Saturday, September 26, 2009

Written Revelations - Restaurant Reviewing Blows

 My Bachelor of Arts just arrived in the post yesterday. I graduated in absentia because of having Wolf. I don't really care; the only good thing I did there was write a killer essay on homosexuality in boarding schools (endlessly interesting subject) and suggest to a tutor that food writing be added to the curriculum in the non-fiction writing course.
Which brings me to my subject of discussion.
I recently had lunch out with my mother and a family friend whose knowledge of food, dining and life in general I have always respected. Typically talking with your mother and a friend will always lead to discussions about your career future. I mentioned that I would love to be a food writer. As we tucked into savoury tarts and frittata at Yarraville bakery Hausfrau, she made some very interesting points about food writing in Melbourne. This family friend has, with her husband, run various wonderful restaurants in Melbourne, and unlike a greenhorn like me, knows the food game inside out. In her experience, she said, getting a good review was about who you knew, not the great work you were doing. You see repeated fantastic reviews for a restaurant that has friends in high places, despite inconsistent and declining performance, while the new and friendless, yet brilliant little venue don't get a serious look in.
Her revelation may be obvious to some, but it floored me. I read the Good Food Guide cover to cover every time it's released. Yesterday I got depressed when I nearly didn't get a copy of the annual food issue of the Age magazine. I have so many Epicures in storage that it constitutes a fire hazard. 
It should have been obvious; the 2010 Guide didn't read much different from last year's. And while I was apprenticing at a Patisserie in Kew, the Foodies' Guide - by then also owned by the Age - put us in two years in a row, but the content of the second was identical to the previous. It had been a lack-lustre review anyway, like a passing acquaintance talking about what they had for lunch the other day. They clearly hadn't bothered to come back to the patisserie and had recycled the previous year's review. We weren't even making the same products that year! We were a tiny Patisserie, it's true. But we worked hard to make beautiful food and had little time for ass kissing.
Yes, it is a capitalistic World that thrives on sucking up. Here I had been was buying into the opinions of people that created and maintained cliques - a word that should be synonymous with 'creatively nasty' – or just made chefs and restauranteurs bend over and take it up the ass. These commercially dominant reviews are then not really food writing; they are a gossip column.
Real food-writing is the kind of stuff people like M.F.K Fisher and Anthony Bourdain do in their articles and books. About the real experience of eating, cooking and dining out, honestly criticising and congratulating restaurants and cooks. Sure, they talk about their friends, but it is with real reverence for their cooking, not for the value of having them on side.
Compared to the scale of 'real' restaurant reviewers, it may be tiny, but reading over my review of Pepper that I get a bad taste in my mouth. The style is painfully stiff and formulaic. Paramount in my mind as I wrote was a list of criteria I should cover so as to have my work qualify as a review. I would write a dish of note and then try to think of a single, basic, accessible, summarising word to describe it. Something you read a lot in the condensed prose of newspaper restaurant reviews and food guides. How many times can you use 'tasty' or 'delicious' in a paragraph? I was sub-consciously mimicking those Age reviewers! What kind of writer does that make me? I'd forgotten everything I'd learnt about writing: honesty, integrity, real experiences.
Admittedly I thought to review Pepper first because the owner is awfully nice to us and knows Wolf by name. I just wanted to make friends. As much as I enjoy going to Pepper to eat, I actually get pretty uncomfortable there, and feel painfully observed and judged by other patrons.
It's strange to write something that undoes and something I posted earlier, and yet I'm not inclined to take down my review of Pepper. Another lesson in writing: one doesn't need to have consistently perfect work, and you don't have to erase the past evidence that your writing wasn't perfect in the first place.
No more reviewing. Writing about food, cooking and eating out, but without the pretension of formula. Just honest to God prose about the experience, no sugar coating, no fear of retribution. Defamation laws can't really apply to blogs, can they?

1 comment:

  1. I love your blog so much, it is great to hear some real opinions and what you have to say is so fresh and different! Please keep it up and write some more, I would love to see a real restaurant and café guide by someone like you! You are right that the usual guides are so formulaic and elitist.



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