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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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 BigHospitality.com end up.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.