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Reflections on the role of food critics ...

Everyone has particular skills, some are more obvious than others. Most people know whether they are or aren’t dancers, singers or mathematicians but everyone having mouths and stomachs strangely believe they are skilled tasters and eaters. Yet taste, like other faculties, must be learned and developed through practice. I can certainly belt out a tune but by no stretch of the imagination am I a singer that anyone in their right mind would want to listen to, but suggest to someone that they do not have an educated food palate and they will look at you as if you are an idiot. Strangely enough if you suggest their wine palate is not up to scratch most people will agree with you. This phenonomem has come about because of the pretension and pomposity that accompanies fine wines. I have often mused at wine dinners that if I ruminated about the comestibles as the wine experts harp on about about the fermented grape juice everyone would think I was a complete wanker….however I digress. The fact is expert tasters dedicate years to training their palates which ever their field.

To learn anything well is to discover over and over how little one really knows.

Everyone is a food critic, every time any one of us places something in our mouth we make a judgement on whether or not we like it, does this make everyone an expert ? Well it makes them an expert on what they do or don’t like themselves but not an expert on the subject of food tastes.

For thousands of years humans have been discussing food, after all, if it is worth eating then it is worth discussing. From Apicius to Brillat-Savarin to our modern day scribes not only have they been discussing food but it has been the source of inspiration for millions of written pages and of course these days blogs and twitters as well. It is interesting to note that along with the advent of the celebrity chef we have seen the growth of an entire industry of food journalism at the same time. It is a symbiotic relationship of love and hate but in the final analysis both sides need each other.

As a chef and restaurateur I applaud the skilled palates, journalistic talent and visionary insight of those critics that have raved about my restaurants and been kind to us over the years …..of course those reviews that have been less favourable were obviously written by foodie charlatans that have their tastebuds located in the nether regions and are a disgrace to their pathetic parasitic excuse for a profession. These sentiments are of course shared by all chefs and restaurateurs the world over. A good review shortly after opening is essential to the successful launch of a new restaurant. It will bring customers through the door, it is then up to the restaurant to be good enough to keep those customers coming back.

Restaurant reviews and guidebooks are an important part of our industry these days. What the Michelin brothers started in 1904 as a guide for chauffeurs of the new fangled invention, the motorcar, has blossomed into a worldwide industry of its own. The Michelin Guide was a list of establishments that put on a ‘good table’ and the wealthy travellers could stop at a reputable restaurant for their daily repast. The Michelin Guide today is perhaps still the most respected and coveted guide in the world and despite its critics is the one that chefs in particular hold most in awe and respect.

Restaurant Guides and restaurant reviews take many forms, from the sparse prose and symbols of the Michelin Guide to the ramblings of such writers as AA Gill, whom spends a majority of most of his reviews talking about some inane subject that very often only has a tenuous link to the actual review. I have to admit though Mr Gill has an addictive style and I love reading his reviews, especially fairly secure in the knowledge that he and the London Times will not be reviewing in the upper Hawkesbury anytime soon. Terry Durack wrote one of the best reviews I have ever read in his very early years where he reviewed the Auberge D’Illhausern, a three Michelin star establishment in Alsace. The Auberge sits on the beautiful shores of the river Ill and was originally a simple local restaurant exactly like the one directly across the river. The Auberge went on to become a world famous temple of gastronomy and the simple restaurant across the river maintained its peasant roots and served the local fare. In an entertaining and humorous review Terry compared the two restaurants and each in its own way came out as a winner. It was what a good review should be, entertaining, informative, humorous and educational. A few years later passing through the Alsace region we headed not for the Auberge where I had dined previously but for the simple local haunt across the river.

A review by its very nature can never be fair as a general comment as it is always a subjective reaction to a particular persons single experience. A personal experience that might not even be shared by someone else dining at the same table on the same evening. In the ideal world restaurants would be visited by a multitude of reviewers over many visits gauging the restaurants consistency. Expert food tasters with an encyclopaedic knowledge of culinary practices and ingredients would do all this anonymously. They will know their culinary history and get all their facts correct, they will not praise chefs for creativity when the chef in question is just plagiarising another chefs creations. These reviewers would bear in mind the philosophy of the restaurant and what the chef is trying to achieve, not what the reviewer thinks it should be. The tasters would put aside preconceived ideas of the restaurant and the chef and then judge their experience of the restaurant as holistic event from the point of view of the customer base that the restaurant is aimed at. They would then write a witty and educational piece that sums up the experience a new guest is likely to receive upon taking their recommendation and finally allocate a rating that is a fair system taking into account the various styles and levels of restaurants, their value for money, quality level and target audience. Quite simple really, so I wonder why it hasn’t been done!

My view of food critics over the years has changed little. I assume that by and large they are a decent group of people trying to earn a living like the rest of us. Mostly they have enjoyed what I have done in my restaurants and given me support and for that I am grateful. A couple over the years have not understood what we are doing or just through bad luck hit the restaurant on a bad day ….don’t be fooled every restaurant has bad days….in the end we have to accept the good with the bad and try harder next time. It is important that diners should recognise reviews for what they are – one or two persons opinion. Chefs and restaurateurs should also recognise reviews for what they might reflect – a discrepancy between what the restaurant is trying to accomplish and what the reviewer perceived. Most often when people disagree with a reviewer, they are expressing a difference in taste. And differences in taste are virtually impossible to resolve.

I have an insatiable appetite for knowledge when it comes to all things related to the restaurant world and have always wanted to dine out with a leading restaurant critic while they are reviewing to get to know what they are actually thinking. Now that would be an interesting and insightful discussion. Unfortunately unlike many of my peers and colleagues in the industry I don’t know any of the critics well enough to be invited out to dinner with them.

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