22 October 2007

The Write Stuff

Something that appears to be hotly discussed across the Blogasphere by both food bloggers and their readers, is the topic of printed media food reviews and city food guides.

Many online readers consult both traditional and social media for inspiration and guidance on where to dine out. The reasons
cited are because both are trusted, though those who take counsel online consider that well known reviewers get preferential service and consequently may have a significantly different experience to Jo Average in a venue.

But what actually constitutes a good review? Is it just formulaic content, in that it is pure opinion harnessed to fact and knowledge - or is it something more?

Blogger Elliot Rubinstein deconstructed the standard formula as requiring the following:

1. Introduction and history of the venue

2. Décor and Ambience

3. Service

4. Presentation of food, taste and texture

5. Evaluation of the wine list

To me this is an indication of where food reviewing is plateauing. Since Terry Durack left town and Leo Schofield was sued, the face of reviewing in Australia has changed. Stephen Downes has been banned from a dozen venues, Claude Forell was also refused entry and Mietta O’Donnell has passed on. The Sydney Morning Herald is also in the midst of litigation.

We live in times where publications are sensitive to the possibility
of being sued and Editors have been charged with keeping reviews within the boundaries of what may be politically correct. To borrow from Blogger Purple Goddess’ vocabulary, I believe that reviews
are becoming increasingly ‘beige’ and that’s even amongst many of the blogs.

The best reviewers have developed ‘a voice’. Their writing carries you along giddily in a whirlwind that picks up knowledge, culinary skills, business insight, awareness of suppliers and farming of the food, literary knowledge and sharp observation. At the end of an article the lateral threads of repartee are joined together and deliver the message with a thumping righteousness. There is nothing timid in their approach. There is chutzpah and ‘joie de vivre’.

We know why the popular reviewer's hands are tied, but why are online reviews tame? Unconstrained by editing by others and the opinions of management and advertisers, you would expect forums and blogs to be full of rollickingly naughty bollocking and cheeky asides. Instead they are sweetly worded appraisals and gastroporn.

Why? They are taking their leads from the mainstream media. And given that Australia’s favourite publications as examples of gastroporn are fairly pretty to look at, easy to read and mild in content, we will not make any inroads in being able to manipulate language to stunning effect.

Underwritten into these documents is the Australian tendency to pursue the yen to be normal and to standardise things. This is a country where we are a way off from encouraging striking out from the norm, where the tall poppy is still trimmed. Here, eccentricities are neutered and words of passion are regarded as excessive, churlish or childish.

By the same token, without adequate literary skill, reviews attempting ‘cleverness’ may result in conveying bitchiness and not insight. In my heart, I feel that we should be encouraging food writers to write with a voice that conveys both knowledge and personality.

My favourite English reviewer, AA Gill wrote a piece on Food Reviewing in The Sunday Times recently. I would like to finish with some of his words, that I wholeheartedly endorse.

The Pleasure Principle (an excerpt), October 14, 2007, Times Online

And no, not anyone can do it. Reviewing isn’t complicated, but most people who think they can review can’t. Expertise isn’t always a help; it can make you talk down to your readers and distances you from their experience. But over the years, you do acquire it – I now know a lot about food. Except cheese, which, like grammar, I cannot retain a single piece of useful information about. I’ve also worked in kitchens as a cook, dishwasher, waiter and a maître d’. And I can cook.

The problem and the skill is not actually in the food, or in having an eye for decor, an ear for the staff, or a nose for the wine list (which I rarely mention, because I don’t drink). It’s in the language.

English, which is so gloriously verbose about so much of life’s gay tapestry, is summarily tongue-tied when it comes to describing food and eating. The reasons are partially cultural. It has never been considered polite to talk about food, partly as there hasn’t ever been much food that you could be polite about. Food and talking about food was something the French did. It’s often pointed out that while the words for farm animals are Anglo-Saxon, their names when they’re cooked are Norman – pork for swine, beef for cattle, mutton for sheep – distinguishing who did the herding and who did the eating.

But then, many of the words that we do have are swaggered in a Pooterish bourgeois snobbery. I can’t write “moist” or “succulent” or “luxuriant” without shivering. Writing about food and the sensation of eating can be as nauseating to read as watching someone eat with their mouth open. So you have to pick your way through the verbiage with care and imagination.

You do need to be pretty omnivorous – I’ve always said that I’d eat anything anyone else ate, as long as it didn’t involve a bet, a dare or an initiation ceremony. I’m often asked what the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten is. Buried shark in Iceland, jewel beetles in the Kalahari, fertilised duck eggs in Vietnam, seal blubber with the Eskimos in Greenland and warm blood with the Masai in Tanzania all pale into wholesome yumminess compared with the fast food available on every high street after 11pm, or the chilled, dehydrated and microwaved amuse-bouches lurking in petrol stations.

My particular interest in dinner really only begins with the food. I’m constantly fascinated by why and how we eat. The movement of ingredients and the history, anthropology, mythology, manners and rituals of food. Dinner is a defining human occasion. We are the only species that ever existed that offers hospitality.

Is my opinion worth any more than anyone else’s on the bus? With a modest blush I must say yes. It’s also worth more than that of most chefs and restaurateurs – I’m a professional, this is what I do; they’re big men, but they’re out of condition. Do I ever get bored, blasé, bilious? No, hand on heart, I’m always excited about dinner. I still get that frisson with a new menu. Do I ever eat or order badly on purpose, look for awful food to make good copy? Of course not. Despite what you think, it’s no easier to write a bad review than a good one; it’s just that you prefer reading the bad ones.”


purple goddess said...

Do you also think it's the meduim we're choosing? I mean, really, how DO you describe food.

Very few people can "imagine" a description of mushrooms, sautee them in butter. Add some dill.

How does that excite??

And adding words like "luxurious" or "tantalising" does..well.. what??

Yes, it further describes the subjective experience of the writer, but does it take someone, who has never eaten anything but Macca's into a frenzy??

Most bloggers/food writers are preaching to the choir. Fellow or budding gastronauts can make the association with a list of ingredients, a description of the lighting, a word or two about the wine.

But the REAL art in food writing is to bring the beauty of food, in all its myriad of seductive guises to those who are NOT in the know.

My goal, is to have someone say to me "ya know, I was always scared of poncy food, but after reading your blog, I thought that maybe, I'd give it a go.. and it wasn't as scary as I thought"

And short of playing everyone I know a copy of Ratatouille, I'm not sure I know if it's possible. ;)

How DO you describe the mouthfeel of dukkah and olive oil?? or rocket and mozz?

If a deconstructed formula on reviewing works, then it works, "beige" or not. If irreverence and a flamboyant vocab do the trick, then so be it.

It's about the audience and the end result, which really, is that we write about food because we love it and we want to share our passion.

I hear your point on our increasingly litigious society and yes, you're right. I think it affected the content of paid food writers and critic, to the point where some went beyond beige and skirted far too close to ecru, for my liking. But that speaks to me of editorial interference and a corporate policy of avoiding nasty law suits more than a pervasive beige mentality. But here, in the subversive corners of cyberspace, I am hoping there's room for the formulaic and the irreverent!!

grocer said...

as always, this got me thinking.

firstly i think the litigation that is going on with food reviewers, the Matthew Evans case, is ridiculous. Since when is one not allowed to publish an opinion? It's not like he said, the chef's mother is a prostitute and his sister a slut and for $10 you can get extras on the side!!!

Ever since ME moved on from helming the SMH good living it has spiralled to the point where I barely by the Tuesday paper anymore. I find Simon Thomsen BORING. can I get sued for saying that? I also know some of the company he keeps when he does some of his review dining and I will only say that they are not credible in any sense of the word - culinary or otherwise.

Blogging depends on what angle you approach. i think the three of us are all heading for something different, which is why I delight in reading each of yours and still have something to say on mine.

PG you do reach out and get the "ya know, I was always scared of poncy food, but after reading your blog, I thought that maybe, I'd give it a go.. and it wasn't as scary as I thought" ... that's what all the complements on taste are about. you've made your blog into what you want it to be.

many of the food blogs around are, as per the article, just agreeable queesiness. there is one in Sydney (can't remember its name) and the first 2 paras are about getting through the front door, the teeth of the waiter etc., one short para on the food, from which i glean nothing and then a sentence on the service. I wonder why I forgot it's name...

Ed Charles said...

Purple Goddess is right. Our reviewers are too knowing. It sometimes seems the review is an exercise to show off a knowledge of food, wine and owners. Too often wine lists remain an after thought (Reading Epicure today, if the wine was so good why didn't he tell us what it was?).
The problem is that the media here is too conservative a reflection of the oligopoly that exists. Perhaps it is up to bloggers to show some balls.

stickyfingers said...

I was feeling beige myself as I examined my offerings and decided to become more provocative.

Now here's the irony, I write a post that I think will win me no friends, make me a social leper at the Bloggers' banquet and in return, I receive wonderful comments from some of my favourite blogs - all of which are gifted in that they have the gumption to be opinionated and offer unique voices in their use of language. I'm honoured.

I'm with Ed. I want to encourage more bloggers to emerge from their timidity. I suspect that to start a blog you need a bit of ego happening and are opinionated, but are most brave enough to go the next step? Until Aussies are exposed to other examples of food writing, it's not surprising that bloggers here will adhere to what is currently the norm.

Now Gobbler - where are you? If you're reading this, I can't wait to get your spin on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Firstly great & timely post Sticky.

I also agree with the sentiments of purple goddess, Ed & grocer.

Perhaps it is not the reviewing that has become mired, scared of litigious retribution or beige but we as reader-consumers are becoming so de-sensitized that we need to 'up the dosage' to get a buzz? Not unlike the citizens of ancient Rome who bayed for the blood of those unfortunates in the ring. Perhaps the reviews are still in effect doing what they always did, reflecting the subjective opinions of the reviewer.

Also AA gill can cram many high-culture references into a review in England (he also puts some low rent ones in too, I know, but for the sake of the argument, bear with me!)
But the same review here would have detractors here screeching ‘Cultural elitism’ & dismissing his opinions as the wanky excesses of the chardonnay set. In Australia we don’t do that kind of review & because we (the minority that are interested at least, & believe me we are a minority) are absorbing food writing & reviews from all over the globe it makes ours seem quite dull in comparison. Maybe is reviewing is anchored in some sort of class division that makes us uncomfortable about it? Think of the character ‘Anton Ego’, in Ratatouille, he spent his time making everyone else feel like lowly serfs because they didn’t know as much as he. Maybe at its core, reviewing is elitist. At the very least its saying that someone’s opinion counts for more over someone else’s. There is also the growing trend to challenge in court, what was written & its ill effects on business, so that would have to make people think twice before slagging restaurants off.
This is why blogging with its degree of anonymity is so attractive for so many. The irony is though that the moment you are ‘outed’ you may find yourself facing legal action.

These day’s people are more empowered by technology to offer a challenge to these apparently stagnating & traditional avenues of critiquing. But the extreme recklessness of those bloggers in the USA who go to an opening night of a new restaurant & quickly get their posts onto the web before their empty plated have been cleared are giving some of us bloggers a bad rep. This reckless behavior is often cited by the detractors of bloggers who say all we’re doing is chatting about someone else’s work & therefore not creating anything. There should be a sense of responsibility with reviewing & also manners. I know it sounds old fashioned & actually a bit boring but at the end of the review there is always a person with feelings.

AA Gill is dead right with his last sentence on reviewing, ‘that we prefer to read the bad ones’. He’s right; they make better copy & sell more units.
Sorry for being so long winded.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks Gobbler, as always, excellent insight. Long winded is fine here, after all, Verbose could be my middle name.

A para from AA Gill that had me in stitches because although I have had the same experience, I never thought to describe the jus and the jelly with such a humourous analogy:

Next, I had the beef and the Blonde had the duck. They were memorable, solely because they both came with the same overcooked meat reduction, like melted lip gloss. I may be doing the kitchen a disservice here; perhaps they actually had taken hours and hours to diligently make duck gravy taste exactly like beef – or vice versa. Pudding was a cheesecake with a layer of fruity jelly on top. Passion, I suspect. It peeled off in one satisfying strip, like a wine-gum toupee.

Anonymous said...

My absolute fave was from Johnathan Meades, the Times food critic, who reviewed our David Thompsons 'Nahm' when it first opened in London.

" Nahm's cookery is all legermain, trickery, disguise, technical flashiness for its own sake: take the extraordinary waffles or roesti-like things made with rehydrated fish-the skill is patent, but the result is boring. Nothing tastes of iteself. Most of the dishes taset of chilli, which is used with coarse abandon.
the puddings look as though someone in the kitchen has been practicing his money-shot on a pile of diarrhoea. The customers look as though what they really like putting in their mouth is Botox. A loud, boorish, sockless oaf three tables away banged on about someone called Sinclair Gore's wedding in Bristol, about his tee shots, about his friend who has a Mercedes dealership in Taunton".
Ouch but hilarious!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm coming to this a bit late, but nonetheless... First I'll be self-interested and mention relevant pieces I've written about reviews and defamation, and about a refreshingly blunt reviewer (Jay Rayner; none of AA Gill's hubris).

There's more to this than just being beige. Most readers of reviews are looking for positives... places to go, not places to avoid. I would guess that perhaps most bloggers aren't reviewing enough places of enough urgent popular interest for the blunt/negative reviews to be worth their while. And I'd say it's bloody lucky that many bloggers don't do the negative stuff because they'd find themselves in hot water (legitimate or vexacious) all too quickly. The internet is such a wonderful (sarc!) place for mouthing off in an unguarded way that it could easily get messy. The 'subversive corners of cyberspace', as purple goddess puts it, are still the public domain (anonymity is a mirage). All this is not to say that well done bluntness is out of place!

Ed and I disagree on some aspects of mainstream media reviewing. I think people like John Lethlean have a difficult path to tread - they have to seem very in/knowing; that's their job for creating a public audience who will come back to the publication. Lifestyle audiences want the gossipy, in-crowd perspective as part of the package. Indeed, that's quite possibly why the same audience finds the blogosphere frequently dull or underinformed. I (and I imagine some others) have been glad to see Lethlean being more critical in recent years but I can well imagine that others interpret this as arrogance. You can't win.

stickyfingers said...

Duncan - it's never too late - thank you for some very valid points.

Having been a contributer for Epicure some years ago, I understand the constraints that writers such as John and Matt face. What I'm asking for across the board is a less perfunctory and more more sophisticated review, but that is in the hands of Editors to encourage. As you point out there are a couple of Aussies in London who write at this level eg. Jay & Terry.

This is why I feel that the internet is underused in terms of food writing. I'm looking to challenge myself as well as others to see if we can write better reviews, but not 'extreme reviewing' as cited by Gobbler. I just want more meat in my sandwich.

Perhaps I'm hungry for change because our language is dying at the hands of murderous reality shows? Good metaphors and analogies come from observation and of good information - that's what can be lacking. I want to encourage writers online to extend themselves in order to salvage things.

When I wrote under Stephanie Wood's Editorship I was reluctant to write a bad review. I like many others felt that bad restaurants die of a natural attrition, but I was naive. However it doesn't take a bad review to make for an enjoyable read. Elliot Rubinstein feels that many reviews are beige because many restaurants here are themselves beige. He may have a point.

Yesterday Joanna Saville told TV viewers that it was the job of the Good Food Guides to delineate a benchmark of restaurant quality for people, and that one of the reviewing criteria was to determine whether a venue had 'that something special' before it could have a hat. That 'something' is difficult to grasp in that it is extremely subjective and difficult to determine in a 100 word precis - unless your literary skills also have that 'je ne sais quoi'.

Jon! said...

Nice article and I am really enjoying your blog. I totally agree with some of the comments though, such as purple goddess.

I dont think it is that reviewers are neessarily trying to be safe though, not us bloggers anyway. Critics such as John Lethlean write brilliantly, although his work is often heavily edited (or so I am told) and he is often critical where necessary, and those like Stephen Downes are never afradi to say what they feel, even if it meens being banned from a restaurant for life.

Reading through my own reviews though I guess that they may be seen as beige or bland to some people. But that is just how I write, how I express things and the way that I feel. Unfortunately not everyone has the nack to be so creative and write wonderfully creative pieces. I write my restaurant reviews and base them on my experiences - I am not an expert but I know what I like. Sure, mainstream media probably has influenced the way I do things, but this is not necessarily a bad thing is it?

I always use photos in my blogn reviews, write the way I feel about things and am not afraid to criticise something when its bad or rave about it when its good. It just so happens that most of my experiences are good ones - Why? Because I read a mix of mainstream reviews and blog entries beforehand and make an informed decision on where to eat. Thats me and I think many people out there probably think the same way, and the feedback I have received on my blog has been good. Maybe I am not the type of person you are reffering to.

For those who are more interesting and can write creatively I totally embrace this and really love reading your entries. I can also appreciate the postings of those who take the time to tell us about their food experiences, even if they are only simple, beige accounts. Food however should be the main focus.

Cheers, Jon! (Melbourne Foodie)

Frankster said...

Congratulations SF on opening such an interesting topic. Your point on formulaic reviews even in social media can't be disputed and the influence from the mimicking of mainstream media probably true. I will probably have to confess and put my hand up as exhibit no.1! But in their defence, non-professional social reviewers by their very definition are just that...the majority have no papers in journalism or literature or for that matter, gastronomy. But I wonder whether that's not why food blogs are so popular among fellow peers. For most, eating out is still an (expensive) event and not an inconsequential routine, hence the admiration or condemnation of the (ticking off the list) venue, ambience, service, food, value and so on. I suspect many that are googling for opinions on a particular venue would actually be looking for just those descriptions of a place.

As for the beige-ness of social restaurant reviews, I too suspect that may be the colour of many of the venues being visited in the first place. Melbourne has many great restaurants but it also has it's fair share of bland ones...you know, not bad not great but okay. And certainly nothing to inspire lyrical prose. I also agree with PG, food bloggers are essentially preaching to the converted. We here may all drool over evocative descriptions of the nettly beauty of an artichoke but to most others, it's just an odd vegetable, and one that's too much damn effort for reward and besides, isn't an artichoke what we see jar'ed and pickled on the supermarket shelves? Not something to cross ones legs and pull up the blanket over.

Back to the (lost) opportunities for more provocative reviews by the blogging community, I like you can appreciate the humour of witty criticisms...I point you to Georgie Weston of "Hobart Restaurant Bitch" for an Aussie example. Being quite new to the blogging scene, I must admit to being quite surprised at the level of restraint or self-censorship(?) among food bloggers. But when writing not to sell columns with denegrating witticisms, this may be because many would probably choose to be politely negative (unless it was an absolute disaster) as it's more than likely a first and only visit. It's not so clear a line between sarcastic wit and vicious slander after all...as you said, it'll definitely show up the quality of the writer! And good or bad I do think it's easier to be funny, and more interesting for the reader, to be negative than positive. Anyhow, the comments here have inspired me to think abit more about how I write!

thanh7580 said...

A very interesting topic Stickyfingers. I think what makes a good review for me is that it needs to definitely offer some summation of the food. I mean that's why I'm reading the review in the first place. However, if the writer is able to evoke emotions from me, even if it's just making me drool, then their review has worked.

I find the advantage of blogs over traditional media is that a blogger can be much more personal. Most people tend to weave in their own stories, which adds to the review.

Blogs may be less meticulously written and edited, but you soon make up your own mind about which blogs you bother to listen to. On the flip side, the advantage of a blog is that sometimes its hasn't been edited till it loses all the passion in it. If you have just had a great meal and come home and blog about it, all the memories of the great meal are still causing you to be very excited and that will be reflected in the writing.

I think that bloggers aren't afraid to write a bad review, it's just that there aren't that many totally terrible places out there. I have written only a handful of bad reviews, the worse probably being Dragon Boat in the city where nothing they did agreed with me. I have also felt the response of a slightly less than happy restaurant chef when I wrote a review that he clearly didn't like and sent me a rather threatening email.

I will keep reading blogs and traditional media to get as wide a view on a place so that I can decide whether to go or not. They each provide something that the other doesn't and can definitely exist side by side.