The real life Anton Egos: Inside the vicious world of the food critics
As Disney's new release 'Ratatouille', set in a Parisian kitchen, tops the UK film charts, Susie Mesure takes a look at the reviewers who like nothing better than sticking the knife in
Sunday 28 October 2007
The knives have been sharpened, the tables set. The gentle scent of fresh white roses greets those customers astute enough to have booked early for the most vaunted opening of London's autumn restaurant season. Welcome to Hibiscus, the brainchild of Claude Bosi and his wife Claire, which opened last week in Mayfair after being uprooted from its former base in the gastronomic heart of Shropshire.
The London incarnation of the restaurant that was awarded two Michelin stars during the seven years it was based in Ludlow is the latest flashpoint for the real-life Anton Egos of the capital's culinary world, and already food critics are beating a path to its door.
Happily for Bosi, in this instance the horn-handled knives that lie glistening on each crisp white tablecloth are more likely to be gliding through his Hertfordshire suckling pig or roast Mortimer Forest venison than to be stabbing the back of a chef who has won himself only friends with his take on classic French cooking.
Not all restaurateurs opening up in London are so lucky. Take David Ponté, who went from feted to hapless restaurant owner in a matter of weeks thanks to the botched opening of his £5m Brazilian showcase Mocotó in Knightsbridge last January.
By the summer the restaurant, which had tried to take Brazil's traditional barbecue joints seriously upmarket, had collapsed into receivership. The nail in its overpriced coffin? Bad review after bad review dished out by some of the most powerful names in the trade.
For just as Ratatouille's Anton Ego, a crabby, vindictive critic who vents his ire at the world through his spiteful columns, all but destroys the protagonist Remy's Parisian restaurant with his harsh review, so too can his living and breathing alter egos.
Another London restaurant that felt the full acerbic force of the food brigade heavyweights was Marylebone's Le Relais de Venise. "Serving anything you like as long as it's steak and chips with a side of walnut salad" was a concept that would have wowed the critics if only it had been done well. It wasn't, and the reviewers didn't mince their words.
The steak, wrote Jan Moir in The Daily Telegraph, had "absolutely no flavour and eating it is just like chewing on tasteless meat fibre – like your own arm, if you were careless and it was dark". For Matthew Norman, in The Guardian, the salad swam under a "repulsive, oily dressing that would never get past the quality control team at Kraft". Le Relais de Venise may live on, but the damage for many potential diners has already been done.
The power of the critic is not just limited to these shores. This year, in Australia, a Sydney restaurant, Coco Roco, was forced to close three months after a stinging review. (The restaurant got its own back in the courts by claiming the reviewer's defamatory words, rather than, say, the menu or the prices had put customers off the place.)
Mark Hix, the chef behind such well-known eateries as the Ivy, J Sheeky and Le Caprice, says: "Reviews for restaurants, especially outside London, can make or break a new place."
No one knows that better than Gordon Ramsay, whose much-hyped entrance to New York with the London was almost floored by poor reviews from the maitre d' of the Big Apple's dining scene, The New York Times's Frank Bruni.
"Seldom has a conquistador as bellicose as Mr Ramsay landed with such a whisper," wrote an unimpressed Bruni, who gave the London just two stars out of a possible four before heaping further criticism on the chef in his blog. (Ramsay's response a few weeks later to The Independent on Sunday: "I don't give two fucks about it. Never have; never met the guy; not remotely interested.")
Sharing some of Ramsay's sentiment, if not his syntax, is Antonio Carluccio, the great Italian chef who proved there was more to Italy's culinary reputation than soggy pizzas and overcooked pasta. Carluccio's bugbear is the vast sway of critics who "falsify" the picture of eating out due to sheer ignorance. "There are 80 different types of cuisine in the UK and it is impossible to know them all well enough to be able to criticise them," he says. "Not only do they not know very much – you can see that from the way that out of an entire review just the last few words are about the food – they are talking to people who don't know very much. People are gullible because they read avidly what these pseudo-critics say and they just accept it."
Ramsay is far from the first chef to cop an earful from Bruni. Jeffrey Chodorow's Kobe Club failed to merit a single star. Its sin? Poor, overpriced cooking that merely "exploited" the current mania for steakhouses in Manhattan. "Although Kobe Club does right by the fabled flesh for which it's named, it presents too many insipid or insulting dishes that draw blood from anyone without a trust fund or an expense account," Bruni wrote. (Chodorow got his own back by spending $80,000 on a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, which he used to defend his steakhouse against what he called a personal attack by an unqualified food critic.)
There was worse for Tim Love, the Texas-based restaurateur who found himself galloping swiftly back to the Lone Star state after Bruni slammed his Lonesome Dove Western Bistro for serving little but a "bruising slam dance" of flavours and ingredients by way of a menu.
Perhaps Bruni should thank his stars that he hasn't suffered the fate of one Caroline Workman, whose barbed review of an Italian pizza bar, Goodfellas, in The Irish News saw her wind up in court after the owner contended the piece was a "hatchet job". Worse still, a Belfast jury upheld the owner's claim that the piece was "defamatory, damaging and hurtful".
Industry insiders believe critics such as Bruni and his esteemed compatriots like Jonathan Gold, of LA Weekly, who became the first restaurant reviewer to be awarded a Pulitzer for his critiques earlier this year, are more entitled to stick the knife in because, unlike British critics, they have to visit a restaurant at least three times before reaching a verdict. Bruni's other selling point is that he tries desperately to remain incognito, refusing to publish a byline picture in stark contrast to most UK reviewers.
One notable exception is Metro's Marina O'Loughlin, one of the brightest new gastronomes, according to Restaurant magazine's Hilary Armstrong. "Anecdotally, people love Marina. She's a sparky writer with bags of personality," says Armstrong. And she's largely invisible when dining out because Metro has never printed a photo of her. "I absolutely, firmly believe that it makes a huge difference being incognito," O'Loughlin recently said.
Despite Carluccio's dig at most restaurant critics, he happily admits that there are exceptions. "Terry Durack is one of the very few who is good. At least he is constructive in his criticism," says the Italian chef, who was in Adelaide last week on Durack's behalf to accept the IoS reviewer's award of Best Restaurant Critic in the 2007 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards.
Another perennial favourite, with restaurateurs and the public alike, is Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard. Elizabeth Crompton-Batt, a restaurant publicist and widow of the much feted Alan, who ruled London's dining scene throughout the Nineties, says: "Fay is the grande dame of restaurants. She has been doing it for an awful long time and really knows her stuff, yet she's still excited by it all."
Maschler is among the coterie of reviewers with serious people-pulling power. The Sunday Times's A A Gill is another. After he gave E&O in Notting Hill a rave review, the restaurant got an additional 2,000 calls a week after the piece ran. And Hix says that even a bad review can act as a magnet. "I've seen places get disastrous reviews when they open and then they fill up."
For those who think that speaking, or writing, ill of others is just plain wrong, there is light at the end of the critics' tunnel. Just look at the moral to the rat's tale in Ratatouille. After a revelatory meal in Remy's revamped restaurant, Gusteau, the erstwhile surly Anton Ego, undergoes something of a Damascene conversion. In his words: "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."
It's a safe bet that Anton Ego's particular brand of logic is not one shared by his living alter egos.
The men and women whose words are never minced:
Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly
Made Pulitzer history by becoming the first food critic to take home the famous prize for his 20-year quest to find the best ethnic eateries in Los Angeles
On Americans' taste
Terry Durack, Independent on Sunday
Widely respected Australian reviewer. His award last week adds to his trophy cabinet: he is also the Glenfiddich Restaurant Critic 2007
On the Narrow
Fay Maschler, Evening Standard
The grande dame of London's eating scene is revered and feared by restaurateurs. She works harder than most, dining out at least three times a week
AA Gil, The Sunday Times
He dedicates only a scant portion of his column to dissecting his meal, but doesn't mince words when sticking the knife into places he hasn't liked
Patricia Wells, Herald Tribune
Based in Paris since resigning as 'New York Times' food writer in 1980, she lost no time in embracing the French food scene
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