When the Shore’s most famous restaurant The Engine Room refused a request from Canvas (a food shot to accompany a review), the magazine responded by vowing never to return.
Initially, I sided with the mag. What a diva, I thought. But then I watched this Campbell Live piece on restaurant reviewers and I started to doubt myself.
If you don’t have the time to watch it, the story was pretty scathing of reviewers. Too many publications are just sending out staff writers with the company credit card; and hard-done-by restauranteurs putting their heart, soul and life savings into their business can be undone with one bad write-up. Reviewers need to know what they’re talking about in order to gain credibility (although it sounded as though the credibility was more among industry peeps than readers). Another gripe was that writers basically retold the story of their one visit, from the moment they arrived and struggled to find parking until they pushed back their chairs and left, and put too much emphasis on factors like decor and fellow customers … rather than spotlighting the food.
Now, I couldn’t agree more with several of the points brought up. In this line of work, there can’t be anything more important than a) keeping your cover (I’ve always wondered how and when they get photos) and keeping your distance personally from chefs and owners b) dining at one place multiple times to get a fair picture. But, at least in NZ, this isn’t happening.
I am still not sure refusing to cooperate is the best move. No doubt restauranteurs are sincere in merely wanting to check that the facts are right (and let’s be honest, journalists and writers can’t and don’t always get it right). But it’s a fine line. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, and what others may see as constructive or justified criticism may not be taken as such. The last thing we need is reviews being censored by restaurant owners and chefs before they go to print.
Personally, I would not make the greatest of food reviewers. I like what I like and I am wary of strange new combinations (I really don’t get excited about top-end, innovative cuisine). I’m not a vegetarian, but am certainly picky about meat. And though I’ve waitressed in cafes, I don’t really know very much about the industry at all.
But how much is fair to ask of a food reviewer? We can’t expect them all to be ex-chefs, realistically. (I guess you might get better hours in journalism but I doubt the money is better.) It would be great if all writers had a background in their industry – be it sport, science, entertainment, politics – but that is never going to happen.
Personally, I’m of the thinking that restaurant reviews are just as much for the average person on the street as they are for those in the food industry. What about you?