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Restaurant critics answer your questions

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Restaurant critics answer your questions
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Wouldn’t you love to put the critics in the hot seat, and get them back for all those reviews that have affected your business? As Restaurants Against Hunger month comes to a climax, Caterer gives the industry the opportunity to place four critics under the grill. Tom Vaughan introduces a series of testing requests

“Gordon Ramsay is a wonderful chef,” Sunday Times food critic AA Gill once wrote, “just a really second-rate human being.” Ouch. Even the potty-mouthed former footballer couldn’t let that insult wash over him, and threw Gill and dining partner Joan Collins out of his restaurant the next opportunity he got. An insult about his food he didn’t mind, Ramsay explained in his autobiography, but a personal jibe was beyond the pale.

That episode is a bold example of the often-frosty relationship between chefs and proprietors and food critics. If chefs had their way, reviews would be about nothing but the standard of cooking. If some critics had their way (and some do), the writing would be more anecdotage, colour and conjecture than fastidious appraisal of culinary technique.

The situation, of course, is far from being black and white. Critics such as Matthew Fort of The Guardian and Terry Durack of The Independent are beloved by chefs for their considered approach to criticism writers such as Jay Rayner are respected for their trumpeting of certain establishments and their vast interest in all levels of the food industry while others, such as Gill, have renown among chefs and readers for their vitriolic capabilities, yet they possess a seniority, sagacity and, importantly, a following that means a review can make or break a restaurant.

For one night, though, on Sunday (19 October), the shoe will be on the other foot, and chefs will get the chance – should they wish to take it – to spit the critics’ cooking back at them. As part of Restaurants Against Hunger month, 10 national-level critics will be cooking for a host of top-end chefs, including Raymond Blanc, Shane Osborn and Fergus Henderson – all in aid of charity Action Against Hunger.

As an hors d’oeuvre to the main event, Caterer gave the hospitality industry the opportunity to grill four of the critics on any subject they chose.

How do critics in general rate restaurants on cuisine that they have themselves no authority upon? Certain cuisines are slated by some critics, when it could be said that they have no experience with that food at all and the food doesn’t look fancy enough, or have the European touch.

Cyrus Todiwala, chef-patron, Café Spice Namasté, London

Jay Rayner Let’s start with the most basic truth. Our job is not to sell restaurants, it is to sell newspapers. By which I mean, we are not employed because, necessarily, we know the most about food or restaurants – though we do know a lot – but because we can write about it in an entertaining manner which will keep people reading. So what matters is how we express our opinion and whether we argue it with any authority.

However, we eat out a hell of a lot, and I’d be intrigued to know what this cuisine that I’d have little experience of might be.

Charles Campion In London, there are more than 70 different cuisines available to the greedy diner, and you would have to be a travel journalist to have sampled them all in their original form. I can only speak for myself, but I have never slated any cuisine, and try to balance the contents of my restaurant guide – for example, there are 3,500 “Indian” restaurants in London, so 65 out of the 400 restaurants I include are Indian.

One of the best things about food in Britain is the diversity of cuisine no other city in the world can compete with London.

Tracey MacLeod I try to take a guest who has some expertise in that area, or at least eats that style of food regularly. But I wouldn’t review a restaurant that was so “authentic” that an untutored palate would have no way of telling whether it was good or not. It either tastes good or it doesn’t.

Do you realise that you set trends, and that your views are taken as gospel truth by many of your readers?

Cyrus Todiwala

Jay Rayner That’s a “when did you stop beating your wife” question. By which I mean, you’ve set the premise, with which I do not agree. Restaurants set trends we report on them. Nobody opens a restaurant because they think Coren or Rayner might like it they do so because they think customers will want to go there.

Charles Campion The question is flattering, but not true. In any business it’s important to keep abreast of what is happening, and catering is no exception. Reading the critics can help a chef know what the competition is up to.

Tracey MacLeod I don’t think that’s true. Most readers look at reviews to find interesting new places they might like to try in their area. Critics reflect and report on trends, we don’t set them.

Nick Lander I don’t think that is the case with any restaurant reviewers any longer. Readers are more knowledgeable and more sceptical than that.

What is your opinion of a tasting menu?

John Williams, executive chef, the Ritz, London

Jay Rayner It depends who is cooking – seriously. A crap cook will produce a crap tasting menu a good one will do the opposite. In the right hands, 16 tiny courses of loveliness can be a joy to behold.

Charles Campion I have mixed feelings about tasting menus. On the one hand, they can be a delight and showcase more dishes than a straightforward three-course meal, but sometimes they annoy. It goes like this, you enjoy courses one, two and three, but four is an absolute whizzer – to start with, you are disappointed that the portion is small. Then course five faces an uphill battle – however good it is, you cannot help wishing you were eating more of fabulous number four.

Tracey MacLeod I wouldn’t choose to order the tasting menu when reviewing a restaurant – usually, the whole table has to order it, and that limits the number of dishes that can be sampled. But I certainly take the tasting menu into account when ordering – it helps to get a sense of which dishes the chef is really proud of.

How do you feel professionally justified in making your judgements? In other words, what qualifications do you believe that you (and all restaurant critics) should have?

John Williams

Charles Campion I have served time as chef-proprietor of a country house hotel – unfortunately, I chose the very beginning of the last recession to open and went bust after only a couple of years’ trading. I write from the standpoint of someone who shops, cooks and has eaten out four or five times a week for the past decade. The only paper qualification I have is my Food Hygiene Certificate. The most important qualification for any restaurant critic is that they know what they are talking about.

Nick Lander I owned a large restaurant for a decade. Plus I have a good appetite, a sense of fun and a nose for a good story.

Tracey MacLeod I eat out regularly, I enjoy food, I love restaurants, and I try to convey the whole experience in as fair and entertaining way as I can. And doing that for 11 years feels like some kind of qualification in itself.

Do you think it is reasonable to judge a restaurant in its first days of opening?

John Williams

Jay Rayner If they are charging full prices, absolutely, yes. If it’s a soft opening, then no.

Charles Campion No, but the editors of newspapers persist in viewing a restaurant review as a news story and insist that their paper runs it before any other.

Tracey MacLeod First days, no. First couple of weeks, yes.

What is your most memorable meal and why?

John Williams

Jay Rayner Dinner at El Bulli in late August of this year, and if I have to explain why you haven’t been reading enough about restaurants recently.

Tracey MacLeod El Bulli because it was sensational, mad and – despite all that’s written about the place – not at all what I was expecting. I also remember, for different reasons, the meal at the very formal restaurant in Burford where I choked on a canapé and had to expel it into an ashtray. And yes, it was a review.

What is the worst meal you have ever had, and why?

John Williams

Jay Rayner Dinner at the Nation of Islam Café. It was sub-student food: hard to beat for grimness.

Charles Campion It doesn’t help anyone to dwell on what is bad. I rarely write up anywhere that is awful because it is more helpful to my readers to recommend a particular restaurant than to put them off somewhere.

What dish would you put in Room 101?

Anonymous

Charles Campion One of the side-effects of the “gastropub revolution” is that I can never take a lamb shank seriously again.

Tracey MacLeod Personally, I’ve never seen the point of ratatouille.

What is your definition of a great chef or restaurateur?

Raymond Blanc, le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

Jay Rayner Someone who (a) manages to serve interesting and original food while (b) making money and (c) continues doing it for more than five years.

Charles Campion He, or she, will have a grasp of the wonder that is true “hospitality” – a genuine welcome, and honest, well-prepared original dishes that are fairly priced.

Nick Lander A great restaurateur is someone who has a profound interest in his fellow man and woman’s well-being and is prepared to forfeit a great part of his own life to make this possible.

Do you rate a property and food on your own personal views or the views that you perceive the majority of the public to hold?

Beppo Buchanan-Smith, owner, Isle of Eriska Hotel

Nick Lander I judge them on my own views. Restaurants cannot be judged by committee.

Jay Rayner What’s important with a restaurant critic – or any columnist, for that matter – is that their views are consistent. In other words, I’m not interested in what the public thinks. I believe I’m right. Huge arrogance and over-weaning self-confidence are a minimum qualification for the job.

Charles Campion Any critic builds a relationship with his, or her, readers. In my Guide to London Restaurants, the readers want to hear what I think. They may not agree with me – I write: “the portions were on the small side” they think “then they’ll be about right for me”. Or I say: “Not quite enough chilli heat in this dish” they think “sounds perfect”. But they quickly understand my personal foibles. It helps readers decide between restaurants if all the reviews are written from the same perspective.

Tracey MacLeod A bit of both, probably. But mainly, I try and experience the restaurant as it’s meant to be experienced. I go with friends, I make a special occasion of it, and I’d never, never go somewhere and eat grimly alone. That’s not a fair basis for a review.

Would any of you open a restaurant and therefore open yourselves up to criticism?

Arthur Potts Dawson, executive chef, Acorn House, London

Charles Campion Been there. Done that. Went bust. Feel free to criticise!

Jay Rayner I’d love to run a restaurant for a night. But as a business? Absolutely not. Far too much hard work.

Tracey MacLeod Nope.

Nick Lander I have done this but I’m far too old to do it again.

How can you be neutral or unbiased when reviewing an establishment of a well-known chef or restaurateur, as opposed to an unknown entity?

David Mulcahy, craft and food development director, Sodexo

Jay Rayner Objectivity in journalism is a complete myth. There is no such thing as neutrality. Your views are informed by what has gone before. My job, as ever, is to write an authoritative explanation of why I hold the views I do. I must explain how what I already know has influenced the conclusions I have reached.

Charles Campion When writing a review, you cannot have too much information. Well-known chefs and restaurateurs may be in the spotlight, and you may have preconceptions, but you are covering the same ground as other critics. How much more impressive to be the first person to write about an “unknown entity”.

Tracey MacLeod You can’t. But, on the other hand, they have presumably become well-known because they’re excellent at what they do, so it’s fair to have higher expectations of them.

If you take a personal dislike to a certain chef or establishment, how can you deliver a fair verdict?

David Mulcahy

Jay Rayner You can’t. But it can make for a fun column.

Nick Lander By staying away, if necessary. There are lots of restaurants to write about.

Have you ever caught food poisoning from a place you have visited?

Joyce Milne, curriculum co-ordinator for hospitality, Croydon College

Jay Rayner No, but three of my companions have. The problem is, as the law stands, it’s almost impossible to point the finger. You have to trace the bug from the kitchen, on to the plate through the gut and out again – and that is very tricky indeed.

Tracey MacLeod I was quite ill after eating in Dave and Buster’s, a games arcade-cum-American diner in Solihull. But that may have been more to do with the amusements than the food.

Charles Campion Not that I know of – perhaps I have an unusually hardy constitution.

Why is it that mainstream independent food and hotel critics, even those who write for the Scottish dailies, never go north of Edinburgh?

David Young, chef-patron, the Cross at Kingussie

Jay Rayner This one does: Drumbeg, Achiltibuie and Lake of Menteith, to name but three.

Charles Campion Budget. It is hard enough to get editors to fund a trip to Surrey, let alone Perth. Have you seen the price of train tickets recently? That’s also why the Scottish dailies don’t review restaurants on the Isle of Wight.

Tracey MacLeod With limited travel budgets, and pressures on our time, it’s really to do with logistics. London-based critics need to use their time and budgets effectively, in order to serve the areas where they have most readers. That said, I have reviewed three restaurants north of Edinburgh in the past couple of years. Admittedly, they were all in Fife.

Nick Lander Because of the midges!

What are the top five things that make a meal a good one?

Sean Wheeler, group director of people development, Malmaison

Jay Rayner Good food, good service, nice comfortable chairs, no one trying to fill up my wine or water and no one asking me, while I’m eating, how everything is.

Charles Campion In order of importance: the food, the service, your companions, the drink, the ambience.

Nick Lander The way I and my party are treated, the food, the wine list, the atmosphere, value for money.

Have you ever refused to pay for a meal, and, if so, where and why?

Anonymous

Jay Rayner No.

Nick Lander No, that would be a betrayal of my independence.

Charles Campion No, if you discount a “runner” with the rest of the rugby team during the mid 1970s in Walton on Thames.

Tracey MacLeod Yes, at a sushi bar in Soho, where cockroaches were running over the fish displayed under the counter.

Too many critics 2008

It’s not too late to grab the last few tickets for this year’s Too Many Critics dinner, taking place on Sunday 19 October at the Royal Exchange in London.

Tickets are priced at £130 and include a Champagne reception, five-course dinner and rare-breed British pork tasting, with all proceeds going toward the work of Action Against Hunger. Special discounts are available for group bookings, with 10 tickets at £1,200.

A very limited number of Golden Tickets are also available for £250, allowing the lucky holder to sit next to the chef of his or her choice and spend the evening in the company of a food hero.

To purchase tickets, contact Aimee Rowlands at a.rowlands@aahuk.org or 020 8293 6138.

The critics

Tracey MacLeod As well as being a broadcaster, MacLeod has been writing about restaurants for The Independent’s magazine since 1997. She has been nominated for a Glenfiddich Food and Drink award as best restaurant critic three times, winning the award in 2003.

Jay Rayner Restaurant critic for The Observer, he joined the newspaper after graduating from Leeds University in 1988, where he was editor of the student newspaper. He has written for a wide range of British newspapers and magazines including GQ, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, New Statesman and Granta. In 1992, he was named Young Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards.

Charles Campion Restaurant critic of the London Evening Standard, Campion entered the world of food journalism after stints in advertising and as chef-patron of his own hotel in Derbyshire. He has written for, among others, The Independent, The Times, The Illustrated London News, BBC Good Food Magazine, Delicious, and Bon Appetit in America. Between 1999 and 2005, he wrote seven editions of the Rough Guide to London Restaurants and in September 2007 Profile Books published Charles Campion’s 2008 London Restaurant Guide

Nick Lander Has written a weekly restaurant column in the Financial Times since the early 1990s under the byline of The Restaurant Insider, where he has tried to look at themes and trends in the restaurant industry. After studying at Cambridge University and Manchester Business School, he became a prominent restaurateur with his L’Escargot restaurant in Soho, London. He is also a catering consultant to a selection of British arts organisations and companies.

Some choice excerpts

Jay Rayner on Langtry’s in Knightsbridge, London

“There was a funereal air to the deserted entrance hall at Langtry’s. When I received my starter, I understood why. The whole place was in mourning for the wasted lives of the Morecambe Bay brown shrimps that had been sacrificed to make it

“What arrived was a highball glass piled with hot battered prawns, their delicate flavour mislaid in the deep-fat fryer. Underneath that was a cloyingly sweet Marie Rose sauce ice-cream – there are good reasons for not making ice-cream out of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup, not least politeness – then a layer of avocado cream, and finally, a plug of underpowered shellfish jelly.

“From this, I can tell you Langtry’s does indeed celebrate British food, but only in the way a murderer might dance upon its victim’s grave.”

Tracey MacLeod on Purnell’s, Birmingham

“This feel for texture was even more marked in an Orientally influenced main course, which partnered duck breast with glossy black rice containing an admixture of deep-fried kernels, to create smoky, crunchy explosions.

“Black pools of glossy liquorice purée and a silky, melt-in-the mouth cube of foie gras butter demonstrated Purnell’s idiosyncratic but instinctive feel for flavour combinations, while tamarind purée picked up on a recurring theme, the use of ingredients from the sub-continent, so intrinsic to Birmingham’s food scene.”

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