The spat between restaurateur Keith McNally and critic Giles Coren is the latest in a list of chef (restaurateur) / critic bust ups that are becoming more and more common.
I should point out that I personally think Coren is a monumental bellend who thinks the least important part of a restaurant review is the restaurant itself. The last review of his I suffered through was of The Olive Branch in Rutland, luckily I’ve eaten there myself so I didn’t have to rely on his cursory mention of the place in his final 3 paragraphs. Coren behaves like he is reviewing restaurants in a Guy Ritchie movie and every sentence drips with his own sense of self satisfaction.
Coren has the level of annoying smugness that even the most devout Buddhist could happily wear out his sandals kicking him repeatedly in the testicles but his spat with McNally is a reflection of how the relationships between chefs and reviewers are becoming increasingly strained.
Last year a hitherto unknown (and hopefully henceforth unknown) food blogger called James Isherwood attracted the combined fury of some of the biggest named chefs in the industry after an unflattering review of Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus. The review itself wasn’t the problem (as long as you over look the terrible writing) it was the fact that Isherwood had spoken to Bosi in the kitchen after the meal and told him how he had enjoyed his meal thoroughly, with no mention of the criticism he was later to level in his review. Bosi has been in this business a long time and, even for a chef of his brilliance, has received bad reviews before but is was the dishonesty that he perceived from Isherwood that lead to him confronting the blogger on Twitter. Soon other chefs joined in and suddenly Isherwood was claiming he was a victim of unprovoked attacks from big bullying chefs. Shocked and morally outraged social media-ites rushed to his defence, desperate to protect James from being “bullied” by big bad chefs. The only problem with a campaign to save James from abuse is that it was like a campaign to save a particularly icky insect from extinction. You hear that this insect is on the verge of extinction and you think “oh no how terrible” then you find out that it reproduces by laying eggs in your scrotum and you think “ah well maybe it’s for the best”. Isherwood eventually turned on many of the people who were defending him and his attempts to forge a career as a professional victim were hampered by laughably bad writing and him being a bit of a dick.
One thing that his 15 minutes of relevance (“fame” is too strong a word) did highlight is that these rows were no longer limited to chefs and big name restaurant critics, no longer was the wrath of superstar chefs reserved for big name restaurant critics, with the explosion in social media based reviews chefs are now brought into direct contact with far more customers than ever before. Every plate they send is a potential review, either on a blog, a review site or live updates for every course via Twitter, Tumbler, Facebook and many more. While restaurant managers in high end eateries will most likely recognise a critic from the print world the odds of them noticing a blogger or a customer who is likely to post a review on website are far far smaller.
Ok! OK! I know what you’re about to say, “it shouldn’t matter if the customer is a reviewer or not, they should all be treated the same!” and I agree completely, but let me in on a little secret, if you’re told in a restaurant that there is only 1 portion of scallops left and you and the guy on the next table order them at the same time, look across, if he looks a bit like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in a D’Artanian wig that’s Jay Rayner and he’s getting your scallops, sorry mate!
As chefs we strive for recognition, any chef who says he doesn’t try and find an extra 5 or 10% when told there is a reviewer in is lying. This is an incredibly competitive business and a review in one of the main stream press or popular blogs can make a massive difference in numbers booking. The flip side is however that a bad review can be disastrous. In an era where so many review sites couldn’t really give a fuck if you’ve even visit the establishment you are slagging off, for that matter TripAdvisor will happily publish your post claiming that while dining at a 3 Michelin star restaurant you were verbally abused by Ant & Dec while Lord Lucan pissed in your soup before being beating up by the chef and charged £8,000 for a single water biscuit. Given the pressure or bad reviews, whether real or invented, it’s not hard to see why chef’s tempers are a little short.
Is this to say people should not complain when they have a bad meal? Certainly not, but when that complaints is raised not during the meal but days later on a blog how fair is it to the restaurant. Given no chance to make amends at the time, restaurants are left wondering if the complaint was withheld because it would make for a far juicier blog post which leads them to often wonder if the complaint was simply invented to spice up a review.
Gordon Ramsay Vs AA Gill, Thomas Keller Vs Corby Kummer, Guy Fieri Vs Pete Wells, JC Novelli Vs Toby Young, Marco Pierre White Vs just about everyone, chef V critic rows are nothing new but they do seem to be on the up. The fact of the matter is that chefs and critics need each other but it’s a strained and fractious relationship and getting more strained every day. Critics see chefs as egotistical primadonnas who refuse to accept criticism and believe anyone who isn’t eternally grateful to simply have been allowed into their restaurant and that their writing be it in praise or rebuke helps build a reputation, as Malcolm X said “If you have not critics, you’ll likely have no success”
Chefs, and I have spoken to many of them about this subject, feel that they have worked incredibly fucking hard, through long hours in a tough physically demanding profession to earn the right to put their name on a menu, a menu which is then judged by someone who in most cases has not had to do anything but book a table and own a laptop to criticise their hard work. As Brendan Behan once said “Critics are like eunuchs in a hareem, they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves”
When I first started out as a food writer, well before I became a chef, I told my editor that I wouldn’t review restaurants unless they were willing to pay for me to go there 3 times (needless to say they told me to go fuck myself) the way that Michelin do when they review a restaurant. Now regular visitors to this blog will know that I have in fact reviewed Basil & Mint in Fulham but in my defence 2 more visits there could well have killed me.
Whatever happens, the long running soap opera of chef Vs critics feuds is very far from over.