3. Social Media and the Rise of the Amateur Critic
“If I came to your house for dinner an hour late, then criticised all your furniture and your wife’s haircut and said all your opinions were stupid, how would you feel? People still come here and expect a three-course meal in an hour. What do they think I do? – pull rabbits out of a fucking hat? I’m not a magician.”
Marco Pierre White
In 1999, having reached the summit of gastronomic glory with 3 Michelin stars at London’s Hyde Park Hotel, and then at the Oak Room with the highest possible rating of an additional five red knives and forks, Marco Pierre White experienced an epiphany.
Legend has it, he was fishing on a day-off, sitting on the bank of a stream smoking a cigarette when the thunderbolt struck. Recited in countless articles and interviews since, it was a crucial turning point in the life and career of one of the most revered chefs of the modern era:
“I was being judged by people who had less knowledge than me, so what was it truly worth? I gave Michelin inspectors too much respect, and I belittled myself. I had three options: I could be a prisoner of my world and continue to work six days a week; I could live a lie and charge high prices and not be behind the stove; or, I could give my stars back, spend time with my children and re-invent myself.”
Months later, White served his last meals at the Oak Room, surrendered his Michelin stars and retired from professional kitchens. He was 38 years old.
While few chefs will ever reach the heights of Marco’s culinary excellence or, indeed, realise such profound influence at a relatively tender age, his psychological burnout and weariness of critics is endemic in an industry that often gives far too much credit to the opinions of the obtuse and the unqualified. Michelin inspectors and professional critics are one thing, but nowadays, when every self-proclaimed expert with questionable credentials and an internet connection has the potential to make or break a restaurant based on subjective, often erroneous opinions, the rise of the amateur critic has become – for professional chefs, at least – the bitterest of pills to swallow.
Some, bless their well-meaning but ingenuous hearts, instinctively perpetuate the gushing hype of culinary artistry they all but vaguely comprehend. While others, with equal measures of naivety and bias, damage reputations with defamatory keystrokes often bordering on the delusional and the ridiculous.
Like Marco once said: What is it truly worth?
Before we go on, let’s get one thing straight. Eating out is not a right. It’s a privilege.
Fun fact: the majority of the world’s population live in what capitalists call poverty. And it’s often the people cooking, serving, and washing your dishes that are among the hardest working and the lowest paid in our civilised society. Sure, you may have the luxury to treat the family to lunch or a night out at a restaurant and expect your idea of culinary perfection, but is it okay to verbally abuse the trembling 16 year old trainee waitress at the local RSL because you had to wait 30 minutes on a busy Saturday night for your well-done steak? Is it okay to inform the maître d’hôtel, in no uncertain terms, that his London restaurant should be stripped of its 2 Michelin stars because a stool was never offered for your handbag? Is it okay to terrorise the bustling bartender of a New York City French bistro because the owners, in their unacceptable ignorance, neglected to stock your favourite Bolivian wine? Immediate and personal insults aside, is it really okay to then jump online, keyboard warrior fists flailing, and condemn an entire business, the livelihood of perhaps hundreds of low-paid, hardworking employees because you feel it your rightto vent your petty grievances, one-sided tirades and deeply idiosyncratic views?
Sorry, folks, but websites such as Trip Advisor, Yelp, Google Reviews, and just about any other online rating travesty, really is democracy for the reckless. Gather a bunch of privileged, self-inflated amateur critics in a global forum and you’re destined to end up with little more than a ham-fisted, semi-literate slush pile of hyperbolic accusations, inaccurate representations and ill-informed opinions.
How could I possibly cast such a cynical, sweeping statement? Because I’m a chef. And chefs, I assure you, read customer reviews. We read customer reviews and they sometimes break our arrogant, narcissistic hearts.
Despite the impassioned opinions and unrealistic expectations of many self-styled foodies, truly terrible restaurants rarely exist. Restaurant staff, I assure you, DO NOT set out to rip you off, ruin your birthday/anniversary, insult your intelligence, appear rude or unwelcoming, or, indeed, serve up terrible food that will send you raging into the realms of cyberspace to vent your disappointments. With today’s climate of fierce competition and even fiercer amateur criticism, a restaurant pissing off more guests than they please will inevitably shut up shop faster than the semi-literate “dissgusted” reviewer takes to digest their “ineatable” main course. Restaurants, after all, are run by human beings. Mistakes will, and do happen.
Perhaps the FOH is understaffed due to the recent flu epidemic. Perhaps the line cook suffered third-degree burns while tossing your stir fry and had to be rushed to hospital for a patch-up. Perhaps the combi oven decided to break down in the middle of the Saturday night rush and Maintenance, luxuriating in their tradie status, refuse to work nights or weekends unless handsomely compensated for their specialised skills. Perhaps your waiter’s girlfriend left him last night, stole his Daewoo Lanos and headed for Mexico to elope with a Cuban trapeze artist named Lola. Perhaps the restaurant manager has cancer. Perhaps the pastry chef’s father died. Perhaps the sous hasn’t eaten for three days due to child support payments. Or, rather less dramatically, perhaps the barista is simply tired of belligerent, condescending customers who think verbal abuse is okay because they’ve shelled out $5 for coffee and cake.
To repeat. Restaurant staff are human beings. They are students, singles, mums and dads, grandparents, widowers, divorcees, sons and daughters. Some may be novices. Some may be seasoned professionals. All, I assure you, are sacrificing time with their loved ones to serve yours. (While assumptions can often prove unfounded, I’ve always believed that a person’s character can be judged by how they treat their waiter.) Like everyone else, they are tackling the complexities of life, while attempting to scrape together a modest living in an unforgiving, often cutthroat industry.
Yes, restaurant staff may serve for a living – work long and unsociable hours for ridiculously low pay – but they sure as shit ain’t servants.
There are, of course, genuine (and dare I say it, articulate) online reviews. There are, indeed, people out there who offer thoughtful, courteous and fair opinions. Kudos, dear friends. You deserve a gold star for not being a vindictive, egotistical arsehole.
You understand, I assume, that rating your experiences is all about realistic expectations. You understand that you get what you pay for, both in quality and quantity. You understand that menus are set for a reason, that prices are based on demand, market value and seasonality. You understand that you are not just paying for the pork chop or the king fish ceviche – you are, in fact, also paying for the plate, the linen, the cutlery, the glass, the table, the chair, the lighting, the gas, the electricity, the rent, the entertainment, the maintenance of equipment; not to mention the chef working a 12/14 hour day preparing and cooking all the menu items you didn’t buy, the waiter taking your order and delivering/clearing your meal, the dishwasher scrubbing pots/pans/plates and disposing of your leftovers, the cleaner mopping and brushing and deodorising the filth you leave behind in the restrooms, and the countless other wages, costs and daily expenses involved in running and maintaining a restaurant.
You understand, dear friends, that the customer is NOT always right; that you – as a dentist, a tow-truck driver, a ventriloquist, a carpenter or an accountant – may have less knowledge and practical hospitality experience than the career chef, the sommelier, the barista or the maître d’hôtel. You understand that a restaurant is a complex system of innumerable moving parts, and if, say, you throw a proverbial spanner in the works by turning up late for a booking, ordering off the menu, making unreasonable requests based on real/imaginary dietary requirements, verbally abusing staff for minor discrepancies, or sending well-executed dishes back to the kitchen simply because you misread or didn’t understand the menu, there will be delays in service – for you, and just about everyone else in the restaurant.
You understand, dear friends, that the customer must feel welcome. You understand that the customer must feel comfortable. You understand that the customer is paying for a product/service and expects value for money. You understand, also, that if mistakes occur – and they will – the customer must be appeased with reasonable solutions. You understand that a restaurant, regardless of reputation, exclusivity or quality of produce, will never please everyone. You understand that in the event of an error – be it a minor timing issue or a major mood-killer, say, of an undercooked chicken breast or a dry John Dory – no staff member has intentionally set out to ruin your life. No one has kicked your dog, kidnapped your grandmother, or, in fact, summoned a Shakespearian plague on you and your kin.
You understand, dear friends, that hospitality is a charade – a living theatre where the FOH are paid actors gritting their teeth behind practiced smiles; and the cooks, precariously clinging by a fingernail to the precipice of culinary passion, are often the antithesis of the clean-cut, effervescent and charming image most often portrayed by primetime TV and the shamelessly photo-shopped covers of the latest celebrity chef’s cookbook. In reality, many chefs in many kitchens are a pirate nation of foul-mouthed illiterates; of drug addicts, drunks, swindlers, liars, cheats, gamblers, sociopaths and transients living the rock and roll lifestyle on a working class budget. Despite reason, despite any recognisable law of nature, despite a ready arsenal of blunt, heavy, and sharp objects, cooks somehow manage to deliver service after service in a blisteringly hot and stressful environment without killing one another – or, most significantly, striding out to the dining room and beating the inconsiderate diner over the head with a meat mallet for ordering a well done steak 2 mins before closing time.
Like any creative art, culinary perfection is an unattainable goal. Sorry, again, to be the bearer of bad news, but the golden age of gastronomy has long passed. And fine dining – all that pretentious shite about white tablecloths, silver service, amuse-bouche and the like – is dead for the vast majority of diners. Current economics (and the fact that a nationwide shortage of chefs has hit critical levels) will simply not allow it. What remains today is the involuntary reflexes of past glories, the last spasmodic jerks of a classical culinary corpse.
Let’s face it. Every restaurant can’t be a Le Gavroche, a Chez Nico, a La Tante Claire or a Le Manoir – a French/British training ground for the likes of, say, a young Marco Pierre White. Nor can they be an elBulli, an Eleven Madison Park, a Fat Duck, a Noma, or an El Celler de Can Roca. (Think tweezers. Think dots on plates. Think foams, ashes, gels, and all manner of molecular manipulation. Think exorbitant prices afforded by those with expense accounts and/or meaty piles of disposable cash.) The world’s top restaurants can afford – for a time, at least – to source the very best local and international ingredients for their seasonal menus. They can demand perfection from their suppliers; purchase state of the art equipment; hire an army of skilled and experienced staff to maintain or aspire to Michelin standards; afford off-season closures to experiment with exotic produce and cutting edge techniques; set precise and non-negotiable menus; absorb restaurant losses with the celebrity chef’s TV series and/or book deal; and, accordingly, charge their fawning, cashed-up patrons for the privilege.
Sadly, most kitchens don’t have that luxury. Most chefs in most kitchens have to make do with sometimes second-rate, sometimes frozen or pre-prepared produce to piece together simple menus that will appease the common, pennywise patron. Food percentages are tight. Wages are a continuous juggling act. Equipment is poor or non-functional. Skilled and reliable staff are near impossible to find, let alone, retain. And, as an added insult, the industry is rife with dodgy owners underpaying staff, abusing liberties, and enforcing agendas with little or no practical hospitality experience beyond a profit/loss spreadsheet.
Without question, the vast majority of today’s diners simply want good food at affordable prices. People want to eat out, sure, but they don’t want to spend a lot of money. That is why pubs/clubs and casual dining establishments (despite constant and sometimes unjustified criticism for serving mediocre food) serve thousands of meals a week while the ambitious, privately-owned venue producing inventive modern cuisine often struggle to fill 60 seats beyond the weekend and high-season trade. That is why, in ever-increasing numbers, classically-trained chefs with fine dining experience are abandoning their lofty posts as high-end slaves to open food vans, burger joints, American BBQ shacks, and a google-map-chicken-pox of franchised Asian street food temples complete with cheap mismatched furniture, jam jars for drinking vessels, and gloriously apathetic waiters.
But there is, of course, a downside. How many cheap burger joints can one community sustain? How many BBQ shacks does it take to perfect the beef brisket?
Fact is, there are far too many restaurants and not enough skilled and experienced chefs to staff their kitchens. As it stands, consumers are spoiled for choice. Work in any restaurant kitchen long enough (I’m talking years) and you’ll inevitably hear the old-dog lamentations of when the place “used to pump”. Every restaurant, guaranteed, will experience the ebb and flow of clientele. There will be times of boom and there will be times of bust. The trendy new restaurants booming today will bust tomorrow. That isn’t to say that chefs are no longer producing quality food. It’s far more complex than that. A restaurant’s success or failure is determined by factors sometimes beyond the control of the chef and their kitchen staff. (Food trends. Rent hikes. Wage costs. Staff shortages. Scarcity of produce. Economic downturns. Increased competition. The list goes on.) Even sufficiently staffed, well-run restaurants serving good food at reasonable prices will suffer at the hands culinary trends, geographical location and economic climate. In terms of online ratings and rankings, a seafood restaurant with an ocean view will almost always beat the one overlooking a carpark. An intimate, inner-city, forty-seat foodie destination will trump the suburban 300+ capacity food-barn any day of the week. The chic, paddock-to-plate, organically-sourced, celebrity-chef-certified farm kitchen will outpoint the authentically rustic pub bistro by unanimous decision time after time.
But again, what does it all mean?
Doesn’t the suburban food court doner kebab serve a purpose, an occasion? As does the mid-town foie gras on toasted brioche with truffles? Surely, it’s all about realistic expectations. And surely, diners/reviewers must be held accountable for their behaviour, attitudes toward staff, and, ultimately, the online criticisms they feel it their compulsive right to share with like-minded souls the world over.
Back in the late 80’s, well before the modern epidemic of amateur online criticism, a young Marco Pierre White conceived a direct and immediate method for dealing with rude or belligerent customers. Called the Whoosh, it involved a troop of waiters swarming in on the offending table mid-service and clearing away everything, including half-filled wine glasses, in a seamlessly choreographed counterattack. The final touch was a theatrical whooshing of the tablecloth. The mortified guests didn’t have to pay, but their evening was over.
While Marco’s method of jettisoning rude and obnoxious customers may be the wet dream of just about anyone who has ever worked in hospitality, the Whoosh method has its limitations in today’s culinary climate. Times, indeed, have changed. Due to a modern saturation of the market, restaurants can no longer afford to pick and choose their clientele. Well, they can, but chastising guests – be it at the table, or later, when responding to particularly harsh and unjust online reviews – is wading in dangerous waters. Competition is so fierce, and the custom of social media so widespread and frenzied, that restaurants are more likely to kiss the arse of the belligerent diner than they are of telling them to fuck off and never come back.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the average punter felt it a privilege to eat out. They worked, saved their money, and enjoyed a rare occasion with family, friends and/or colleagues. Today, however, the average punter expects and/or demands a personalised champagne experience on a beer budget any given day of the week. Perhaps they’ve seen a few too many episodes of Master Chef, the faux-culinary apex of reality television that continues to perpetuate contrived melodrama and glamour. Or, perhaps, they are simply the product of a cynical and narcissistic modern world that thinks everyone is out there to rip them off or challenge their position as a rare and unique gift to humanity.
Don’t get me wrong. In no way do I profess to be a culinary expert – a classical master, a trendsetting superstar or a revolutionary. I’m certainly no Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Massimo Bottura, Alain Ducasse or Jiro Ono. Nor do I wish to censor the opinions of the dining public. They are, after all, the reason for a chefs being.
But, as mentioned in earlier posts, I have had the privilege of working, living and travelling throughout much of the world over the course of a 20+ year career. Think soba and sushi in Tokyo; Peking duck in, well, Peking (Beijing); paella in Valencia; risotto in Milan; souvlaki in Santorini; ratatouille in Nice; haggis in Glasgow; kofte in Istanbul; fattah in Cairo; tom yum goong in Bangkok; adobo in Manila; fish amok in Siem Reap; and, perhaps the most primal and humbling, ugali (a thick maize-based porridge) and the staple raw beef, milk and blood in a traditional Maasai village in Tanzania.
I’ve cooked in some good kitchens with some talented international chefs and, of course, I’ve been a diner. Not every meal was perfect. Not every experience was outstanding. But I’m proud to say that, as a customer, I’ve NEVER once sent a meal back to the kitchen, abused a waiter, refused to pay a bill or, most significantly, manipulated social media to tear apart a restaurant and its staff with fury and condemnation.
Maybe I’ve been lucky. Maybe I’ve tried not to be an arsehole. Or maybe, it’s simply because I have a prolonged and intimate understanding of how food is prepared, cooked and served in commercial kitchens. I understand that mistakes will occur. I understand that my tastes are exactly that, my tastes. I understand that, although the entirety of my adult working life has been spent with food, I still have much to learn, experience and appreciate. I understand that the people cooking my meal – and often those who serve it – are working physically harder, longer, and for less pay than the average 8hr desk jockey enjoying their nights, weekends, public holidays and month-long vacations.
I understand that kitchens are the refuge of the desperate and the insane.
Keith Floyd – the late and legendary English celebrity cook, food writer, TV personality, traveller and restaurateur – once quipped in his famous jovial yet barbed tone:
“If the bass is good, they say nothing. If it isn’t very good, they complain like stuck pigs. It’s quite reassuring really.”
For a chef, those are perhaps the truest words ever spoken.