The Taste With Vir: Time for food writers to serve readers again
When the pandemic first struck, few of us realised how long it would last. In the early days, neither the British NHS nor top US public health experts like Dr Anthony Fauci told us we had to wear masks. So, most of us thought that hotels and restaurants would survive easily.
I can’t remember the last time I said something rude about an Indian chef or a restaurant or a delivery kitchen or a home chef. This is not because I am a nice person --- my job description is to tell the truth, not to be nice. But over the last two years, everything has changed.
When the pandemic first struck, few of us realised how long it would last and how terrible the devastation would be. In the early days, neither the British NHS nor top US public health experts like Dr Anthony Fauci told us we had to wear masks. So, most of us thought that hotels and restaurants would survive easily, though perhaps the tables would have to be further apart.
As it turned out, we were totally wrong. Nearly two years later, the coronavirus has not gone away. Restaurants have gone under. Hotels have suffered crippling losses. And thousands of people --- lakhs, even --- in the hospitality sector have lost their jobs.
In 2020, as the true dimensions of the pandemic became clear, I reached two conclusions. First, I would do what little I could to help the hotel and restaurant sector get through this phase. The second followed from the first: at a time when restaurants were struggling to merely stay alive, was it worth pointing out that, say, the biryani was too dry or the idlis too dense?
As time went on, and home delivery options emerged, I expanded my resolution to include small businesses in the delivery sector which were hurting. I wrote several columns about the newcomers in the delivery sector and because I tried almost everything before I wrote about it, I came to the conclusion that when restaurants did open, they would have to rethink at least some of their food standards because many of the home chefs were so much better than them.
More recently, when Omicron hit and restaurants faced restrictions again, I turned my Instagram page over to anyone who could deliver food and/or was hurting during this phase. This time I decided not to try everything before I posted and just made my page an avenue for troubled businesses to access potential customers.
I have no regrets about what I did. In fact, I am even a little proud of myself for doing it. Many of the people I featured were startled to find that it cost nothing to get on to my page: Instagram has now become a commercial activity. (More about that later.)
But it wasn’t what I am supposed to do. Many of my columns are about food in general (say, the origins of biryani) and about chefs and others who have made a mark in the hotel business. So that’s never a problem. But when I write about restaurants, I want to be able to say what is good and what is not.
I recognise that there are problems with doing this. I am recognised at many places so I may get better service (if not better food) than the average guest. But I look at it this way; if, even after I have been recognised, I have a terrible time, then what chance is there that the average customer will have a good experience?
There are food writers I know, and many (most, actually) restaurateurs who incline to the view that a critic should not express an opinion. The job of a food writer is just to provide basic information about a restaurant and let customers decide if they like it or not.
This sounds reasonable but is actually deeply customer-unfriendly. A customer can only decide if he or she likes a restaurant after he or she has spent good money eating there. Customers don’t need to be told only that say, a Chinese restaurant exists in Colaba or Connaught Place. They want to know whether it is worth going there and spending their hard-earned money.
Whenever I travel out of India, I find that I have no use for a guide that tells me that there are four Italian restaurants in my neighbourhood. I want to know which of them is the best so that I don’t have a bad lunch or dinner. With the internet, this has become easier. In New York, I check to see what the New York Times recommends. In London, there are many great critics—Fay Maschler, Marina O’Loughlin and others --- whose judgment I trust implicitly. Paris is the one city in the world where Michelin is an accurate guide to eating out.
We are not so fortunate in India. I fear we are going the Dubai way. In Dubai, everyone in the media is supposed to always be positive so there is no tradition of ‘negative’ reviews or any criticism of restaurants. This means that when you visit, you really have no way of knowing what is good and what isn’t. So you waste money and time in rubbish places.
In the United States and United Kingdom (UK), the internet has spawned a whole new generation of irreverent food writers who provide interesting perspectives on restaurants. It can sometimes get bitchy and incestuous (as it does in the UK) but it reaffirms the central truth of all food writing: you are on the side of the customers not the restaurateurs.
In India sadly, the internet has some become an enabler of restaurant rubbish. Food posts are often paid for so people post what the client wants. I have no problem with that: Being an influencer is one of the hot professions of the 21st century. My worry is that this is pretty much ALL you will find on social media on the net here. There is good food writing on social media; but there is very little in the way of good writing about restaurants.
I was skimming through Instagram while writing this column and the stuff I found was depressing in its stupidity and quality. The average post began with a dubious boast (“I bake my own bread so I can safely say I recognise good favour & texture”) followed by a pitch (“Today I tried Akshayakalpa bread …..and was very impressed --- good breading, not very dense…”) Or such sad little plugs: “Head on down to K-OS The Game Bar, in Koramangala ... Exciting foods. Like flatbread pizzas, patatas bravas …” And on and on it went: “Anand Sweets is synonymous for top quality…”
I have no idea if these posts are paid for (which idiot would pay for such credibility-less posts?) but so many pages I saw confirmed my view that fewer and fewer people in digital restaurant media care about the customers. They simply please the restaurateurs.
I have been resolutely on the side of the restaurateurs during the pandemic. But let’s not forget that these are exceptional times. If restaurants did not survive then there would have been be no point in saying which one was good or bad.
But as life seems to be returning to normal— fingers crossed --- it is time for us food writers to serve our readers again!
The armistice has ended.