01 October 2007

John Torode - Hidden Agenda?

"Sydney used to be a fantastic, vibrant and fresh place in terms of eating, and it still has some great restaurants, but when I came back in March I was really disappointed. There was no one doing anything very exciting. Nothing seems to have moved on and I had some very ordinary meals.

"Sydney seemed far less egalitarian than Britain, where more and more people are now really into food and can really cook themselves."

Torode said London in particular and the UK in general were "now way, way ahead in terms of food".

"I think Australia has a real problem defining what it is really about in terms of food - a lot of the time it's not fusion, but confusion," he said.

"Australians are in love with themselves about their cuisine but it seems pretty tired when you think about what is coming out of Britain and Europe at the moment, especially in terms of the produce."

Maxine Frith and John Bailey on John Torode’s assumptions about dining in Australia
September 30, 2007

Over Brunch Mr Stickyfingers brought the above to my attention. Curious, I asked him to paraphrase the article in the Sunday Age and also the Sydney Morning Herald. My immediate reaction was that the statements were a branding exercise designed to increase the profile of one of England’s celebrity chefs.

It reeked of a marketing ploy employed to draw attention to someone whom Australia has forgotten. The actions of one who seeks notoriety in the pursuit of the local advertising dollar via endorsements, TV shows and appearances.

Could it be that former Melbourne chef John Torode is looking to spread his celebrity clout a little further, with these disparaging remarks? And I use the term celebrity with reserve, given that his media profile in the UK rests on an erratic performance on a TV show named MasterChef Goes Large on BBC 2. His restaurant, specialising in meaty dishes is named SOS – Smiths on Smithfield. In an online search it seems to consistently be reviewed as unimaginative, over priced and over rated, with poor and arrogant service.

Now this is odd, here is a man whose press release touts that “John Torode is an Australian chef based in the UK but specialising in Australasian food” renouncing Australian food as “pretty tired” – a criticism which in fact is increasingly levelled at his own establishment, a glorified grill room. Is this not transparent?

Food porn has hit our TV’s and along with it comes the cult of the celebrity chef, complete with groupies, merchandise, cookbooks, magazine articles, newspaper columns, websites and public appearances. Chef’s in pursuit of the perceived media cash cow now have agents and managers to stage manage their careers beyond the confines of their restaurants. In the US the highest earning chefs have multiple restaurants across at least two continents and increasingly have at least one in a high profile hotel or casino. Many sell their own gourmet grocery or cookware online and like athletes they have highly paid endorsement contracts.

Even here we are experiencing an emergence of a similar phenomenon on a smaller scale. One just needs to follow the trail of Luke Mangan and Curtis Stone as Aussie men who have surfed the local branding wave and are now on the verge of international branding campaigns, with the chance to move into the echelon of the global food celebrity in the vein of Jamie Oliver. And guess what? They’ve done it without feeling the need to make outrageous and inflammatory comments at the expense of others.

In truth, who in Australia who is passionate about food, gives a damn about John Torode’s opinion? We who are here, and others including Anthony Bourdain, know better. If he doesn’t get what it’s about over here, he should stop calling himself a representative of Australasian cuisine, because while he has stagnated, we have certainly moved on.


Anonymous said...

I think you are spot on with Torodes comments. Try as he may he will never be Germaine, Barry, Clive or Robert Hughes. He is a chef that is a product of his time & his menus reflect this. With the grab bag of favourites honed in the Conran stable & still clutching a rudimentry grasp of Asian cooking from his Aussie days, he opened SOS.
At the time to give credit where its due he was one of the first to source & name breeds & farms of origin on his menus.
I was a little surprised that Shannon Bennet commented in the paper as it appeared to me at least to portray that this was a bitchy, catty industry(perhaps it is but we dont need to perpetuate it!)Perhaps a more calculated response to his comments would have been be to starve them of the oxygen that they require.

ie:John Torode says, blah blah

P.S. I have a small connection, we were apprentices at the old Tsindos Bistrot in Burke Street years ago. I looked him up in London but he already had an English accent after being there two minutes.

Ed Charles said...

Let's face it, it's a bit like being savaged by Ainsley Harriott. There is a grain of truth though about the fusion confusion thing. What Neil Perry did 15 years ago was innovative. Now it's the norm. Where do Ezard and Taxi stand in all this?

stickyfingers said...

OMG Gobbler! Tsindos - I remember going there with my parents around the time that I was avidly devouring 'A La Carte' magazine.

Last year, Stephanie Wood described Torode thus in her blog - but then conceded that his recipes work:

"I met the chef John Torode once and, the circumstances being what they were, and with at least one glass of wine under my belt, I told him that I thought he was arrogant and rude. I was involved in a cooking demo he was giving and I also decided that he was a lightweight, a shallow celebrity chef who made his living cooking for rich Londoners and collecting a pay packet from Sir Terence Conran. (I didn't share these conclusions with him.)"

There are plenty more remarks of perhaps a more 'colourful' nature online from the British public, but to your point, his pursuit of rare breed and organic meat is commendable in a place where meat became awfully tasteless.

Ed - I agree. I think that the thrust of the articles was deliberately inflammatory and a waste of space, hence my theory about him seeking a media profile over here. The sweeping generalisations made me presume that he had spent his visit dining in the popular Sydney tourist spots and mainstream suburban restaurants and had not bothered to look any further.

The fact that Jill Dupleix agreed made me wonder why expat Aussies bother coming back, and then it dawned on me that it is for the additional publicity and tax benefits of mixing business with visiting family.

Truffle said...

Fantastic post. I agree completely!

Anonymous said...

There isn't a lot of detailed public talk about the flaws in the Oz restaurant scene(s), but Torode's criticisms seem thoroughly hollow -- has he elaborated beyond the liberal generalisations he managed to get into print? Probably not...

stickyfingers said...

Thanks Truffle & Duncan. I've been told that someone in the UK has been trawling search engines for responses to the article, and with my post being the only one to appear on the first page - under the article listings - I think they will be rather miffed - LOL!

Jackie Middleton said...

This is an interesting play with the media and I hate to give it more attention than it possibly deserves, BUT unfortunately we don't seem to have all the info, where did he dine? What was the basis for the further quotes that are tacked onto the bottom of the SMH piece, they sound very bland. Jill Dupleix's quote is:
"Jill Dupleix, food writer: John is absolutely right. I feel sorry for Sydney. People are demanding cheaper and cheaper food so they are getting the scene they deserve."

This sounds like Jill talking about a topic at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival earlier this year on a panel when select restauranteurs were trying to band together to influence prices up instead of down. I don't see this quote as being negative for the food industry, merely an observation of some of its difficulties.
Sounds like te SMH are trying to soup up a dull and uninformed series of quotes from a dull chef.
Lets stop talking about this man...

stickyfingers said...

Thanks Jack for your insight. I agree that to pull these comments out without supporting argument seems like a pointless filler on a slow news day. I was about to put all thoughts of it to bed when Jill Dupleix made some more comments yesterday. It's given me some more food for thought which I will post once I've done a bit of research.

The theme continues with Stephanie over at The Elegant Sufficiancy also expressing her opinion on the subject and about high end dining at the Crown Casino complex.

claire said...

Great post, stickyfingers - though I'd argue Torodes has less of a hidden agenda, more of a pretty damn open agenda! Tosser. :)