Secret life of a food critic
Nothing gets foodies more excited than the discovery of a new food, for example the cheese-and-bacon-stuffed pizza burger, except perhaps a jolly good debate about whether restaurant critics should be anonymous.
Just before Christmas, LA Times critic, S Irene Virbila, was outed after 15 years of relative visual obscurity as she waited outside a new Asian restaurant.
The restaurant’s owners fronted Virbila after she’d been left waiting for 45 minutes, photographed her without her permission, refused to serve her and then posted the photo online. It was obnoxious behaviour regardless of who was involved.
But it’s big news because American restaurant critics pride themselves on flying under the radar. However, amidst this gnashing of teeth, the overlooked fact is that a supposedly anonymous critic was pinged so publicly.
Some, such as the former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl, went to extraordinary lengths to disguise themselves. Her outfits became characters in their own right, which she wrote about in her memoir Garlic & Sapphires. It got a bit kinky when she began dressing as her dead mother. In her infamous 1993 review of Le Cirque, Reichl wrote about the chasm between going in disguise, and then being recognised. I think everyone’s lifted their game since then.
I’ve been a restaurant critic for 15 years. My colleague Tony Love, critic for Adelaide’s The Advertiser, thinks you have about three years before everyone knows you.
My photo is published alongside my column every Tuesday in The Daily Telegraph. It’s the same for every major Australian critic.
In the UK, where restaurant reviews have replaced fox hunting as the nation’s top blood spot, the critics are celebrities every bit as famous as Matt Preston.
I’d argue the idea of the anonymous critic is a silly conceit. Any restaurateur worth their Murray River pink salt goes out of their way to know their customers and that includes critics. And they’re not stupid. They swap intelligence, gossip and photos, perhaps taken from the in-house security cameras.
Pretending you’re unknown is a bit like “secret” agent James Bond rocking up at the evil villain’s party hoping he won’t be recognised.
That said, there’s a little bit of cat and mouse to dining out as a critic. I always book under an assumed name and use assorted friends’ mobile phone numbers. I have to remember which ones I’ve used previously where because many restaurants now have sophisticated databases that red flag certain numbers and names.
They track what you like to eat and drink and how often you visit, so they know who their best (spending) customers are and look after them.
I’ve booked under “Waylon Smithers”. A waiter asked about the unusual name (Well, you work nights and try and find time to watch The Simpsons). Yes, I’ve also used Wiggum, Bouvier, Brockman and Flanders. I had a Thunderbirds phase too.
I send my date in alone five-to-10 minutes beforehand. They’re allocated the table (yes I’ve had “Let’s just move you…” when I arrive, but refuse) and my date watches and benchmarks how the waiters treated us both before and after my arrival. I watch the service at other tables. Five people fawning over me counts for nothing when an elderly couple across the room are still waiting to pay their bill.
My benchmark is leaving wondering whether I was sprung because there’s no appreciable change in the service or tone. At worst, everyone’s been fussed over that night.
I’ve seen restaurants have terrible nights because they’re so nervous when I’m in. Watching hands shake when wine’s poured isn’t a pleasure. I’ve seen waiters in tears after serving the wrong food to the wrong person at my table. It would be funny if everyone didn’t take it so seriously.
I’ve known chefs who cook two of everything before deciding which one to send out, but that doesn’t change the idea behind the dish or produce quality. Most of the work’s been done before I arrive. It hasn’t stopped plenty of kitchens buggering up the food anyway.
Early on a chef sent me a free dish, I wrote about it in the review saying readers should go in asking for their free entree too. It didn’t happen again.
And despite all this, I still occasionally slide into places unnoticed, even top ones.
Fact checking with one chef, they asked when I was coming in and was shocked to discover I’d visited twice. “But the waiters all have your picture!” they exclaimed. Not surprisingly, I found the service haphazard.
Some places have two pictures of me at every waiter’s station. Some places simply don’t care. My only disguise is that I’m generally older, fatter, more tired and much more dishevelled than I appear in my newspaper photo.
Several years ago, before he became a pig farmer in Tasmania, the former Sydney restaurant critic Matthew Evans spent the afternoon being transformed into an old man by a makeup artist before heading out to dinner at Otto, the hip Italian restaurant on the water at Woolloomooloo.
Many people thought Otto had one level of service for its oft-famous clientele – John Laws ate there so much at one stage he bought a share in the place - and another the economy-class diners. The good news? Evans was surprised by how well he – and everyone else - was treated. Otto was a class act. It did what every good restaurant should do.
I have one final tip for restaurateurs worried there’s a critic in their midst. They’re easy to spot. In this era of food blogs, the critic is the only one without a massive digital SLR camera photographing their dinner.
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