Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Wednesday, 28 April 2010 12:33 UK

What does it take to be a good restaurant critic?

Waiter with tray

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Greed, arrogance and a pinch of obsessive attention to detail - the perfect ingredients to be a restaurant critic? With the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world published this week, what does it take to pass judgement on them?

Gordon Ramsay is a confident chef. But even he might have experienced a slight wobble if he'd been at the recent opening of his new London restaurant Petrus, and taken a sneaky peak from the kitchen.

Seated at the same table were AA Gill and Giles Coren, arguably two of the most powerful and ruthless restaurant critics in the business.

As Gill himself wrote in his subsequent review in the Sunday Times: "To get one restaurant critic is a misfortune; to get two is carelessness. To get them both on a bank-holiday Monday is suicidal."

Chef v critic: The restaurant review

He then went on to dismiss the restaurant as "hopelessly passé" and "utterly has-been".

Restaurant critics are part and parcel of the world of fine dining. Not only are they read by thousands each week, they are also among the judging panel of the annual list of the world's 50 best restaurants, published by Restaurant Magazine this week. But what does it take to do the job well?

Unlike the hallowed tastebuds of the world of the wine buff, when you are speaking to restaurant critics you rarely get the idea that they regard themselves to have special powers of taste.

Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who is also the chair of the list's British judging panel, says a good critic is always clear about what their job is - to sell newspapers, not restaurants.

"What I write has to be entertaining and a compelling read, it's not about the finer points of cooking," he says. "There are people out there who know more about food than I do, but reading their stuff is pure Mogadon - it puts you to sleep."

Even chefs - who often have a volatile relationship with critics - admit that writing is as important as knowledge.

'Ignorant'

"Some critics are very knowledgeable but utterly tedious writers," says chef Rowley Leigh, who runs Le Cafe Anglais. "They just don't capture the spirit of a place. Restaurants have a very peculiar chemistry, they are about more than just food.

"But even the best can be terribly ignorant at times and that's what chefs find difficult to take. Also, a critic's job is to sell newspapers and good reviews don't always do that. I think AA Gill is often far too interested in the fuss his words are going to create than the food he's eaten."

But a good critic doesn't care what people think of them, says Kate Spicer, a food critic and regular on MasterChef. They are paid to have an opinion and that doesn't always make them popular.

FOOD CRITIC GUIDELINES
Anonymity
Multiple visits
Order a range of dishes
Always pay
Be professional and ethical
Source: Association of Food Journalists

"You don't go into the job to make friends," she says. "It can be hard to be honest if that means really slating a restaurant, after all it's someone's livelihood and you know how hard it is to survive in the business. But the best restaurant critics just don't give a toss.

"There is theatre involved in good reviewing and that takes arrogance. Of course, it goes both ways. A brilliant chef can be just as arrogant and ban a critic if they don't like what they've written. I was once banned from all of Jean-Christophe Novelli's restaurants, he even sent out a press release telling everyone. It was a publicity game."

Another essential characteristic is greed. Restaurant critics might have to eat out up to three times a week and return repeatedly to establishments to get a full picture of what they are like.

"You cannot do the job without being greedy," says Rayner. "Even if you love food, you'll get bored. I review one restaurant a week, but I accidently fall into several others over those seven days. Its greed, plain and simple."

'Lighting and loos'

Often a critic may be reviewing a French restaurant one day, Vietnamese the next and then an Ethiopian eatery.

"You don't have to be an expert in all the world's cuisines," says Spicer. "A foodie knows if tastes are balanced, if something is seasoned properly, if ingredients sparkle and textures work."

But doing the job well creates its own problems. The most successful restaurant critics are instantly recognisable, so how can they get the average person's dining experience if staff know who you are?

AA Gill
AA Gill: The most feared restaurant diner in the UK?

"I always book under a pseudonym so the restaurant doesn't know I'm coming, if they recognise when I walk in there's not much they can do to change things," says Rayner. "But I also pay really close attention to the other diners around me.

"I don't think anonymity is a big issue. The restaurant critic Terry Durack summed it up perfectly when he said a bad restaurant doesn't become good just because he walks through the door."

That attention to detail is not only to do with the food. A great restaurant is a sum of parts, the others being service and ambience. A good critic checks them all out.

"I am obsessed with things like lighting and the loos," says Spicer.

There was a time when critics wielded real power. New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni could shut down restaurants with a bad review, says Guardian food writer Tim Hayward.

"There was a time when their opinion was incredibly important," he says. "But the general public are eating out more these days and are more confident about what they like. Now the big-name critics are more like entertaining columnists."

'Fish and chip paper'

But they still have a collective power, argues Spicer. A scathing review from Giles Coren in the Times may not scupper a restaurant's chance of success, but if there is uniform agreement among the top critics then it can be damaging.

The spread of the blogosphere has also had an impact. Now anyone can publish their own review on internet sites for all to read. An unexpected consequence of this is a "grudging truce" between the big-name critics and chefs.

"With so many people now posting reviews and calling themselves critics, I think chefs are starting to really value the professionals," says Spicer.

But it's still no major love in.

"However important they think they are, their reviews are still just tomorrow's fish and chip paper," says Leigh.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Critics are just folk like the rest of us, with their own preferences, and prejudices. I've eaten in many well reviewed restaurants and recieved what I would think of as poor service and mediocre food, and I've had great times at places where most critics wouldn't even cross the threshold. I think reviews from friends and family are far more important.
Eddie, Edinburgh

Thank God, at least we acknowledge that food critics make good reading. And lets leave it at that. Following the critic's lead would be putting one's adventurous spirit on a leash. How would it feel not to have an opinion of one's own...hanging on to somebody else's?
SAH, Riyadh

Nowadays you only have to type in the name of a restaurant to find a decent review site with loads of reviews by members of the public - a far better review than by some critic the place saw coming and pamper to. I have even visited places off the back of review sites and found them to be quite precise in their comments.
Becky, UK

The most important ingredient for a critic must be a sense of humour if you think that small, ornately-presented, undercooked dishes are the be all and end all of cuisine.
Tony Mactire, Glasgow

I think it needs to be remembered that these reviews are just one person's opinion. None of the four critics mentioned in the article have ever cooked professionally and that also needs to be remembered when reading their reviews. Personally, I find Gill's reviews to be almost unreadable due to his arrogance and often wonder why he rarely ventures outside London. Critics are only journalists, with no catering experience or qualifications, and it's easier for them to find fault than to do the job themselves.
Peter, Manchester

Everyone outside London is sceptical about restaurant critics. Here in Wales we have many budding restaurateurs who have moved from London. However mediocre the restaurants are they still manage to get glowing reviews from their media chums in London.
Terry Phillips, Carmarthen

The trouble with a good review for an averagely priced restaurant is that so many people then swamp it that they cannot cope and the standard of both food and service goes down the pan.
Jools, London

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