Lauraine Jacobs

Food & Wine Writer

Lauraine’s blog

15 July 2010

REVIEWING THE REVIEWERS

Canvas editor, Greg Dixon, added a note to last weekend’s restaurant review of the very good Engine Room in Northcote. He was furious that owner Natalia Schamroth has refused to allow the NZ Herald’s photographer in to shoot her food, and said that would be the last ever review of that restaurant in Canvas. Natalia’s reason for refusal in her own words was, “I just wanted a guarantee that the facts were correct and that I was not cooperating (by allowing a photo) with an article that may have been damaging to our reputation.” Now that may seem precious of her, and it well may be, but Natalia has been bitten before by incompetent reviewers who have visited her restaurant. They have written incorrect facts, and shown their ignorance of cooking techniques and food products. Every word written in print media is there forever, and such reviews can be damaging, so facts should never ever be wrong.

I believe that underlying this debacle is a much bigger and more damaging issue for restaurateurs. Currently the restaurant reviews around the country in many newspapers and magazines are often substandard, egotistical and incompetent. It would seem in almost all publications that it is a job that is handed out to the staff as a perk. The main requirement of the reviewer would appear to be an ability to write entertainingly, eat copiously and file copy by deadline. What writer is going to refuse the opportunity to take the company credit card and eat out with one or two friends? It’s an easy and cheap way for a newspaper or magazine to fulfil the need for restaurant writing as their staff writers are on salary, or may even do the job for a mere pittance as it is such “fun.”

It’s likely that these people do not know their beurre blanc from their hollandaise, don’t know the difference between quatre épices and five spice, or confuse crème brulée with crème caramel. To be a restaurant critic, there should be several requirements. First and foremost a thorough knowledge of food, cooking and technique. Culinary training is a pre-requisite, as is an understanding of how a restaurant works. If you think the pass is when someone comes on to you, or what the All Blacks try to do when they’re on the field, you’ll never be a good reviewer. The skill to write must come next. After all, entertaining writing is paramount. Hold the reader’s interest. Make them laugh, make them cry, but keep them reading and coming back for more.

Other considerations for the reviewer. Appetite can’t be overlooked. It should be voracious. Allergies, food preferences, and refusal to eat certain foods or vegetarianism will not be tolerated. (What? You don’t like oysters? Shame on you. ) A natural curiosity about food and its provenance is also at the top of the list for reviewing, a real deep understanding of food trends past and present, and an encyclopediac knowledge of who’s who and their place in the history of the food culture and restaurant scene.

If a reviewer only visits a restaurant once, the picture can be tainted by any number of things. Writing should be done with consistency, clarity and accuracy. It’s interesting to see the number of reviews that are personal accounts of what has been eaten and what happened that particular night. These are utterly egotistical. I don’t want to know only what the reviewer and companions ate. I want to know what sort of food the chef is cooking, the range of the menu, what his influences are, where he’s been lately to find new ideas, and how much work has gone into the food. I don’t want to spend five paragraphs reading about how I got there, what has happened in the writer’s life lately or where the car is parked. (There seem to be a lot of I-want-to-be-AA Gills out there.) I want to be firmly seated in the restaurant and know whether this is a place to have fun, to celebrate on a special occasion or if I could take my elderly mother there. Wine is often quite a large proportion of the total bill, so a restaurant critic should have good wine knowledge. Readers deserve to know about the wine list, the cocktails, how varied the list is, if it matches the food and if the staff is clued up and knowledgeable.

Chefs spend years and years perfecting their craft, and restaurant owners spend thousands, sometimes millions on creating a wonderful space. They care deeply about their business, their staff and their customers. (Read Steve Logan’s latest blog on foodie.co.nz to see how Logan Brown invests in the staff.) The restaurant and hospitality industry is one of the biggest employers in the country and contributes millions and millions to the economy. They deserve to be treated with respect and written about with knowledge and experience.

Neither do they deserve the sort of reviews that are all over the web these days, posted by terribly opinionated people and bloggers who hide behind pseudonyms. That group should think twice before posting something really damning, and consider just what experience and qualifications they really have. Eating and paying is not enough.

Overseas well-read and often revered newspapers (Melbourne Age, The Financial Times, the NY Times, Sydney Morning Herald) invest thousands in their critics, and accord the industry the respect it deserves. Canvas’ Greg Dixon, by throwing the toys out of the cot and stating Engine Room will never get another review, shows his colours. He thinks the newspaper is doing a service to the restaurants by writing about them…but he’s not a pr machine for restaurants and it’s his readers he should be focused on. Maybe the editors should listen carefully to the real message behind Natalia Schamroth’s refusal to co-operate and examine what experience their writers really have. They might like to consider just what consistency and respect would bring to the industry. And maybe more restaurateurs should be like Natalia and refuse to co-operate until a real reviewer emerges that they can respect and even learn from.

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