Be a food critic? Why not? It was a great idea at the time. I leapt 2 years ago, after 25 years as an owner/chef of 10 restaurants, then a stint being a journalist, lifestyle editor and executive chef for a large food market chain. I also had a stint teaching (started out many years ago in classrooms) in Japan, and loved the way they did things in the food world.
But late last year, I retired from the entire food critic firmament, and here’s why:
My friend, a top pastry chef and now teacher, and I were lunching at a local café. It’s a big busy outlet on a main road, with trendy décor, good food and reasonable service. We both liked to meet there and chew the fat. Industry stuff, who’s who in the zoo, what my friend was up to (always exciting), and yes, who was going down.
I had to leave early, and as my friend went up to pay her bill, the manager asked her, in hushed, urgent tones, “Did the food critic like what she had?” It took quite a bit of reassurance from my friend that yes, the critic had enjoyed her food, and we’d altogether had a fine old time.
And with that, my cover, forever, was blown. I realised that almost everyone who puts themselves out there had got to know who I was, and booking under a false name, wearing a wig, being low key, just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. This food critic realised that Hobart is small, the industry everywhere is small, and web-like, interconnected.
In a way, I was relieved. Rushing around to review at least one, and usually two venues a week was exhausting, and having to always look at everything with a critical eye. No fun in that. Certainly not after two busy, deadline-driven years. Please note that a critic must have a bank of solid knowledge of the business to begin with, then keeping up with food and market trends, design, openings and closings, the chefs’ comings and goings is a FULL TIME JOB. I take my hat off to John Lethlean here.
In the digital era, writing the piece, which always took hours before I was happy with a final edit, is just the beginning. (That is after a night or half day spent in the place under review, often requiring more than one visit).
From that birth of a piece, the food critic must then share the assessment with an audience. And in my case, that was an audience in the hundreds of thousands – members of food and chefs’ groups around the world. And then of course, responding to the hundreds of comments and sometimes, dealing with nasty trolls.
I learnt pretty quickly to ignore the trolls – or win them over by having a thick hide, and clinging, barnacle like to my rock of why I was there in the first place. And why was I there?
Because I was tired of reading half-arsed reviews by would-be amateur critics with no knowledge of the industry. Or puff pieces paid for by outlets. It was important to me to be an unbiased voice that people could trust and look to for direction.
If a place was diabolical, I told them first, but didn’t give them air space, hoping they might respond to personal criticism and fix whatever was wrong. I had no wish to damage a business. Twenty-five years as an owner taught me just how hard the industry is, how big the investments are, how fragile the environment in a restaurant is.
Want to know what real pressure is? Work as a chef in a busy outlet. Where every service is only as good as the last meal put up on the pass. Where Murphy factors outnumber any other business a hundred to one. Where gutless wonders of customers give no feedback but stalk and spit venom from a keyboard without fear because, hey? They can.
But in saying that, I did write one scorching review of a well known, and to me, pretentious place that was sailing way above its water line. They handled the situation badly as well, only interested in the social media fall out, forgetting the most important reason they’re there in the first place? We, the customers!
I still consult occasionally, but mostly turn down clients wanting to be restaurateurs before they leap because their answer to my first question, “How much experience have you had working in restaurants?” is almost always, “None!” I have no interest in taking people’s money, knowing that it will all end in tears. And it does. Almost always it does.
Just the Sizzle, my food and industry blog, really took off, and it was illuminating to see just how many people enjoyed the reviews, the chef interviews, the opinion pieces; but another driver took over my little dodge-‘em car of life and I found myself setting up “Off the Hotplate”, because I passionately wanted to make a better industry. Somehow. And this seemed like the best pathway there.
It’s been a big two years, and Off the Hotplate has rightly taken its front seat spot to deliver skills that still no one is taught at school or college.
My team and I are very proud of what we’re doing and the difference it’s already making. We have so much more to achieve, and without distractions, I intend to get there. Watch out world.
So to everyone who has enjoyed (or not) my reviews, I say thank you. From the bottom of my dinner plate, thank you for your responses, for your interest and input, and a deep thank you to my loyal friends who accompanied me on many an outing and gave me your honest, and valuable opinions.
While the sizzle is enjoying a hiatus, offthehotplate.com will still have chef interviews, food industry pieces, and the odd opinion or chat piece. But reviews? I think not.
And there you have it, while the food critic has taken a back seat in the dodge-‘em car, the industry catalyst is driving hell bent down the highway, determined to make a better industry for all now, a sustainable model that will entice future generations to enter.
One last thing: Please, please be kind and courteous when you are a guest in a restaurant, and give feedback. You might just do some real good. It’s important.
With love, Christine Matheson-Green
You can find the Hotplate here: Off the Hotplate