Celebrity chef Manu Feildel blames bad reviews for the 2014 closure of his restaurant, Le Grande Cirque. Now, as the critiqued becomes the critic, Manu vows to use his power for good. SHANNON HARLEY reports
Now that Manu Feildel is becoming a restaurant critic, the MKR star vows to use his power for good.
After he was famously destroyed by a restaurant critic in 2014, it’s hard to believe that Manu Feildel would ever want to rejoin the restaurant game, but the fourth-generation French chef is biting back, and this time he’ll be dishing up the stars, not the food.
Feildel has been judging hopeful home cooks throughout his successful nine-series tenure as co-host of the Seven Network’s My Kitchen Rules, but this year marks a new challenge for the recently married father-of-two as he joins the delicious.com.au panel of expert restaurant reviewers.
“Traditional critics are so negative, I want to change the way we critique a restaurant,” Feildel tells me over the phone in a French accent as thick as Brittany butter. He’s in New Zealand filming the new series of MKR NZ with co-host Pete Evans.
“I want to be an honest critic with a professional outlook, I’ll tell the truth about the restaurant,without unnecessarily slamming the chef. I want the chefs to know I’m on their side – I understand the sacrifices and hardships of their lifestyle because I’ve been there – and I’m also on the reader’s side because I’ll be brutally honest, I just won’t be a d*ckhead about it.” Feildel,who was “deeply hurt” by
The Australian critic John Lethlean’s 2014 review of his now-closed Melbourne restaurant,Le Grand Cirque,says that in his monthly reviews, published on delicious.com.au as part of the expansion of the website’s new Eat Out section, he will never criticise a chef personally, but will focus on the food in front of him and the service he receives.
“I was angry, angry, angry after I read [Lethlean’s] review and then,when my business partner turned around and said we have to close the restaurant, I was gobsmacked,” explains Feildel with a sudden sobriety that’s in stark contrast to his prevailing gregarious tone. Lethlean’s review for The Weekend
Australian mauled Feildel’s then newly opened South Yarra restaurant, giving it one star, calling it “très ordinaire”, describing the food as “patchy – at best, solid; at worst, a disgrace”, and accusing the chef of opening Le Grande Cirque to leverage his celebrity status.
“I cried for days like a baby, I went through a depression for five months… It was a horrible, horrible time of my life,” says Feildel.
When asked if he would change anything about that review, Lethlean, whose career as a national restaurant critic spans 22 years, remains staunch.
“That’s the role of the critic,to remind readers where the benchmarks lie. If something is below par, it’s your job to tell people, regardless of personalities.We’re the conduit between the public and the industry. Our only responsibility to the chef and restaurant is to be fair and accurate, but as a critic we must honour that bond between author and reader.”
The power of critics and the widereaching effects of their words shouldn’t be underestimated. In this instance, one scathing review and a smattering of unfavourable ones – The Herald Sun’s Dan Stock wrote: “The whole package is lacking a certain joie de vivre… I didn’t leave wanting to rush back” – led to the closure of a business just four months old.
“John Lethlean put the nail in the coffin for us.We were a new restaurant and maybe his visit wasn’t perfect.The service was green and my food was perhaps more casual than what he was looking for, but I was criticised personally by him,” says Feildel.
The French chef claims that Le Grande Cirque was turning over around $90,000 a week for the first three months of operation,which suddenly dropped to $3,000.“The restaurant became a ghost town very quickly, and that’s when my business partner told me we have to close.That was two weeks after the review…That’s when I realised how powerful the critic could be.”
How will Feildel avoid burning his chef buddies in his new role with
delicious.? He says the purpose of critics should be to help restaurants improve – “give them a hand if they need it” – to enhance the overall experience for the diner, not to “close restaurants”.
“I’ll critique,without being an a**hole – it is possible,” says Feildel, remembering when George Calombaris opened his chain of Melbourne souvlaki joints, Jimmy Grants. “He asked us boys to check it out and give our feedback. When I went, it was terrible, and I called him straight away. I said ‘Mate, the souvlaki is dry and there’s no sauce’, and he thanked me for being so honest.”
Lethlean, meanwhile, is adamant a chef cannot a critic be.“We’re not part of the industry and how could we ever do our job properly if we were?”
Feildel says honesty will be his driving principle. In an era where anyone with an Instagram account can be a self-proclaimed critic, the chef says that his 25 years’ experience in the kitchen brings a fresh perspective.
“There are things that work and there are things that don’t work and sometimes chefs take it too far,” Feildel admits. “I’d like to bring it back to reality when I need to. I don’t care if you are my friend: white chocolate and goat’s cheese don’t go together, and I won’t be afraid to write that!” he says.