Meet TripAdvisor's most prolific critic: Phil Blackett - aka The Food Dood - has reviewed almost 1,000 restaurants in 152 cities
The Newcastle businessman is the most influential food critic you've never heard of. Oscar Quine discovers what motivates TripAdvisor’s most prolific poster of gastronomic opinion
As Phil Blackett tucks into steak tartare, he tells the story of a dinner cooked for him by a friend who has worked in kitchens with nine Michelin stars. "He worked for Heston at the Fat Duck, three stars; The Ledbury, two stars; Sat Bains, two stars; Hakkasan, one star. He tots them up." Then, with a gutsy laugh: "And we bought all the ingredients at Asda".
It's one of many food anecdotes which set the rhythm for an evening with Blackett, the man who allowed himself to be unmasked last year as one of the world's most prolific TripAdvisor reviewers. Announcing himself to the press in September, he was briefly engulfed in a mini media storm and has had talks with TV production companies to front his own series. "My phone was on fire," he says. "All the newspapers, Radio 5 Live, Sky News. Alan Titchmarsh wanted me to go on his show but I bottled it."
As, arguably, one the country's most influential reviewers – given TripAdvisor's increasingly gargantuan reach – I asked Blackett if I could join him for dinner to see what he looks for when considering whether to give a restaurant the elusive five TripAdvisor green dots.
Blackett has chosen Jesmond Dene House, a Victorian country pile 10 minutes from the city centre of his native Newcastle for our meal. It is, I'm later informed, a bolthole for acclimatising footballers. In the dining room, pigeon-grey walls are offset by splashes of emergency orange. According to TripAdvisor, it is the second best hotel (but only 104th best restaurant of a total of 808) and a few days later, it will be the subject of Blackett's 978th review. By his account, the food misses the mark on a couple of occasions – starting with the steak tartare.
The bright-yellow yolk perched atop the puck of red, raw meat fails to break under Blackett's fork. It's been soft-boiled. This causes him to shake his head and mutter, "It's a classic dish. They should just have done it classic. It's all wrong. You shouldn't fuck about with this. The only place to get a good steak tartare is in Paris".
Brief and to the point: One of Blackett's TripAdvisor reviews
Under the nom de guerre The Food Dood, Blackett has posted reviews from 152 cities in 36 different countries, painstakingly recording his every mouthful for a reading public he will likely never meet. From Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road ("Sheer delight") to his local KFC drive-through ("the staff were inattentive and slow... overcooked fries") he utilises one of the two predominant styles on the site: brief, and to the point. "If I see somebody's written an essay, I don't read it," says Blackett. "They're usually just whining."
Other than the gold star badge on his profile and a black travel bag monogrammed with the TripAdvisor logo, he's received nothing tangible for the time he's devoted to writing his reviews.
He's just one – very active – member of an army of 60 million reviewers who have populated the site with 150 million reviews of hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions – ultimately building a company that went public at the beginning of 2012 with a valuation of $4bn (£2.4bn). While the benefit derived for the content host is obvious, what motivates people such as Blackett to review?
The question tends to be answered in terms of 'indirect' benefits: feeling part of a community, a means to complain, or a published personal chronicle. James Kay, a company spokesperson, says TripAdvisor is a "virtuous circle": "The more useful you find other people's reviews, the more motivated you are to go on and leave reviews yourself, which is why we have seen such a huge growth."
The Bull Steak Expert in London: "Number-one steak ever eaten in the history of man" (Rex Features)
The vast database created by this self-perpetuating model is, he says, the key to the service's strength. "If you ask a hundred people's opinion about a subject, you're going to get a more interesting and accurate picture than if you ask one person. It's like the principle of polling: pollsters know that the more people you ask, the more accurate opinion you're going to get, and the same is true when you're walking into a restaurant or a hotel."
What results is a uniquely comprehensive resource. Where else, online or otherwise, can you go to find out if your local kebab shop does a decent shawarma?
Blackett, hearty and affable in the way you'd expect from a man who enjoys his dinner – by his own admission, he looks a little like Gérard Depardieu – says his journey to power-reviewer began with a childhood in the working-class Newcastle district of Walker. After years working as a distributor for various leading fashion labels, he's recently set up his own online sunglasses retailer, a job which takes him across the globe. He now lives in the well-to-do suburb of Jesmond, as does his wife, Michelle, a doctor, who has a hand in almost all his reviews. Joining us for dinner, her take on their joint endeavour is simple: "Anywhere we go to, whatever the occasion, it will be reviewed".
But before all that, there was Blackett, his grandma, and whatever the butcher had on offer. "When I was a kid, I used to go to my grandparent's house, and they'd buy everything: pig's trotters, sheep's brains, offal, balls, tripe. We used to eat every part of the animal. I've never really had any preferences with food – I could eat anything."
This unfussy palate has provided the basis of his prodigious reviewing career, which began with an entry after a trip to Madrid. "I did a few [reviews] and it was quite good fun. Eating and travelling and food are my hobby, so I thought I might as well write about it.
"Then about three years ago, I was counting how many reviews I'd done, and it was quite a few. I was enjoying it, so I started taking it quite seriously, whereas if you look at some of my earlier reviews, I just bashed them out.
"Then in September 2012, TripAdvisor actually rang me up. I thought it was some friends taking the piss. They said, 'You know you're quite prolific, you're in the top 10... Then the next thing I heard was in December, they called and said 'You've won it [Most Prolific Reviewer, 2012]'. And I said, 'Just for the UK?' And they said, 'No, the world'."
Blackett says: 'Eating and travelling and food are my hobby, so I thought I might as well write about it' (Mark Pinder)
As our mains arrive – John Dory in a broth of oyster leaf, razor clams and sea greens – he acknowledges that the unregulated nature of user-generated reviews can allow for restaurateurs' friends, or enemies, to manipulate rankings with enough effort. It is, he says, about approaching the service with "common sense": "If you're going to spend 100 quid on a meal, it's worth doing it properly.
"If there's a new place that's open, that's only got 20 to 30 reviews on, chances are it's not going to be a true representation. If you go into the Newcastle restaurants section and look at the top one, it might have only opened six months ago and it's got 30 reviews and 10 are by their friends and that's not fair."
Not holding his mantle lightly, he adds: "I've told TripAdvisor about this, that there should be a better way to do it.
"What you should do on TripAdvisor is look for places that have got 150-200 reviews. Then drill down a bit and try and find as many people as possible who've got multiple reviews who aren't local. If I'm going to your restaurant in Gosforth, I want to see at least 150 reviews. I want to see a guy from New York with 70 reviews next to his name, I want to see a guy from Amsterdam with 120 reviews. I don't want to see silly Katie with one review or silly Adam with one review."
Blackett has visited La Coupole in Paris 12 times: 'Anyone who doesn’t enjoy La Coupole doesn’t deserve to go' (Rex Features)
This approach foregrounds prolific users such as Blackett, and is set to be built into the framework of TripAdvisor, with more emphasis placed on individual users. While Blackett is bashful about his position as one of them, Michelle is sure that since his face appeared in the national press, some local restaurateurs do recognise him. And with his big gold star, and review tally nigh-on a thousand, he's been offered free meals in return for a glowing review a handful of times.
One such offer, coming from an old friend, left him conflicted. "He said, 'Right Phil, you and your lass, in our place. As much food as you want. Champagne. Five-star review.' I said, 'I cannae.' He said, 'I've known you all my life.' I said, 'But I cannae cheat, Ray.' He said, 'Come on, you can have everything on the menu: lobster, the lot.'" Blackett refused the offer and, going one step further, hasn't returned to his friend's restaurant.
He's as unbending when it comes to the opinion of food reviewers. "They're too pompous, too highbrow. Does AA Gill go to a Lebanese place in the east-end of Newcastle? Does he go to KFC? Does he go to Apostrophe on the high street?" It makes me wonder what he would make of the online food writer I had spoken to that morning who, describing herself as part of the "London blogger clique", said of TripAdvisor, "I wouldn't even look at it... A lot of the reviewers aren't really food people."
It is answered, in part, as the conversation turns to the subject of steak. "We've been to Black & Blue, we've been to Hawksmoor, we've been to all those fancy ones. I'll tell you, there's one that beats them all. It's called the Bull Steak Expert in Holborn. It's like a Sixties James Bond place. I gave it five stars."
Is he a big fan of steak then? "Not really. Rib-eye's the only steak I like: it's got flavour. Fillet steak's for poseurs, isn't it?"
Blackett refuses to visit friend's restaurants: 'I cannae cheat' (Mark Pinder)
Blackett also has no qualms about chains – Papa John's pizza gets five stars, Krispy Kreme doughnuts get four – and when asked where he's had his best meal, he falls back on an unlikely compliment. It's La Coupole, a Paris favourite that's been serving the same entrecôte with Béarnaise sauce and grilled sole since before Ernest Hemingway made it one of his regular haunts. "It's a 500-seater and it's run with military precision. Bear in mind, I've been there a few times. You can't believe how they do it. I've never had bad service. It's just a giant McDonald's."
For a man to whom such consistency is king, it's no surprise that with its steak frites and confit de canard, the French capital tops his list of foodie destinations. "Paris is the greatest place on Earth for food. London is the most diverse. But it's impossible to get a bad meal in Paris."
A couple of days later, Blackett's review appears online, replete with the 'c' word. "First of all, let me tell you that Jesmond Dene House is, seriously, one of my favourite restaurants in the world ... [but] I can't begin to tell you how disappointed I am with the inconsistency of the food ... Gin and tonics in the bar fine, clam risotto tasty, carpaccio fine, steak tartare terrible ... the chef's own version with a hard yolk! Why on earth mess with a French classic?
Three of The Food Dood's 5/5 raves...
The Bull Steak Expert
Red Lion Street, London WC1
"The restaurant itself could easily be a serious contender in the next James Bond movie, a real '70s number. No starters ordered and straight into the medium-rare, flawlessly cooked rib-eyes, sides of chips, perfect roast veg and impeccable service. The number-one steak ever eaten in the history of man."
Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris
"Anyone who doesn't enjoy La Coupole doesn't deserve to go. Try the assiette of oysters to start and ALL of the desserts. I have visited at least 12 times and I'm going back another 12 soon."
Studley Terrace, Newcastle upon Tyne
"Pound for pound this has to be the best Indian restaurant north of Mumbai. Their Indian breads are handmade fresh by the tandoor chef. I'm told they have more pans than a pan shop so nothing tastes the same. GO! Amazing!"
...and three that missed the spot
Belsay, Newcastle upon Tyne
"We ordered beef and ale pie and mince and dumplings. That's when the expectation ceased. Dry chips, dry pastry ... bland mince, bland beef and standard, tasteless, boiled-to-death cauliflower, carrots and peas – how inventive of the chef? We had a side of awful Auntie Bessie's onion rings and finally defeated we asked for some gravy to moisten the meal, low and behold some packet-type mix. The staff didn't once ask if we enjoyed our meal... never again."
Rua Goncalo Velho, Tavira, Portugal
"We liked the river setting at Tavira Lounge but don't be fooled, the cooking was frighteningly amateurish, the ingredients were poor quality and the service extremely insincere, especially from the owner."
Marco Pierre White Steakhouse Bar & Grill
Fenkle Street, Newcastle upon Tyne
"We were greeted with patronising female staff advising us to be careful when eating the wasabi peas because they are hot! We then ordered Champagne which was dumped in an ice bucket which we had to open and pour ourselves. The foie gras were poor quality, our rib eyes ... were ALL over-cooked. The chocolate mousse was no better than Angel Delight ... The service level was worse than McDonald's."
Phil Blackett is CEO of redhotsunglasses.co.uk
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