Wednesday 9 November 2016

The Rise of the Assassin Food Blogger

Gone are the days when a single review could make or break a restaurant. OK, the occasional masterpiece finds a wider-than-normal audience, such as The New York Times’ legendary takedown of Guy Fieri’s American Bar & Kitchen. But the era when chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc waited anxiously for the verdict of Egon Ronay and friends is largely over. And those were the good times. Instead, chefs today suffer a daily death by a thousand cuts.

We’re all food critics now 
Search any restaurant online, and the scattergun opinions on TripAdvisor or Yelp will inevitably have commandeered the top search ranking. And what horrors await. For the most part, a masterclass in anonymous, passive-aggressive spleen. Spiteful, deranged eviscerations from the keyboard from customers who barely raised a heckle in front of their plate. Bizarre, contradictory venting that reminds you of the line from Annie Hall:

“Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.”
“Yeah, I know. And such small portions.”

Understandably, chefs are fighting back. Let’s be honest, there’s little enough love lost between chefs and professional critics, but at least figures such as Ronay, who had himself been a restaurant manager, gave a chef the right of reply before going to print.

I have seen waiters do many, many things, including burst into tears and juggle knives, and I once glimpsed one having sex. But never, ever has a waiter commiserated with me about the lack of service.” (One of the kinder parts of AA Gill’s review of L’Ami Louis ‘The Worst Restaurant in the World.’)

Who reviews the reviewers?
But today’s assassin bloggers have rewritten the rules. Whatever their temperament and resting heart rate, most chefs can take negative feedback that corrects a genuine mistake. But not the guy who ordered his steak well done then complained it was tough, or the table of six that sent back clean plates without a word then posted a lengthy diatribe online. In these cases, you can read some fantastic management comebacks online which call into question the expertise, motivation or sanity of the reviewer. Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. As one chef I spoke to admitted, “I know that most of these one-star reviews come from my competitors.”

Ali Smith
Dorset foodie Ali Smith

Ali Smith, Dorset chef and foodie
To get some inside perspective from both sides of the swinging kitchen door, I asked blogger and chef Ali Smith, who writes for West Dorset Foodie and Menu Dorset, for her thoughts on the rules of reviewing.

The importance of blogs…
From an industry perspective, blogs and reviews have become an integral part of the public’s decision process. It’s not just the traditional guides and broadsheet reviews any more. Reviews can and do bring diners to our restaurants and as such must be viewed as a relevant tool. Bloggers need to consider the position of power they are in; potential punters Googling a venue might find three web pages; the restaurant’s own website, TripAdvisor and their blog- one individual really can have a disproportionate amount of influence.” 

…as long as they’re fair
“Of course we can’t expect all reviews to be glowing. As a chef – some constructive feedback is often valuable; if diners and online reviewers are repeatedly raising the same issues then maybe they have a point. It’s rarely useful, however, to write a scathing review and often deeply unfair on the business and individuals at the receiving end. In a personal blog situation, if you don’t like somewhere, don’t write at all. The only possible purpose it can serve is to alleviate your own need for vengeance. The restaurant might have been short staffed, had a late produce delivery, or had an equipment failure in the kitchen. We all have off days. It’s not good for the paying customer but it’s how the restaurant deal with it that’s key. Be more understanding; point out issues at the time, not after the event when the management have no power to change the outcome.”

It’s not just personal
“I’m a fine dining girl at heart; I love to be spoilt with the highest level of service, the most exquisite food and in all likelihood a hefty bill come the end of the evening. I can be very exacting. When reviewing, it’s important to take a step back and try to be a little more objective. I ask myself- am I the target market? I consider price – is this an everyday dining venue or an expensive treat where there should be a higher expectation of quality and consistency? Look around – if the place is busy and popular, what is it that other diners are finding to their liking – perhaps it’s the generosity of portions, the homely feel? Tastes differ and if you’re going to publish your opinion in the public’s eye, it’s important, whilst being honest, to be fair.”

And it’s not just about the food
“From a personal perspective, writing about restaurants is a great way of getting out and about and discovering different places I might otherwise have not considered. I enjoy meeting new people, discovering new ingredients and (hopefully) being surprised and delighted by flavours, ideas or techniques I might not have come across or which might be being utilised in an unusual way.

Reviews can be helpful
“From a chef’s perspective, it forces me to sharpen my senses, to analyse dishes and flavours in more depth and hence to bring me to an ever-greater understanding of the magical sensory experience that is food and dining. It’s also very grounding; all too often, as chefs, we can become consumed with the act of constructing dishes from within the confines of the kitchen, forgetting that there is so much more to the diner’s experience than the food. Service, atmosphere, the music, even the lighting, all play a part. It puts things into perspective.”

Reviewing ain’t easy
“Of course it’s not all positive, there have, of course, been times when, confronted with yet another mediocre dish, another overcooked scallop, an artificial tasting sauce which has seen neither love, nor vegetable nor bone in its short journey from tub to plate, I wish I’d stayed at home and cooked myself! On these occasions I console myself with a second glass of wine, a glance at the beautiful view or the thought of another, better dining experience that is sure to come!”

One of the major safeguards these days is that bloggers and journalists have to disclose if a review was paid for, by invitation, or incognito. Nearly all of the reviews I have written have been arranged with the restaurant in question.

La Plantation in Bournemouth
The Edge in Bournemouth
Riverside in West Bay
Neo in Bournemouth

Obviously, biting the hand that literally just fed you is not an option, not that it’s ever been tempting. For my part, it’s clearly a perk to dine out in some great venues and talk with the chef and dining room staff. Even when they’re busy, they tend to make themselves available and are usually eager to communicate why they’ve chosen the menu and what they’re trying to achieve.

Even though I love writing about food and restaurants, I can barely cook, and have the palate of a bluebottle. Blindfolded, I would struggle to tell the difference between beef and ice cream, let alone Burgundy and Bordeaux. So instead of searching for flavours that 20 years of smoking pretty much put out of reach, I try instead to communicate the overall experience, look for the details that make the venue different, find the reasons why I’d want to go there again.

To finish off, as a little digestif, I’ve picked my own restaurant Top 5…

Best critic:
AA Gill. Not just my favourite critic, but one of my favourite writers altogether. Brutally honest, not least about his own life, and so gifted at finding exactly the right word or phrase to nail an idea. I believe he speaks very highly of me also.

The Edge Restaurant
The Edge

Best Dorset restaurant reviewed:
The Edge. Chef Nick Hewitt’s food was magnificent, the view at sunset was perfect, and the restaurant is now closed. Just goes to show…

Best dining experience:
A bowl of giant land snail in a spicy palm nut sauce from an open-air cafe in West Africa. To be honest, the snail was pretty hard work, but I wrote about it as my entry for the Daily Telegraph Young Food and Drink Writer of the Year competition in 1998, and won. So it has a special place in my heart (and it only cost about $2).   

Best restaurant visited:
La Coupole in Paris. In 2001, the magazine I was working for in London took the entire staff to Paris at Christmas. It was a lost weekend, followed within the year by a lost job. This particular dinner was a bit of a blur. At one point I remember being eyeball to antenna with a huge tower of langoustines on ice, then a line of superbly professional waiters filing past with a birthday cake festooned with sparklers. Pure theatre, and probably horrifically expensive for whoever picked up the tab.

Virgin Atlantic
Courtesy of

My Death Row dinner choice:

Forget fried chicken or a hamburger. My last meal on earth would be airline food, either Virgin Atlantic or Delta to be precise. Whichever took longer. There’s something about whipping away the tin foil, unwrapping each course one by one, and having nothing else to focus on that can’t be beaten. Top tip: Always ask the crew nicely for a second tray for a mid-Atlantic midnight snack (or to barter for cigarettes with other inmates if really on Death Row). 

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