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Sunday, Sep 15, 2019

The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Fay Maschler, the critic who can make or break a restaurant

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about one of the only food critics in the world whose opinions can change the fate of a restaurant.

more-lifestyle Updated: Feb 28, 2018 17:45 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Fay Maschler won a competition to be the Evening Standard’s restaurant critic.
Fay Maschler won a competition to be the Evening Standard’s restaurant critic.(Shutterstock)

My friend Fay Maschler is one of the Western world’s most influential food critics. Her only competition —in terms of power and influence --- is the food critic of The New York Times. Both can make or break restaurants. (Fay in London, the Times critic in New York.)

But while the Times changes its restaurant critic every few years, Fay has been doing the same job since 1972, longer than most people who read this column have been alive.

Fay won a competition to become the critic for the London Evening Standard in 1972 .She was young, witty and glamorous, and well known in media circles because she was then married to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, probably the greatest British publisher of his generation.

Fay Maschler.
Fay Maschler.

Within a few years, she had won the respect of the restaurant business because she not only knew her French food --- and in that era, all the top London restaurants served European food --- but because she understood that the food scene in London was changing, that modern British chefs were moving away from classic French food and that so-called ethnic restaurants were entering the mainstream.

Many of the British chefs who became famous in the 1980s —Rowley Leigh, Marco Pierre White and Simon Hopkinson for instance --- found fame and success because Fay championed their style of cooking.

She did the same for Asian food. In the 1980s, she discovered and praised the Zen group of restaurants (Zen Central, Zen W3 etc.) who moved away from British-Chinese food, then as pervasive in Britain as Sino-Ludhianvi used to be in India, and introduced London diners to real (well, Hong Kong-style anyway) Chinese food.

For Indians, however, Fay’s importance lies in the respect she accorded to our food. In the 1970s, Indian food in the UK meant cheap curry-houses run mostly by Bangladeshis from the Sylhet district who served a made-up cuisine that they would not have dreamt of eating at home themselves. (I have often wondered what the story of Indian cuisine in the UK would have been if the Sylhetis had just served the wonderful Bengali cuisine that they ate themselves? Wouldn’t all Indian cuisine in the UK have been so much better?)

The Bombay Brasserie in London.
The Bombay Brasserie in London. ( Bombay Brasserie )

In 1982, the Taj group opened the Bombay Brasserie in London. In those days, there were a few good North Indian restaurants in London. Gaylord (opened in 1966) had popularised tandoori food in the UK and Shezan (run by Pakistanis) had become the poshest Indian (or Pakistani, depending on your perspective) restaurant in the UK.

The Taj took a chance by opening a restaurant that served neither Bangladeshi-type curries nor North Indian tandoori but focussed on the cuisine of Bombay, serving Goan fish curries and street-food like sev puri while inventing such new dishes as tandoori scallops.

The Bombay Brasserie was masterminded by Camellia Punjabi who ran the Taj in that era, as Chief Executive Ajit Kerkar’s second-in-command and though Chairman JRD Tata had his reservations (“you people don’t even know what brasserie means”), the Taj gambled that it could persuade the upmarket Londoners who liked Langan’s Brasserie (then London’s trendiest restaurant) to give Indian food a shot.

Camellia Panjabi knew that a bad review from Fay Maschler could break the restaurant so she put up photographs of Fay all over the kitchen and told waiters to press the alarm bell if they spotted her. Of course, nobody noticed Fay when she did turn up and the Taj was astonished to wake up one day to her review of the Bombay Brasserie.

A sampling of Bombay Brasserie dishes.
A sampling of Bombay Brasserie dishes. ( Bombay Brasserie )

Fortunately, it was a rave. And that one review turned the Brasserie into the hottest Indian restaurant in British history and probably changed the course of Indian food in London forever. None of today’s fancy London restaurants would have existed without the pioneering influence of the Bombay Brasserie. And I doubt if the Brasserie would have succeeded without Fay’s first, influential rave review.

I met Fay in January 1985 when the Taj invited a dozen Michelin-starred French and Belgian chefs and a few Western food writers (Craig Claiborne, Gael Greene, Paul Levy and, of course, Fay) to tour India and try Indian food.

Only one of the French chefs (Jean Andre Charial of Provence’s Baumaniere who had three Michelin stars in those days) liked Indian food and neither Claiborne or Greene did much to popularise Indian food in the West. Only Fay and Paul Levy bothered to take Indian food seriously and both contributed greatly to the popularisation of our cuisine in the West. (Fay with her reviews and Paul in The Observer and then, The Wall Street Journal).

Since that fun trip in 1985, Fay and I have been friends and I have watched her grow in influence to the level where she is now the uncrowned Queen of the London restaurant scene. Though the British press has had its ups and downs, Fay’s power has only grown.

The Evening Standard is now given away free (it makes its money from advertising) and each week over a million Londoners read Fay’s reviews. There are other important London critics but they write for the Saturday and Sunday magazines of newspapers so their deadlines can be two weeks or more before publication.

Fay’s reviews, on the other hand, appear in a newspaper and have a shorter lead time. So most times, hers’ is the first review to appear. So magisterial is her authority that often other critics tend to echo her positions. The only other critic who approached her influence, AA Gill of The Sunday Times, died last year but more often than not he agreed with Fay’s assessments of restaurants.

I have seen Fay in action over the decades, accompanying her when she reviewed London restaurants, sometimes with her sister Beth (herself a chef of great renown) or her husband, the thriller writer Reg Gadney.

You would think that she would be recognised the moment she entered a restaurant but all too often, she slips under the net. Sometimes she is recognised halfway through the meal but by then it is too late for the kitchen to react. And sometimes, even when she is recognised, it seems to make no difference.

I wrote, a couple of years ago, about going to Le Chabanais, a fancy French restaurant in Mayfair with Beth, Reg and Fay. The restaurant had cost millions of pounds to put together so they were expecting a visit from Fay Maschler and knew how crucial her review would be. Further, Fay was a fan of Inaki Aizpitarte, the highly regarded Paris chef (Le Chateaubriand), whose maiden London operation this was.

Fay was spotted by the doorman as we entered and the restaurant was on high alert throughout our meal. Despite that, the food ranged from mediocre to dismal. It reminded me of that famous Gault Millau dictum. “It is possible to get a bad meal at a good restaurant. In fact, it happens all the time. But one can never get a good meal at a bad restaurant.”

I imagine that something like that happened here. Fay gave the restaurant a bad review. Others followed her. And within a few months, it closed down.

Restaurant fashions in London change every month but Fay is unimpressed by passing fads. She was largely unmoved by the molecular gastronomy trend and now she seems to have no time for the big, expensive Mayfair restaurants that are designed to cater to tourists/expats/ and rich Russians/Arabs/Indians.

Her favourites are restaurants where the food is good and pretension is at a minimum. She directed me to the Clove Club in London, for instance, long before it won its Michelin star or started appearing on lists of the world’s greatest restaurants.

Fay, Beth and their friend, the author Anne Chisholm, were in India over the last fortnight on holiday. They spent part of their time in Delhi, then Fay achieved her dream of staying at Udaipur’s Lake Palace (which she loved) and finally they all went off to a retreat in Karnataka.

The Farzi Cafe is a modern Indian bistro.
The Farzi Cafe is a modern Indian bistro.

Though she was on holiday, she used the opportunity to check out the Indian food scene. We went to Karim’s (she liked the stew), to Farzi Cafe (she was fascinated by the idea of ‘cool’ Indian food), to Indian Accent (an old favourite) and to the Delhi Pavilion at the Sheraton, New Delhi where she loved the Delhi dishes she was served.

The Indian restaurant scene in London has been transformed over the last decade and once again, Fay has been at the forefront of the critical appreciation. She recently gave the London Indian Accent five stars, her highest possible accolade but she has many other favourites. She is an admirer of Karam Sethi and his many restaurants (including Hoppers) and she put Jamavar (opened on the spot where Le Chabanais closed), run by the Leela group, on the map with a good review. (In Udaipur this time, she loved the food at The Leela Palace). And she remains a fan of the restaurants that Namita and Ranjit Mathrani run in London along with Namita’s sister Camellia Panjabi ( who left the Taj some years ago).

She still retains her power to make or break a restaurant though she is dismissive of the suggestion that a bad review from her can put a restaurant out of business. She argues that if a restaurant is bad, it will not only get a bad review from her but will also drive away customers anyway. But it is hard to think of a restaurant of any significance in London today that prospers despite having been panned by Fay.

I often wonder why and how Fay has remained at the top of her profession for over four decades --- no restaurant critic anywhere in the world has been as powerful for as long.

Part of the reason I think is that she writes for a paper that is read by everyone. The Guardian, for instance, has been my British paper of choice for decades, but I suspect that its readers don’t go to very many top restaurants which rather limits its influence. The Evening Standard, on the other hand, is the perfect neutral platform.

Some of it, I suspect, has to do with her vast reach. There are now enormously influential food sites and blogs but they appeal mainly to dedicated foodies and don’t reach out to the general reader or the average diner.

And part of it is the influence Fay has on other critics. Because she is so well-respected, critics will hesitate to praise a restaurant that Fay has rubbished.

But most of all, it is because she is so good. She knows her stuff, is scrupulously fair, and will never write a review only to be funny or ‘readable’. She has been everywhere and eaten everything so she has a reference point for almost every kind of cuisine.

And finally it is because Fay, even though she is now an insider in the restaurant business, never forgets who her ultimate loyalty is to.

She may like chefs and restaurants. But she writes for her readers, for people who pay good money to go to restaurants, not for those in the trade.

There’s no point being powerful if you don’t use that power on behalf of your readers.

First Published: Feb 28, 2018 09:34 IST