A food and wine critic. How great a life would that be? Eating out at the best restaurants, drinking expensive wines, and being waited on hand and foot, just to make sure the review was positive. That is the popular conception, but is it really like that? Unfortunately no.
Being a weekly publication, you would imagine that means you get to eat out one night each week. Again, unfortunately no. Certainly you have to have one column in the editor’s hands each week, but getting the details for the column may take more than one week, so you have to be in front of yourself to ensure you are not printing a blank page some weeks.
There are many reasons there can be a problem. On the appointed day the restaurant calls to postpone because the chef was knocked off his motorcycle last night. No restaurateur wants their restaurant to be judged with the junior chef in charge. This has happened more than once.
Then there is also the situation where the restaurant cancels because they are going to produce a new menu the following week, so please come in a fortnight’s time.
The reverse is also true, when a restaurant begs you to somehow squeeze them in, because they have a new promotion starting next week. This really throws your schedule out as well.
And finally, there is the situation where as the reviewer, you feel that the restaurant’s performance was just not up scratch, and you cannot in all fairness to the readers (and to the restaurant) write a positive review. So you simply do not write the restaurant up. I have previously explained why I do not publish damning negative reviews. These do nothing other than give the reviewer an inflated idea of his or her own importance. They do not make people go to the restaurant to see if it really was ‘that’ bad. Rather than help the restaurant improve, a negative review kills the restaurant. I do not believe that a journalist has the right to break anyone’s rice bowl.
So how do we go about doing a review? Firstly, the choice of the restaurant. I do not like to review one Chinese restaurant, and one week later do another Chinese restaurant. You have to try and give a reasonable balance between the various styles of restaurants. Sometimes this can be difficult when two competing restaurants are both asking for a review this week.
Some publications claim to do reviews incognito. Sneak in, fed and wined, and back to the garret to pen the report. I do not do this, though I have tried on occasions, but it is difficult to explain to a maitre d’ just why you are transcribing the menu into a notebook, and photographing the venue and standing on a chair to snap the food. It is not long before the owner is at your table asking why.
Selecting the dishes for review is also an ‘art’. My dining companion (Madame) and I confer to make sure we do not both order the same dish. We will also chose a main from different sections of the menu, say meat or fish, for example. We will also go for food priced around the middle of the restaurant’s price range. We will usually also select the house wine, and do not select expensive bottles of French champagne. It is not, nor should it be, an opportunity for us to experience the life of the idle rich (or even ample rich).
During the meal we are constantly evaluating the food, the ambience and the service. We also try a little of each other’s food, to get an even better feel for the cuisine.
Afterwards we compare notes and decide whether the restaurant was giving the diner what could be expected from a restaurant of that caliber. Obviously, a cheap and cheerful is judged on different standards than a fine dining, silver service establishment.
For us, the real enjoyment that can be experienced when dining out, is for us to go out for ourselves, order what we want, drink what we would like, pay for our meals and not have to write a review the next day!