El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment weighs up the some­times con­fronta­tional role of the restau­rant critic

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

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

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