Sunday, 16 April 2017

Food critics - and one or two in particular

An Easter holiday post from Wiggia

A good dining experience is about so much more than the food. There's a reason chefs always have a white cloth over their shoulder and cutlery is always polished before service begins, it's because presentation matters.

I lifted that opening statement from a recent restaurant review. What he says and goes on to embellish is true, to a point. What I really wanted to talk about was the review by Jay Rayner, son of the late Claire ! that has caused a bit of a furor and delight in different circles for different reasons, but I will return to that a bit later.

The role of food critics as with some wine critics has verged on going over the top in many cases for years and several of these reviews have indeed verged on the side of hyperbole, and even fantasy in the writing in an effort to simply make headlines and hopefully increase one’s salary pull.

None of this is new. I can well remember that the Daily Express had a motoring writer, whose name escapes me, who many years ago when given almost a whole page to review a car would confine the review to the last 25% of the article, starting with some anecdote about something else that somehow would become the lead in to the article. This went on for years yet at the time there were no obvious high profile equivalents.

Today is a very different world with often deliberate outrageous claims and statements being the meat and two veg of many articles in many genres. Of course if every critic simply said x is good y is bad it would be a very boring world and article, yet so much today as with everything else is almost another form of fake news. The likes of Rayner and his contemporary Giles Coren make a living out of this style of writing, though in neither case are qualifications of any sort deemed necessary for such a pleasurable route through life.

I'll explain. For years when abroad I used the Michelin guide for restaurants to book in countries like France Italy Spain and Portugal and others if I was holidaying there. A few good meals were part of the deal and the Michelin guide, if I was spending money or even not spending so much, was as reliable a tome as any. For years there was little else, hence its reputation.

Was it always right? The short answer is ‘no’, there is absolutely no way any publication can, with the sheer number of restaurants world wide in it’s guides that they can always be up to the minute accurate any more than personal taste will not always be catered for as described, owners change, chefs leave, standards go up and down in many cases overnight.

But overall, using it over many years, the accuracy was pretty good, though its British edition for reasons unknown has never been so reliable. All described in straightforward prose on the dishes and chefs’ specialities and the pricing and surroundings with a not so straight forward method of symbols and stars, but it worked in those pre-internet days and it carried on working despite increased competition from other publications and the printed word online and in the world of the restaurant critic.

But the world demands more than simple qualified information, so the critic reviewer resorts to ever more over the top techniques to grab the headline and make a name for himself whilst also promoting his subject at the same time.

What do I know about the subject? Well about wine quite a lot, with restaurants only those I have frequented over the years but enough to understand where the critic is coming from or not. Have I eaten in a Michelin 3* establishment? Yes on a few occasions, special occasions, and were they the best meals I have had? No, which brings me back to the opening line from the food critic. The overall experience at the top level is part of the experience, more so for someone not used to such places as against those who can afford to dine like that on a more frequent basis.

My first 3* dinner was at the Crillon in Paris a long time ago when it had three stars, the dining room is a version of Versailles hall of mirrors, quite stunning and to sit and eat at a place like that is an experience and one to be remembered, and a similar experience later at the Taillevent also in Paris when it too had 3*. Yet the best actual meals I have had were firstly in a 1* in the Alsace and others in the south of France and Italy and Spain that also never went above 1*, but none of them could provide that amazing feeling of an “event” that those top establishments gave, though they did give a wonderful glow of satisfaction.

So back to the review that caused all the furor the one by Jay Rayner in the Guardian. I only read it, proving that all publicity is good publicity, out of curiosity but could see where he was coming from. What I could also see was a writing style that was “adapted” in my view for his readership of the Guardian. The comments prove the point, his remarks about the enormous cost of eating in the Le Cinq were buffered by his statement that he nor the Guardian paid for the total sum.

That’s a new one on me as I never seen any reviewer say that before, but by doing that and implying he would never pay that sort of money for a meal, though I’m sure he has at similar places, he strikes a chord with all that readership allowing them to blast away in the comments in true Guardian readers’ fashion about “only capitalists” “who would?” “serves any one right” and on and on, so he certainly knows his readership.

What else he does in the piece is the more contentious, and in no way does this say he is wrong in his overall assessment of the Le Cinq. Firstly in the use of language that is used to justify his visit –

Irritated by reader complaints about the cost of eating out I decided to visit a classic Parisian gastro-palace, as a reality check.

And then by use of language to shock or show how right on he is, again with his captive audience with lines like this –

It is decorated in various shades of taupe, biscuit and fuck you.

Followed later by –

My companion winces. “It’s like eating a condom that’s been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer’s,” she says.

I find it difficult to believe anyone would trot out a line like that or if they did they have strange sexual preferences. The full review is here….

He also makes a point about the photos of the meal supplied by the restaurant and compares them with those he took on his mobile. Now no table side photos with a mobile in available light are ever going to be the same as those taken by a food photographer in set conditions but he bangs on about this and produces the two sets of images……

But then goes on to say that the Guardian sends its own photographer to take similarly staged photos for the paper later after the critic has left, rather destroying his point.

For many this is all good fun, it’s Sunday paper in bed reading. It’s “did you see that restaurant article” at work on Monday and by Tuesday the article is in the waste bin. It really is not that important, except for one thing, the bending of facts may have been and is the trademark of numerous politicians political parties and various other factions of society these days, but does the same treatment of facts have to be included in all else? As with all there is a limit, perhaps it’s been reached.

The only thing I gleaned from the article was the pointed comment on a dish of lamb costing 95 euros and not being enough to fill a Big Mac, but you don’t have to go to Paris to get that on your plate. It has become almost universal in the “quality” restaurant trade and is one of the major reasons I do not eat out as much as I used to. The blood pressure that goes with receiving a plate of food consisting of more gel decoration than actual combustibles is not something I can cope with anymore.


Sackerson said...

Yes, the Guardian style - and attitude to life - is snickering smartarse, which is why I don't bother. I think it's part of a modern trend for personal narrative to shout down reality.

Demetrius said...

The navy gets the gravy but the Army gets the beans. Mind you the Brit' Army Catering Corps could do wonders with spuds. You could build a wall with them.