26 October 2011

Food Bloggers as Marketing Puppets | Part 2. Marketing Tricks and Psychology

Photo by Sean Bonner

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
Carl Gustav Jung
Swiss psychiatrist, Psychologist and Founder of the Analytic Psychology, 1875-1961

Hook, line and sinker

In Australia if the traditional Food Media want to incite an online riot of opinion, they merely need to criticise Food Bloggers. It’s a story guaranteed to hit a raw nerve that is common to all bloggers: the validation of their medium. The provocation will result in debate and a frenzy of hits and backlinks to the article from bloggers, tweeters and readers who subsequently comment across many social media platforms.
But what many amateurs in the online space do not realise, is that they have deliberately been tricked into rage. The whole exercise may have been calculated to create a spike in online newspaper readership figures, to lift the number of page-views, organically boost the paper’s SEO and online influence figures. So the respondents involved will have played right into the hands of the newspapers for marketing purposes.
By publicising the story and spreading the word in social media, the bloggers and tweeters have unconsciously created sufficient free PR to yield above average traffic to the newspaper. The resulting online figures now look great to advertisers contemplating whether to pay for ad space in their publication, iPhone app or online edition.
Some might consider this calculated emotional abuse. For the paper it’s an easy win, requiring no financial investment, and with their readership looking reinvigorated, they can potentially rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars from brand media buyers. Thanks to bloggers, the sales and marketing team will likely have hit their projected targets.
These stories are known as link bait. It’s a controversial marketing ploy and is not the only time that Aussie food bloggers fall for commercial tricks.
This works through psychological manipulation. The technique in this case is known as ‘shaming’ and ‘vilifying’. Think of it as the overbearing parent who tells their children that their grades aren’t good enough. It’s bound to get a reaction from most on the receiving end of the criticism. And yet the same result can come slyly packaged as flattery, for the same purposes.

Modern Marketing Ninjas 

As long time readers of this blog will know I have spent a quarter century in the business of advertising and marketing. My profession has been to make all manner of things desirable to the general public via a mixture of manipulative psychology, beautiful imagery and by generating hype. My technique uses a combination of strategy based on psychographic manipulation and lateral thinking combined with creative input. 

Today anyone marketing a product, service, venue etc, faces tough times. The general public are now more sceptical of marketing imagery on TV and in print than they ever have been. They can filter their entertainment to avoid most advertising that they find intrusive or annoying. Some products have even been banned from traditional advertising media. So with marketers facing increasing sales targets from their employers, the search has been on to find a way to advertise surreptitiously. 

And what exactly is this hidden advertising or guerrilla marketing? The most common ninja deployed is product placement. Take Australian Masterchef for example. The products you see being used have been provided by the brand advertiser in exchange for six figure sums to the TV production company. 

This may be reinforced by advertising around the show, costing millions, paid to the TV network - whether aired on TV or their magazine’s ads or even on the Masterchef website and recipe fact sheets. The aim is that the general public will subconsciously identify branded products as being desirable or necessary next time they stock their pantry. The wealthiest brands also use product placement in Hollywood movies and popular drama or comedy TV series, reaching significantly larger audiences.

But shows like Masterchef are not on TV all year, so food brands in particular - and especially those with smaller budgets - are forced to be more creative in finding their target market. 

The trending buzzword for advertisers is ‘Word of Mouth Marketing’. The power of recommendation by a friend or trusted source is now recognised as the ultimate way to convey a marketing message that will generate sales.

Magazine or newspaper Advertorials are a word of mouth option. It looks to all intents like a magazine story, it has been composed by a journalist and the staff photographer, but it’s actually a sponsored piece, a revenue stream for publications. It costs the advertiser in design, photography and media placement fees.

Advertorials are designed to trick you into thinking the ‘discerning Magazine Editor’ prefers that product/brand. Advertorials state ‘advertising feature’ or ‘promotion’ at the top of the page revealing its true nature. But even this is wearing thin with the public. So where else can advertisers create hidden influence?

There is a marketing term, “Hitting all the consumer touch points” and that now also includes product placement and advertorials or infomercials on blogs. So bloggers who have appeared in mainstream media stories, who have released details of high page view numbers, or high Twitter follower counts and a track record of influence, are the new target for marketing. 

They are known generically as ‘online influencers’ and are now subject to heavy lobbying by PR companies and advertising agencies. Many of us in food blogging know it as the dreaded PR spam in marketing circles it is known as Blogger Outreach Programs and Blogger Bribes.

The attraction lies in the notion that an advertiser can covertly target the exact demographic required through a food blog. Just as they can in the food press, but with possibly an even narrower skew – such as Baker blogs having a high readership of those who also love to bake, or venue review blogs that back-link to Urbanspoon and attract people who regularly go to restaurants. Plus bloggers are more adept at using multiple social platforms including Twitter, Digg, Stumbleupon and Facebook in their broadcast mix than traditional food media, which equates to even more publicity hitting the target.

Your new BFF 

So, in Advertising strategy, bloggers are now seen as cheap and easy puppets for marketing messages as compared to traditional forms of advertising. By example, many food bloggers have already shown a predilection for going to events and receiving freebies in exchange for a blog post on their attendance or promotional item, so why not cosy up to them? Brands now aim to be your BFF.

 After all, most who write blog review posts, will happily spend their own money trying venues and unsuspectingly giving free PR to the venue, so in advertising terms, why not extend that to products, loyalty clubs and services too? The potential is there for a brand’s new online ‘friends’ to generate free blog advertorials and extended social media broadcast too.

For brands, blogger outreach is significantly cheaper than paying publications for the same. Plus the blogger does all the design work, copywriting and photography for free - services that cost tens of thousands of dollars to commission professionally. Giving away samples, organising an event or junket to bloggers can be much cheaper by comparison.

It’s also a way for PR agencies and Blog Harvesters such as Nuffnang, Technorati and Foodbuzz to farm bloggers in order to make money on the back of this free resource. Typically it works by charging brands for harvested email databases or for permissions received from the bloggers. Some harvesters will potentially pay bloggers a small fee lower than market value for commercial digital insertions in return. 

Others companies to farm bloggers are market research companies and new hybrid harvesters who charge bloggers to be part of a directory that will build page rank and SEO plus marry your blog with advertisers and PR agencies.

Trust issues 

It is a given that journalists’ salaries are derived from publications’ advertising revenue, and hence edited opinions can be biased. So blog readers typically cite their interest is due to content being unrestrained by editors, advertisers or a commercial publication’s particular values or politics. Marketers are aware that many of the public have eschewed papers and magazine for blogs, in search of the truth. 

So blogs appear to have integrity. It is generally supposed by the public that they are not affected the way that news has been tainted. They represent Jo Average’s opinion. So when a blog broadcasts about brands, the reader assumes it is a personal and unbiased opinion and recommendation that has not been initiated by an advertiser or fuelled by supplied content. 

But this is increasingly not true. A blog post can be a ‘Stealth Marketing’ brand ninja, especially where many amateur food bloggers have not publicly declared their shift to becoming professional salesmen, or pro-bloggers in exchange for gifts or money.

This is compounded by the fact that bloggers seem to be unaware of the ACCC Advertising and Selling standards stating advertisers should “ensure that consumers are aware of the fact that a commercial message is being presented”. 

Bloggers are required to clearly mark that the post is a sponsored piece, as per an advertorial or infomercial is transparent about its bias. It’s possible that many PR agencies and marketers seem not to know this either or perhaps are happy to parlay the deception and puffery?

Since some food blogs have already fallen under the spell of the PR machine, the term Flogger-Blogger has emerged. By this I mean when a blog that feels to all intents as though most posts are actually subliminal ads, designed to have your friends share the good word and generate publicity for a brand by spreading the post across the internet, conversations and by email. Ultimately this is the goal of marketing through amateur bloggers.

The Seduction of Eve 
I think that most Australian food bloggers have innocently entered the media as a place to air their thoughts, but appear vulnerable to the potential traps of that space. The traps I refer to are those of potential loss of integrity and falling victim to commercial manipulation. And I sense that some Food Bloggers are falling victim to Fox and Crow syndrome.
So what are the tricks to look out for? Behind most modern marketing tricks is psychology - the study of human behaviour - and how to take advantage of these insights to assist selling things. 

"According to George K. Simonsuccessful psychological manipulation primarily involves concealing aggressive intentions and behaviours. Also, knowing the psychological vulnerabilities of the victim to determine what tactics are likely to be the most effective."
The most fundamental aspect that is taken advantage of by marketing and advertising is the human desire to feel good. It is thought that we tend to see our life as judged against other people and that our happiness is relative to this.
We compare our lot against others. Richer people do get happier when they compare themselves against poorer people, but poorer people are less happy if they compare up. That is why Marketers target our self esteem when aiming to seduce us for their purposes
Nathaniel Branden in 1969 defined self-esteem as "...the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness". According to Branden, self-esteem is the sum of self-confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self-respect (a feeling of personal worth).
He also claimed that any positive stimulus or incentive will make a person feel comfortable, or, at most, better with respect to themselves for just some time.
So when a PR company, brand or Marketer approaches a blogger to promote their cause, they will – like Eve’s serpent – cajole and flatter us, tell us that we are deserving of special treatment and offer a sense of personal exclusivity that will make us feel a step ahead of others. They will talk it up with honeyed terms such as “You have been especially chosen to become a Brand Ambassador” or appeal to your desire to have something you can’t afford.
Society has been warned against this behaviour for all of time. Religion and the arts play it out as an enduring theme, cautioning against allowing our shallow desires to trip us up. Yet it proves constantly irresistible to this day, the tactic of ‘positive reinforcement’ is one of the most powerful to encourage Bloggers to generate income for others with no significant remuneration in return for their services.

A mere pat on the head
I like to think of the next trick as summed up by the adage ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts’ the ‘Trojan Horse’ analogy. While we may warn children not to go with strangers offering gifts, bloggers seemingly also neglect to take that advice. Instead, they are fooled into dropping their guard.
A blogger’s vulnerability in this case is typically coined in psychology as using ‘reciprocity’. The trick is, when given something for free we feel obliged to return the favour. So in our circles when offered a free meal, product, event, book etc, we feel indebted to write a blog post about that gift, often without criticism or significant insight.
Like a dutiful child, we write a public thank you note on social media platforms, which form free publicity for the marketer, brand, service or venue. We take photos, design and cultivate a post – often giving away our intellectual property rights in the bargain – and with theoretically even better results for the brand than ads, because blogs communicate to exactly the right consumers for the promotion.
So the marketing goal is achieved. For virtually a fraction of the cost spent on advertising or loyalty marketing, the blogger has obligingly become a puppet, as a brand salesperson.
In return, the blogger likely receives a regular deluge of press releases with the expectation of future publication each time, with little or no further reward or remuneration for giving away many thousands of dollars of free PR.  In the psychology of persuasion this is known as ‘consistency’.  People want to be consistent with previous actions. If they said yes to something in the past, they’re more likely to say yes in the future.
Meanwhile the PR agency that approached the blogger in the first instance will be receiving a monthly retainer for their services and possibly project fees – but who really is doing all the work here? Who has generated the sales? Who deserves to be paid?  It is the Blogger.
In some other blogging circles – particularly pro-blogging and the influential fashion, beauty and parenting blog communities – this has begun to change, with some bloggers receiving fees directly for their publicity.

Sex and greed, and power
The adage ‘Sex Sells’ referring to scantily clad women in advertising is an old cliché. But sexy is not always so literal. The psychological equation for using sexy persuasion on a blogger for the purposes of converting them to brand salesmen is greed + power. The tactic used appeals to their materialistic impulses, to narcissism and to jealousy.
The technical psych theory is sexual attraction arises when the person is stimulated through the vanity mode of narcissism. It engenders admiration for compatible personality characteristics. Excitement arises when the person is stimulated through the self-pity mode of jealousy, engendering physical intimacy and passion, which theoretically will result in eager and enthusiastic broadcast.

Relative to bloggers, for the social type person, power is channelled through jealousy. For example subconsciously: “This blogger junket will make me feel good and my friends, colleagues etc, envious – they’ll likely find me even more fascinating”, hence the blogger may unconsciously feel sexier for there is social approval and admiration from others.

For the self focused person, power is channelled through narcissism, eg. “They’ve spotted how good I am, so they’ve given me a ‘money can’t buy’ experience, I’m getting something huge for nothing”. The subconscious perception of social reinforcement makes the blogger feel powerful and that in itself is sexy to many.

The overall picture is most people, unless aware of the tactics, can be manipulated. In Blogger Outreach programs the brand they will promote is getting the blogger’s services and time for a fraction of the usual marketing budget, by making the blogger feel a bit sexier, giving them a sense of power and all by appealing to their vanity in order to make them brag. In return the blogger gets a temporary hedonistic head rush and feels an obligation to the brand when they come down off the back of their experience.

The Spin Cycle

So how do else do marketers appeal to a blogger’s deep human impulses for commercial manipulation? They use ‘Spin’.

Spin is “Making a silk purse from a sow’s ear” or “Spinning gold from straw”. It is a form of deception to make something more enticing than it may appear in the cold light of day. It takes the consumer’s aspirations and projects them on a product, venue or person.

Often putting spin on an item avoids facts and focuses on implied benefits. And when applied to politics, is termed propaganda. Using psychology to understand what pulls at the heart strings of the target market, an advertiser will know exactly how to project something to make it seem enticing and highly desirable to consumers.

Spin Doctors are primarily the creators of consumer zeitgeist, ‘future cool’, Cool Hunters and the initiators of global trends. They read public sentiment, understanding how economic movements affect public values and shape cultures. Now when something is suddenly ‘hot’ often it is because key community influencers, like bloggers, were persuaded by the hype, publicity and promotion generated by Spin.

As an example, consider the current Australian fascination for macarons. It started buzzing amongst sweet and bakery enthusiasts and was identified by Spin Doctors as a possible emerging trend within the culinary fashion for small indulgences, such as dim sum, mezze and tapas.

From here it began reaching into online food communities – sometimes via astroturfing, sock puppetry and link baiting.

Advertisers and journalists now typically eavesdrop on social media platforms, so once they picked up on the emerging vogue, the macaron buzz then made its way into commercial marketing and food media. And the coup de grace was an appearance on Australian Masterchef, which in turn exploded its popularity into popular mainstream appeal.

The concept has rippled back from the mainstream into blogging communities beyond food and across Twitter, Facebook and other popular communities. There have been a flurry of macaron shops, books, recipes and classes by those jumping on the bandwagon and finally, it has resulted in a demand for $400 macaron towers. That’s a purchase that three years ago would have sounded totally absurd and not at all enticing to the general public. And it was all in the Spin.

Nailing your colours

In my last post I stated that I feel it is time for food bloggers to nail their colours to the mast. I have witnessed the original integrity of blogging as being diluted by advertorials and product placement.

While I have my doubts about the value and quality of Blogger Outreach in Australia, it is not something that is going away. My stance with clients is that online influence and viral marketing reach in Australia comes voluntarily from bloggers perceived as having high integrity, not just whoever responds to a PR call.

Those who write commercially sponsored posts, have a duty to inform readers or subscribers that a post is an advertorial, which will allow them to determine bias.

Unless presented with a contract or express a commitment to do a piece, a blogger is not obliged to write about a Blogger Bribe they have received. And should a blogger consider publishing a sponsored post based on a product, event or reader giveaway, I feel that they ought to be entitled to ask for payment ahead of posting it. It is to all intents an advertisement for which the blogger provides the media and the content.

If you have no desire to engage with brands and no wish for your blog to be a vehicle for their sales pitch, you may already be annoyed by spam press release emails.

Because there are some grey areas regarding permissions, the ACMA recommends those who do not wish to receive commercial offers, put a non-solicitation disclaimer on your blog. Just as I have in my sidebar, under the subhead ‘email’. I placed it there because typically email is the key word a commercial email harvester is looking for.

When I receive PR spam in spite of this, typically I respond by drawing attention to the statement. In Australia, by law there should also be an unsubscribe link on the email, which I will use if I trust that it is a verified Australian PR agency. And if the spam persists, I am not above reporting the email as contravening the Spam Act 2003.

In deciding whether to participate in promoting commercial messages on your blog, consider the theory of the Hedonic Treadmill. “According to this theory, as a person makes more money, their expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness”.

After years of working with brands, I find I don’t need much in the way of consumer durables and hedonistic activities to be happy. Close ties to friends and family, plus good health are the things that count most to me.

I don't merit grinding away on the treadmill to generate money for brands without being paid for it. When I come across something I like, I will tell you about it and you can trust that it was not skewed or initiated by a third party.

Most crucially, I’ve learnt that keeping things simple ultimately makes you happier and better respected. With this integrity your opinion is trusted and well regarded. And unlike free gifts it brings lasting happiness.

16 August 2011

Food Bloggers as Marketing Puppets | Part 1. Evolution

Photo Marialuisa Wittlin

This is a food blog that encourages readers to not only think but to ruminate. This will not be a short post.
There will be two additional posts on similar subjects.
If you want pretty food pictures t
his isn't your kind of blog. Go directly to Stickifingers instead.

Online food media is a rapidly growing space.  

When I started the Deep Dish Dreams food blog in 2007, the number of food bloggers in Melbourne was sparse. After a meet up at VegOut Community garden - where we shared a meal cooked together in the garden’s wood oven - a core group of us grew into a tight knit community, that when Twitter began to grow tentacles was transferred into ‘The Melbourne Food Mafia’ or ‘Food Twitterati’.

I really enjoyed the interaction of this emerging community because our hearts were in it merely for pleasure. For the most part our blogs were read by friends and each other. There were no financial motivations involved, nor popularity contests, just a genuine sharing of the common interest in topics related to food. I was buoyed that I had found some kindred spirits beyond my family and professional networks.

At that time we bloggers were low on the local media radar. While in the USA, known bloggers were beginning to be refused entry into venues by chefs who felt aggrieved by them and threats of lawsuits were emerging. Back here, we were quietly minding our own business and enjoying each other’s food, company, blog comments and repartee. Just as in a sports or social club, blogging was our mutual hobby. 

After a while, some of the group stopped blogging but still remained in touch. There were some debates between the ‘What I ate or cooked last night’ Bloggers and the amateur ‘Restaurant Review’ bloggers. The Mummy cooks graduated over to new parenting blogger communities and a bunch of the Generation X bloggers bonded over ethical food philosophies, preferring more academic or opinion driven posts. My own blogging style evolved into storytelling and I went on to create other niche blogs too.

Smart phones and Twitter

Since then, the rising popularity of smart phones and Twitter in Australia has significantly changed the food-blogging landscape.

I have read speculation that there are now over eight hundred food blogs in Australia. I see that many of those initially connected to each other using Twitter. It certainly broadened the Melbourne Food Blogging scene, sparking a growth in semi-professional niche review blogs that felt more like magazines in their focus.

Twitter started a rise in physical connections  beyond our mere start up session at VegOut. And as more bloggers came on board we all went on tweet-ups to chew the fat, literally.

Now a number of the blogs also now have associated Facebook pages and some of the Melbourne Food Bloggers have joined a discussion group on Facebook. Food bloggers have increasingly become savvy at driving viewership by using multiple social media platforms, organising events and by appearing in traditional press articles.

For me that’s no surprise. It is a natural evolution. The internet is now rich with resources on how to capitalise on RSS and viral sharing tools, which blogging platforms to use, plug-ins, link sharing and how to choose a hosting platform, domain name, hook into smart phone apps etc. There are webcasts and local social media events detailing how bloggers can monetise their hobby, draw readers and get freebies.

The culture of food blogging

In the space of four years, the culture of food blogging in Australia has shifted significantly. I’ve noticed that the content of the newer blogs has a different format. For my part I find the posts of many reflect the global trend to diminished substance, lack of concepts and a starvation of rich language. I recognise that the popularity of this style has resulted from an overall lower attention span by readers in the first world. Some would argue that this is because we are suffering from information overload and media saturation.

In professional writing, this current trend in blogging could be considered an offshoot of the dumbing-down of traditional media – ie. blogging as parallel to tabloid forms of news entertainment. Many newer blogs are flush with more pretty photos than actual opinion or insight, and it is now not unusual to witness people pointing DSLR cameras at their food when dining out to fuel vapid but pretty posts created as soon as they return to their computer. 

For the most part, these blogs are dining diaries and cooking journals, online brag pages if you will. Some merely repost imagery from other blogs; vicarious blogging - a style that has developed in a world where intellectual property rights are increasingly blurred by link sharing.

I myself have also created a photo-centric food blog on Tumblr. It’s an adjunct to this blog, which connects to my Twitter and personal Facebook networks as the main audiences. You’ll see a widget for it in my sidebar. The language is rich but the posts are short. 

Another aspect of the rise of mobile technology influencing blogging and social media, is through photos and instant blogging apps. Most of the images on my Tumblr blog, ‘Stickifingers’, have been taken on an iPhone and the phone is utilised to publish posts. By popular demand, I have also created similar blogs for my clients, as bite sized chunks of visual media to be viewed by time poor fans. 

Puppetry is Trending

In recent years, Food blogging has borne witness to sychophantic behaviour towards chefs. This mirrors the global trend toward entrepreneurial chef as rock-stars and product endorsers. It’s a wave of mass media that now also has an outlet in food blogging. While I feel personally disquieted by this, I do acknowledge that these blogs have their place in society as the generators of hype and publicity for venues. Essentially, they have become puppets in the food marketing machine.

Marketing has also given rise to the food blogs for which most posts are paid for promotions. These blogs also use link farming - online blogger contribution events - as a way of building viewership statistics. This is vital if you want to attract paid promotions, as brands want to monitor the blogger’s reach, influence and effectiveness.

Sadly, on these food blogs, back to back posts seem to be a roll call of sponsored items: from pushing a food product given to the blogger, some cookware or an appliance; a sponsored cookbook review; a PR event; a soft opening, discounted or free meal; sponsored travel; an advertiser created competition, meet the chef, etc. For some this has crept up softly so the question of manipulation by promoters is only just now arising.

When promotional posts are interspersed with link farming recipe swap events, it sends a clear message of the blogger’s motivation. That is, they’re in it for as much free stuff as they can get; it’s an embarrassment of greed. The really ugly side is, that for some it has become competitive accumulation between rival Australian food bloggers, as though those with the most toys ‘wins’.

I’ve witnessed this bring a spot of joviality at the expense of bloggers in marketing circles. In fact some bloggers of this calibre, have been referred to as "Cheap Brand Whores" who will "Fall for Blogger Bribes". It has resulted in companies such as Nuffnang and FoodBuzz jumping in for a slice of the money by wrangling bloggers as a commodity. The blogs are then traded as being willing pawns to the service of selling brands.

To me, these sorts of food blogs lack interest or entertainment. They’re rather like watching hours of poorly written advertisements – no one likes that. I wouldn’t read a food magazine if it were composed solely of ads, so why make a blog like this? 

It has occurred to me that some readers may not have realised what is going on behind the scenes of these blogs, but I also have seen plenty of discussion on twitter deriding this blogging direction. I believe the trend has coincided with the decreased average age of food bloggers and their readers. It may also be a matter of ego or a subconscious desire by a certain type of personality to fill an emotional void.

The millennial generation’s adoption of food blogging is a natural progression, given that the early adopters here were Gen X, but the popularity has gained momentum via the broad and rapid adoption of social media. So it is with this in mind that I feel the growth of food bloggers as ‘Floggers’ of venues, brands, chefs, products and events, may be the result of being naive to the machinations of marketing ploys.


With this comes harsh criticism of bloggers from the traditional media for making a poor show at mimicking journalists and for eating into the press junket scene. Admittedly I have become weary of the injured refute from bloggers. Because to some degree, I think that we food bloggers may have left ourselves open to being niggled by jibes, by not clearly staking our ground. 

What do we actually stand for now? For many it is no longer a mere hobby. And for the food bloggers who wish to be considered professional, isn’t it time they behaved as a business and defined their brand values? 

Right now their credibility is brought into question by their willingness to disguise branded selling as candid, amateur posting and they’re dragging the opinions of others down in their wake. And those bloggers who believe that they are deserving of the same public status and remuneration as professional restaurant reviewers, isn’t it time they learnt more about the venue and the industry before posting commentary that could endanger the livelihoods of those in hospitality venues?

I expect that it’s the rapid growth of food blogging that has seen us all lumped together regardless of the style of our weblogs. But I think that will change. It will become evident that there are those for whom blogging is an online journal or amateur review, others who will fall into a commercial stream and some who will tenuously attempt to blend the two. 

Schisms have emerged in our culture. Aussie Food Bloggers, I believe it is time to nail your colours to the mast.

In the next post, Part 2. I look at marketing tricks and branded blogger bribes.

18 June 2011

The Fat Duck. Food for Thought

John Malkovich: I have seen a world that NO man should see!  
Craig Schwartz: Really? Because for most people it's a rather enjoyable experience.
          Being John Malkovich, 1999

I was trembling with excitement. The hard earned moment had arrived. A moment that I had dared not dream of had arrived. A moment that I considered had come about from sheer hard work and an ounce of luck.

The hard work had brought me the money to afford this experience and the luck was having actually managed to get my bum on this seat. In fact I was awed that we had managed, among 30,000 other hopefuls a day, to have actually got through to make a reservation at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, UK.

So where do you go from here?  I thought.

Is this where food pretentiousness begins? Will I now be presumed to belong to the particular clique of Foodies that has always annoyed me? The clutch that have always struck me as sycophantic, where famous Chef’s names are dropped with such regularity as if to claim the superiority of the individual over other diners? The one where the list of meals recounted begin to sound like scalps taken in battle? I surely hoped not.

This philosophical thought kicked in around course number eleven at the celebrated restaurant. At the time of dining, The Fat Duck was placed at number one in Britain and number three in the San Pellegrino 50 World’s best restaurants, behind Noma of Denmark and El Bulli in Spain.

It was also number two on Mr Sticki’s list of places to mark his personal half century on the planet. El Bulli was his first choice, but we were unable to secure a seat in the annual email ballot, where you - and a million others - plead in Spanish to reserve a seat at some point during El Bulli’s six month open season.

By comparison it seemed a much more democratic system to secure a table at The Fat Duck. Exactly two months to the day that you hope to attend, you battle with thousands of others for a place among the 40 seats, by phoning the restaurant’s call centre from 10:00am London time. There is a clock on The Fat Duck website that counts down the minutes until lines open. After that you are in the hands of the Telecommunications Gods.

We had planned to be in London for five days. One of those was a Monday when The Fat Duck is closed - leaving us only four chances to make a reservation. After multiple redials over three days, engaged signals and attempts that reached the answering service only to be rejected, we were prepared to face defeat. In fact, had I not prompted the call on the final day Mr Sticki might not have bothered at all.

So, on the final possible day to reserve a seat, Mr Sticki got through 20 seconds before 10:00am  - that’s 7pm in Melbourne - and was yet  again rejected. He continued to redial and incredibly at eight minutes past the hour he got through, securing a booking for our final day in London. Hanging up the phone we jumped for joy around our little home, like a couple of old punks pogo-ing at a Hüska Dü gig.

I think Mr Sticki’s interest in premier league dining possibly stems from certain TV shows and Ferran Adria’s Ell Bulli documentary that we saw at the la Mirada Latin Film Festival. Without exposure to Chefs Ferran Adria (El Bulli) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) via film media, I doubt that the suggestion would have been made for either restaurant. And it puts an interesting spin on what you come to expect from the dining experience. It can make for disappointment for some, but I can honestly say that in my case the experience was all that I imagined it would be.

Heston Blumenthal at Taste Of London Festival,...Image via Wikipedia

From what I had read of Heston Blumenthal, my expectations were very high. He is described as driven, a man that channels an enormous energy into whatever he believes in. There have been anger management problems, often seen in the super intelligent, young and bored; issues in Heston that have since been addressed and channeled – one would imagine – creatively.

As a chef he is self taught. As a food scientist he is self taught. A natural lateral thinker, his approach to food is not dissimilar to the thought processes I learnt to become a creative type in the advertising industry. The creative process follows this path: you start with a single unique proposition. Standing back you look at it objectively, break outside the box of traditional perception and you bend that proposition in every direction until a certain clarity is achieved, resulting in either a ground breaking new concept or inspired re-invention.

In the same manner as I do in my profession, he appears to gather other people around him who are able to help flesh out his concepts. While he has the ideas, he hires those with greater knowledge or skill in certain areas, yet with the same passion to create and innovate.

One of his waiters mentioned that there were 51 staff involved back of house at The Fat Duck. I expect this also extends to Heston’s other projects - including The Lab and his pub, The Hinds Head, just metres from the restaurant  - not just the restaurant’s prep kitchen and service. Those numbers have probably swelled since opening his latest venue in London.

Heston appears to have a great thirst for challenges. I imagine that his mind is seldom still. He has described himself as being obsessional, totally immersed at the expense of his family. In that he reminds me of my father, and I wonder if Heston too has some form of genius based autism spectrum condition, like Aspergers Syndrome.

As well as the restaurant, he has been involved in creating menus and dishes for a British hospital. He recently opened a more casually oriented restaurant ‘Dinner by Heston Blumenthal’ in a London Hotel, and has a range of packaged food distributed through Waitrose supermarkets.

Against the odds of apparently dealing with recalcitrant staff and management in front of TV cameras, Heston has also tackled the challenge of reinventing the British road-side diners, Little Chef. The most recent show aired, 'Heston's Mission Impossible' saw Heston reinvent the way the British Military manage food operations, and a range of challenges from getting hospitalised kids to eat nutritious meals and using food science to deliver tasty food to economy class passengers travelling on British Airways.

The man seems always keen to bite off more than most would be able to chew. Such is his nature I suppose. A restless mind moves constantly forward to the next project. In his case it would appear that the previous projects continue to tick over, with his vision intact thanks to his army of collaborators.

Watching the TV show Heston’s Feasts, I imagined that each of Heston’s dishes at The Fat Duck would be playful, conceptual and delicious. Thankfully there was no anticlimax. My assumption was correct. Heston’s ‘thinking outside of the box’ to titillate and stimulate was clearly on show in the line-up of courses that make up his Tasting Menu.

I have often asked myself ‘What is the point of molecular gastronomy in most restaurants?’ At The Fat Duck it is brought into sharp relief as a means to an ends in manifesting a concept. Unlike those chefs that miss the point - by casting with abandon, foams that resemble sputum and pearls that do little to enhance a dish - at The Fat Duck, molecular techniques are neither used faddishly nor fashionably. It’s a tool used to recreate Heston’s imagination of an event.

Eating at The Fat Duck is a dining experience that goes well beyond merely eating something delicious. I felt as though I was living some of the more poignant moments in his life, portrayed by a tableau of food. So the tricks, for which he is notorious, seemed to just blend seamlessly into the whole idea of each dish.

And the venue itself offers no distraction from the food. The small dining room has no outlook onto the picturesque olde worlde village surrounds, yet despite being low ceilinged it is bright, white and convivial. Exposed traditional oak beams frame the space and an incongruous modern sculptural glass room divider serves to shelter diners from gusty blasts that may emanate from the door opening onto the street.
Starched linen and simple table décor meant that the diner’s focus was expressly on the food. In fact all there was to distract us was the view of other diners - giving one a preview of the dishes to come.

We attended a lunch service. While food allergies can be accommodated, there is no choice to the meals other than an optional addition of a cheese course. While admiring the cheese trolley with lust, we were aware that we did not have the gastrointestinal fortitude to include it in our repast.

Around us there were gatherings of a corporate nature, a family with adult children, a woman and her nine year old daughter, sixty-somethings gastronauts, a young Asian couple, and in the centre of the room, Mr Sticky and I. At most tables there was at least one camera recording the event.

Yes cameras. Why? Because it’s a milestone - who wouldn’t want to capture for posterity their meal at The Fat Duck?

Five hours after the commencement of our meal, on our way back to Maidenhead train station, our cab driver told us that recently, some of his passengers came away disappointed that some of the most famous dishes were no longer on the menu. For example, the famed egg and bacon ice cream is no longer there – the dish of liquid nitrogen frozen scrambled eggs.  

The Fat Duck could probably get away with serving the same menu for the next five years, but why would you? To the enquiring and creative mind, repetition is soul destroying. If there is an opportunity to spread the wings, then take me there. I’m all for it.

Famous dishes not-withstanding, the hallmark techniques sighted in Heston’s TV shows are there. Between the layers of textures, flavours and ingredients are influences that have come from the best of many cultures. Being half Asian I was reminded of many concepts I grew up with, fused with those of other cultures. That the ingredients are superior however is to be taken for granted, with the exception of unpasteurised butter there was no mention of the source of the ingredients. Provenance is not the selling point here, ideas are.

For those with expectations of trickery, the procession of dishes served are accompanied by the anticipated Heston peculiar add-ons such as liquid nitrogen treats produced at the table, atomizers of evocative aromas, sounds to be listened to on headphones and breath freshener style gelatin flavor strips to open the palate, all found a place in the experience.

Yes, it was truly a unique experience.

While it involved food and I felt full upon eating it, I shall not remember it as a meal. For me, it was something akin to the concept of the film ‘Being John Malkovich’ where climbing into a cavity in a space between the floors of a building, you enter John Malkovich’s mind. You see the world through his eyes.

Through Heston’s eyes you visit moments in his memory, transmitted into your mind through edible art. Sometimes you may even add your own recollections to the memory and find yourself transported to a further level. The foie gras course took me back to my own particular childhood woodlands memory, the beach course stirred unique memories in both Mr and I, and all the while we were being toyed with in a delightful way.

My deduction is that The Fat Duck restaurant is an art installation. The back of house team that spans cooks, chefs and scientists, and also the floor staff, ensure that you and 40 others are seamlessly bound in a deeply sensory experience for four hours. The food is the vehicle that lends itself to an experience that Heston wishes to share with you. It tells a story, paints a picture and stimulates new thoughts from within you.

I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to take in this adventure. It may be the first and last time I dine at such a prestigious establishment. But the realization that I truly have a fortunate life is not taken lightly, and my time at The Fat Duck will not easily be forgotten.

I had considered a second blog post that discussed the content of the meal blow by blow. But if you thought this post was long, that would have been ten times longer. So I will upload images of each course to my Tumblr gastroporn site, Stickifingers instead. I will tag them fatduck50. Each image will include a description and my thoughts. It will be far more digestible as bite sized degustation portions.

High Street, Bray, MAIDENHEAD, Berkshire SL6 2AQ| United Kingdom | +44 1628 580333 ‎| 

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15 May 2011

Stanley deserves a laurel


Ollie: "Every cloud has a silver lining."
Stan: "That's right. Any bird can build a nest but it isn't everyone that can lay an egg."
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy console a devious Lola.

I love a road trip. They usually turn up something random or a spontaneous revelation. And then there are the locals who eye you with suspicion as they park a heaving plate of God-knows-what in front of you. Love it.

Some years ago I found that Mr Sticki's country raised nephews grew up refusing to eat vegetables. I was shocked. They grew up in a part of country Victoria known for fruit and vegetable production, so there were plenty of opportunities to get into good food.

Then, in their teens, they were employed by the local supermarket. In order to work on the coveted check outs they found themselves in need of being able to identify all manner of vegetables. But they were bereft of such knowledge.

And the reality is that this is not uncommon in Australian regional towns today. In our most bucolic settings, most kids are not rosy cheeked from the benefits of magnificent fresh local produce. They prefer the tinned, commercially packaged nastiness that appears in many regional pub bistros.

There's a pervading attitude in the country that any packaged or convenience food offering from the city is preferential to rural produce. And yet when we city folk spend a few hours in the car destined for a holiday or day trip, we conversely expect to be rolling in luscious local food wonders, fresh from the producers.

So when I think of casual eating in the countryside, I hope for local regional produce, artisan goods, friendly service and simple convivial surrounds.

But that's my own particular fantasy bush escape.

We found it exists in France, but rarely does a regional Australian venue deliver such things. I'm not talking about über fine dining and experimental dishes that borrow from molecular cuisine. I know those experiences exist at the far end of a four hour drive.

What I hope for seems to crop up more often in the city. In places like South Melbourne's The Rising Sun Hotel where Ron O'Bryan is working his magic with farmer direct produce. There are country exceptions of course. The Stanley Pub, just outside Beechworth, is one of them.

My interest in this little pub was piqued by Brewer's Wife's post on her dining experience there. She mentioned lunch at The Stanley Pub showing an image of a pie on a fashionably long plate alongside a stretched limousine smear of mashed potato. The pie humorously appeared to have pretentions to fine dining. But rather than laugh, her verdict was that it was delicious and the venue pleasing.

So on a visit to Beechworth we made a detour to the tiny, historic hotel and found it to be cutely crouching under pretty wisteria vines beside a generous beer garden, function space and accommodation. As we pulled up, two scruffy middle aged men were muttering darkly, smoking cigarettes on the doorstep. Not knowing what to make of that, I hoped for the best.

We entered a brightly lit front bar featuring some wonderful artisan joinery and a well used dart board. To the right, the softly lit bistro emerged as a converted outdoor space, equipped with a JetMaster fireplace and in one corner, a wood fired oven.

Traditional French bistro style bare tables and starched linen napkins were set for about thirty seats. We were the last to arrive of eleven diners there that night. Service was smoothly taken care of by the owner and pedigreed Sommelier, Shane Harris.

It later emerged that Shane, his wife Annemarie and chef Shauna Stockwell were veterans of Sydney high-end dining venues, with notches in their various hospitable belts that include Testsuya's, MG Garage and Pier, then later in this region north east Victorian area with Michael Ryan, pre Provenance, at Range.

As we settled in I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The menu selection was admirably small, concise and dotted with local produce; likewise, the wine list. Respect.

The dishes had classical leanings. I found it tough to make a decision on which to choose. An entree of rabbit and duck rillettes with peach chutney, beckoned. Oysters shucked to order with a Japanese dressing or zucchini flowers wistfully called to me.

Main courses featured the safe option of steak frites, but also skate, gnocchi and poussin. A side salad of figs, rocket, local walnuts and blue cheese sounded like an ideal lunch dish, the potatoes sounded heavenly too, but we chose the comforting seasonal vegetable dish of wilted spinach with kaiserfleisch.

Four mains arrived at the table beside us. Two languished unattended, a large portion of poussin and the steak - two pieces topped with butter and a mound of green beans - classically served with obvious care.

A diner scuttled to the public bar beckoning to the two men who had been standing on the doorstep when we arrived. "You know your meals are here?" She said. Affirmative was the dismissive response. She returned to their table to eat.

After a time the men ambled into the bistro carrying the bowl of nuts they had been eating at the bar. "That looks a bit fancy", said one of the men with a heavy European accent.

"What gives?" Said Mr Sticki with a bemused smirk, "Looks as though those men have been dragged here against their will." They did indeed. And as soon as the mains were consumed, they returned to the bar with their bowl of nuts and fresh beers. The women continued on, shared a dessert and left without the men.

It was the sight of those main courses that made me realize three courses would be impossible for me to ingest. And I wanted the Tarte Tatin for dessert. So taking a mouthful of the delicious local Beechworth cider, I resolved to have two entrees and a glass of local Sangiovese

On the oval plate dotted with saucy whorls sat a snowy bavarois of local chevre that was earthy in flavour and silky in the mouth. The small mound of citrus and baby beets sat atop a disc of red jelly. The piquancy of that mound challenged the goaty creaminess and at times rendered it into a sheepish complement.

Mr Sticki's choice was a special of seared scallops. Cooked as they should be, still slightly translucent inside, four discs of roe-less scallop dressed in micro-herbs, squatted atop a bed of hoummus like four pretty girls on a picnic rug. A mirepoix of tomato with vaguely Middle Eastern flavours transformed the clean, sweetness of the scallops and rug of hummous into a flying carpet ride to another part of the world.

Next, my carpaccio of peppered venison was a floral textile. Like the circle skirt of a rockabilly sweetheart it was a sweep of burgundy checked with blue cheese cream and scattered with a web of petals. The skirt had a seared edge and a sticky mouth feel that launched a rich combination of tastes. Deeply satisfying and a good follow up to the bavarois the blue cheese brought an unexpectedly positive dimension to a flavor profile accented with sharp, hot pepper.

Three young women - local friends of Tim Witherow the Sous Chef - were being gently and capably guided through dining and wine choices by Shane. A big night out for a birthday, choices were made with careful consideration that they were about to embark on something truly special. I felt inspired by their anticipation and enthusiasm. Not a scrap of pretension entered their dialogue, such refreshing behaviour in the face of their city counterparts.

I gazed across the table at my beloved. Delicately chewing bones, Mr Sticki contemplated his serve of poussin with intensity. He seemed carried away by the moment. Golden pieces of bird lolled in the shallows of a thickened, clear braising liquor. A flotsam of herbs drifted from the sauce to embrace baby leeks, potatoes and shallots. It all looked so simple, but once I tried some for myself I too was plunged headlong into a pool of richness. This was a dish that stroked your hair and tucked you into bed with its nurturing gentleness.

After a rest, we moved on to dessert. Shane introduced us to a taste of the wonderful local biodynamic Pennyweight Gold. A lush sticky fortified of ripe white grapes, fortified with brandy spirit, and aged for several years in old oak hogs head barrels. It was created by one of the famous Rutherglen Morris clan, who have been producing excellent fortified wines for 150 years. Stephen Morris started Pennyweight Winery in 1982, producing biodynamic, lower alcohol wines in Beechworth and we stopped by the cellar door the following day.

Shauna's tarte tatin was everything I had hoped for. Made with apples grown mere kilometers from the front door of the pub and plumbing the depth of buttery caramelisation I found it difficult to part with when the time came to swap with Mr Sticki. None the less, the pain perdu (French Toast) was also a marvel. Again featuring a local product – figs poached in muscat with fig ice cream.

The night had me buzzing with the excitement of finding a country venue that lived up to my dream. As we drove down the pitch dark road to our Beechworth accommodation, I was gushing with admiration. I'm all for tree-changers following their passion in a rural setting. And I always hope that their efforts might trickle into the mind-set of the locals and the education of the palates of future generations. Here's to more of that in the future and to less frozen chicken parmigianas shipped from factories in the city to country pubs.

Myrtleford-Stanley Road, Stanley, Victoria, Australia

|  03 5728 6502  |  F: 03 5728 6602  |
 info@thestanley.com.au   |  Facebook  

By Dani Valent in The Sunday Age M magazine, 15 May 2011
The Stanley Pub on Urbanspoon
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13 February 2011

Hungry for food porn

A Preview of one of my Stickifingers Tumblr pages

It's been a while between posts. And that's because I now have a foot in Social Media as a career which includes also writing blogs professionally. I'm very active with multiple accounts on Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, Delicious, Digg, Wordpress, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other social platforms. It's all in a day's work now.
At The Fat Duck

Recently some of my online followers asked to see more of my food porn. So I've set up a Tumblr micro blog to facilitate this. You see, I take a lot of food photos. If you go out to eat with my family, increasingly everyone is taking snaps of the food. So it makes sense to share some of them. As this blog is a place where I think out loud, think of the Stickifingers Tumblr as seeing food through my eyes. And naturally my Stickifingers Twitter feed is all food banter.

The Tumblr posts also are posted through to Twitter so if you don't want to use RSS to keep track of new posts, they'll show up there too. And my personal friends get to see them through my private facebook account.

A Brussels Friterie featuring fried cheese & frites
The shots over at the Stickifingers Tumblr are quite random. There are a mix of homecooked efforts and general food photos. One moment you'll be seeing what we ate for breakfast, then snaps taken on day two of the opening of St.Ali's Mo Pho, next there is the Food Bloggers dinner at Steer, chicken rice in Singapore and there are also food photos taken in Brussels, Vietnam, London, Luang Prabang,  plus food photo's from Paris' Bastille outdoor market.

It's a visual diary. It's a place where you can see some of my sustainable food efforts, meals dining out and adventures in search of more food knowledge.

The layout is like a pinboard. Each post looks like a card and can be flipped over for more details by clicking on the information icons. You can also view them individually by clicking on the arrow button in the top right hand corner of each post, and from there share them or 'like' them. They can be viewed randomly, in sequential order or by their tags.

Anyway, if you pay me a visit there, I really hope you enjoy what you see. I think of it as revealing another layer of my food persona.

Rude food in Bruges

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