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July 27, 2022

Critical Juncture

Did the pandemic that turned hospitality on its head also shake up the role of the food reviewer?

Words: Max Brearley
Animations: Jeffrey Phillips

As existential crises go, that of a middle-aged restaurant critic might reasonably be met with indifference. It’s a privileged position, characterised by many as oh, so you get paid to eat.  My impulse is to harumph and then explain in detail what goes into a review, but I must concede: I do get paid to eat.

But even before the pandemic I was increasingly questioning the role of food criticism, and my role as a critic. How relevant is it? What are my inherent biases? Do I have as much responsibility to the hospitality industry as I do to the reader? Is there a wider social responsibility beyond entertaining and informing? 

For restaurant owners and workers – whether they like it or not – the state of criticism affects the state of the hospitality business.

Covid sharpened this focus, and through a series of interviews for my Substack newsletter (Between Meals), I’ve found I’m not alone in pondering these questions. I may flippantly dub it an existential crisis, but these are wider questions for critics, publishers and the audience – who aren’t passive in all this: It’s their appetite that has historically driven what we write. And for restaurant owners and workers – whether they like it or not – the state of criticism affects the state of the hospitality business. 

“Criticism is a really important tool for any kind of creative work,” says Gemima Cody, former restaurant critic at The Age. “But I think it needs to be a fair fight, and it doesn't feel like a fair fight right now with hospitality.” 

Cody could be seen as part of a changing of the guard, still writing but having moved on to country life; Myffy Rigby moving from the Good Food Guide to edit Swill; and Ant Huckstep, former national critic for delicious, now helming the Deep In The Weeds podcasts network. Huckstep says the pandemic was the tipping point for his desire to tell the stories of people in food, “standing side by side with them, as opposed to judging them, criticising and reviewing.” In WA, the 16-year tenure of Rob Broadfield at The West Australian recently ended, Broadfield telling ABC Perth: "I was told my kind of journalism is expensive… certainly for legacy media."

With this change afoot, it begs the question as to whether the landscape will become more representative and diverse. Across Australia it would be fair to say that the stable of critical voices at a high level is somewhat balanced from a gender perspective, while overwhelmingly white, and erring to middle age and beyond. 

Bill Addison, restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, tells me that criticism “needs to illuminate the culture of the city or the nation in which the restaurant functions.” Transpose that to our shores: Can we say that we’re illuminating the culture and experience of Australian dining? 

“We are all capable of missing something when we're writing about food that's outside of our cultural understanding,” says Melissa Leong, best known these days for her MasterChef role but still writing restaurant criticism for delicious. “And so, it's not about sticking to your lane and that I must only write about Singaporean cuisine or Southeast Asian cuisine,” she says. “But there are just some things that you get if your lived experience encompasses it, and it allows you to write with a degree of richness and understanding and empathy.”

This question of representation is also topical in the US and the UK. Marina O’Loughlin, of The Sunday Times, says she sees major British titles making real efforts to reflect diversity when filling roles and shining spotlights, but the handful of  critics at those titles aren’t “in any hurry to cede our positions. Unless they’re ceded for us.”  

For a time, it could be observed that Australia was seeing a glacial shift in perspective. Editor-in-chief of this platform and new chief restaurant reviewer for The Age and Good Weekend, Besha Rodell, saw “a ton of old school, go-to-the-hot-new-place restaurant critics” on her return from the US in 2017 to write an Australian review column for The New York Times. There was a lack in Australia, she says, of “somebody who's wandering around looking for interesting cultural stories.” The time and resources that went into her New York Times column cannot be understated, she says.  “I'm always going to look at those first couple of years as this very amazing golden age of what I was allowed to do with my work that I probably won't ever be able to do again.” 

The realities of the media industry and its shrinking budgets may limit stories as ambitious as Rodell’s. But is it just a subtle shift in focus that’s needed? Less plumping of what’s new, and hyped by PR companies, and more, to paraphrase Bill Addison, illuminating the experience of a city? For sure that includes the new, and the enduring classics, but also the neighbourhood workhorse and the unexpected culinary curveball. 

“Leo Schofield and The (Sydney Morning) Herald et cetera were very, very important in terms of guiding the industry to some place of quality,” says chef Mark Best of his early days in Sydney. “I thought that was an extraordinary time when there were so many discovering what it was to be an Australian restaurant and to use Australian produce, and to use the cultures that we were surrounded by and lived next door to. Those journalists were extraordinarily important in that process of adding to the narrative.” 

Best’s view of the current state of food criticism is less glowing. “In food journalism, there is a talent deficit – or the right people are not getting the jobs,” he says. “There are so many food writers now. I don't see so many food journalists anymore.”  It’s a view echoed by a number of those interviewed.

“Perhaps we need more Jonathan Golds now to really explore in Sydney the 135 different language groups we've got contributing at a deeper level,” says Best. Quay and their ilk serve a purpose, he says, but there are other things worthy of our attention. We are still, he contends, “looking at cost as worth” while what we need are restaurants that are an essential service for their community; they  should take more of the limelight.

For those in the hospitality industry who don’t have the experience of topflight PR support, the workings of media can be mysterious. I’m frequently asked how it all works. Do I need PR? And sometimes, worryingly, do I need to pay for placement? 

As to PR, my answer is that it’s valuable if you know what you want to achieve from it, and that you engage a firm that’s steeped in hospitality. There are world class PR operations in Australia, and then there are those that employ a cookie cutter approach and have a limited grasp on food. A simple DM or tag on your platform of choice, bypassing the towering Jenga-like inboxes of most journalists and editors, can be enough to create awareness. 

 “Often I get my best leads from restaurants simply reaching out to me directly,” says Rodell: “Send me a menu, tell me why your story is compelling. Chances are I’ll come check you out.” 

So, are we in the death throes of food criticism, as is often proffered from various quarters, and by critics themselves? The answer is nuanced but the headline is no, critics will be roaming the dining savannah for many more years. 

The proliferation of random voices and opinions online, says Marina O’Loughlin, as well as listicles created by cannibalising other listicles, have created an environment where “readers are even more drawn to trusted voices.” 

We will perhaps see an evolution, with less of an appetite for the hatchet job. O’Loughlin mirrors this thought, as does Bill Addison recalling that Jonathan Gold, his predecessor at the LA Times, didn't write many damning reviews later in his career, more concerned with uncovering the diverse tapestry that makes LA one of the world’s great food cities. 

O’Loughlin offers the observation of an overcorrection in some quarters, the misnomer of a critic that doesn’t criticise: a cheerleader. Leslie Brenner, former food editor of the LA Times, critic at The Dallas Morning News, and now a restaurant consultant, says that the primary responsibility of a critic is to the reader, but there are other responsibilities. 

“I was always very much aware …  there's a huge responsibility on your shoulders. It's a business that you're writing about, and while I don’t generally feel that critics were able then or are able now to destroy a business, you know, there is a lot of positive power there,” she says. “There's a lot of livelihoods at stake and a lot of money tied up in it.” Brenner believes there’s been an overcorrection following the pandemic. “[Some critics] think they're just there to support restaurants. I don't think critics are. When I see people writing too strongly from that point of view, I think there's something wrong.” 

Brenner recalls the harsher reviews of her career and the reaction of true hospitality professionals; those who took something from the experience. Notes for improvement. Understanding that critics aren’t there to harm the dining ecosystem that we’re part of. We are lovers of food and hospitality, of decoding the sometimes intangible beauty of a great meal. Otherwise, it’s just calorie-based masochism.

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