Critical thinking

19 February 2004 by
Critical thinking

When Sunday Telegraph food critic Matthew Norman visited Richard Shepherd's eponymous London restaurant recently he didn't have a very good time. In fact, he had such a miserable time that the subsequent review he wrote for his newspaper last month left scarcely an area of Shepherd's unstoned.

According to his piece, the look of Shepherd's was "dreary, fake, cheap and pom-pous", his soup reminded him of "Toilet Duck", asparagus in a starter was likened to "an ancient tree" dressed with a vinaigrette that was "an insipid, feckless mayonnaise", and his venison had "a bizarre iron filings aftertaste". Shepherd's is, Norman declared, "the eighth circle of hell" and "must rank among the very worst restaurants in Christendom".

Shepherd was so unhappy with Norman's review that he took the unusual, but not unprecedented step of instructing his lawyers, Wedlake Bell, to write to the Sunday Telegraph, threatening the newspaper with legal action.

Unless the newspaper published a letter in response to the review and paid an undisclosed sum to charity, then further action would follow. Wedlake Bell's letter picked up on many of the points in the review, one by one, and concluded: "These statements are a vicious rant rather than the reasoned critique that a review ought to be."

One week on from the original review, the Sunday Telegraph didn't appear to be backing down and neither was its prize-winning restaurant critic. An article on page 3 of the main newspaper quoted from the lawyer's letter, from Norman himself (he declared the letter "more amusing than my review") and from Shepherd, who said: "I am hurt. My staff are devastated. I can take criticism, but I have never experienced anything like this in my life. It's defamatory to say that I, after 43 years in the industry, could be running such an establishment."

But was anything in Norman's review actually defamatory? Certainly the people at Wedlake Bell are saying publicly that Shepherd has a case and, by implication, that the review was in some way beyond the realms of what media law terms "fair comment".

The Sunday Telegraph, on the other hand, had not, according to Wedlake Bell, reacted by the company's deadline for a response - a silence that surprises Wedlake's Susanne Reeves, who's handling the matter. "I don't know if they're burying their heads in the sand but it's quite unusual at a deadline to have had no response at all," she says.

If Shepherd's grievances were to end up in the High Court and result in a success, then it would be the first time a British restaurateur has ever successfully brought an action following a review. As a result, the whole subject has generated a huge amount of industry and media interest.

A legal precedent that could temper critics might be welcomed by certain sections of the industry - especially those who have suffered at the hands of critics in the past - but isn't legal action going a bit too far? Peter Harden, who co-edits the Harden Guides with his brother Richard, has turned down reviews in the past because he's considered them unsuitable on legal grounds. "We're always very careful, especially as we both have legal backgrounds," he says. "We always ensure that what we use is fair comment." He points out that the listings guidebook format differs from newspapers, adding: "Often the press set out to amuse."

This is a sentiment echoed by Anna Hansen, chef-proprietor at London's Providores. "I sometimes think critics give in to the sound of their own words. It occasionally feels like they're trying to make a name for themselves. Sometimes a place can just be bumpy on the day, regardless of how good its people are - it just happens."

Norman himself disputes the idea that he writes negative reviews merely to entertain or self-publicise. "It's possible to be amusing and praise a place as well," he says. He also says that it's rare that he is moved to write so strongly in the negative.

Guy Dimond, food and drink editor of London's Time Out, admits he has had some experiences with legal people, but says: "As yet there have been no major, major problems." He's dismissive of the idea that a bad review should warrant a legal response. "It's an opinion - what's wrong with that?" he asks. "People should learn to take the bad with the good. I do take a journalist's view on this… there's a right to freedom of speech."

Simon Wright, ex-editor of the AA restaurant guide, did also get "periodic" threats to sue, but is troubled by recent events: "My biggest worry is that it sets a bad precedent - it's a really unwelcome development."

Wright believes that critics have a responsibility to the places they're reviewing: "As long as they're not being flippant and it's clear what elements are being criticised, then it's fine," he says. He does, however, have some advice for restaurateurs: "Never take criticism too seriously."

For some people in the industry that's far easier said than done, especially when the press can make such a difference to the all-important bottom line. Paul Kitching, chef-proprietor of Juniper in Altrincham near Manchester, is more than aware of the power of positive press. Good reports, including a Guardian restaurant of the year selection, added an estimated extra month's worth of takings during a year.

"I would hate to get a bad review but I think you've got to take it on the chin if it happens," Kitching says. "The press do an important job and it's the game you have to play in this business. Critics and guides set the standards that let you know where you are and how well you're doing. There's usually some truth in every review."

In the week after Norman's Sunday Telegraph piece, Shepherd's reported a 95-cover fall in business, but Valentine Low from London's Evening Standard visited eight days after its publication and reported on an identical meal in a "positively bouncing" restaurant. Shepherd's has a loyal following and benefits from its location near Parliament.

Lancashire-based chef-restaurateur Paul Heathcote feels critics don't focus enough on the areas beyond the outer reaches of the M25. On the issue of Shepherd's, he feels that it might simply be a victim of its own longevity. "The longer a restaurant goes on, the more likely it is to start picking up criticism, but if it's still busy then it doesn't matter. Richard Shepherd is a strong character," Heathcote says. "If anyone's capable of going the legal way on something like this, it's him."

Norman, on the other hand, seems unsure about what form any proceedings might take. "You can't recreate a bowl of soup. What are they going to do? Take the jury to the restaurant? I suppose it's easy to be blas‚ about it now but it would be a hilarious case," he says. "Since the review, a lot of people have come up to me and offered their services as witnesses."

what's been said…

"There is so much about Shepherd's that is wrong that it would, in a more elegant age, merit a pamphlet rather than a review."

Matthew Norman in the Sunday Telegraph

"We were 95 covers down in the week after that review appeared. I am hurt. My staff are devastated."

Richard Shepherd in the Sunday Telegraph

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