Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lauraine Jacobs on restaurant reviews

One of my favourite foodies is the wonderful Lauraine Jacobs, current President of the NZ Guild of Food Writers and (according to Charlie Trotter, who should know) “high priestess of the international food and wine scene”. She writes on her blog:
Canvas editor, Greg Dixon, added a note to last weekend’s restaurant review of the very good Engine Room in Northcote. He was furious that owner Natalia Schamroth has refused to allow the NZ Herald’s photographer in to shoot her food, and said that would be the last ever review of that restaurant in Canvas. Natalia’s reason for refusal in her own words was, “I just wanted a guarantee that the facts were correct and that I was not cooperating (by allowing a photo) with an article that may have been damaging to our reputation.” Now that may seem precious of her, and it well may be, but Natalia has been bitten before by incompetent reviewers who have visited her restaurant. They have written incorrect facts, and shown their ignorance of cooking techniques and food products.
But wait, there’s more:
Currently the restaurant reviews around the country in many newspapers and magazines are often substandard, egotistical and incompetent. It would seem in almost all publications that it is a job that is handed out to the staff as a perk. The main requirement of the reviewer would appear to be an ability to write entertainingly, eat copiously and file copy by deadline. What writer is going to refuse the opportunity to take the company credit card and eat out with one or two friends? It’s an easy and cheap way for a newspaper or magazine to fulfil the need for restaurant writing as their staff writers are on salary, or may even do the job for a mere pittance as it is such “fun.”
All too true. Not of the Post-Dominion, which has David Burton, and there must be other exceptions out there but, in general, true.

But then, this:
It’s likely that these people do not know their beurre blanc from their hollandaise, don’t know the difference between quatre épices and five spice, or confuse crème brulée with crème caramel. To be a restaurant critic, there should be several requirements. First and foremost a thorough knowledge of food, cooking and technique. Culinary training is a pre-requisite, as is an understanding of how a restaurant works. If you think the pass is when someone comes on to you, or what the All Blacks try to do when they’re on the field, you’ll never be a good reviewer.
Now that’s all very well in Cuisine, but Lauraine – do you really believe that Canvas should reveal to its readers that there is more to food than chicken nuggets and instant mashed potato, that their lives thus far have been stunted by not knowing the difference between quatre épices and five spice, that some restaurants aren’t all that good and others really are worth the money?

Think of the gloom and despondency this will cause and the chaos when Canvas readers start eating proper food and perhaps even trying to make it at home. It will be impossible to get a table at Meredith’s. And imagine the crush at Zarbo on Saturday morning.

Lauraine, have you thought this through? Is it wise? Is it kind?

Monitor: The Goodwood School Old Girls’ Association


Chad Taylor said...

"One of my favourite foodies..." Ha. If you have more than one you're doing well. The only restaurant reviewer I've ever read was Kingsley Amis writing for Harpers & Queen in the 1980s. Some of the venues he wrote about sounded terrifying but he always seemed to enjoy himself either for the whiskies or the quirks of the staff.

Stephen Stratford said...

Well I was using "foodie" in the broadest sense. When I used to get invited to Random House parties I'd always spend most time with the food writers (Lauraine, Jennifer Yee etc) and the occasional restaurateur who had published a book (e.g. Judith Tabron) plus the chick-lit authors (Nicky Pellegrino, Sarah-Kate Lynch etc) who were all great fun. Then it would be the politicos, Cohen and Trotter. Never the novelists. Dear me, no. Never the novelists.

Chad Taylor said...

Talking to novelists is not hard. All you need are two phrases: "How much money do you make from that, then?" and "Actually, I'm thinking of writing a novel." (Cue gunshots, screaming.)

Stephen Stratford said...

I get a lot of people saying to me, "I am writing a book."

I say, "No you're not. You are writing a manuscript."

Little Tinker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Phil said...

I believe that Peter Cook was once at a party when a small talker said:
I'm writing a book.

Yes. Neither am I, replied Cooke.

Chad Taylor said...

Musicians always talk about music. Artists never talk about art. Writers - it depends on their mood and what an editor might politely refer to as 'the hour.'

Stephen Stratford said...

Ah yes, musicians talk about music but artists talk about dealers and writers talk about publishers.

But. I was in Auckland recently and saw three painter friends and we talked about books when we weren't gossiping. I saw three writer friends and we talked about art when we weren't gossiping. God knows what dancers talk about. Editors?