Andy Lynes
 food journalist and writer



16 October 2007


It's not often that I can say I've been upstaged by a 140 pound tuna. And especially not at the Restaurant Show, where my annual visits are typified by a stroll around the exhibits punctuated by chance meetings and the odd chef demo. This year was different, and not just because the show had moved to its new home at Earls Court 2 where all the action was on one floor rather than the split level arrangement at Olympia, last year's venue.

I'll get to exactly how a slab full of premium marine life managed to steal the limelight later, but the biggest change this year for me was swapping my usual role of interested spectator for that of nervous participant.

Back in July, I was approached by the Guild of Food Writers to take part in a live debate at the show called "The Muzzling of Restaurant critics". Inspired by libel cases brought by restaurateurs against critics in Ireland and Australia, the Guild was inviting a panel of writers and chefs to discuss the role of the restaurant critic in an increasingly litigious age.

With the likes of the Evening Standard's Charles Campion and Good Food Guide editor Elizabeth Carter slated to be involved, I felt honoured to be asked and readily agreed. As a sometime guest critic for the London Metro and the Guardian and a voracious reader of restaurant reviews, it's a subject very close to my heart. Here was a chance then to express my strong views in front of an audience other than my long suffering wife.

What I hadn't taken time to consider was that the debate would take place on the main stage at the show. Although I'm a bit of an old lag when it comes to treading the boards, (I'm a failed ex-amateur musician and am-dram actor) it's a good few years since I've performed. My usual method of steadying my not inconsiderable nerves with a healthy dose of alcohol was obviously not going to be an option; I'd need my wits (both of them) about me if I was to keep up with a live, unrehearsed debate.

As the date approached, I spent hours feverishly researching the subject online in order to ensure that my every utterance would be as erudite as it was succinct and illuminating. In short, I was bricking it.

I met up with my fellow panelists and moderator Bill Buckley (you know, the bloke that used to sit behind Esther Rantzen on That's Life!) over lunch in the West section of the Restaurant Show's East meets West restaurant. I allowed myself just one glass of a rather nice, fruity Shiraz to go with a plate of grilled quail, fig and haloumi salad.

"There's a reason plates are usually round with raised edges," smirked Bill as bits of salad and fig fell off the edges of the ridiculously small rectangular slab my lunch had been served on. One of my favourite Restaurant Show guilty pleasures is wandering around the tabletop exhibitors checking out expensive crockery (well, you've got to have a hobby haven't you) but when it comes to actually eating off the stuff, I'm with Bill - large, white and round is best - not unlike myself come to think of it.

If you've been to the show you'll know that the stage is in an unenclosed area with casual bench style seating; a set up that encourages a transient audience. People tend to drift in and out, or stop by for a quick look before heading off for a neck massage by an attractive women in a cocktail dress (no, really - this year's Restaurant Show was full of surprises).

I'm relieved to be able to tell you therefore that our 50 minute debate kept a lot of bums firmly fixed on seats. Although mostly due to Bill's masterly chairing skills and a lively duel between Charles Campion and opinionated restaurateur Jake Watkins of JSW in Petersfield, I managed to keep the end up.

All my carefully researched and rehearsed bon mots never quite materialised. Instead, whatever came in to my head tumble almost unbidden from my mouth. By some miracle, I got my nerves quickly under control and it wasn't all utter twaddle, although that large glass of 14% Shiraz might have given me a rosy view of proceedings.

"Do I look muzzled? Do I look drunk?" asked an entirely unencumbered and sober Charles Campion. No, he hadn't finally gone insane, it was a rhetorical response to Bill Buckley's opening gambit, "Are critics muzzled by fear of litigation or are they drunk with power."

It was a fair question, particularly in light of the recent court ruling against the Irish Times who were forced to pay restaurateur Ciaran Convery £25,000 in damages after he sued the newspaper over a damning review published back in 2000.

When the story first broke, I'd feared the worst. Editors might ask me to gloss over criticisms; my copy might get neutered by the subs - even worse, I'd censor myself. In fact none of these things happened. The ruling never entered my head as I wrote my next review and it appeared exactly how I'd submitted it, bar a few typos and grammatical errors. It was good to hear that at least one other critic appeared to feel the same.

Despite our apparent confidence in the critical process, it became quite clear that there was suspicion and mistrust of critics from the restaurateurs. They also felt there was a lack of understanding by critics of the impact their reviews could have on businesses.

Jake Watkins admitted that a glowing review of his restaurant by Matthew Fort a few years ago was still generating custom for him, but he was nevertheless censorious of the standard newspaper critic method of basing a review on a single visit. Elizabeth Carter and ex-Michelin inspector Simon Parkes (now of Radio 4's The Food Programme), were no doubt pleased to hear that he put more store in guide book ratings which are often based on several inspections or a number of reader reviews.

A lively session of questions got underway and we thought we thought we had the audience in the palms of our hand, until suddenly all eyes turned left. It was chef Nic Watt of Roka restaurant and his team hauling a massive tuna carcass on stage. Our raw opinions had been well and truly upstaged by a huge lump of raw fish. It was time for the pontificators to make way for the doers, and no one was going to argue about that.