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Food Critics Hate Being Criticised

Food critics the world over often write ruthless reviews, but when one of their victims hits back, they squeal like stuck pigs (and that's a particularly appropriate phrase, if the allegations are correct).

In the United Kingdom, a vicious but at times hilarious war of words began in January 2004, when The Sunday Telegraph restaurant critic Matthew Norman described the up-market restaurant Shepherds in Westminster, central London, as "the eighth circle of hell", "among the very worst restaurants in Christendom" serving "meals of crescendoing monstrosity."

Shepherds' indignant owner, Richard Shepherd, threatened to sue The Sunday Telegraph for libel. To which the newspaper snootily retorted: "It is almost unheard of to sue over a bad restaurant review, and no British restaurateur has ever successfully sued a food critic for libel."

Fast forward to November, when Luke Johnson, 42-year-old multi-millionaire chairman of Britain's TV Channel 4 and owner of The Ivy, possibly London's most exclusive restaurant (it has a three-month waiting list) in Covent Garden, and its sister operation, Le Caprice, in Mayfair, bitterly attacked food critics, describing them as spiteful, corrupt and feeble alcoholics, driven by ego, envy and free meals.

"What moral right does a critic have to publicly express their personal bias and, perhaps, help bankrupt the establishment?" he asked in Waitrose Food Illustrated, a food chain's in-house magazine. "I fear the motivation driving some reviewers is a powerful sense of envy. [They] are too feeble to seize an opportunity. Instead they scribble a few words a couple of times a week, go to lots of opening parties and eat plenty of free meals.

"Certain critics specialise in rude reviews, making readers laugh at the efforts of the chef and staff in whichever establishment is being pilloried. As entertainment, I suppose, that's fine; as criticism, such diatribes are beneath contempt... They resent restaurant owners, who have actually had the courage to launch a place and the stamina to operate it."

Stung by Johnson's criticism, Fay Maschler, The Evening Standard's restaurant critic, said the assertion that critics were alcoholics was bizarre, adding, "I don't know one with a drinking problem. His remarks are simply untrue. He is not even a restaurateur, he is just a money man who bought some restaurants and then minds when people notice they have deteriorated."

Financial Times critic Nick Lander, former owner of L'Escargot in Soho, said Johnson's accusations of alcohol abuse were outrageous, adding, "If he wants to be a restaurateur, he should do away with the 2 cover charge at The Ivy. It's a relic of a bygone era."

Daily Telegraph columnist Jan Moir wrote, "He sounds hysterical. No critic would write a diatribe about any restaurant in the way he has written about us."

The Sunday Telegraph ran a story by Charlotte Edwardes and Peter Zimonjic, headed Restaurant reviewers are alcoholic and corrupt snobs, says the man behind the Ivy. They mentioned that Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Catherine Zeta-Jones had eaten at The Ivy.

The newspaper said Johnson began his career in the restaurant business in the early 1990s as a senior executive with Pizza Express. He floated the chain on the stock market in 1993, earning an estimated 18 million, and turning it into a national institution.

He had then introduced changes, causing critics to observe: "It was the spiritual eating home of the middle-classes and he pretty much wrecked it by trying to squeeze profit margins."

By a happy coincidence, Johnson, among his diverse activities, writes a business column for The Sunday Telegraph.

In Edinburgh, well away from the London battleground, The Scotsman magazine's restaurant reviewer, Gillian Glover, took a cynical and humorous view of the whole affair:

WHAT AN astute piece of publicity manipulation. A "money man", a financial backer, whose business CV does not read like a corporate hymn sheet for the glorification of high quality, decides to address his critics by calling them alcoholic, spiteful, corrupt, snobbish, envious and feeble. And despite the vicious invective, we are not discussing the future of Marks & Spencer.

The object of Luke Johnson's vitriol is a more select band than the high-street voters whose shopping preferences equate to big percentages in share valuations. Johnson, owner of London's Le Caprice and The Ivy restaurants, has decided to name and shame an especially despicable breed of cynical, free-loading, cowardly and creatively challenged misfits whose bad attitude has occasionally damaged his wallet. In other words, the nation's restaurant critics.

Shock, horror, and pass me the ketchup, Mabel. One can hear the sound of table napkins being rent asunder from Inverness to Taunton. The weeping might come later. Or maybe just the giggling.

You can enjoy reading the rest of Gillian's Glover's amusing article, The Critic Bites Back, by visiting THE SCOTSMAN.

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Story first posted December 2004

Copyright 2004

Eric Shackle

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