef and these owners doing in this place now?

Only then do I want to know about the food. Because the food should tell the same story as the place. Is there a disjunction between what is on the plate and where it is served?

And finally, and perhaps most  importantly, how is it served? Heston Blumenthal, of all people, recently said that he believed service was more important than food. I agree with him.

All  this has to be wrapped up in a writing style that is amusing, informative and authoritative. Amusing is the difficult one. The critic should remember he or she is playing with people’s livelihoods and, without pulling punches, should not sink to the kind of cruel jibes used by the repellent A A Gill. Sure he’s a brilliant writer. But why use your pen as a sword to inflict pain?

Before I move on to a critique of the critics (and this may take place over a couple of posts, too long for one) I should mention that the expert critic may well be an endangered species. My own daughters, both with a keen interest in food and restaurants do not read any of the newspaper or magazine critics. They read online reviews or, more often, blogs. Most of their generation do.

And while I admit there are some  very good blogs, I worry about the unedited, unsupervised, untrammelled nature of them. As a writer, I view editors the way I view dentists: not pleasant but necessary. And here I am writing on my own unedited blog. But that remains my view.

As for the crowd-source sites like Eatability and Yelp, I have nothing but contempt for them.  My experience with Zagat was enough to make me distrust them all.

Zagat works somewhat differently from say, Eatability. Whereas the one prints user comments directly,  Zagat employs what they call ‘surveyors’ of which I was one. You are sent a batch of restaurants with a number of user comments and scores for food, décor, service and cost. You then string the user comments together to build up a review and add the scores.

The problem was the quality and content of the comments often made it impossible to write an even halfway favourable review. But that did not deter my Zagat manager in New York. One example.  I was asked to start a review of a certain restaurant with a comment on the food. But as I wrote to my manager ‘How can  I start a review of  (restaurant) XXX with a comment on the food when the only comment is ‘food average for the price’?

Another time I wrote ‘Sorry,  once again, five reviews, one of them – the longest – seriously negative, I can’t build a meaningful review from that – recommend not including this one.’ I was instructed to: ‘Filter out the negative comments and use the relevant ones.’

I am ashamed to say that I did as I was told – thinking of the money which was pretty good – but determined never to do it again. As it was, Zagat did not come to Sydney for unspecified reasons. If they do, my advise is to ignore them completely. They are dishonest.

I’m not particularly elated at the demise of informed and professional critical dialogue. Restaurant critics have had an enormous influence in educating us — at least those of us in the Anglosphere (America, Australia and the United Kingdom) – to eat better and smarter. In particular, in my native Sydney, Leo Schofield. After one of his pieces, restaurateurs told me they would be inundated with people waving the review and wanting to eat exactly what he ate. And he retired at exactly the right time: when we trusted our own judgement. Thank you Leo.

Rigorous critical dialogue is a positive force for any creative endeavour, as much for gastronomy as for literature, theatre or the visual arts.

The film critic Richard Schickel nailed it when he wrote, in a 2007 response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: ‘Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions…It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.’

But if the latest commentators are right, and the lumpen-cybercrats  are, collectively, taking over the role of the critic, and heeding their peers rather than the professionals, then the days of the critic are numbered.

In my next  post on this site, I’ll provide a review of the reviewers, a critique of the critics. The four I have chosen are: Terry Durack [The Sydney Morning Herald], Larissa Dubecki [The Age], John Lethlean [The Weekend Australian] and Guy Griffin [until its demise the (sydney) magazine