The Poison Pan

 Who Criticizes the Critics?

It is strange that I never became a restaurant critic since the job does combine two of my favourite pass times: eating and criticizing. Over years of meals cherished or loathed, I too, like most of us, became a self-appointed expert. Likes and dislikes are formed; opinions of good food and drink are honed. So I guess it was just poetic justice that I became a chef then Food and Beverage professional and ended up at the other end of the “poison pan” so to speak.

But truth be known I guess I ended up a chef because all the other activities that I pursued were either too scatological (ya gotta look this one up!) or too self-indulgent (tried to be a rock guitarist once)and Food and Beverage is basically the only thing that I have even half succeeded at.

So, everyone’s a critic then. But what makes a good food critic? Is it some one who sets their expectations according to realistic criteria and honest censure or is it some who is just looking for a free meal and notoriety!

The infamous French critic, Maurice Edmond Sailland better known by his pen name, Curnonsky, would enter a restaurant and then proclaim loudly: “Prepare me a leg of lamb with red beans and if the skin is not crackling crisp and if it is not the colour of a baby’s cheeks, I’m leaving”. On another occasion, he dined at a famed restaurant in Lyon and caused a brouhaha when his Crepes Suzettes had been made with orange peel and not, as they should have been, with tangerine peel. Recounting the influence of Curnonsky’s reviews, another journalist wrote that “a poor review by `The Prince’ could seriously harm the reputation of a restaurant”

Urban myth or not but it is story that is told in nervous tones in kitchens and dining rooms all over the world

A negative review could be enough to force the chef /owners of a restaurant to decide whether it was worth to even keep their doors open or in the extreme as with chef Bernard Loiseau, the three-star chef of the Côte d’Or in Burgundy who committed suicide with a single rifle shot to the mouth (a cruel last testimonial for a chef and culinarians), apparently in response to the Gault Millau guide’s decision to downgrade his restaurant from 19 points out of 20 to just 17.

 While the non-culinary public may find such behaviour bizarre and even amusing, many chefs and restaurateurs are not enthusiastic to say the least of the ethics of some of the critics who come to their restaurants and then triumphantly publish their opinions with all and sundry that happens to read their articles. In fact, if you pay heed one would get the impression that restaurant critics are the most reviled people on the planet! But what many of those who own or prepare the food in restaurants do not understand is that critics are not their enemies. It’s all about expectations; if you walk into an Italian restaurant expecting a huge bowl of fresh linguine with sweet little neck clams in marinara sauce, only to get little portions of froufrou raw beef with capers and other doodads and you get mad or even worse, disappointed. Well, it’s easy to feel let down when you haven’t read the signs….. Right?

I mean let’s face it restaurant critics are, by nature, neophiliacs. Jaded by familiarity before they have even sit down to eat, they seem to pursue novelty for its own sake. Give them a dish that has spices that have to pass through the digestive tract of an endangered species, before being roasted or culinary experiments involving Vegemite ice creams and too often they’ll feign to be happy and produce a wonderful review. So I guess you could say that the restaurant business, like show business or any other artistic enterprise, are public domain and are justifiably open to criticism. Just as the art or music critic appreciates and loves paintings or the symphony, most restaurant critics adore food and have happily devoted large portions of their lives to consuming good meals and quite a few bad ones as well!

 Obviously the restaurant critic should apply their trade within a certain set of standards. I mean they don’t need to be master-chefs, but they should have the minimum knowledge of how the dishes they are judging are prepared. They should have discerning palates and be knowledgeable about a variety of cuisines and cooking styles and most importantly they should also have an understanding of the psychology, physiology, sociology and anthropology of the chef although in all truth the inner workings of most chefs do defy normal human understanding!

To be fair I must admit that one of the best restaurant reviews I ever received was when a well known local publication sent some one to review one of my restaurants who was a  raving vegetarian!!! Now I don’t have anything personal against vegetarians in fact some of my best friends…….! Anyway this gentleman was so taken back by the fact that I was able and indeed willing to serve him a full tasting menu of only vegetarian dishes that he just swooned and wrote anything that I told him to write…Oops! I mean …well you know what I mean.

 Critics should also be sensitive to their moral obligations, to their readers and to the restaurants they are reviewing. The honest critic, for example, will never promote chefs or restaurateurs just because they are friends or make a review merely because the chef is an obnoxious git! (A few of them around)

I do believe that what drives most critics is an unfathomable sense of optimism and indeed blind faith in the hope that the next red wine sauce he tastes will have been made with at least a half drinkable red and not something that just came out of a carton; or that his next prime steak will be cooked just to that point where it is charred on the outside but still perfectly pink inside. In fact, like critics in every field, the restaurant critic dreams of the day when all of his criticism can be positive.

 Most critics have different styles in both how they carry on their visits and how they write.

But nearly all critics try to maintain a sense of anonymity, although anonymity is not all that important. Even when the critic is recognized there is little one can do.  If the chef didn’t know how to make Béarnaise sauce before the critic arrived, he is not about to learn how in the next fifteen minutes. If the seafood isn’t fresh or the spaghetti is cooked to point of impotence, there is simply nothing that will mask this. The food critic will probably be subjected to an over zealous restaurant manager trying to take over from his more adaptable wait staff, making a complete ass of himself in the process, hovering over the critic’s table, monitoring his every bite and asking him every few seconds whether he enjoyed what he was eating. Under that kind of interrogation, even the finest meal becomes little more than an ordeal.  And let’s not forget the obvious sight of the chef peering out of his kitchen and chastising the staff for not telling him sooner that the devil was in his lair. But alas these things don’t help, for whatever you may think of him, the critic is not stupid and is watching carefully to see how the service is at other tables and the dishes the other clients are receiving. Nor are critics taken in when the manager or chef who obviously knows them strongly suggests a certain dish. Most critics worth their salt will simply order off the menu.

The issue is further compounded when critics have friends among the chefs whose restaurants they patronize. True; it is sometimes difficult to maintain the distance required between the critic and the criticized, but this is not an insoluble problem. The intelligent chef, especially if his ego is strong enough, realizes that his friends may not always agree with him. The wise critic knows that one of the dangers he faces is that of occasionally losing friends because of his criticism.

Let’s be honest, a “free meal” will not buy a good word from the critic.

Of course at the end of the day the quality of the cuisine, the ambiance, the price-value ratio and the service are what counts. The usual bribery is offensive, flattery is demeaning and begging is pathetic. But you can always try!!!

 Howard Johnson, the founder of one of the largest advertising agencies in the United States, wrote that “nearly all reviews are good for business. Good reviews give business an immediate boost. Mediocre reviews do not really harm because after several days most people forget the content of the review and only remember that the place was mentioned in such-and-such a newspaper. Bad reviews, unless all the critics are unanimous in despising a place, may be bad for the ego, but even these are rarely fatal”. So to all you chefs and restaurateurs out there keep this statement in mind, the best reaction to most reviews, good, bad or indifferent, is nearly always a good reason to open that very expensive grand crus that has been sitting in your cellar for years to either celebrate or drown your tears.

As it is impossible to claim that all restaurateurs are honest or that all chefs are talented, neither are all critics knowledgeable or particularly moral. This does not mean that a malicious or a not very bright critic can get away with everything. No one is more critical of critics than their readers, who do not hesitate to voice their opinions when they disagree with what the critic has said. And, as a chef may disagree with a critic’s evaluation of his restaurant, so may the critics disagree with each other. In the end the ultimate critic of both restaurant and those who write restaurant criticism is the public, for these are the people who will eventually determine whether a restaurant thrives or eventually goes out of business. Critics have influence. They are not gods.

 Love em’ or hate em’, restaurant critics are as much a part of the culinary scene as Julia Child. In every major location across the globe, there are intrepid restaurateurs and chefs: some fresh faced, knives sharpened, just out of cooking school, others older, experienced, wizened yet still equally passionate. Their success or failure lies in limbo, waiting for that one reviewer to bestow upon them the ticket to culinary recognition or else doom them to obscurity and certain financial ruin.

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