Restaurant reviewers reveal tricks of their trade

Terry_Durack_Jonathan_Gold_Crave_Sydney

Terry Durack (left), with Crave Sydney moderator Dani Valent and Jonathan Gold.

Restaurant reviewers Terry Durack (Sydney Morning Herald) and Jonathan Gold (Los Angeles Times) discussed their modus operandi at a Talks & Thoughts session at Crave Sydney’s International Food Festival.

Both review anonymously – or as anonymously as possible when your photograph is in circulation – and make bookings under pseudonyms. Gold used to go by ‘Ron Davis’ or ‘George Greed’, the name of his algebra teacher in high school; Durack used to assume the names of the streets nearby where he lived: “trouble was by the time you got to the restaurant three weeks later you forgot what street you were,” he said.

But that’s where most of the similarities end. Gold, who in 2007 became the first food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, tends to visit a restaurant four or five times before writing  a review. Newspaper restraints in Australia mean Durack visits a restaurant twice, if he returns a third time it’s at his own expense. Here are edited excerpts of their thoughts on other restaurant reviewing tricks of the trade.

On taking notes

Gold: “I take notes when I get home. I have a very good food memory … it might be pathological. I don’t remember people. If I talk to someone today I will not remember who they are tomorrow. But I remember food.”

Durack: “I do take notes. I don’t hide the fact that I’m writing. Most people think I’m actually working, I’m doing some homework of some kind. They don’t know that I’m reviewing the restaurant. It’s quite amazing, but true. We used to take a little tape recorder and I used to put it into my wife’s handbag and we’d talk into it … ‘oh, I see the lasagne is $12.65’. Trouble is once you’ve done two and a half hours in a restaurant, then you’ve got to do two and a half hours transcription and it takes forever … so it’s notes now.

“Also I used to draw every dish. I’m not the world’s greatest artist and I’d go home and look at the drawing and say ‘what was that?’. I love little cameras, no flash, nobody knows you’re doing it, you’ve got the shot and you can just remind yourself of all those little nuances on the plate and that makes my life easier.”

On striking a balance between positive and negative commentary

Gold: I decided earlier on … that [negative reviewing] was part of the experience that I didn’t enjoy that much.When you become a critic of a certain level in town a bad review will shut a place down so I used to save it for things.

“The idea is to write a review, especially if it’s going to be negative, that is going to be insightful, that is going to be something that could almost be used as something that someone would hire a consultant to do.”

Durack: “Insightful, not spiteful, is what you should be aiming for. Working in London for almost nine years, they are experts in absolutely crushing chefs with their words … While A.A Gill is a magnificent writer, as is Giles Coren and all the others, I just think sometimes our job is not to tell people what not to eat, our job is to tell people what to eat and I just think the English critics sometimes aren’t doing that enough.

“The restaurants that get hurt are in the in between layer. Usually the ones right at the top end have got a reputation, they’ve got a chef who’s been around, but the strugglers in between who’ve just spent all their savings, they’ve hocked the house, and they get a bad review and they’re only dragging in about 18-20 people a night anyway, you kill them, they’re gone.”

Gold: “I can’t bring myself to do that … there was a place that was a really bad restaurant where I found out the chef and his family were living in a closet upstairs. It had to die a natural death. It wasn’t going to be murdered.”

Durack: “If you write a bad review you have to have a good reason for it. It’s too easy. I won’t eat at a place that I know is going to be bad. If I know it’s going to be bad why the hell am I going there? So when I write a bad review it’s because I’ve been unhappily surprised. I know there are reviewers in England who choose their mark  … ‘that restaurant’s not going to be very good, I can have fun with that, everyone will quote me in all their trade mags, and it will be fantastic’.”

On who they write for

Durack: “I write for myself. So I’m assuming i’m writing for someone who knows something about food, who likes eating out, and I just think if you can please yourself, you have a much greater chance of actually pleasing everyone else.”

On how the changing media landscape has affected their work

Gold: “I’ve always reviewed restaurants that other critics didn’t touch. Now, in the first week of an obscure place with an un-transmitted menu opening, there are six blog posts and it’s much harder to discover [a new restaurant] – not that discovery is the be all and end all of restaurant reviews, but it’s a part of it.”

Durack: “I think online has had a huge influence in the way I work. When I was in Australia before I went to London in 2000 we had a pretty strict rule that we wouldn’t review a restaurant that wasn’t three months old and sometimes eight weeks old. My whole view of that changed when I went to London and the reviewers seemed to have a race to see who could get the review out first on a new restaurant.

“Now there are so many online things, so many reviews going out in the first week of a restaurant’s life: how long can we leave it, especially as the newspaper itself is called a newspaper and everyone is looking at your review to have some kind of news quality to it? So now I review much quicker than I ever used to.

On bloggers

Durack: What I see for the most, and there are a couple of exceptions, they are enthusiastic amateurs whose real value is in their images and I think it’s the images that actually stand them up. Very few use words as well as they use their cameras.”

On scoring restaurants & awarding ‘hats’

Durack: Hats are okay but I think scores are essential. They are very essential in Australia where you are not really allowed to say what you really think.  You’re really not. You have to hide it between the lines or you will end up in court and you lose the case, which has happened three times now in Sydney. They can’t take you to court for getting a [score of] 12, or an 11. Therefore you have a chance of being honest through your scores. Hats are the fun part, unless you’re talking to a chef who has lost one.”

On how to become a critic

Gold: “Through the back way. I was at university, I was studying to be a composer … I started writing music reviews for the local newspaper and one day the guy who ran the paper asked me if I wanted to edit the restaurant guide. I was behind on my rent that month so I did and it turned out to be something I enjoyed terrifically. I was very enthusiastic but not particularly knowledgeable in the beginning, but five years later I’d probably worked it out.”

Durack: “All the hot critics in London started off as journalists, they did their training as journalists, they went into newspapers, they swapped newspapers. Those jobs simply don’t exist any more … I get email after email saying ‘can you please advise me, I want to be a critic, what do I do?’ and I just don’t know what to say.”

Gold: “In some ways, though, it’s easier than it’s ever been because you’ve got blogs and there is no barrier to admission and if someone has a good blog somebody will notice it, and if you’re a blogger and you write better restaurant reviews than the people who are writing restaurant reviews you will get a job with someone, people will hire you to do it, you will get a look in.”

Durack: “In an ideal world.”

Gold:  “Look it happens, I mean it’s very hard to pick new food writers in the States who have not come out of the ranks of the food bloggers.”

On how soon they write reviews after visiting a restaurant

Gold: “Usually I’ll try to let it marinate for a couple of weeks because first impressions are sometimes good, and sometimes they’re great, but they’re often also pretty wrong.

I do tend to go back to restaurant a lot and it’s amazing sometimes when you think you have an idea of a restaurant on the first go and it turns out to be something else.”

Durack: “On the other side of that argument is of course if I leave it too long I forget too much.  So I will normally do a first draft within a week and often within 24 hours if I’m organised. Then I will do a second draft after a second visit, then there will at least three drafts, sometimes five – then it’s not for the content, for remembering what  the meal was, it’s for making it as readable as you possibly can.”

The Food Sage attended the International Chef Showcase as a guest of Crave Sydney.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Restaurant reviewers reveal tricks of their trade

  1. Thanks for the great read. I particularly like their thoughts about negative commentary and I approach the issue pretty much in line with that philosophy.

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  2. Eha

    I have really enjoyed reading this double comparative ‘interview’! I am truly struck by both men’s professionalism and consciousnessat being fair when they put their name on an article which, at times, may make or break a certain eatery.

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  3. Yes I find the score rating a very valuable insight thank you

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    • I have to admit that i hadn’t quite looked at it the way Durack does, but i guess when you’re working in that arena it is best to have a backup and that’s what the score system is. I hadnt quite seen it as their safety net, but i guess it makes sense.

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  4. Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing all of their responses. I really enjoyed reading about the way they approach reviewing and the responsibility they feel in terms of reviewing. This type of considered, balanced approach is what we should all be striving for.

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    • And interesting that they approached reviewing in sometimes quite different ways. They do seem to strive for balance, which seems to be a good thing, right? But do the British reviewers do anything wrong by going for the jugular? I thought they did …but now i’m not so sure.

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  5. Some interesting insights, although I’d find it hard to believe that many restaurants these days would think that Durack is doing homework if he’s sitting in their restaurant! I think the gap between where the US blogging scene is and where Australia is, was also clearly evidenced by their responses.

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    • Good points, Helen. I, too, found it hard to believe that restaurant staff would not recognise Durack! He’s a household face in Sydney, isn’t he? And yes, the responses were often stark in contrast, which does suggest a vast difference between food writing/reviewing across these geographical locations.

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  6. eatdrinkandbekerry

    Great article Rachel. Thank you for sharing!

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  7. very interesting read. i liked the philosophy of ‘Inciteful, not spiteful’ which I tend to follow myself. i’m pretty sure every Sydney restaurant would recognize Mr Durack with whatever pseudonym he gives, especially the places he tends to review.

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    • I agree, you’d have to have been living under a rock if you worked in the Sydney restaurant scene and didn’t recognise Durack! And the philosophy of ‘inciteful not spiteful’ is pretty neat. Those British reviewers sound like a pack of wolves!

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  8. It’s nice to know that they feel a sense of responsibility when reviewing restaurants. Having said that, I am often disappointed by how neutral many restaurant reviews are. What is the writer trying to say? Was it a good or bad eating experience? Would he/she recommend the restaurant? If I can’t extract an answer to one of these questions from the review, then the “review” was probably merely a diary entry of what the writer had eaten, something which is interesting in itself but not helpful when trying to decide on where to eat.

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    • Well said. I think one of the issues is being sued … which is why well know reviewers in Australia often make us read between the lines. Some do it very well, and are very entertaining writers overall so their pieces are a pleasure to read. But i agree. Sometimes you just want them to come out and say it! Thanks for dropping by the blog.

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  9. I read a lot of UK papers & I love the no holds barred approach. Durack’s point that, in Australia, scores are essential because you can’t say what you really think, makes me feel sad. If you read the UK reviewers regularly you know what to take with a pinch of salt …

    Also, I think (or rather, I hope!) you mean “insightful” rather than “inciteful”!

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    • Thanks for dropping by Alex. Lovely to meet you. I think the Australian food media has learnt some hard lesson by being sued – several times – by restauranteurs for negative commentary. Each time the restaurateurs won. I’m not sure how litigious it is in the UK, but there is certainly a much bigger contingent of food writers – so maybe that is why they get away with more. I agree, it’s a shame that reviewers can’t say what they really think, opening, here.
      And well spotted on ‘inciteful’! I have made the change in the copy. Wish i had a sub editor on hand to pick up the litany of errors that i’m sure make their way into each piece.
      Hope you drop by again.

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