05 December 2007

Sip-sup n Scribble. On reviewing food.

Ruth Reichl in disguise?

Food reviewers are an enigma in that they are rarely seen by the general public. They are a powerful beast that you know of but don't really know. They are like the little man behind the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. From the outside, they are all powerful, but really they are just normal people. They have their own opinions, as do all of us. This point was brought home when I read Adam of The Amateur Gourmet's post about meeting the New York Times food reviewer, Frank Bruni. Adam, with his blog, is starting to wield a lot of power in the food arena. However, he was still awestruck to meet Frank. Slowly though, he realised that Frank is just another person who likes to eat and gets to express his opinions to a larger audience. That's actually comforting to know, that food reviewers do enjoy their jobs and are doing it because they love it. If they are doing it purely for the money, then their review will be a lot less reliable for me personally. I have found that I turn to a lot of blogs nowadays for an "average" person's point of view. The "average" food blogger is a lot more knowledgeable about food but still, all write from the heart as we have nothing much to gain from it.”

Thanh, ‘i eat therefore i am’, 04.12.07

The above paragraph is taken from a post by fellow Blogger Thanh. I made his exuberant acquaintance recently at The Bloggers Banquet.

I believe Thanh’s post reflects the opinion of a number of Food Bloggers and of those not employed by the media, who regularly read food articles. Although I don’t share this opinion I expect many do.

Quite some years ago I had the pleasure of being commissioned to write for Epicure and associated publications under the stewardship of Stephanie Wood and John Lethlean. I gave it up when my day job turned into the captaincy of the local arm of a multi-national corporation.

When I began as a food journo I imagined the power of a review to build or sabotage business. However, when I examined the readership of culinary media, I realised how low the figures actually are. So it occurred to me that they influence only the people who think of themselves as Foodies. The majority of diners are not influenced and the newspapers use food supplements as loss leaders to gain a slight edge on figures when publishing on the slower days of the week.

The food media publications – and I expect blogs - that have the highest readership are recipe focussed, not review driven. Food review guidebooks are used in the main by business people who entertain regularly and by Foodies looking for the next ‘Big night out’. A handful are purchased by travellers, especially business travellers.

The notion that a Food Reviewer working for a publication doesn’t have their heart in it, and are just doing it because it pays, seems preposterous to me, having worn that hat myself. Nor are they simply Bon Vivants with an opinion they are eager to share. Food reviewers bleed and shed tears too. They write from the heart, with objectivity and knowledge to temper the mix.

Professional Food Writers are quite thin on the ground in Australia, which is probably just as well given our tiny market. Most have a journalistic background with a strong interest in food. In some instances such as for Terry Durack, Jill Dupleix, Leo Schofield and myself, they come from Advertising and Marketing. In a few instances they are former Chefs such as Matthew Evans. You cannot review if your heart is not in it and you must at least have a developed palate, high-level literary skill and investigative instinct.

I don’t hold with the notion that the average food blogger is more knowledgeable than the commissioned media’s reviewers. The reality of having the job forces a professional reviewer to investigate and to learn beyond that of someone making a hobby of food reviewing.

Many bloggers do not bother to talk to, or read up on the chef or the venue, its management or even to discern the country of origin of the cuisine before writing their review or making comparisons. A blog review is often a regurgitation of ‘what I ate last night’ based on a single visit, unlike a reviewer who has visited several times and tasted a wide range of dishes, spoken to the chef and reviewed the history and philosophy of the venue, as well as press releases, before even hitting the keyboard. The objective is to provide us with an educated opinion.

I admit that I am sometimes amazed when I find that many food reviewers actually don’t cook that well themselves. They have the knowledge but not the executional skills. I suppose full time food reviewers don’t have much opportunity to cook.

Bloggers are often the opposite. When I wrote my review on Mama Ganoush on this site, I was asked how I knew so much about the food. It is all based on being raised with a focus on food and the culinary, by being an avid reader and researcher, and of bothering to take master classes held by chefs to get a better understanding of food and techniques that I am not familiar with. This helps me when I eat in restaurants.

The realities of being a professional food reviewer often sort the wheat from the chaff in the execution of the role. It separates those who dream of it, from those who can actually cope with the demands of the job.

First of all it is not a highly paid industry. To survive you need to syndicate your articles and sell yourself to other editors in order to write for several publications. I earnt significantly more in my day job and even when the offers came through to write for others and be the Food Editor for a fashionable magazine I chose to follow other, more lucrative career goals, where I still got paid to dine out.

To be a reviewer means eating richly so often that you begin to lose your tastebuds. You have to be happy to drive all over the state to do it and eating review meals takes precedence over enjoying the company of friends and family, especially if you are writing for a guide where you could be reviewing 20 or more venues in a short space of time. You sometimes feel desperate for a simple home cooked meal.

You get bloated and fat. You learn not to eat everything on your plate. Outside of the eating you have the pressure of surreptitiously making notes, recording menu items and wine lists. There is research to be done. Making deadlines on time when you feel uninspired to write something scintillating, copping editing of your preciously constructed sentences by others at the publication, disagreeing with your boss’ opinion of a venue and finding the time to interview chefs or managers can add to your stress levels.

This is not a job where you can delegate to a fleet of underlings while you keep an eye on the big picture. You constantly keep your ear to the ground for news and gossip, discovering new venues and following the movements of chefs from venue to venue. You need a foot in the door of the hospitality industry to provide this ahead of the competition and sometimes you need to be unnaturally sycophantic and mellifluous in your endeavours.

As a writer you must be fluent, have a rich vocabulary and develop a strong literary voice that distinguishes you from others in certain articles, but you must also be able to adopt a generic tone to suit other publications.

You need to be creative, nosy, presumptuous, witty, well read and be able to succinctly scatter observation with culinary knowledge and understanding of the ingredients, influences, heritage and techniques that have built a dish. And most of all you need to entertain and hold the reader spellbound, so they feel that they can taste, chew and smell the dish through your words. A good writer can draw the bow laterally and accurately to inspire you with their analogies.

In some cases you have to squeeze all of that into a mere 100 words. The art of succinct minimalism can be the hardest for untrained writers. And then there's the dreaded catch phrase - avoiding falling into that trap - or using the same words over again like cheap, juicy, akin to, redolent and delicious.

The worst lot of it all is eating really mediocre food in average venues with sloppy service most of the time. And of having to write it up without being too scathing, in case the restaurant becomes litigious.

Then there's the dreaded paper work, spreadsheets, invoicing, billing and tax. Waiting to be reimbursed for your outlay on meals, expenses etc by the publication can leave you seriously out of pocket.

I could go on. The bottom line is that reviewers are not superhuman. They are hard working and sometimes prone to lose sight of the big picture thanks to the trials of their endeavours. If they have their photos published they will never again be able to publish an objective review unless they, like Ruth Reichl, wear a disguise. It is at this point they fail us, or if they are known to be on a retainer from a restaurant management group, they lose our trust.

There is room for both digital and printed media reviews. Blogs are as valid in their own way, but you cannot discount the endeavours of the pros. Perhaps it is more the case that we need a wider set of opinions in our publications, where multiple reviewers give their opinion on a venue in the one article. In England, Observer reviewer Jay Rayner advertised for a dining companion and consequently invited a blogger to join him for a comparative review. Perhaps this is the way forward here in order to offer a balanced opinion of a venue?


neil said...

The Jay Rayner thing happened here last month, with both traditional media and food bloggers being invited to the press launch of Pizza e Birra and I was fortunate enough to score an invite in the inbox. I understand what you mean about a certain food blogger style and that we need to strive to make our reviews interesting and informed, good point.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks Neil, I enjoyed your post on Pizza e Birra and loved the snap of Ed. You captured him in his element I suspect.

I find the notion of invited reviews equally fascinating. It is becoming increasingly popular in the US for PR companies to invite digital and print reviewers to an orchestrated tasting. But how can you be objective under the circumstances when they are pulling all the stops out to woo you?

Ed Charles said...

You can't be objective in an orchestrated event. But we found our own different way to tell the story of the night (Nobody has mentioned the other blogger there that night. Is he the real Mr Big?)What I wonder is what is the position of the reviewer who goes to these press events - Dunkeld, Birra, Bottega this week and next - and then reviews it. I'm guessing they should exempt themselves from the events as Stephen Downes does. Sticky I do think you make it out to be all very hifalutin'. Should we go in for full on reviews in a restaurant's early days or wait until it's left what we could call beta testing? I think we should all remember it is impossible for a single person to know everything about food. A good journalist simply knows to observe, ask the right questions and then report on the experience for the average punter. He's not there to show off his pedantic knowledge to F--dies.

stickyfingers said...

Ed - my head is in a fug thanks to a virus so I am banging on rather more wordily than usual, but my point is that some Bloggers seem to lose sight of the fact that Stephen & John et al are required to form an educated opinion. Pedantry is not necessary but sound knowledge is invaluable for accurate assessment.

For me reviewing is more than an 'I like/disliked' this or that...yawn. I want to know about the dishes in detail, the concepts and the thought process as well as how it feels to eat it. Even on TV, watching 'Mr Bizarre Food blogger' saying "Oh that's fabulous" 20 times bores me to tears. Tell me what it's like, for God's sake!

I'm with you on exempting oneself from orchestrated events if reviewing. Or of making it clear that the review was not based on the PR field trip but on other experiences.

I think Bloggers are invaluable for 'Beta testing' but urge them to raise the bar in their analysis of a meal. I think there is room for a column in Epicure that does brief stories on new venues, with a view to the fully fleshed account when the venue hits its stride.

In this vein it was interesting that John chose to profile Maurice Esposito instead of reviewing the new incarnation of Toofeys. We were there recently and I was honestly underwhelmed. I put it down to teething problems and have not written about it.

At the core of all of this, I feel annoyed with the whole 'people in glass houses' thing when disparaging remarks are thrown between digital and traditional media protagonists. And I am especially tired of reading 'what I ate last night' stories which get their facts wrong in either media.

Now I have to go and bury my head in steam to empty the fug.

grocer said...

excellent writing sticky! Wow!

I haven't got a great deal to say, my blog isn't about reviewing restaurants, I just thought it was a well crafted piece.

at the end of the day we read who we agree with or whose opinion we respect and filter out the things that waste our time.

re ed's point: i think that food media and reviewers should be able to attend opening nights so long as the "freebies" aren't what the review is about; so that the reviews reflect what the reader will ultimately receive.

Anonymous said...

Sticky, that was a wonderfully observed & thoughtful post & was pleasure to read!
I totally agree that to 'do review' one must have at least a fundamnetal understanding of not only how to cook, but the latest techniques, the old techniques, the history, the culture, the provenance of foodstuffs, the fashions, the foibles prehaps even the future.
I might occaisonally whinge at the edges of a particular establishment review but I am glad that it usually comes from someone who is at least a bit learned. I too am SO bored by bloggers who do the 'Wot I ate Last nite' thingy.
I do however see a future where traditional media reviwers & some bloggers will be given equal respect.
Again though, the challenge will be that those who are not recognised will see it as some sort of 'muzzling' or oversight that their voice dos'nt count as much as someone who is connected or part of what they might see as a clique
To me ther are obvious parallels with Punk.
Just because some of us can actually PLAY our instruments doesn't compromise the purity of our message.

neil said...

I guess the thing with an orchestrated tasting is that it must be made clear somewhere in the review that it is an event of this nature. As to remaining objective, I do think it is possible; I tend to write what I think with very little filtering, at Pizza e Birra most of the dishes were great, but there was one that I thought didn't quite work and said so. You need to understand the pressure to write a pleasing review at these events is entirely in your own head and deal with it.

Sorry for your cold, sounds exactly like the one I had last week, if you need the name of a very reliable cough medicine, drop me a line.

Ed Charles said...

you should tell us that toofeys isn't that great so i don't waste time and money there for Jak's birthday.

stickyfingers said...

We went to Esposito at Toofeys for Mr Sticky's birthday on Saturday. He enjoyed it, but merited flaws which I expect will be ironed out. It was definitely not a disaster.

MY notes:

Orders weren't written down so the wrong food came to the table initially. Two dishes out of four looked stunning in presentation but were completely bland, lacking texture and fragrance. Although the concept was good, they seriously needed work in the execution.

One dish had undercooked pasta which I expect was deliberate because a hot stock was to be poured over it - but the soup presented was luke warm. Great beans with almonds. Dessert was satisfactory but not mind blowing.

We didn't get to order wine until entree arrived, and then had to pour it ourselves. They checked the bottle to see if it was empty but never poured - odd. Didn't ask about coffee until we asked for the bill...we were over it by then.

The quality of ingredients were high, but I think we had technically better executed seafood ten days before at Seagrass, where The River used to be at Southgate.

My suggestion is to order the stuff that Esposito has been known for in previous venues.

We're going to Fenix for my birthday on the 17th, hopefully I will enjoy that more.

BTW thanks Neil, I'm on the mend, got my voice partly back today at least & thanks for the Vanilla Slice tip off we'll be sampling it this weekend.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks also to Grocer and to The Gobbler whose Punk analogies I very much identify with.

An after thought for Ed - perhaps what you humbly take in your stride as part of your profession and your natural gift for investigation and literacy, may actually be quite hifalutin' to the amateur?

thanh7580 said...

Sticky, firstly a really well written post. I have much to learn about putting a point across and using language to its fullest if I am to entertain my unrealistic hopes of becoming a food writer.

Now to the actual post, here are some of my opinions.

I always thought the power of a food review was really high. I know that I turn to reviews all the time to decide where to eat. But I can see what you are saying when I really think about it, not many friends say "I read this review so decided to go here". So possibly their power isn't as great as I thought.

I totally agree that a food blogger is less knowledgeable technically than a professional writer. If someone becomes one's employment, you would go to much greater lengths to get accuracy and facts correct. This point is not being argued at all by me or anyone I think.

But I do disagree that food bloggers have to go to the extremes of talking to the chef and asking about management etc. Isn't that what the professionals are there to do. I know that my intended audience is not someone who is so skilled that they can correct all my mistakes. The audience I think most blogs are catering to are just people who are thinking of going out for a dinner and just want to see more or less what a restaurant offers in terms of food, ambience and service. We don't/can't/won't have all the details of every detail regarding the restaurant, but do people need to know all of that. When they go there and eat the food, they will decide whether they like it or not.

The grocer's comments sum up the situation the best "at the end of the day we read who we agree with or whose opinion we respect and filter out the things that waste our time." There are people, myself included sometimes, who want to read "This is what I ate last night" posts. That's good enough for me sometimes. Other times, usually when more costs are involved, I want to know particulars about a dish and how the flavours blend etc.

I'm sure the reality of food reviewing is not all glorious, but with so few people doing it, it's hard to know as you don't get a chance to speak to them personally. So thanks for writing about your own experiences.

You put it very nicely that the review needs to "entertain and hold the reader spellbound, so they feel that they can taste, chew and smell the dish through your words". This is where I think the key is. You don't need to be a wonderful technician to describe things in a very captivating way. Reviews written by bloggers usually aren't as good as a professional writer, but the informal nature of a blog allows people to weave much more personal stories into a review, which for me keeps me captivated. Reading about someone's birthday dinner and how they got a free dessert from the waiter keeps me entertained.

To finish off, I don't really know what my own point was in the article. I was just really happy when I read Adam's post about meeting Frank and how ordinary he was. That he wasn't some pretentious snob who thought he knew better than everyone about food. Because to me, food is so subjective that no one can ever have the definitive answer. Hence, one person's opinion is as valid as another. Having some knowledge of food does help you to give a more well rounded opinion, but it can never be the only opinion.

P.S I hope you get better from your cold. I love to read more posts from you, always makes me think.

neil said...

Hope you like the slice, their weekend trade is only Saturday, 8.30am - 1.00pm.

grocer said...

I have one more small gripe on this issue, and that is the necessity of bloggers to rely on photographs to convey their message.

I find it really off-putting to have to scroll down 10 photos to get to the next paragraph.

Finally, if you're going to post several or many photos on the blog, reduce the file size as most home readers are on a plan that has some kind of download cap; not only that but it slows down the time it takes to load the page...

Anonymous said...

Hey Sticky, I have to agree with the Grocers last comments about scrolling down.
Of late, maybe since you put that little cartoon character on, it takes a lot longer to download your site. If I go to scroll down, it blanks out then re-downloads but it scrolls down excruciatingly slow.
I've tried this on there different computers cause I thought it was mine but the same thing happens on all. What do you think it is?

stickyfingers said...

Thanks guys, helpful - will investigate. Sad, that our bandwidth is so crap here.

I'm presuming it's not the animation as the Grocer herself has same. I usually download my pics at small (240x180) or sometimes medium sized for a hero image. So I really can't go any smaller than small.

I think the use of multiple images on many blogs happens because the lowest common denominator needs images as enticement to read. In other instances, the blog post revolves around the visual imagery.

Increasingly I am finding that a portion of my traffic is coming from Google image search, food porn and taste spotting images.

Thanks for keeping me in the loop.

grocer said...

sticky, the photo comment wasn't specifically directed at anyone, and I don't think you are an offender.

gobbler, i would be curious to know if the three computers you tried it on all used the same browser application and version...

Ran said...

I think it really depends on why people have chosen to have a food blog. i dont really see a competition between print and internet food writers as I think they have different audiences or else people like me who read both. i blog for myself, as a kind of diary of what i have cooked, or eaten at a restaraunt. I dont take photos in restaraunts but I do of my own food and I usually quite enjoy photos of prepared food as it helps in recipes etc. And I really like photos in blogs, there are some really amazing food photographers out there. Anyway those are the thoughts that popped into my head reading all your comments!

Anonymous said...

Hey Jane - hope you're feeling a bit better. I really think your post gives clarity to a pile of issues which are recycled in the blogosphere. There are clearly a range of goals amongst bloggers and the atomised or self-selecting nature of the online world can obscure the realities of media, whether mainstream or social. Good to see your knowledge out there for others to consider and discuss:)

Anonymous said...

Great post, and love the possible sighting of Ruth Reichl! :)

Cakespy said...

This is a GREAT writeup! I ate this up.

Jon! said...

Great article Sticky. This is somthing, which has been brought up a bit lately and I think the pros and bloggers are both very valid sources. Both get it right and wrong sometimes. I fully appreciate the efforts of the pros who investigate all the details and provide a well-researched review, and those of the average diner, like myself, some of whom have a great deal of food knowledge who can share their own experiences and continually learn. I value the feedback from others and feel I am already improving in the way I look at culinary things. This is largely as a result of blogs.

I remember reading a forum piece by John Lethlean, just after AGFG completions a couple of years back talking about many of the pressures of the job and how there was nothing he wanted more than a night at home to relax with family and a home-cooked meal. Sometimes this is what we need. To me fine dining can be a magical experience, and one which I now choose to share. If only everyone could appreciate this and realise that restaurant reviewing (both professional and amateur blogging) is not about the money, but often about passion and sharing one’s journey with others.

Happy eating,