Food for thought: Who is a real foodie?

With social media and democratisation of opinion, we believe we’ve been elevated to a vantage point where we ‘understand’ food. But whatever happened to the rigour of the good, old-fashioned culinary critique? It’s definitely food for thought

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Jay Rayner: 'I never accept a free meal... It is not a review if the meal is complimentary.' (Photo: Joe Magowan)
Jay Rayner: "I never accept a free meal... It is not a review if the meal is complimentary." (Photo: Joe Magowan)

Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 18 Aug 2022, 9:03 PM

Last updated: Fri 19 Aug 2022, 2:19 PM

I remember the time, a few years ago, when I was asked to judge a food show. “But why me?” I wanted to know. “Because you are a foodie,” the organiser said.

No, I’m not, I protested.

“But you are,” he insisted. “I love your food posts… and your food images on Facebook.”

My posts are, at best, captions factory-fitted to iOS-filtered tabletop photos. Tagliatelle ‘made from scratch’ but I really can’t tell if they actually taste better than a store-bought version. I wouldn’t know if those slow-roasted veggies have a smattering of dill… or are those caraway seeds? I may enjoy gourmet food — if it suits my palate, that is (often, it doesn’t) — but the finer nuances would give me short shrift.

At the ‘food contest’ — where I was introduced as a “food lover and critic” with a leading newspaper (I was half-expecting the audience to break into guffaws) — I was saved from making inane observations like “Hmmm, I like how non-watery the curry is” by my fellow judge (and now friend) who genuinely understands food (he’s a chef and a blogger and has been working in the F&B vertical for yonks); I only had to appear busy (with the eating) while he did the dissection.

And then, descended the era of ‘we eat with our eyes’ — and I’m not talking only about the fine-dining sector which has (more or less) always served to please our visual senses. While fine-dining upped its ante on Insta-gratification, even the neighbourhood hole-in-the-wall joint revised the template of what used to be called garnishing earlier (a sprig of coriander leaves placed strategically or a quartered, extra-red tomato) and went into designer mode. “Please take a photo and post on social media,” the servers would at times sidle up to say. “Along with a ‘review’.”

But the last straw was when, recently, my aunt announced on Facebook that she qualifies as a foodie because she “enjoys eating burgers” from a chain that makes assembly-line patties.

So, what does it mean to be a foodie in the age of social media — where everyone and his vegetable vendor has an opinion on what’s being served on the table?

‘The bottom line is: there is no substitute for experience’

Jay Rayner

Award-winning British journalist, food critic, and author of several books, including Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights and Chewing the Fat: Tasting Notes from a Greedy Life

“Mine is a job of journalism, and I need to do as much research as I possibly can prior to writing an article or evaluating food. [These days] Anyone can have an opinion but people read writers like me because of our ability to write, because of our ability to express things in a compelling way. So, anybody can post pretty pictures on Instagram, but I will do my job better than an amateur because if anybody is any good, usually, they end up being paid for it… And I am employed to make people read me.

Having said that, social media does have some value and there are those who do a good job… BUT, our job is just to be better — to justify that someone wants to pay us.

People are not as unthinking as we sometimes make them out to be, and they are actually capable of sifting out worthwhile, authoritative information, and know the difference between rubbish and what has value. A bad restaurant cannot succeed just by being glossy and shiny… just because something ‘pops’ on Instagram; there are aberrations of course, but, generally, if a restaurant is not very good, regardless of how shiny it appears on social media, it won’t succeed.

I have written and published recipes, and I cook a lot, and I do know one end of the kitchen from another. But while I believe it does help to have a basic understanding of what it takes to make a dish and know a reasonable amount of its history, a critic’s job is to be the professional diner — not to be a chef. I do not believe that food writers have to be great chefs.

Earlier in my tenure, there may have been occasions when I went to a restaurant and didn’t know much about the cuisine, but, these days, I try and do as much research as I possibly can... The bottom line is: there is no substitute for experience.

I have been a critic for 23 years, which means that, inevitably, I have gotten to know a lot of chefs. There are some I am too close to — so I usually don’t review them or write about them. But if I have to, I make it clear that ‘we may be friends but this is what I feel about your food’.

I never accept a free meal, I’m scrupulous about that. It is not a review if the meal is complimentary. Those who are having a comp meal should make that absolutely clear [in their writing], because if they don’t, they are deceiving not only their readers but also themselves… And it’s probably those who don’t really understand food and haven’t done their research that are getting a comp meal!”

Samantha Wood

Founder of Dubai-based — an impartial restaurant review website — and curator of dining experiences

“I launched my restaurant review website in 2011, after a 17-year career in hospitality PR in the UAE and the UK. I grew up with hoteliers as parents (and grandparents), living and breathing hotels every day of the week. Every meal was always scrutinised, whether dining out or at home, and every holiday itinerary was built around restaurants. Their F&B insights are ones I still reflect on today.

The way I have always described a foodie is someone, who, when he/she travels, builds itineraries around restaurants and food — i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner. Being able to cook is not enough; one needs to understand and crave the dining-out experience. A background of some kind in the hospitality industry can help of course, but what’s equally important is a curiosity around all things food and dining, with a passion to constantly self-educate.

It doesn’t bother me when those who have zero understanding of food post or talk about food… I simply disengage. The consumer has wisened up and can distinguish between expert and amateur feedback. In fact, it just allows those who do restaurant criticism well — with a no-freebies/no-invitations policy — to shine… that’s reflected in engaged and growing followings.

Since the arrival of social media, we live in a world of citizen journalism that applies to any industry, where anyone and everyone can stake claim to any expertise. In my opinion, the more people talk about food (whether they have the knowledge or not), the more we are shining the light on the F&B industry.

From my side, over a decade later, I still publish restaurant reviews on my website, using different social media channels simply as promotional tools to direct traffic to my site. I have plenty of followers, actually readers, who are not on any social channel, using websites and newsletters as their preferred reading channel. I will always own my website and my database — whereas social media channels come and go, like we’ve seen over the years… So there’s no point investing huge amounts of time on something that could be taken away from you.

In Dubai, understanding food is much trickier than most other places. Not only does one need to understand the dynamics behind a dining experience, but knowledge across many cuisines is helpful. A few years ago, I reviewed a new Georgian restaurant in Dubai, which opened a few months before I visited Georgia. So my understanding of the cuisine was limited. But before I went for the review, I read and absorbed everything I could about the cuisine to educate myself.

Having said that, in my reviews, I represent the consumer, and always put myself in the shoes of the general diner, who may not know anything about a particular cuisine. But true foodies can distinguish a good dining experience from a bad one, and can figure out if the food has been well executed or not — whether or not they have cuisine expertise.”

Jonathan Kauffman

Award-winning American food writer and columnist, and author of Hippie Food

“The great thing about food is that everyone has an opinion about it! That’s what makes it a universal topic of conversation, and I think part of the reason I loved writing about food. But it’s also very easy to say ‘I loved this’ or ‘This tasted terrible’ and much harder to express why, as anyone who reads online reviews can tell (‘The waiter forgot to fill up my water glass. Two stars.’). To me, the most interesting stories about food, whether restaurant reviews or reported stories, go deeper. They ask harder questions, explore the history of food, and talk about cultural context. Since food is an essential part of our lives, there are so many topics to explore, from agricultural policy to the origins of a dish.

I worked as a professional cook during and after college, and then found my way into writing about food. During my decade as a restaurant critic, that professional experience certainly helped me understand what was happening in restaurants I was reviewing and develop a vocabulary to talk about food. But some of the greatest critics in the US have never worked as a cook — but they’re amazing writers who are attuned to what they’re tasting and incredibly curious about the world around them, and know how to translate that into a great story.

There are people who love food, and there are people who are obsessed with the status of it: how many four-star restaurants they’ve been to or the luxury of 20-course tasting menus. Anyone who describes themselves as a foodie can certainly learn how to appreciate what they’re tasting and learn more about ingredients, dishes, and cuisines as they go. I certainly have! I only get annoyed when talking to people who want to one-up me with the number of restaurants they say they’ve been to, but have nothing interesting to say about what they ate. Spend your money on a Rolex instead — at least you’ll have something to show.”

Kari Heron

CEO of Chef and Steward, and food and culture maven who creates fine brand experiences and content marketing strategies for clients worldwide

“Today, social media reviews are more easily accessible than [traditional] critics’ reviews, and popular bloggers have become the new go-to reviewers but nothing beats a reviewer connected to traditional publishers — one who has to undergo the rigours of good journalism, with ethics in place. If that person also blogs, then sweet!

Back in the day, critics would often dine multiple times before a critique was published and they would be very thorough in their knowledge and experience of food and service.

I come from a core background in journalism. Twelve years ago, when I moved to Dubai, I delved into food and lifestyle as my preferred beat. I took courses, cooked, developed recipes, honed pro-food photography skills and wrote a food column for seven years as part of ramping up my capacity to understand food as both a subject to write about and actually work with.

The very first review I did was the most difficult because I found the cuisine utterly bland for my palate. The hardest part was actually focusing on what was actually great about that meal and the persons and events for which it was best suited. It would have been wholly unfair to label the food unpalatable simply because my taste buds were not ignited in their usual manner. Truth is, for that cuisine, it was well executed. In the end, I ended up being exposed to two iconic dishes from that cuisine which have become such favourites of mine that I developed recipes for them on my blog!

Anyone can be a foodie, if foodie is simply translated as one who is fond of food, and I genuinely love people who appreciate food. But if ‘foodie’ is being used to justify food criticism — or knowledge — that’s a stretch. When you get into the in-depth stuff, you better really KNOW food. One must understand food, cuisines and context to be able to be fair. Otherwise you just come off as ignorant and privileged.

I see a lot of really questionable stuff that people who don’t know food go on about because it looks good to them. I try to refrain from making negative comments in every space because, quite frankly, who’s got time for that?

While living in Dubai, I learnt about how so many different cultures use the same ingredients. I got introduced to some of the world’s best cuisines here! This has also permanently influenced my own personal approach to menu development and food service and the experience of dining as a critical part of food service.

So, yes, you cannot call yourself a foodie and only know your own traditional heritage cuisine. You have to at least be willing to chase foodie rabbits down every hole!”

Vir Sanghvi

Journalist and food writer, author of the award-winning Rude Food, and chairman of Culinary Culture, a platform that rates restaurants and chefs in India

“There are influencers with millions of followers who play the role that critics did earlier, but these are usually people who actually know food, it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t really understand food having any substantial following. Those who are not ‘foodies’ [in the conventional sense] and yet speak their mind, well, it’s their right to express an opinion. Also, a lot of the stuff they put out serves as a source of information, not so much a recommendation. When we go and watch a movie, we have an opinion, we talk to our friends, we may tweet about it — so, in a sense, we review it — but, on the whole, very few of us will actually go and watch a film because someone has tweeted about it, they would rather go by what a genuine movie critic has to say.

To my mind, a foodie is someone who can give an educated analysis of what he or she is eating. It requires a trained palate, and the only way you can train your palate is by eating all over. One needs to have experience and range because if you are eating a dish for the first time, if you’ve never tried it before, you don’t have a basis to compare it with and therefore it cannot be an educated analysis... and if you are demystifying food, you need to write from the perspective of the customer — not from the perspective of the chef.

And, no, I don’t believe one needs to cook in order to understand food — that’s like saying an art critic cannot say something about Picasso unless he paints like Picasso… The vast majority of those who review movies have never made a movie in their lives. So, I don’t think that’s a valid criterion in the field of criticism.”

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