Get into the mind of a food critic
Think you got what it takes to be a professional restaurant reviewer? Here are some little known tricks of the trade.
When people find out that I review restaurants professionally, I get asked lots of questions. Fortunately, usually the same questions keep coming up. So now, I'm pretty adept at answering them. But if we haven't met, and you are curious about what goes into food reviewing, here's a list of the most frequently asked quest-ions, along with my responses. I can only speak for myself, but I guess that the majority of restaurant critics will provide similar answers.
Do you find it difficult to review restaurants, now that there are so many user reviews out there?
User reviews perform a valuable function and I welcome the democratisation of the review space. But a critic's review is always different from a user review. When you read a critic's review on anything - movies, theatre, hotels, books, art or anything else - you do so because you believe that a critic has experience, knowledge and perspective. A user is not required to have any of those.
A true aggregation of user reviews is revenue. If users like a restaurant - or a movie or a book or a play - then it will become a hit and make money.
That's great. But it is not necessarily a measure of quality. Lots of terrible movies make money. Horrible books become bestsellers. Great movies sink without a trace at the box office. So commercial/consumer success and quality are not always on the same plate.
Do you get recognised at restaurants?
In the long-run, the answer has to be: yes.
Sure, lots of critics start out being anonymous. But if a critic is any good or has any real influence, then restaurants will make it their business to identify him or her.
In the UK, the likes of AA Gill or Jonathan Meades or Giles Coren are instantly recognised, mainly because they have been doing it for a while and restaurant owners have made it their job to recognise them.
The US is keener on the idea of an anonymous reviewer. Ruth Reichl used to go in disguise to restaurants and Mimi Sheraton would wear a mask when she appeared on TV (both reviewed for The New York Times). But in this Internet era, every critic's photo is up there on the web. And restaurants that care about these things, put their photos up on the kitchen walls.
All major French food critics are celebrities. For years, the Michelin Guide prided itself on hiring anonymous inspectors who were veterans of the catering business. But now restaurants know the drill. If two anodyne-looking men come in for an early dinner, order three courses and test the science in obvious ways (dropping a napkin, placing a fork on the floor etc.), then they are probably Michelin inspectors.
Is there a way around this?
Does it make a difference if you are recognised?
Yes, sometimes. The service will be better. The chef will try harder. So you have to make allowances for that.
But, on the whole, the old law holds: you may have a bad meal at a great restaurant. But you can never have a good meal at a bad restaurant.
Ask me: I know. I keep having really bad meals even at places where I have been recognised.
Do I have a favourite restaurant?
But they are not objectively better than many other rest-aurants in the city. And they have often gotten lower ratings from me than restaurants that I visit less frequently.
Do restaurant critics eat for free?
Oddly enough, most of us do. But not in the way you think. Very few of us will review a restaurant where we have not paid the bill. But after having made a great show of not ?accepting free food, most of us will then submit the bill to our publications and will get it fully reimbursed. So we eat for free. Not at the expense of the restaurant - but at the expense of our employers.
Can a review make or break a restaurant?
In the West, yes. A Michelin star can elevate a restaurant to a whole new level. In London, a bad review from Fay Maschler or AA Gill can close a restaurant down. In New York, the only review that matters in The New York Times. (Michelin stars count for very little.)
In countries such as India, critics have no real power. ?People read us for entertainment value.
Should one choose restaurants on the basis of reviews?
When I am travelling, I do. If a critic I respect says that a restaurant is worth going to, I will go. Sometimes, I disagree with the critic's verdict after I've gone. But most times, I am not disappointed.