Food critics are in an infallible position. If a chef or restaurant is to criticise a critic or publicly disagree with a bad review, they will appear like they cannot take criticism - a charge Oliver Dunne heard a lot last year after his infamous publicity stunt. I believe Dunne actually invites diners to critique his food when he changes his menu each season in Bon Appetit, so accusing him of not taking criticism may be unfair.
So a restaurant must decide which critics to take notice of and which to ignore. In other words, they must decide which critics know their stuff.
Some of the components that make a good food critic are obvious. Of course, knowledge and a love of food is imperative - being a keen cook must surely help this. A critic needs to be able to identify cooking errors and pick up on the different techniques in a dish. Judging the balance of flavours and textures of a dish is essential. Knowing what ingredients are in season is obligatory. Appreciating good presentation, but not being blinded by it is also key. Seeing clarity in a dish is vital - knowing when there are too many ingredients and techniques on the plate. Spotting poor service is also important - as service has such a big impact on the diners' experience. Despite these requirements being obvious, they seem, to us amateur critics at least, to be lacking in some professional critics.
Ok, so if you are have read our previous post you may have figured that we are not fans of some critics - especially in Ireland. But there are many good reasons for this and it is not just the number of reviews we have read that we do not agree with it. Nor is it just the huge number of good reviews they seem to dole out.
The most important attribute of a critic is having very high standards. Every positive review of a restaurant must be made with the confidence that anyone visiting the restaurant as a consequence will experience the same excellence. Flaws and imperfections should not be ignored or forgiven and the critic has an obligation to report them. Michelin comes in for a lot of criticism for not giving more stars to restaurants in Ireland, but this is because they have high standards and reputation to live up to. They are internationally recognised and people travel the world to eat in Michelin star restaurants. They cannot give out a star unless they are sure the food is not only excellent, but also very consistent. This is why they will eat in a restaurant several times before awarding a star. Although there are a few restaurants we think should have a star that don't and a few that maybe shouldn't that do, Michelin is still a very good barometer of the best restaurants in a region.
We think that a restaurant critic should try, as much as possible, to stay anonymous. It surely has to be the best way of judging the food and service that a regular diner would receive. If a critic is known to a restaurant, which most professional critics are, then they will receive special treatment and the restaurant will pay special attention to the critic's food and service. We have heard many stories of critics receiving extra dishes, the best table etc. With special treatment, it must be very difficult to review the experience that other diners will receive. Of course, if a critic writes for a leading newspaper, restaurants will know who they are no matter how much they try to stay anonymous. But at a minimum they should make the reservation anonymously so they are not expected. Any critic that expects special attention when arriving in a restaurant is very hard to take seriously and is probably in the job for the wrong reasons.
A good critic must be impartial. If a reviewer is a friend of anyone involved in the restaurant then it must be harder to give a bad review. A critic must approach every meal with an open mind and without any prejudgements and be willing to give the restaurant a positive of negative review. It may be easier not to build personal relationships, but then being anonymous would help this.
It cannot be in the critics interest to give a good or bad review. For example, if a reviewer is the type that garnishes restaurants with a plaque for display outside the front door with their name (or head) on it, then the more plaques they distribute the more publicity they get - so it is in their interest to dole out more plaques. Similarly a critic should not seek out controversy by looking for problems.
A critic who varnishes restaurants with plaques must be willing to regularly visit each of these restaurants to ensure it is still living up to the standards that earned this accolade. These plaques are not just a review of one meal, but are going to be there long after the critic decided it was worthy and the critic is staking their valued reputation against this restaurant. It is not enough to just put the year of recommendation on the plaque as it will still be on display long after this. It is a permanent review of the restaurant. So we wonder, when returning to a restaurant, does it happen that after a bad meal, the critic may say "Sorry chef that meal wasn't as good - please hand me my chisel so I can prise my plaque from your front door". Let's hope so.