Saturday, 19 April 2008

Knowing your Gills from your Giles

Being a restaurant reviewer is great work for those who can get it. For the thrill of responding to the dinner party ice-breaker ‘so what do you do?’ if nothing else.

As with any reviewing job, it is always more interesting for both reader and critic when the latter has not enjoyed himself or does not like what he is evaluating. We picture the critic battling through his tough wild boar and so-so soufflé, then whipping out his Dictionary of Underwhelmed over coffee to plan his assault.

It must be dispiriting knowing your audience is hoping their avatar will have to endure indifferent service from waiters, flat champagne and overcooked sea urchin. No one wishes the worst on war reporters after all.

Coming from a writer whose job involves excess, Giles Coren’s rant on English breakfasts this week gave people something to sink their teeth into. The Independent named a relatively tame sentence in his polemic ("You never see a person with a degree eating a fry-up, do you?") as ‘inflammatory quote of the week’, ignoring what preceded that comment: “You don't burn 3,000 calories…fiddling your disability benefit.” Ouch.

We get it. Coren wants to divide and conquer. Some people titter at his devil-may-care superiority and edgy humour. Others get hot under the collar about class stereotyping. Debate ensues: was he being serious? Or is he the Ricky Gervais of the food world?

Hmm. So often reviewers are negative and provocateur just to get a rise from the restaurant owner or a laugh from the reader.

It is too easy to wind people up to attract attention. That is how classes of teenagers drive (degree-holding) teachers to daily distraction.

Critics should develop their writing skills so that they can write a humorous review or article without resorting to gratuitous bile. This is what separates the free-range, organically reared, corn-fed chicken from its two quid frozen rival, and one of the reasons why I admire AA Gill so much.

Most reviewers are unduly harsh because they are at heart people pleasers. Their readers want blood, and if the steak is more ‘bleugh’ than ‘bleu’, they will go to the establishment’s jugular to get it.

Judging by the reaction to Coren’s article in blogs and through online comments, he wasn’t pleasing many people.

It seems wine critics are angsty about their role too...