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