Bombshell: restaurant criticism is not important. It may be illuminating, engaging, entertaining and mildly informative. But important? No.

This is not to say that it lacks impact. If offers of prostitutes, money, endless boozy afternoons, rivers of fine wine and trips to exotic destinations are any indication, the restaurateurs of WA take restaurant criticism very seriously. While accepting “an afternoon with the girls” is clearly a bridge too far, to do the job properly a restaurant writer must be able to “test drive” new dishes and menus, be briefed on new initiatives by chefs, do tastings and attend industry functions at which free booze and food gushes forth like a besotted fifth former. So, when is it OK to accept caviar without paying, but not okay to say “yes” to a free sausage roll? Answer? Stay tuned.

We are a better place for having strong, informed criticism about restaurants. At its best, it is a critical encouragement to chefs and restaurateurs and an unbiased, authoritative guide for consumers. At its worst, it is the work of a manque: someone who has failed in their hospitality ambitions and spends a lifetime sniping, sneering and acting-out from the bully pulpit of a newspaper column.

Australia’s highest profile and most successful restaurateur, Neil Perry, has had his ups and downs with Australian restaurant critics, but remains a great supporter of what he calls “professional criticism”, which he says can be tough, but, when it’s good, it’s not personal or emotional.

“As long as it’s fair and balanced, ” Perry says. “You have to accept the good with the bad. Importantly, don’t allow reviewers to work in a vacuum. Get to know them, create relationships. It all helps.”

Perry has a somewhat sophisticated view of restaurant criticism. He understands — like few chefs — that newspaper columns are as much about entertainment as facts.

“There’s always an entertainment component, but the professionals know how to keep feelings and emotions out of their coverage, ” he says.

Perry would no doubt agree with Edgar Allan Poe when he wrote: “The generous critic fann’d the Poet’s fire, And taught the world with reason to admire.” In other words, there is a role for critics to hold up higher standards and encourage an industry or individuals to better things.

But restaurant critics in the commercial media need to capture a reader’s attention. Writers want you to read the paper after all; to chuckle or fume or laugh or cry as you do and to come away from your Saturday morning read a little wiser and a lot satisfied.

As Giles Coren — arguably the best restaurant critic in the world along with A.A. Gill — put it recently in The Times: “The first job is to tell a great story that people will look at in the weekend paper. Essentially, being a food critic is nothing — it’s not politics, it’s not war reporting. There is no need to see it as something terribly important . . . It is all a bit of fun.”

Restaurant critics write for people who love food, spend significant amounts of their income on food, and who think about food a lot: the sorts of people who are, generally speaking, good eggs, who are fun dinner guests, who probably drink too much, who don’t complain about fashionable diet issues and who are passionate by nature. They enjoy eating on a plastic kiddie’s stool at a grubby Bangkok street stall as much as they enjoy the stuffy pleasures of the po-faced, broom-handle-up-the-bum poshery of the world’s most famous dining rooms.

These are the people restaurant critics write for because they are most of us. Yes, you too. You may be one of those “I only eat for fuel” poseurs who think food and dining is all too trivial, but you too are a critic, because we all eat. “Didn’t like the waitress, she was grumpy.”“The entree was cold.” Like it or not, this is criticism. We all do it even if, for most people, it’s just to their partner or mates.

Just as singing in the shower doesn’t make you an opera singer, random musings and commentary about restaurants don’t make a restaurant critic. As A.E. Housman put it: “The average man, if he meddles with criticism at all, is a conservative critic. His opinions are determined not by his reason but by his passions; and the faintest of all human passions is the love of truth.”

This perfectly explains the splenetic, grammar-challenged rantings one finds on Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor. It also explains why restaurant criticism should not obsess about how a napkin is ironed, because (a) it’s boring and (b) restaurant criticism is a Saturday morning divertissement — a wry torch to the belly of mediocrity and a voice for every restaurant-goer who’s been sold indifferent food or put down by a hipster with an iPad masquerading as a waiter.

But why does restaurant criticism continue to be among the most read columns in the weekend papers? Because, among other reasons, restaurant reviews are alone in that they deal primarily with a retail experience.

Theatre reviewers, movie reviewers, ballet reviewers, book reviewers, wine writers and even motoring writers differ from restaurant writers in this one important way. Sure, you buy a car or a bottle of wine, but the retail experience is never reviewed, because no one — neither the writer nor the reader — cares how the Holden dealer sells you a Commodore. It’s simply not relevant.

Not so for restaurants where the retail experience is what you’re buying. Which makes it one of the most compelling and fraught interactions people have with a business. Which, in turn, is why restaurant criticism has become a lightning rod for the Dissatisfied Customer and diners seeking informed recommendations.

What makes a good restaurant critic? Journalism training. The real thing: cadetships spent chasing cop stories and doing courts rounds; being sent on stories you loathed — the “death knock” was the worst — and, most importantly, having it drummed into you that it’s not about you. Which is why, in Australia, John Lethlean of The Australian and Matt Preston, formerly of The Age in Melbourne (who, one hopes, will return to restaurant writing once his Masterchef career has ended) represent all that’s good in restaurant criticism. Both of them were trained, accomplished journos before they turned their hands to restaurant writing. They are from an era when bylines were as rare as a sober sub-editor and journalism was a trade, not a glamour job.

But we are dinosaurs I suspect. Bloggers are the big news these days and much preferred by tourism bodies, restaurant owners and hotel operators because, generally speaking, they’ll write whatever you like for an ad on their website, a business class ticket, a “comped” dinner or a deluxe suite. They often see themselves as stars, too, which is why you, the reader, should be suspicious of any critic who wants to make a name for him or herself; who’s in it for the freebies, who wants to be loved by chefs and get invitations to opening nights and parties and who wants to be famous and do selfies with Heston. They have forgotten — if they ever knew in the first place — that the best journos are outriders: lone wolves of the publish-and-be-damned variety. Observers not players.

This is just the way it should be. I like the view from the metaphorical gutter. I know, too, that Lethlean and Preston both like the view from there. It’s always a more interesting aspect than that from the rear seat of a chauffeured car, if you see my laboured point.

The best restaurant critics?

The best are those who admire and respect chefs; who see commercial cookery as something noble because it brings people together and brings pleasure to people’s lives and who have that old-school journo drive to make the world a better place . . . through eating.

“The best are those who learn early to read, read and read some more, ” Perry says. “If I was advising a young journo who wanted to get into restaurant writing, I’d tell them go and read other people’s criticism, cookbooks, articles, food history; eat in a wide array of restaurants; become experienced and knowledgeable.”


© The West Australian

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