More Restaurant Reviewing

by Jan

RestaurantSeveral months ago a French chef, Marc Veyrat of La Maison des Bois, France, stated that he wanted to give back his two Michelin stars. His restaurant was demoted from three stars to two, and Michelin was reluctant to comply with his wishes.

Veyrat voiced his opinion against their decision and was sceptical about the competence of the reviewers. He says they “know absolutely nothing about cooking” and “couldn’t cook a decent dish” if they tried. Clearly, restaurant critics are not cooks and culinary expertise is not a prerequisite for restaurant reviewing.

Traditionally, a reviewer will book under a false name. Reviewers note every detail even before they are seated: the tone of voice on the phone, the tidiness of the foyer, even the footpath outside. And, of course, the welcome of the waiter.

Reviewers should not draw attention to their behaviour: no outlandish clothing, no obvious note-taking; but photographing dishes is not unusual these days. They need to survey the type of clientele, whether the place has a comfortable ambience, whether the pricing is right for that market segment. This is all before the entrée has landed in front of them.

Reviewers were generally trained journalists who wrote for magazines and newspapers with best practices and codes of ethics. They researched dishes and cuisines, and were probably plausible home cooks. An honourable reviewer would contact the chef to ask a few questions, as a right of reply, before they wrote up their reviews. But as John Lethlean says “Critics are not in the restaurant industry”. Their function is to educate and inform potential diners, not behave like name-dropping posers.

However, since the advent of social media and apps, this has all changed. Someone who can barely heat noodles in a microwave can become a blogger or Instagrammer.

Regarding rating, each publication or platform has a strict formula, its own formulae or criteria, organisation of their reviewers, their regions, and how many votes each reviewer gets.

These systems create confusion and therefore do not inspire consumer confidence. There have been accusations of gerrymandering and favouritism similar to FIFA, or  “a House of Cards plot”, conspiracies with sponsors, cronyism, sexism, and racism etc. And perhaps have become victims of their own success.

Marc Veyrat is not the only chef who has dug his heels in. Duncan Welgemoed of Africola restaurant in Adelaide, refused an Instagrammer, who promised him some influence, a free meal. His aim was to support other small restaurateurs who were also doing it tough. He said it almost feels like blackmail, where they want freebies or the restaurant is threatened with a negative review. Also, the potential diner looking for a restaurant is not going to get an objective result.

Some chefs think that some bloggers and so-called influencers have an over-developed and petulant sense of entitlement, which is not backed up by any culinary knowledge. But reputable reviewers are generally viewed by chefs with a bit of respect.

This is not the only problem chefs and restaurateurs have to cope with.

There are also the frivolous and vexatious complaints and queries, eg. paella without the rice please, vegetarian filet mignon, the special with fettucine not penne because the customer is allergic to penne, or the cheese platter with no dairy, and sauerkraut but with no cabbage !! Unbelievable.

But, in the last decade or so, there has been a plethora of dietary requirements as a result of allergies and intolerances. Diners need to indicate these when making a reservation, rather than dishing out blame later on. There is a difference between a food intolerance and defective cooking, so blaming the chef is not fair or responsible if the diner has a food intolerance which is not previously explained.

There have been justifiable complaints about blatant rip-offs, and poor cooking.

Conversely, diners need to lift their game and educate their palates by eating a variety of cuisines without blaming the restaurant because something tastes funny. This is not helped by bad manners, from both some staff and some customers. But of course, not from everyone.

All of the above has an impact on the restaurateur’s survival in a tough market.

Perfectly capable and talented chefs like Marc Veyrat and Duncan Welgemoed have stuck their necks out, and they deserve a right of reply.

Late December 2019, Veyrat’s case was dismissed by the French court because it claimed that he failed to show sufficient material damage. In fact, business was up 7% in the previous year.

Marco Pierre White commented that when chefs go out to eat, they are the ideal customers because they go home and don’t complain, and mostly don’t make a fuss. The difference is that the expectations of chefs are realistic.