Table Manners

An American chef recently questioned the quality of the city’s food reviews. A reviewer responds.

February 15, 2011 11:24 am

The recently-opened restaurant The Table, where chef Alex Sanchez works.

It isn’t often that the media is scrutinised in our country. When it is, the scrutiny usually relates to more serious areas of journalism than the sub-section of feature writing, particularly food writing. As a food writer, I was therefore delighted that Alex Sanchez, executive chef at The Table, questioned the relevance of restaurant reviews in Mumbai in a blog post on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, specifically reviews of his restaurant.

Sanchez attacks food writers in Mumbai over several topics. Firstly, he cannot believe that we do not have a “grace period” in which restaurants get the time to settle in before they are reviewed. He moves on to questioning the objectivity and ability of reviewers, who he refers to as “critics”. However, he ends with an acknowledgement that “in fact, restaurant reviewing is, in itself, a complex topic of debate”.

Once the initial glee that a chef, especially an outsider familiar with a different media culture, had brought the subject up had subsided, I found myself feeling the need to explain the review process to both Sanchez and this site’s readers, and additionally provide a rebuttal to Sanchez for whatever little I could defend about the industry as a whole. The fact that I refer to myself and all my peers as reviewers and not critics (a term that gives undue authority) tells you that I do feel reviews, in general, need to improve.

The easy part: why are reviews done so early? That’s because, and I think customers will agree, that as soon as a restaurant begins to accept payment for its food, it should be open to scrutiny. Sanchez says that, “Most anyone would agree that, while it should come out of the gates running, a restaurant won’t catch its stride for a few months, regardless of the pedigree.” But, if the restaurant is knowingly providing an inferior experience, is that fair to customers who go in the first month (and pay full price)? Sanchez himself says, “Just as Broadway musicals would never be judged during rehearsal, you’d never expect a restaurant to be reviewed during a trial dinner.” I agree that no review should be based on a trial dinner. But Broadway musicals are often reviewed on the opening night, and restaurants too should be subject to reviews from the first night onwards.

On a more practical note, an ideal review, I feel, should be able to differentiate between genuine faults and teething issues. A good restaurant review should be able to do three things. Firstly, it must describe the culinary experience, in terms of the food, service and ambience that the restaurant is aiming to provide. Secondly, it must conclude whether that experience is good or not. An important criterion here is to ensure objectivity; you have to lead up to whether the meal as a whole has been satisfactory or not (and by that extension, whether it is technically sound). It isn’t about whether you liked it or not based on your preferences. This, however, tends to leave room for subjectivity when it comes to ambience. It’s important to point out here that the assessment of a culinary experience should not be confused with whether it provides any value for money. This brings me to the third function of restaurant reviews. It should tell the reader whether the restaurant is worth at least one visit. Here, providing context (whether the restaurant is filling some gap in the market, if the chef comes with a particular pedigree, how it compares to other restaurants in its category, etc.) is vital in judging the overall culinary experience.

I do agree with Sanchez in his questioning of the objectivity and quality of food reviews in Mumbai. There are two factors that affect reviews anywhere in the world. The first factor is the manner in which a review is conducted; one can either review anonymously or as a guest of the restaurant who doesn’t pay. While I freelance now, during the two years I worked as the food writer for a newspaper in Mumbai, I conducted reviews in both these manners. While the prospect of writing an authentic review based on the atypical, better experience one expects in a non-anonymous visit seems intrinsically flawed, this notion isn’t entirely true. While one cannot gauge the quality of service, the opportunity to try many, smaller dishes gives one the confidence of knowing, in general, how good the food is at the restaurant. In a single anonymous visit, one cannot have more than a few dishes. Thus, one has to form a generalised opinion based on less information. An ideal scenario, as is the case with The New York Times food reviews, is that the reviewer dines anonymously thrice before writing the review. But most publications here cannot spare the time or the money for this (and if they do have the money, they simply don’t care to spend the time).

The second factor is the quality of the reviewing itself, which Sanchez points out is somewhat lacking in the city. It wouldn’t be fair to publicly assess every publication’s reviewer, but it’s fair to say that on the general scale of excellence in food writing, we fall short when compared to our peers in the US and UK. There, it isn’t uncommon for a publication to have a reviewer entirely dedicated to writing about and reviewing food. That, for me, is a basic requirement. Here, food writers are usually just a year or two out of college, with a general interest in food. They might not know much about it, but often a fondness for eating out is taken as a qualification for the ability to evaluate a restaurant. For this reason, there is pretty much nobody in the industry, in this city at least, that has the credibility to match say a Frank Bruni or Adam Platt.

At Mumbai Boss, we strive to do much of the above. Our reviews are almost always conducted anonymously (and in the rare instance they are not, when the owner or chef identifies our reviewer and his/her reason for being there, then the tag line at the bottom stating thus is removed), we never review based on “trial” or “friends and family” dinners, we always pay our own way, and we deliberately do not give out stars, because as a publication and a voice that has some influence on our readers, we do not yet feel we have the authority to dispense a star rating. It’s not often that the media, particularly in the arena of food writing, comes under scrutiny. And when it does, it’s fair game. We question how chefs and owners run their restaurants, dish out their food and serve it to us, and so we should subject our own process to evaluation. As Sanchez himself concludes, “a genuine review is hard to come by, no matter the publication, no matter the city”. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Mangal Dalal is a Mumbai-based freelance food writer and one of the founders of Restaurant Week India.