Thanh, ‘i eat therefore i am’, 04.12.07
“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.”
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?