The Fairfax Press, and especially the Age, is seen to write the gospel according to food. The opinions of its reviewers are believed, and the annual Age Good Food Guide is perceived to be Melbourne’s bible of eating out. On things gastronomic, the Fairfax Press has form. One PR consultant told me about a bar client that preferred publicity in the Age over the Herald Sun because the former brought in a better class of person. Reviewers are supposed to be reporters, and by its very nature what is written on editorial pages is believed by readers to be unbiased, independent and unaffected by anything other than serious-minded fact-finding and analysis.
A journalist’s word is worth much more than an advertiser’s. It’s trusted. I once read marketing research concluding that the value of editorial over advertising copy was something like three to one. And while this kind of gross and unquantified generalisation is perhaps dubious, there is no doubt that restaurant critics are highly influential.
But take Fairfax’s recent review of current culinary darling and Masterchef star George Calombaris’ Hellenic Republic, based in Brunswick, Melbourne.
Chef–restaurateur George Calombaris had either “his own personal Delphic oracle” or a “canny understanding” of the world economy, Larissa Dubecki wrote in the Age early in 2009. His new restaurant Hellenic Republic was “cheap(ish)”, “cheeky” and “cheerful” and it served “gutsy, uncomplicated, home-style Greek cooking”. This encomium — if I may be Greek about it — for Calombaris and his latest venture effulged ever more brilliantly, sounding to me more like a hyperventilated media release than a restaurant review. (Ms Dubecki, it should be added, was at the time the paper’s fairly new restaurant critic.)
The restaurant’s exposed central grill added to the “whole Greek theatre feel”, she wrote. A spit-roast of “yielding, gelatinous flesh is revelatory”, and although a moussaka was too rich and a touch too salty for one or two people it “works splendidly as a … side dish for four”. Hellenic’s customers were more diverse than most, which implied that you or I could go there and not feel out of place. And wine is served from “aluminium tankards”, which Dubecki considered to be a “nice touch”.
The following month on the Fairfax Digital Executive Style website, John Lethlean, who preceded Ms Dubecki as Age restaurant critic, began his piece: ‘Subtle, Aegean blues. The high gloss sparkle of white tiled walls. Lobster pots for light shades and a distinct smell of burning charcoal in the air. Those kooky little red anodised aluminium pitchers used for cheap table wine nowhere else in the world.” (In the March edition of Gourmet Traveller magazine, Lethlean found Hellenic, “absolutely infectious”.)
Nothing in either of these two nugatory assessments could be considered seriously critical, in my view. Aided and abetted by copious plugs written by others in glossy food magazines, similar boosts in daily newspapers’ weekly magazines, an editorial in the local Moreland Leader and a plethora of cyber postings by excited food bloggers, the Hellenic Republic would have needed to become Stalin’s Russia to fail. Calombaris would have trouble buying such publicity.
In April in the Herald Sun I failed Hellenic Republic, giving it 24 out of 50. I said I wouldn’t spend my own money there because Melbourne offered better Greek food in more comfortable and more hospitable surroundings elsewhere. Calombaris’s new restaurant subverted hospitality, I argued, by telling diners that they had to leave at a specified hour and by threatening to fine them if they cancelled bookings too soon before they were due to sit down.
The Hellenic Republic’s arrogance winds you. An informant made a booking for his birthday—a party of sixteen. Because his group was larger than ten, they would be served a ‘banquet dinner’, the restaurant insisted, meaning everyone would choose from a menu that the restaurant mandated. Moreover, there would be a ‘minimum spend’ of $2000 ($125 a head), and they would have only two hours in which to enjoy themselves: their table would be needed at 9 p.m. He cancelled the booking.
In my review, I wrote that the restaurant served ‘OK and sometimes better’ simple Greek dishes in a canteen ambience. Calamari had delicate flavour but had been grilled too long, in my view. Slow-cooked pork in celery was a watery but passable stew, and the offerings overall amounted to home cooking you did when you didn’t want to cook. The wine list was very limited and expensive, I wrote, citing examples, and I pointed out that wine should never be poured into and served from metal containers. Acids—they’re in wine—and metals can react to make bad-tasting babies.
Even if the metal had been treated to render it inert, Lethlean and Dubecki should have questioned the little ‘tankards’ and ‘pitchers’ that so beguiled them. Hellenic Republic was noisy and uncomfortable. You sat on rush-woven seats with two-rung backs. Plates were not changed, so red meat went on seafood slicks. When we booked, we were told we had to sit at a communal table. We were put on one for eighteen, even though several tables for two, which we’d requested, were available throughout our entire meal.
Now, who’s got it right? After more than three decades of reviewing restaurants am I taking the job too seriously? Or, on the other hand, is it possible that the job itself has changed? Is analysis out? And, if that’s the case, why? Have the relationships between some journalists and restaurateurs, their chefs and their professional marketers brought that about? It alarms me, for instance, that in conversations I’ve had lately with ordinary eaters-out they consider me to be ‘part’ of the hospitality industry, the sector that promotes eating places.
The work of restaurant critics impinges on what restaurants do and how they trade, yes. And, over time, on standards, of course. (I believe that until fairly recently good criticism played an important role in improving standards.) But critics work—or should work—for their readers, determining the best eating at the best price. They should give detailed explanations of how they have reached a conclusion, given a rating or a score. That’s the theory, at least.
Unfortunately, though, in recent years tens of thousands of words written by food ‘journalists’ simply promote fashionable restaurants and their owners and chefs. (The reviews I have quoted are typical and their style is ubiquitous.) The same names recur vomitously. You know them. The chefs and restaurateurs who cook at and own these places, it would be fair to say, see their venues as chic gourmand utopias, the places in which to be seen dining out. They will saddle up and ride the gift horse of promotion whatever its breed.
There are several factors that account for this relentless positivism. First, it’s far easier to gush than to criticise. Detailed analysis of a main course of suckling pig accompanied by a smear of roasted apple, caramelised eggplant and pistachio crumbs, for instance, is a challenge. This concoction, which was served to me early in 2009, was a gastro-funambulist; it teetered, a slight degree of burntness having been roasted into the apple. Was it too burnt? The best way to decide that question was to try to compare it with every other similar commercial preparation I’d eaten. I judged that it had just cleared the bar. But I couldn’t have passed it had I not had many years of experience. At least, I would have hoped that the experience that informed my judgement meant that my opinion was more valuable than a less-experienced eater’s view. And that it was only because of my gustatory experiences that I would have had the courage to say it was unsuccessful, if I had thought so.
So, critics who may be trusted must have eaten widely. But they also need a good palate that has been honed by an ability to cook well a big range of dishes in many styles, and many visits to significant eating places in Australia and overseas. (For several years before I began reviewing I lived in France at a time when Gallic food ruled the world. I saw the French classics authentically prepared in homes and ate at some of the best restaurants.)
Second, food journalists who enthuse are, generally speaking, more attractive to big publishers and editors than real critics. Glossy magazines such as delicious, Gourmet Traveller and Vogue Entertaining + Travel and specialist newspaper sections prefer positive summaries to sharp analyses. (To its credit, the Herald Sun publishes precisely what I think about restaurants without editorial interference. It also allows me to fail them when they deserve it, something you will see in no other Australian publication.) You’ll not find a harsh word in most writing about food. Description, but rarely criticism.
Wonderment is what readers want, and the print media are afraid to provide anything else. The business model for print journalism has changed enormously in the past couple of decades. It’s in a freefalling panic as the electronic delivery of information goes protean. The last thing newspapers and magazines want is to lose circulation. Good news, glossy news, celebrities and gossip are seen to be, for the moment, what garners readers’ loyalty. Specialist food publications have developed a kind of optimistic fizz about all aspects of eating, drinking and ‘gourmet’ produce, which is supplemented by ladles of easy recipes, exclusive ingredients, industry tattle and famous chefs.
It’s the shiny-page syndrome. Look how wonderful the world is. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Look at all these great things you can buy. See how you may join the beautiful people by wearing these clothes, applying this eyeliner and going to that restaurant. Declining and stagnant sales, however, suggest that publishers and editors have misread the Zeitgeist, that this perfect-bound Utopia is not what real people experience or believe can be theirs. But perhaps those who advertise and their agencies see it differently, and their views can affect what is published. Paradoxically, too, criticism has been the defining contribution from print in helping to set the high standards of Australian restaurants. Many editors have either forgotten—or never known—this fact.
Third, and of greatest concern, is a growing chumminess between some food critics and the people whose work they are supposed to be independently assessing. This relationship is encouraged by editors. Fairfax employs Dubecki to write a weekly gossip column in the Age about the hospitality industry quite separately from her critiques. Lethlean did the same thing before her. It logs the movements of Melbourne’s most fashionable chefs, announces the openings of new restaurants, the closures of old ones, the arrival on markets of ‘gourmet’ ingredients (they are usually ultra-expensive, not especially good, and offer poor value) and the flash shops in which you may purchase them, and advertises the jobs that fall vacant in top restaurants.
Essentially small news fillers, these blurbs would go unread if they were about unknown chefs and out-of-the-way suburban eating places. So celebrities are created by the repetitive use of certain chosen names and eating places. And the names become household words for consumers on the lookout for ways of joining Melbourne’s wealthy elite, simply by eating at the restaurants that get all the publicity.
Many Melbourne activities can be premised on its rampant snobbism and ghettoes. Just as Revlon sold dreams, not cosmetics, fashionable restaurants sell belonging. Their promise is membership of a putative elite group. We live in an age when the rich and famous have never been so fascinating, and, by corollary, the lives of ordinary men and women appear to be so dissatisfying. Some celebrity chefs of international stature—you know their names—generate as much publicity and attract as much reader attention as the most drug-addled pop singer or Hollywood starlet.
A coterie of Australian chefs and restaurateurs are seen to be equally riveting within our borders. Those who write about them obviously have to meet either with these people or their representatives. Once that happens, it is almost impossible, in my view, to pen an objective assessment of their restaurants. I’m not talking about a critic’s being recognised once he or she walks into a restaurant whose owner or chef he or she has socialised with. I’m talking Psychology I. How can you be objective when you are chums, when you have already given a charming acquaintance’s business a generous launching in your column? How can you judge restaurants independently when you and their connections have had a presumably amiable relationship? It’s why short-story contestants have numbers not names—why you see wine bottles wrapped in brown paper at competitions. Moreover, you’d look an idiot if you found faults in a restaurant you had lauded.
Trevor Barr, Professor of Media and Telecommunications at Swinburne University, believes restaurants appear to have had a ‘greater capture’ of food journalists in recent years, judging by their writings. Critics don’t appear to want to write too harshly, and the professional interface of journalists, restaurateurs and chefs seems to be ‘very mushy’, he told me. He would like to see newspapers explain the process of reviewing. How is it done? Who pays the bills? What, if any, is the nature of the relationship between the owner of a restaurant and his or her chef and the reporter writing the review? Does one side know the other? How well?
He would like reviewers not to be staff journalists and to demonstrate greater independence. ‘Papers should write openly about the process of engagement of critics and the relationships of owners and chefs to reviewers,’ he says. At the moment, it appears as if they are all part of the one social network, he adds, which exerts covert pressure on reviewers to be less than objective.
But how does a restaurant and its chef get publicity in the first place? George Calombaris, who no-one denies was a talented young chef, had a considerable history of self-promotional savvy. He rose to prominence by presenting ‘molecular’ cooking—something I confess I find a vacuous and undefinable notion. (All cooking is molecular.) He partnered crab with chocolate, mustard with ice-cream and liquorice with ravioli.
Cooking in his early twenties at Reserve, he produced fine standard dishes such as a seafood sausage and a salmon-and-pork-belly main course. I scored Reserve 16 out of 20. For the print media, there was everything to like about a bloke of Greek descent who was young and cooked outrageous food. They attached their wagons to someone they could mould into a star. If Calombaris’s canonisation succeeded, then their readers would want to follow his career and keep buying their periodicals. It’s a one-way street; once gushing publicity builds up momentum, no publication can afford to turn off the tap: it cannot admit suddenly, even if it is the truth, that it has made a mistake.
Professional marketing and public relations consultants have lately made enormous inroads into food journalists’ hearts and minds. In Melbourne alone, Virginia Hellier Consulting, Dig Marketing, Harvey Publicity, and Trumpet PR + Marketing serve many restaurants. Several smaller firms also spruik eating places of all sorts. Frequently these days, PR operatives are university graduates with fine appreciations of the psychology of smooge.
Their success suggests that many reporters are both compliant and complacent. Equally, for the most part PR operatives understand the role of the few journalists who, as one put it to me, ‘want to write something truthful and interesting’. Reporters and editors who see themselves as uncritical purveyors of good tidings are fair game.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s no chefs were more important in shaping the high quality and character of Melbourne’s restaurants than Jacques Reymond and Iain Hewitson. They never employed public relations consultants. Hewitson told me he wrote his own press releases and mailed them off to editors. He couldn’t remember any restaurants employing marketing specialists.
These days, though, there was much more competition and so much money was spent setting up restaurants that ‘you can’t afford for [them] not to work’. There had been a change in diners’ mentality, too. In the old days, restaurant decors were simple and undesigned; people ate out for the food. These days it was ‘very much about the new flash thing’. Food lovers sought out a me-too experience, a concept that was considered a ‘Sydney idea’ until recently. Now Melburnians have embraced the flash, as the success of the most publicised restaurants attests.
In the past, said Hewitson, restaurant reviewers were usually full-time journalists employed on other sections of their papers. They could afford to be candid and independent and play the reviewer’s role to the letter. These days many reviewers make a livelihood as food writers and hype the new and the chic because they ‘need to be supposedly ahead of their game’. As a consequence, there was ‘far too much closeness’ between reviewers and the restaurants that fed them material. Oyster Little Bourke, for instance, should ‘never have been reviewed’ by anyone at the Age while married couple Necia and Frank Wilden were, in Necia’s case, a co-editor of the Good Food Guide and, in Frank’s, a co-owner of the restaurant.
Jacques Reymond believes PR helps big restaurants but not small outfits. And he is convinced that food journalists give preferential publicity to restaurants backed by professional PR. I asked him how he saw the link between the public relations industry and food journalists. He said it was all about the ‘ability and the zeal’ of PR operatives to influence reporters. Not, you’ll notice, about the journalists treating PR as an objective source of information that needed testing.
Adam D’Sylva is the chef and a partner in Coda, a CBD restaurant that opened in early June. The Good Food Guide’s young chef of 2008, he had left the kitchen where he formerly worked only four months earlier. Gastro-gossip-column stories about Coda’s opening broke even before he had left his preceding employment. They accelerated in the first half of 2009, and as soon as Coda fired up its burners it was booked out well in advance. A week after opening, Daniella Miletic wrote in the Age that the 31-year-old chef was creating a ‘level of hype usually only afforded to the city’s more senior, renowned chefs’. Her next paragraph said Coda had got ‘Melbourne foodies talking’ and that much of the ‘buzz’ was because D’Sylva’s career was interesting. (The following few hundred words summarised the chef’s career.) Dani Valent in M magazine in the Sunday Age reviewed Coda two weeks later, penning what amounted, in my view, to a long and enthusiastic media release.
Criticism is comparison, and there was almost none in this assessment—even implied. “Coda is pumping.” Its French and Vietnamese culinary elements were “frottage rather than fusion”. Asian dishes were “fresh and heady rather than supercharged”, but that didn’t mean the food was “shy; it’s just not trying to slay you”. A crab dish was “deliciously punchy”, another offering a “luscious, textural hat-doff”. Desserts were “fabulous”. Only in the last paragraph did the reader get any comment on value for money: “with snacky share plates, financial death arrives by a thousand cuts”. And in the last few sentences a negative: “the kitchen pours grease into the clattery dining bunker: I [the reviewer] smelt like a deep-fried prawn the next day”. For all that, Dani Valent was prepared to ‘cop the extra spin cycle, though’. She was Coda’s ‘instant fan’.
Websites mentioned Coda almost instantly, it seemed, and the Deck of Secrets site ran three long paragraphs that, again, amounted to enormous promotional puffery. ‘From the day Coda opened there was a backlog of food pundits queuing up for a barstool …’ They were ‘hot on the scent’ of its tapas-sized plates. The place was ‘bustling and buoyant’, its bar did not take reservations, and you had ‘best go early unless you want to be elbowed by someone taking pics for their blog’. These pieces, you’ll notice, are devoid of comparisons of food quality, size of servings, style and speed of service, and comfort of the space based on the writers’ experience. No judgements and no criticism are made.
Because I am banned from one of the restaurants in which Adam D’Sylva cooked, I thought I should ask if I’d be shown the door at Coda. Initially, he couldn’t make up his mind. He’d had so much good publicity already, he said, and he and his partners really wanted only good publicity. He used the word ‘publicity’, by the way, not ‘review’ or ‘assessment’, and he knew of my career as a professional critic. He wanted to talk with his backers, about it. I said I’d ring him back in a couple of days to learn his decision. We spoke by phone a few days later. He said that he, personally, would love to have me in.
But his backers, Sportsbet, were nervous about it and had decided to ban me. (Sportsbet is a Darwin-based punting agency 51-per-cent-owned by Ireland’s biggest bookie, the publicly listed Paddy Power. The latter has 258 retail outlets in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and its operating profit in 2007 was more than A$127 million.) I asked him if he employed consultants to boost media attention or if there was a specialist on staff. No to both questions. Why did he think he was getting so much wonderful publicity? People in the media supported him, he said. When you had a reputation, journalists wanted to support you.
The nuances are clear. When it comes to legitimate restaurant reviewing, many journalists have dropped the ball. And it amazes even me—and I am used to being spurned by restaurants — that Sportsbet, with all its financial might, won’t allow an even-handed, independent and professional assessment of Coda to be published.
A code of ethics for Australia’s restaurant critics and food journalists needs to be written and adhered to. I’d welcome suggestions about what it should contain. But, as a minimum, it should state that no critic should meet socially chefs and restaurateurs. That invitations to public relations events to promote eating places should be comprehensively declined. That if you review restaurants you should not also write news stories and fillers about them. And that the basic standards of journalism — fairness, objectivity and balance — should be adhered to. For a professional, the journalistic aims contained in that last sentence should be second nature.
This is an edited extract of an essay that first appeared in the latest edition of Meanjin Quarterly. Volume 68 Number 4, 2009 is out now.