Elizabeth Meryment weighs up the sometimes confrontational role of the restaurant critic
WHEN celebrity chef Neil Perry’s Sydney restaurant Rockpool shuts its doors next weekend after 19 years of trading, to stellar international reviews, at least part of the blame for its closure will belong on the plate of reviewers and editors.
Perry has been quoted in past weeks as saying his move to dismantle Rockpool stems from the decision by this year’s The Sydney MorningHerald Good Food Guide, co-edited by the Herald ’ s chief restaurant reviewer, Simon Thomsen, to award his restaurant two hats rather than the maximum three, thus denying Rockpool top billing with other leading venues in a city that loves awards.
Although Rockpool will reinvent itself as, depressingly, a casual seafood venue likely to be called Rockpool Fish, the damage has been done. That this deluxe, albeit somewhat tired, fine diner favoured by the celebrity set has consistently made the top 50 in British magazine Restaurant ’ s annual guide to the world’s best eating venues has failed to save it.
Perry has said international visitors prefer to try three-hat restaurants. If you’re surrounded by three-hatters and your last 10 covers are the difference between making money and not, you lose.
It is no secret that Perry has had a vexed relationship with some at the Herald , many of whom have taken offence at the chef’s ego (he often speaks about himself in the third person) and his lack of presence in the kitchen (in the past year his attentions have been focused on the widely praised Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne). But the two-hats award raised many eyebrows, especially considering AustralianGourmetTraveller has listed Rockpool as the nation’s third best restaurant behind Pier and Tetsuya’s.
In any event, the closure of Rockpool shows the power of Australia’s small but influential group of restaurant critics, especially in the cutthroat Sydney market, where rents are high and competition is fierce. Certainly, Perry is not the only chef angry with the Herald and its publications. Earlier this year, Michael Moore reacted venomously after the Herald rated his Summit restaurant a paltry 12/20, equating dining there to a form of water torture. Moore claimed he was dudded because the review appeared shortly before he was due to take ownership of the venue from the previous owner, hotel chain Accor.
The relentless negativity of the piece, he said, placed the deal in jeopardy. ‘‘ I’m not bitter and twisted about the review,’’ he said at the time. ‘‘ I’m bitter and twisted about the timing of the review.’’
Moore is one of many chefs and restaurateurs — most of whom agreed to speak to me only anonymously — who believe the handful of newspaper and magazine food critics wield far too much power.
Many chefs argue that journalists cannot be qualified to review restaurants because they do not have professional kitchen experience (although some do).
Following the negative Summit review, seafood supplier Con Nemitsas wrote to reviewer Thomsen, in a letter widely circulated within the industry: ‘‘ You should get an understanding of overheads and what goes into producing the food (at a place like Summit). What you are encouraging is more pressure, unrealistic expectations, more bank- ruptcies and unemployment in an industry that has beauty and glamour on the outside but a massive malignant tumour on the inside which inevitably will kill it and everyone in it.’’
Extreme words but not surprising in an industry that often wishes critics were advocates rather than independent observers of it.
‘‘ I don’t owe the restaurant industry anything,’’ objects Melbourne’s Herald Sun critic Stephen Downes in response to that theory. ‘‘ My job is to write for the HeraldSun and to tell the reader whether I think a restaurant is delivering value for money. I have been writing food reviews for 30 years and don’t have a single friend in the industry. I try never to talk to restaurateurs and chefs, and that’s the way it should be. It’s the only way to have complete independence.’’
Downes could be considered Australia’s most controversial critic, having been banned from up to a dozen restaurants in his home town of Melbourne, including Jamie Oliver’s high-profile Fifteen. ‘‘ They just don’t want to risk the possibility of a negative review,’’ he says of his detractors. ‘‘ They are petrified and they never have any serious or rational justification (for ejecting me).’’
Downes, who is known to sit with an open notebook at his table, can be a harsh critic, but he argues that the quality of Melbourne food is largely because of the standard of criticism in the town. ‘‘ I have just been in London and Paris and can say that Melbourne is the best place in the world to eat out at the mid-level. And one of the reasons for that is the tough criticism that Melbourne newspapers have delivered over the years.’’
True, Downes can be tough, but he’s a pussycat compared with some international critics, most notably London’s A. A. Gill of TheTimes . Take Gill’s hilarious carve-up of a Gloucestershire gastro-pub last year: ‘‘ The Bell is replete with everything that makes eating out in the muddy bits of England such a hideous torment. It’s pretentious, twee and seemingly run for the convenience of the management. The food we ate was risibly bad, the atmosphere smilingly inhospitable, the decor a sordid cliche of rural nostalgia, puppy porn and green-welly fascism — and they charge you two quid ($4.50) to sit on the ground outside. It is not just everything I despise and loathe in lunch, but everything that embarrasses and depresses me about tweedy Albion.’’
‘‘ I would love to be a Gill, or (English critic Giles) Coren, or Terry Durack,’’ says John Lethlean, food critic for The Age in Melbourne, Australian Gourmet Traveller and The (Melbourne) Magazine , ‘‘ and be able to sit back and take pot shots and never worry about meeting or confronting these people (their targets). But you’re very much a big fish in a small pond in this country. I love the fact that in London you have eight or nine serious restaurant critics writing each week, so you can go to them to get a different kind of angle on each restaurant.’’
For the Australian dining public, the local pool of critics is limited. While there is a plethora of suburban critics who write benign recommendations of local venues, the capital cities are dominated by the views of a small number of writers, usually the local newspaper’s weekly contributors.
One problem is that they are so well known that they could not possibly have the same experiences as walk-in punters.
‘‘ I personally would welcome some other strong voices, especially in Sydney,’’ says Australian Gourmet Traveller editor Anthea Loucas. ‘‘ We have the population now and the industry is mature enough to support other voices. We can’t compare Sydney with London, but there are so many voices there, all reviewing each week, and it helps to dilute the importance of what a single person says.’’
‘‘ I think you have about five good years to be a restaurant critic,’’ agrees The Advertiser ’ s Tony Love, easily Adelaide’s most important food critic since he began the job four years ago.
‘‘ Then you start to get recognised. It’s happening to me now at the top-end restaurants. I don’t go to launches and I’ve kept my photo out of the paper, but there is a point where it becomes hard and I think it is around the five-year mark.’’
Downes says he is recognised as soon as he enters most restaurants. ‘‘ But at that moment — at 7.30pm on a wintry evening, say — can the restaurant improve the skills of the kitchen team? Can the cooks change the raw materials they’ve bought for tonight’s service? Can they alter in any way the hours of preparation they’ve already put in as a prelude to the finishing of tonight’s dishes? The answer is no to all questions.’’
There are some critics who do try to go incognito when reviewing. Australian Gourmet Traveller ’ s Pat Nourse, having found himself recognised on occasion, says he sometimes grows a beard or shaves his head to avoid being noticed.
‘‘ I think there’s probably some benefit in being anonymous but I don’t know if it’s a big benefit,’’ he says. ‘‘ Rather than changing their appearance, some critics should just change their behaviour. Many ask questions that only critics would ask. Why not just ring the restaurant and ask the questions later?’’
Nourse recalls how he once walked into a dining room and saw a whiteboard in the kitchen prominently marked: ‘‘( Then Herald critic) Matthew Evans at table six.’’
‘‘ One good way to avoid being recognised is to go when there’s another critic there,’’ he says wryly. ‘‘ Then all the fawning goes in that direction.’’
Although it is said that at least one Melbourne restaurant has a life-sized picture of Lethlean in the kitchen, he rejects this.
‘‘ It’s amazing how many times I make it through a meal and nobody twigs, even when I give them my credit card with John Fairfax Holdings on it,’’ he says.
Happily, cases of defamation from restaurants against critics and their publications are rare (‘‘restaurateurs are an extraordinarily passive bunch’’, says Lethlean) but there have been some high-profile examples. Most notorious was Leo Schofield’s 1989 review of Sydney restaurant Blue Angel, in which he claimed restaurateur Marcello Marcobello had inhumanely ‘‘ killed live lobsters by broiling them alive’’ and that the crustaceans were cooked for 45 minutes, ‘‘ contrary to accepted culinary methods’’. Marcobello sued and a jury found he was defamed, awarding him $100,000 in damages.
In 2003, Evans successfully defended a defamation case after the owners of Coco Roco sued him for declaring half the dishes on their menu ‘‘ unpalatable’’ and the service ‘‘ bad’’. A jury found Evans had not defamed Coco Roco (which, coincidentally, he rated 9/20, not his lowest score), but the owners recently successfully appealed, a decision that was widely met with misery in the publishing industry. Coco Roco had shut down weeks after the review.
Still, restaurateurs who do receive a bad rap should take heart that most places survive terrible reviews. After Evans slammed Sydney’s famous Doyles on the Beach with a review of 7/20, in which he described the fish as ‘‘ heroically bad’’, many customers rallied around it.
In a worst-case scenario, a restaurateur could do what New York’s Jeffrey Chodorow did after The New York Times critic Frank Bruni demolished his Kobe Club in a no-star review. Not only did Chodorow ban Bruni from all of his 29 New York restaurants, he took out a full-page advertisement in the paper’s food section decrying the review, the reviewer and even the paper itself. Now that’s revenge. And who knows? Perhaps next year, The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide will be more generous with Rockpool Fish, appeasing Perry with that elusive third hat.
In the frame: Rockpool’s busy kitchen, main picture; from left, Stephen Downes; Tony Love; Anthea Loucas, Alain Ducasse and Tetsuya Wakuda