I want you to spare a thought for the restaurant critic. They may be celebrating their return to their places of worship after months of monastic discipline, but their lives are not quite as easy as envy might suggest.
When I took over as Food Editor of The Guardian in 1989, and after a respectable settling in period, I gave myself the plum job. I became the Restaurant Critic. I’d never worked in a restaurant and so had no idea how they worked from a chef’s or maitre d’s perspective. Like many tolerably good home cooks, I’d dreamt of having a small brasserie and cooking up a storm for friends and appreciative customers without the first idea of the blood, tears, sweat and skill involved. If I was going to put the boot in or lavish drooling praise, I reasoned, I ought to have some experience of how a professional kitchen actually worked. And if I was going to do so, I ought to try out at the one of the finest restaurants in the land. I wrote to Raymond Blanc asking whether it would be possible for me to do a week’s stage at Le Manor aux Quat’ Saisons. Rather to my surprise he said yes, and so one Monday morning in March 1991 I packed myself off to work there.
I’ve written about the experience in The Guardian, and anyone interested can track the article in question in the Guardian Archive under the title of Plonkeur’s Progress ( 6-7 April 1991). Suffice to say, that week nearly cost me my sanity and Le Manoir its second Michelin star. Among the many invaluable lessons I learned from that week was which side of the professional kitchen door I was going to stay the rest of my life. I was going to be a consumer, not a chef.
And so I consumed and consumed and consumed.
I’ve never lost my pleasure in eating in restaurants. There’s something entrancing about the drama at the tables and the choreography of the service, not to mention the endless variety of the food. However, the lot of the restaurant critic is not an easy one. I’m not asking for sympathy here, just a little understanding.
For a start, very few people actually consider sitting down at a table, shovelling food down your throat, gulping the odd glass of wine, as work in any real sense of the word. And then everyone thinks they could do your job and do it better than you, as if shovelling food down your throat and gulping the odd glass of wine was all that it consisted of. I know for a fact that few people can consume on the scale of most restaurant critics – several full-on meals week, sometimes a day. Fewer could put up with the discipline and tedium of the professional eater. And fewest of all have the literary ability to put their experiences into words that will hold the interest of the reader. That goes for a good many practising restaurant critics.
You see, every time you go to a restaurant, you go through what is essentially the same experience (indeed, many people go the same restaurant time after time precisely to get the same experience). You go in. You sit down. You study the form of the menu. The maitre d’ shimmies up and takes your order. Your food arrives. You eat it. You wash it down with a glass or two of something agreeable. You pay your bill. You get up and leave. There’s not a lot of variation on that basic process. So how do you make that interesting to your reader week after week after week? It’s tricky.
The language we habitually use to describe the experience of eating is pretty limited. You have greater licence describing sport that you do food. And if you do get carried away and start marching metaphors and similes and poetic flights of fancy up and down the page, you get pilloried for being a show-off and a pseud. That’s why the critic sighs with relief if the restaurant in question is really bad. You can really let rip on a stinker. The vocabulary and grammar to describe wretchedness is infinitely rich. All the baroque turns of phrase and insult of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and Frankie Boyle is at your command.
If a restaurant is really good, that’s fine too, because you can be considered, thoughtful, perceptive, wordy and even a little technical, particularly if leavened with a little self-deprecating humour.
The trouble is that really, really bad restaurants and really, really good restaurants are few and far between. Most restaurants are ok-to-decent, middle of the road, middling-good,, fine and quite like each other. How do turn the fustian of average into compelling reading? That’s the challenge.
The challenge for critics who write for the formal press is further compounded by the amount of space they have to fill. I reckon that you can hold a reader’s attention focussing only on a restaurant, food and service for 800-850 words. As most critics writing for newspapers and magazines have to fill anything up to 1500 words on a so-so, so-what, ok-to-good, middle of the road, middling-good, decent, fine and quite like the last place they reviewed they’re forced to resort to turn to undeserved hyperbole, irrelevancies and other distractions to fill the space. You usually end up by finding out more about their tastes in football clubs, music (‘back in the day’), partners, conjugal relations, friends, children, fashion, politics and other tedious obsessions, than you do about the restaurant they’re ostensibly reviewing.
Even at their peak some years back the power of the critic was over-rated. When I consider the number of restaurants into which I, and other practitioners, put a savage boot, only to find the place in question doing a roaring trade years after; and those beautiful jewels that we rated so highly and praised so assiduously, to go down the Swanee, I realise how limited and illusory our powers really were. At best a good review can generate an initial burst of interest, but that will not guarantee survival; or it can help speed oblivion of a place that is destined for it anyway.
I realise that I’m writing about a vanishing world. Jay Rayner, Marina O’Loughin, Giles Coren, Fay Maschler, Grace Dent, Richard Vine, Tom Parker Bowles, Tim Hayward and the rest belong, like giant pandas, to an endangered species. The internet has changed the parameters for restaurant criticism, as it has for so many other corners of earthbound media. Bloggers, vloggers, sloggers and influencers subvert the established order. The newer generations of public eaters form their own cultish communities with their own values, vernacular and liturgy.
The beady, nerdish cybercritic has it easier that the traditional portly, scarlet-cheeked, swollen-nosed, liverish arbiter of the gastronomic landscape. Unlike the traditional media, these new prophets are responsible to no one but themselves. There is no editorial control, no right of redress, no protection against ignorance or corruption. On one level this can be hailed as part of the great democratisation of the media. On the other hand, without proper policing, it leads to chatspeak, trolling, cybernation, lies, damn lies, and worst of all, most of all, unreadability.
But the hard lot of the restaurant critic, ancient or modern, remains the same. They still have to eat the food, scribble the words and put up with everyone thinking they could do it better.