Critical mass

covstory2In our first feeding frenzy of food critics, we reveal everything you want to know about Australia’s most influential restaurant reviewers. Plus, critic-proof your restaurant with the Review-o-MaticTM (it’s, like, totally scientifical)!

Earlier this year, in a Sydney Morning Herald restaurant review, Matthew Evans described a dish as “a train wreck of flavours” and said he couldn’t decide if he “really, really, really hated it or not.” Around the same time, in another review, the features editor at Gourmet Traveller, Pat Nourse, praised a dish he had as “a standout”. The interesting thing is, they were both talking about exactly the same dish, served at the same restaurant.

At the same place, Evans described the desserts as “sensational” and “excellent”, while Nourse said it was “a showcase for everything that’s wrong with the Japanese approach to sweets”. This all goes to prove a rather obvious point—reviewing restaurants is a subjective business. When you boil down any judgement or observation, it’s really the opinion of the critic.

And that begs the question, who are these critics anyway? We’ve put out a call to the most significant restaurant reviewers in the country to answer that question for you.

Sue Bennett

The Daily Telegraph, Sydney

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

Luck and some good management, combined with a lifelong love of food and wine.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

No. If, or when, it did, it would be time to call it a day.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

Reviewing is only an element of what I do. My job also involves writing, editing, commissioning and organising photos.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

It’s a bit of both, but mostly art. It has to be an interesting read.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Good service. I know it’s a predictable answer but it’s surprisingly hard to find.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

They take forever to bring a jug or glass of tap water.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

Usually, but not always, I write the piece then do the scores.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

I used to think anonymity was essential and, while I continue to believe it’s desirable (and certainly any legitimate reviewer should pay for a meal and not make themselves known at any stage), I have changed this view slightly. A poor restaurant or kitchen cannot make itself great when a reviewer walks through the door.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

They should be both, but the fact is a good piece of writing will attract far more readers than an information-packed but dull review.

David Dale

Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

I found out the SMH paid for reviewers’ meals, so I volunteered to join the reviewing team so I could eat beyond my means.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

It was a chore when I used to do a review a week. Now I only do it once a month, so it’s not a chore.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

I’m the popular culture columnist for the SMH, so I spend most of my time watching TV, seeing movies on the big screen or on DVD, and reading research reports on the way Australians behave.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

It is neither. In the end, personal opinion is the key ingredient.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

When a restaurant has a sense of generosity and is enthusiastic to give the customer a good time.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Doing a dish they think is trendy, instead of their own specialties. I never want to see another mushroom risotto, or “truffled” olive oil.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

I usually work out the scores before I start writing.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

They should be anonymous. I don’t trust the work of reviewers who try to create a cult of personality.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

I’d go for informative. It should give enough information to let readers decide if they’d like it. If it’s an amusing read, that’s a bonus.

Stephen Downes

Herald Sun, Melbourne

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

I was appointed by The Age to review restaurants for the first time in 1977. I was chosen simply because I’d lived in France.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Eating out is only ever a chore if the food is bad.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

I tutor in journalism at Monash University, I present training courses to business executives, I teach writing in other capacities, I write non-food journalism, and I write books.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

I insist that restaurant reviewing is more science than art. A good reviewer should be able to tell if the food is fresh, the cooking is technically accomplished, and the balance of flavours is right.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Nothing I can especially think of.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Employ serving staff who need to be more watchful over diners.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

I have a tentative score in mind as I eat the meal. Then I write the review, ponder over the score, compare it with what I’ve given other restaurants in the past 12 months, and then make a decision.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

I always arrive at restaurants booked under an assumed name, but I think reviewers, because of their job, are part of the industry.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

Good writing should be entertaining, but entertainment should never replace information or fair, objective judgements.

Matthew Evans

Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food Guide, Sydney

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

By accident, really. I had an accident at work that left me unsure if I’d ever be able to continue as a chef. Then I fell in love with reading about food, and while I did go back to work, I’d fallen in love with reading about restaurants, too.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

It can, rarely, become a chore when I have too many disappointing meals in a short space of time. The great thing about appetite is that if you wait a few hours, it always comes back.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

I write recipes, walk to lose the weight that the job put on in the first year, and cook.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

It’s neither. Reviews are something the public desire.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Passion. There’s so much of it in the industry, and it’s the reason the Australian restaurant scene is so dynamic.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Rip you off for water. It’s the public’s greatest complaint.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

I usually decide on a score while I write the review. Usually the score is apparent within a short time of a visit to a restaurant.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

In an ideal world, a reviewer would be anonymous. Our role is not to be active in the industry, but to observe and comment.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

There’s no point writing a review that no-one reads, so they should err on the side of being entertaining if needed.

Helen Greenwood

Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

By eating a lot and writing even more.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Only if the people cooking for you or serving you treat it that way.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

Reading, travelling as much as possible, and being with my family.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

There’s a science to art and an art to science. Doing anything, even restaurant reviewing, means using both sides of the brain.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

A big smile and good manners.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Ask you if you want something to drink just as you are getting your coat off or trying to sit down.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

Review first, score last.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

Anonymous, but they can still be active in the industry.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

They should satisfy the reader’s needs for that particular publication or media outlet.

Bob Hart

Herald Sun, Melbourne

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

By being passionate about food, and being greedy.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Not so far. If it does, I’ll stop.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

By writing about other things.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

It is neither. It’s purely an occupation, an aspect of journalism.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Brilliant, simple food created by a chef who is as passionate about preparing great food as I am about eating it.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Being asked if you are enjoying your meal by a well-meaning but poorly trained waiter.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

Neither. I don’t give scores. They are subjective and silly, and only relevant if a review fails to communicate what the restaurant is all about—how good it is, and whether it is likely to be your cup of tea.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

Any pretence at anonymity is just that—pretence. Most reviewers adore being photographed and giving long and tedious interviews.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

If they fail on either count, they are a waste of column inches. And sadly, far too many Australian reviews do.

David Hummerston

The West Australian, Perth

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

The features editor approached me in 1988 to start writing a regular restaurant review. My first was of a Lebanese restaurant and I wrote about eavesdropping. When a couple on the table next door decided to air their dirty linen to friends about the husband’s affair, it was manna from heaven. The falafels were dull.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Occasionally. It is possible to become jaded—especially at mediocre restaurants where there is little to recommend and no character about which to write.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

I’m Saturday editor as well as editorial counsellor.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

It’s a broth of both, although probably a bit more skewed towards art. Nothing is more boring than a restaurant review that disappears up its own orifice because it gets over-technical.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

A new flavour or flavour combination. The sense of adventure and anticipation is what it’s all about.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Employ indolent or insolent staff—waiters who say, “Youse enjoy!”

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

Review first. The score in some ways is a nuisance and a number on which both readers and restaurateurs put far too much weight.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

That’s a no brainer. No anonymity, no integrity. Keep your eyes and ears open, but don’t join the club.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

Again, like a good stock, good reviewers try for a balance of both. Too much information is a yawn, too little is useless to the reader.

John Lethlean

The Age, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Melbourne

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

I’m a journalist by trade, but I also owned a café and catering business for six years. While I was running the business, a friend offered me the opportunity to write restaurant reviews.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Occasionally, but I surprise myself sometimes by simply wanting to go out to a restaurant for the sheer fun of it.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

I have an old house and two children under 11—there’s always something needing my attention.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

As a writer, I gravitate towards the art bias. It is the way insights are expressed that makes a review meaningful.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Imaginative cooking. The “where did that idea come from” factor.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

It comes down to there being too many restaurants, too few decent staff to go around and an erosion of standards as a result.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

I usually write first and consider the score as I go.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

The industry can’t police itself; it has to be done independently.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

As a journalist, I like a piece of good writing; as a restaurant consumer, I want opinion from someone I respect and trust.

Lizzie Loel

The Courier-Mail, Brisbane

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

After 15 years as a chef and caterer, I was asked to write for a small independent paper, which I did for about a year. Then someone saw my articles and asked if I would write for The Courier-Mail.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Hell no! Never. How could it? Restaurants are theatres and full of people—the main ingredient. I am definitely happiest at a table.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

Cooking, reading recipes, walking off the kilos, getting away to the beach and trying to keep the food up to my three teenage boys.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

Neither really, but cooking is an art and understanding the nuances of the industry and the people that make it up is also an art.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Knowing the balance between friendly and attentive service and being left in peace to enjoy the meal, ambience and company.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Dumbing down the menu for lunch really bugs me.  Why do we have to eat everything wrapped in bread at lunchtime?

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

Sometimes I know the score when I leave the restaurant and sometimes it takes a bit more deliberation.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

I would prefer to be anonymous. I represent ‘the punter’ and prefer to be treated as such.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

A reviewer needs to find the balance. If you don’t entertain, you lose your audience, but the facts also need to find their way into it.

Tony Love

The Advertiser,  Adelaide

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

Simply having similar food and wine attitudes to our current editor.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Yes it does… one of the crazy things is finding three hours to spare during the day, plus all the ho-hum food you have to eat.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

With family, entertaining friends at home, reading, making a few barrels of wine and a few jars of jam.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

Both. You need to have a set of standards to adhere to, but then there’s also the ‘wow’ factor—the exciting “artistic’’ part of it.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Simple things done really well, or given a twist and turn of creativity—a simple polenta or risotto dish.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Not pouring by-the-glass wine at the table, crap wine glasses, bad oil, and asking every five minutes whether everything is okay.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

I write the review first, then contemplate my ratings guide, then scratch my head, then panic, then take a deep breath and type it in.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

Reviewers should be as anonymous as possible, and they should try hard not to get too close to any one proprietor.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

The information is more important than trying to sound clever.

John Newton

Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney Eats, Sydney

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

My mother was a restaurant reviewer in Sydney, so I’d often be her ‘companion’ in short pants. I fell into food writing after I left advertising and started reviewing with the Sydney Morning Herald.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Yes. At the end of what I call the ‘eating season’ for Sydney Eats, I spend a lot of time at home with lamb chops and mashed potatoes.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

Reading, writing, cooking, combing bookstores and art galleries and spending as much time with my family as possible.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

There’s absolutely nothing scientific about it. Neither is it art—it’s attention, experience and the craft of writing.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Good food cooked with love and served with pleasure. After going to a multi-hatted restaurant that left me cold, I was discussing the experience with an old mate who is a very fine chef and restaurateur, Michael Manners, and he said there are two ways you can be treated in a restaurant. “You can be processed, or you can be nurtured,” he said. I love to be nurtured.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Bad service and trying to get away with second-rate food. Also, that irritating feeling that you’re being ignored or conned or palmed off.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

By the end of a meal, I’ll decide the score, but I often revise it in writing the review. But then there are times when you immediately go, wow, that’s a 10, or errrrch, that’s a two.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

A reviewer is not or should never be a member of the industry. I don’t see how Matthew Evans can keep reviewing after his appearance in the documentary series Heat in the Kitchen. One of the reasons I enjoy the reviewing I do now is that we’re combing Sydney for the places where people wouldn’t know or care less who David Dale or Matthew Evans were.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

You must supply the experience for the reader. The best reviewer ever was Nigella Lawson when she was at The Spectator (and before anyone knew she was a babe).

Pat Nourse

Australian Gourmet Traveller, National

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

A voracious interest in food and a love of writing were probably at the heart of the matter. There are worse ways to earn a crust.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Mediocrity becomes a chore, and places that show a lack of care can really wear you down in the middle of reviewing season, leaving you hankering for some simply cooked chickpeas or anything with a bit of soul and integrity.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

I also review bars and do quite a bit in the way of luxury travel. It’s my crime, it’s my punishment.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

Given that good food itself lies somewhere between the two, it’s best to look at it as a scientific way of examining an art form.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

The virtue of simplicity.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Again, it boils down to lack of care and lack of attention to detail. I also really, really hate truffle oil.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

You usually get a pretty good feel for where a restaurant sits when you’re sitting at the table. You’ve got to ask yourself three questions: do I want to come here again? Would I recommend it to my friends? And what would mum think of it?

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

I don’t think the two ideas are necessarily mutually exclusive, but there is certainly something to be said for reviewing anonymously.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

There shouldn’t be any leaning, really—the information and entertainment should be of a piece. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn something new, and hopefully at the end of it you’ll be so hungry you’ll pick up the phone and make that reservation.

Graeme Phillips

The Mercury, Hobart

1. How did you get in to restaurant reviewing?

After cooking and going to restaurants for 15 years, I was invited by the local newspaper to write a weekly column.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

At times, yes.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

Writing, reading, listening to music, cooking and consulting.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

Very much an art grounded in knowledge and experience, but ultimately subjectively based.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

The simple harmony of ingredients and flavours.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Incompatible over-garnishing and unnecessary tizzying up.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

I don’t allocate scores, I simply try and let the words talk.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

Preferably anonymous.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

More informative.

Joanna Savill

Sydney Morning Herald and SBS, Sydney

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

I began writing about the Sydney food scene in the early 1990s with my friend and colleague, Maeve O’Meara. I’ve developed a good understanding of restaurants from both sides of the kitchen door.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Rarely. Although going to a place where the restaurateur’s heart isn’t in it is a bit soul destroying.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

I’m a full-time journalist, TV producer and mother of two teenagers. Need I say more?

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

A bit of both. Writing about your experiences in a way that others can relate to is definitely an art. I also think good reviewers need to understand that a restaurant also has a human side.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Front of house staff who really know what they are serving and who are passionate about the food—no matter how humble.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Charge for bread. Serve wine by the glass without showing you the bottle. And forget to offer water and keep replenishing it.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

I score, then write the review. You have a feeling for what the score will be the minute you leave, I think. And you can always modify it.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

Anonymous. But they also need to be intelligent and sympathetic.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

A bit of both. It depends on the publication and the readership.

Gavin Simpson

The West Australian, Perth

1. How did you get into restaurant reviewing?

Apart from being a journalist with an interest in food and wine (not so unusual), I got into reviewing through having been a partner in a restaurant myself for several years.

2. Does eating out become a chore?

Meeting deadlines for writing about eating out becomes a chore.

3. When you’re not reviewing, how do you spend your time?

I have a full-time job as a sub-editor but in my spare time it’s movies, books, long walks, music, rock and opera, and eating out.

4. In your opinion, is reviewing restaurants more an art or a science?

It is a bit of both but I think it’s more of an art because it is ultimately so much a matter of personal taste as well as expertise.

5. What’s something that always knocks your socks off?

Great service—it’s getting to be a rarity.

6. What do restaurants regularly do that really bugs you?

Fail to properly train their staff.

7. Do you write the review first then give a score, or vice-versa?

Review first, score second.

8. Should reviewers be anonymous, or active in the industry?

Anonymous.

9. Reviews should be both entertaining and informative—but should they lean towards being more entertaining, or more informative?

The punters mainly want to know what the restaurant is like and whether it is worth going to. Having taken care of that information, you can be entertaining.

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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