The first event was Jacob Richler’s very public lashing by the Montreal food community; the charge led by Montreal food critic for the Gazette, Lesley Chesterman. Richler was worked over for shunning certain local, iconic Montreal restaurants, and (more personally) restaurateurs, for Maclean’s ’50 Best Restaurants in Canada. It was a fascinating few days not only for the expressions of vitriol the omission produced but also to see who turned up to take a crack at the whip. Even more amusing is that the kerfuffle served to amplify Richler and the Maclean’s special issue.
But the Quebec affair proved an amuse bouche in comparison to the epic battle staged by A. A. Gill, in his recent post for Vanity Fair. His battle is gladiatorial (and should require a paid subscription to a specialty channel) when he challenges the “Frenchness” of the revered Michelin guide. He asserts that, among many other sins, its critical practice is prejudiced and its content bland in shunning other cultures. He’s just shy of charging Michelin with gastronomic xenophobia. There’s something historic and familiar in this dispute but the real appeal of both battles lies in witnessing the relish with which food critics practice professional cannibalism.
For me, a food critic gains professional credentials by being gainfully employed in said capacity by a publication, usually print, with substantial and diverse readership. This discussion does not concern populist reviews produced by sources whose credentials (not to mention taste) are questionable. Or as A. A. Gill more skillfully puts it, the “…legion of score-settling adjective junkies populating unreadable Internet blogs.” (Gill 114)
The question regarding timing of restaurant reviews in the initial Twitter discussion was posed by a chef at the helm of a new restaurant. The tone of the post assumed the standard defensive pre-battle posture. It’s a familiar stance for A. A. Gill who calls out chefs (albeit Michelin chefs) as “…strange creatures” suffering from “…abused vanity, insecurity, and (a) fawning hunger for compliments.” (Gill 112-114) He goes further, asserting that chefs cook more for critics and less for customers. (Gill 112) Any good chef must get comfortable with not being able to entirely control the customer experience (even Thomas Keller) but when it comes to the food critic, a chef’s control anxiety can hit hyper-drive. But we’ve all read enough glowing reviews of new restaurants to wonder if the chefs’ stance of preparing for the worst isn’t just wasted energy?
Setting aside the issue of timing, I turn to an essay by former Los Angeles Times food critic Coleman Andrews, called Restaurant Critics Never Have a Nice Day from his book Everything on the Table. In my academic life I used this piece in delivering curriculum for budding professional chefs since I emphatically believe that some early preparation for the inevitable food review is useful. It was one of my favourite classes to teach for its lively, engaged discussion. Andrews writes: “I simply don’t believe that a single bad review can close a genuinely good eating place. Bad reviews and failing business are usually symptoms of the same disease: Something seriously wrong with a restaurant, front or back or both.” (Andrews 106) Genuinely good chefs and restaurateurs should sigh a deep breath of relief and quit hand wringing over the arrival of the critic (too late would cause as much of a fuss). A critic may buoy confidence and fill seats in the short term but the competence and confidence must be in place long before and after their departure.
But does that say enough of the critic’s responsibility? In his Michelin tear, A. A. Gill portrays their inspectors (French code for critic) as practicing a manipulative, obsessive, and secretive craft. (Gill 114) They’re a class he holds in disdain as much for their reckless backing of all things French as for the anonymity and secrecy that is their code of practice. He suggests that concealment can lead to unsavoury practice – inspectors currying favour for a more glowing review or, more reprehensible, for allowing a review to be based on a singular visit.
Andrews critic is Gills pastoral counterpoint. Of his profession he writes: “Critics – at the least the ones I know – tend to approach each new eating place hopefully, hungrily and wide-eyed, sometimes actually downplaying what they perceive as minor failings if their dining experience is in general pleasant.” (Andrews 105) This portrait of the doe eyed critic is as amusing and simple as Gills self-seeking Francophile.
Beyond the suggestion of clandestine activity, it is the shroud of secrecy that is in part cause for a chefs anxiety. Most good restaurants will include some staff training on critic recognition but even well known critics assume the veneer of a disguise by booking under an assumed name so as not to tip the restaurant. In order to have the “everyman” experience a critic must assume some posture of surprise attack.
The assumption here is that recognition leads to great ends. Again, Coleman Andrews unpacks this when he writes that: “What I quickly learned when restaurateurs did start recognizing me, though, was that – annoyance factors aside – it usually didn’t make a bit of difference. Most restaurants that serve mediocre food don’t do so deliberately.” (Andrews 109) The “annoyance factors” being the favour chefs try to cull from a critic by presenting all manner of unordered (and often unwanted) culinary bijous or from the attentions of overly fawning service personnel. It assumes that a critics vision is narrow and disconnected from the experience of the clientele at large (who may be suffering neglect under these conditions).
It is this clientele, their shared audience that is of concern for both chef and critic. A chef’s deepest fears run in several directions with regards to their customer. Firstly they worry that a restaurant critic will allow entertainment to trump critical objectivity in producing a review and secondly they are acutely aware of the collective human failing to want to spectate a good smack down. And there are critics whose reputations rest largely on the punches they throw (lightweights in truth and practice). What Gill and Andrews are hinting at is the critics responsibility to their form. In its best practice it is measured, thoughtful, well researched and devoid of the desire to annihilate. Exceptional conditions may call for this tact and no one is more skilled than A. A. Gill whose reputation is in part based on his satirical and outrageously funny reviews for his former employer the Sunday Times (many of which can be found in his book Table Talk).
Assuming that restaurant goers will flock to a restaurant (or not) based on the opinion of a critic is a shallow and reckless idea for any chef to pursue. They should instead find comfort in the intelligence of the critical consumer. There are sheep, but they are largely the exception, not the rule. As an avid consumer of critical review, my alliance with critics has been spotty at best because, after all, we are discussing the opinion of one person, as evolved as it may be. Their critical offerings serve to compliment, not discredit my own opinion, which I hold in high esteem. I have as much faith in fellow restaurant goers. To assume less, as either a chef or critic, is to paint audience and clients alike as lacking in discernment and is by association is not good for business.
Good critics serve readers as guides and can be particularly helpful in unfamiliar territory but critical opinion is precarious and subject to personal taste. There have been times when I have felt a symbiotic connection with a critic. Although admittedly dated, I greatly admired Patricia Wells offerings when she wrote for the International Herald Tribune and her French guidebooks. On the other hand, I only occasionally shared the opinion of someone much closer to home, Joanne Kates, formerly of Toronto’s Globe & Mail. Opinions of every caste and colour are to be had - witness the recent competing posts on Daniel Bouluds new Montreal restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton by Chris Nuttall-Smith, filed on October 11 for the Globe and Mail, and Lesley Chestermans review filed on August 16 for the Gazette. If you’re lacking an opinion or spine who is to be believed?
Returning to the initial Twitter discussion and the issue of a critics timing, one restaurateur suggested that 3 months should pass prior to a restaurant being reviewed. Setting aside the odds for either an ideal or completely disastrous outcome, it’s a completely unrealistic proposition. Try to imagine Pete Wells, Jay Rayner, or any critic worth their salt waiting that length of time. Since part of the critical task is to inform, their jobs would be for naught if half the curious and enabled dining public beat them to a spot. And therein lies one of the problems that plagues food criticism – rarely is a review about a restaurant with any kind of history. There are enough new restaurants opening in most major cities to keep any food critic fully occupied.
What I want as a restaurant goer is to know that right relations (neither too cozy nor too combative) do exist between chef and critic. Both Andrew’s and Gill are pointing towards that end and happily current examples are to be had. Pete Wells wrote recently for the New York Times about a new menu format at Eleven Madison Park, making note of some of the more onerous and esoteric elements of service. Within a couple of days of posting his review Kate Krader, restaurant critic for Food & Wine magazine, offered Mr. Wells public thanks via Twitter for influencing the speedy elimination of the offensive aspects of service. Here it is in action, chefs and restaurateurs not taking issue (particularly not on Twitter nor in a “Bourdainesque” fashion) but rather taking action. A best case scenario which Coleman Andrew’s pines for when he writes of his own hope: “…to offer what I thought was constructive criticism – the kind of thing, I thought, that in an ideal world the restaurateurs in question should have thanked me for.” (CA p. 111) In the end the dining public should be as wary of the defensive chef as the offensive critic. Both are in the same ring, cast in a suspicious light, posing rather than practicing under the mantle of professional principle.
 A. A. Gill, “Michelin, Get Out of the Kitchen,” Vanity Fair, November 2012, 627. Gill112-114.
 Coleman Andrews, “Restaurant Critics Never Have a Nice Day” in Everything on the Table. Plain Talk About Food and Wine. (New York: Bantam, 1992) 103-116