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Can a food critic spoil the party?

Reviews by food critics may make or break a restaurant in other parts of the world, but they don’t exert the same influence in India

brunch Updated: Oct 08, 2016 20:28 IST
A preparation by Chef Thomas Keller at Per Se restaurant. Its downgrading by The New York Times created a stir
A preparation by Chef Thomas Keller at Per Se restaurant. Its downgrading by The New York Times created a stir (Getty Images for Starwood Prefer)

Earlier this year, I went to the celebrated Rockpool restaurant in Sydney. I got talking to Phil Wood, Rockpool’s Head Chef, about food in general. Two minutes into our conversation, we were discussing The New York Times review of Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant. Wood had spent two years working at Keller’s The French Laundry in California and was shocked by the Times’ hatchet job on Per Se. It was the Times that had once given Per Se four stars, its highest accolade. But the new review knocked it down to just two and complained about the food, the service and the attitude.

“Pretty shocking,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Wood. “But it’s The New York Times. So they must know what they are talking about.”

Later, I reflected on how strange it was that two people, who lived in cities far away from New York, and do not regularly read The New York Times, should be discussing one of its restaurant reviews.

Nor were we alone in this. The Times’ takedown of Per Se has been a talking point for foodies all over the world for several months now. The chef, Thomas Keller, acknowledged the review and conceded that the restaurant had become “arrogant”.

I tried hard to think of a single restaurant review in any newspaper anywhere in the world with that kind of impact. If Le Monde said it didn’t think much of Guy Savoy, would we care? If The Times or The Sunday Times in London slammed Marco Pierre White, would we be talking about it in Sydney or Bangalore?

I doubt it. The New York Times is in an extraordinary position – rivalled only by Michelin in France –to dominate the global foodie narrative. (In India, Chef Manu Chandra tweeted a link to the Per Se review the day it appeared.)

The Times’ critic can make or break restaurants and chefs. The great Alain Ducasse got three stars from Michelin for his first New York restaurant but knew that the only thing that mattered was four stars from The New York Times. When he didn’t get them (he got three, though a later review upgraded his rating), he was devastated and the restaurant suffered.

A whole book has been written about Daniel Boulud’s quest for The New York Times’ approval (Getty Images )

In London, critics now routinely slam Gordon Ramsay but it doesn’t make much difference to his business. But in New York, the Times ran him out of town when it gave two stars to his restaurant and said his food was not exciting. A whole book (The Fourth Star) has been written about Daniel Boulud’s quest for The New York Times’ approval. (He got his fourth star but lost it later – deservedly, I think.)

The New York Times changes its critic fairly regularly. The guy who was bored by Gordon Ramsay was Frank Bruni. One former critic, Mimi Sheraton, claimed to have been physically assaulted by an angry French chef. Ruth Reichl is still famous for going to Le Cirque in disguise and being treated shabbily and then going as herself and being treated like a queen: she gave the restaurant just two stars. The reviewer who gave Per Se four stars was Sam Sifton. And the man who knocked it down to two is the current critic Pete Wells.

The New York Times review of Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant complained about the food, the service and the attitude (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Because The New York Times occupies such a hallowed place in the restaurant world, I am always curious about how its critics actually function. Both Reichl and Sheraton wrote books about their experiences, but only after they left. So I was fascinated to read a profile in The New Yorker of Pete Wells, the current critic.

The New Yorker’s writer clearly spent several days talking to Wells and accompanied him on his reviewing visits to the new Momofuku Nishi, run by David Chang, a chef/restaurateur who is widely admired. Eventually, Wells slammed Momofuku Nishi (fairly, The New Yorker suggests) and Chang, who is as noted for his arrogance as his talent, responded angrily (“he is a f....ing bully”) as business suffered and bookings dropped.

The profile offered some interesting insights into how the world’s most powerful restaurant critic does his job. It acknowledged his unmatched influence and power. A bad review, even from the Times, can’t close a Broadway play or kill a movie. But a bad review from Wells can shut down a restaurant.

Times critics are supposed to be anonymous (they book under false names, don’t appear in public, etc.) but in reality, they are nearly always recognised, which is only to be expected. If somebody has the power to transform a restaurant’s fortunes, why would restaurateurs not look out for him?

A friend of Wells, quoted in the piece, offers an interesting parallel. The rock band Van Halen was famous for a contractual demand that required concert promoters to stock the band’s dressing room with a bowl of M&M’s, from which the brown ones had been removed.

I always regarded this as a mark of rock star excess. But the band’s singer Dave Lee Roth has said that the demand was carefully thought out. “It helped to show whether a contract has been carefully read and therefore whether the band’s complex and potentially dangerous, technical requirements were likely to have been met.”

So it is with critics. If a restaurant can’t even recognise a man who has the power to shut it down (or make it a hit), then how much attention does it devote to the average customer or to food and service?

I hadn’t thought of it that way. But clearly others had. When he commented on Wells’ Per Se review, Thomas Keller said that one of the failures of the restaurant was that the staff had failed to recognise Wells.

Would that have made a difference to the service? I am betting it would. Once The New York Times’ critic is recognised, special care is taken of his table. And yet, restaurants go to great lengths to pretend that he is getting the same service as everyone else.

Does it make a difference to the food? Well, a bad restaurant is a bad restaurant. Wells was recognised at Momofuku Nishi but the food was still disappointing.

But yes, people who are recognised (critics, especially) don’t get the same food as everyone else. In New York, chefs often double-fire a dish, that is to say, they make two plates of the dish that Wells has ordered. They taste one and only if it is right, do they dare send it out.

There are hundreds of ways restaurants can improve the food. If a critic orders a steak, they pick the best cut. If he orders prawns, they choose the freshest ones.

And then, there’s the reality of how restaurant kitchens work. Most dishes are partly-prepared in advance and then finished, assembly-line style in the kitchen. When a critic turns up, the chef (who normally oversees the kitchen but does not actually cook) makes the dish from scratch and cooks it himself.

Does that make a difference? You bet it does! Whose food would you rather eat? A line cook’s final touches to a dish that is already half-ready? Or a good/great chef like Thomas Keller or Daniel Boulud cooking a dish with fresh ingredients specially for you?

In an ideal world, therefore, a critic gets the best food a kitchen is capable of cooking. Sadly it doesn’t follow that ordinary customers will necessarily get food of that calibre if they go to the same restaurant themselves. But the flip side is also true. If a critic gets a bad meal, the chances of anyone else ever getting a good meal there are almost zero.

In London, critics now routinely slam Gordon Ramsay but it doesn’t make much difference to his business (Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Are there any lessons for us in India? Well, yes and no. First of all, Indian critics have virtually no influence and nobody can make or break a restaurant.

But I think the basic principles are the same. If you read a review by a well-known critic, always assume that your own experience will rarely be better (though it might well be worse). Don’t worry about whether the critic was anonymous or not. The only critics a good restaurant does not recognise are the ones the kitchen has no respect for because they have no expertise or influence.

If you want anonymous reviews, stick to user-generated content on websites. Few of these user-reviewers will have the knowledge and experience of a proper critic but their experience may be closer to the average customer’s.

As for bills, there is no mystery. Professional print media critics always insist on paying at restaurants they review. (Wells paid several thousand dollars at Per Se.) But they are not really paying themselves. They submit their bills to their publications and get reimbursed. So it’s no big deal for them to demand the bill.

And if you want to know which critic’s judgement to trust, pick the ones the restaurants are worried about. Restaurateurs and chefs know their jobs. And they are only scared of people who understand their craft and can spot the mistakes.

It’s that sort of expertise and judgement that gives The New York Times critic so much influence and such great power.

From HT Brunch, October 9, 2016

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