Restaurant reviews, food blogging and going viral
I eat out more often than I eat in. I sometimes make a restaurant reservation under my dining companion’s name. If there’s window seating and it’s daylight, am grabbing that table. Once I’ve ordered, if the menu isn’t online I nab it, or if too bulky for my clutch bag, I photograph it. I let my guest select dishes first and then choose my own, but only after having grilled the waiter with far too many questions. Thank goodness am now rid of my Nikon and I can instagram the restaurant’s interior and every dish we order. That’s not an issue for cold food, but it tests the patience of even my kindest friends, when the dishes should be eaten warm. Be prepared to share when dining with me as my fork digs into your every dish. Conversation is stilted as I make mental notes of the taste, texture and flavours. It’s just not much fun dining with me.
Reviewing restaurants is not nearly as glam as it appears to be. My recent review of Giannino restaurant in Dubai that went viral making international headlines brought to the fore some riveting and constructive commentary on food blogging, in particular restaurant reviewing underlining the growing significance of this subject. So with today’s post, I am addressing some of the topics you raised, in the hope that my attempt at answers or at least the odd one will resonate with you. So here goes, grab yourself a cuppa or perhaps a tipple of something stronger and read on.
Why and how do I review restaurants?
I review my dining experience in an honest, professional, constructive and balanced manner based on five parameters – food (from presentation to taste), location, interior, atmosphere and value for money – to help you, my readers, make an informed decision. I do pay my own way, review incognito (or as much as I can in this town) and refuse freebies in exchange for reviews. Whilst I appreciate chefs spend hours perfecting a dish, so do I with a review – on average a blog post takes a full working day to research and write, and that’s without the time spent eating out.
I can of course only speak for myself – each and every food blogger, and there’s over 120 in the UAE alone, has its own unique voice, niche and editorial policy. That’s the beauty of blogging over traditional online publishing.
Food is subjective so it’s clearly an opinion that is neither right nor wrong – but if backed up with a good rationale makes for an informed one. Despite a never-ending debate of whether prosecco should be served in a flute, coupe or wine glass, surely a reviewer or diner who is paying full whack has every right to request their personal preference? As one of my favourite UK restaurant critics Jay Rayner of The Observer wrote in his book My Dining Hell, “There are much worse jobs than writing for a living, just as there are much worse jobs than cooking for a living. If we’re charging good money for a product that is, essentially, an expression of our ego, the customer has the right to say what they think of it if they find fault.”
I do cook at home on the occasions I don’t eat out, but one thing’s for sure I am no chef and don’t have a culinary doctorate. Having worked in the hospitality industry for over a decade, and also grown up in it, living and breathing hotels and restaurants around the world, I have developed a good sense and palate for what makes or breaks a dining experience. I have always searched out a good restaurant to the point that life for me would become seriously boring without dining out. Aside from FooDiva which I launched early last year, I am Editor-at-Large for Gourmet magazine contributing regular food features and a monthly column. I have also started writing culinary travel articles for The National, as well as judging F&B industry awards. My other ‘hat’ and one I have worn for the last 18 years is as a communications consultant, writer and trainer.
But credentials aside, let’s put this into perspective, we’re talking about food here, not saving lives. Eating, cooking, dining – we all do it – and we certainly all have an opinion on it. In a similar vein, who are movie critics? Are they producers and actors? I don’t think so. And for sure I don’t expect a chef to know how to write or even to spell.
At what point do I review a new restaurant?
I like to give new restaurants one month to settle in before visiting for a review – unless a restaurant chooses to publicly announce soon after opening in which case I may review slightly earlier. You wouldn’t judge someone on their first day at work would you? So it’s only fair to give a restaurant time to settle in. At the same time though, restaurants need to appreciate that if they are charging full price, paying customers have every right to share their opinion. I dined at Giannino just over five weeks into opening, only realising the restaurant was still in so-called ‘soft opening’ when I requested the wine list. Informing customers on reservation that the menu and other aspects of the dining experience are restricted would help manage expectations.
Should chefs deal with restaurant reviews and if so, how?
As I expressed earlier, I like to think my reviews are professional, constructive and balanced. FooDiva is here to support the growth of the F&B industry not to destroy it – I have no intention of emulating A. A. Gill. I always encourage and appreciate constructive feedback whether that’s from a reader looking to dine out, an industry professional or the restaurant itself. It’s perfectly fine to disagree, but it’s not fine to be disagreeable. Most of the chefs I know are ready to accept feedback in the same spirit that it is given so they can create a better dining experience, whilst driving revenue for their restaurants.
In a country where most mainstream media lacks freedom of press, blogs represent an honest voice amassing tremendous, engaging followings and hence can become rather influential. With the proliferation of blogs and social media, chefs have to deal with opinions and reviews like these on a daily if not hourly basis – it’s part and parcel of their job. Even Gordon Ramsay who is notorious for his bad temper has publicly said “If you as a chef think you know more about food than your customer it is time to f….off out of the kitchen!” Pardon his language.
In the midst of Giannino-gate, a columnist for the UK’s Telegraph newspaper wrote, “If the childminder is the most undervalued professional, a chef is the most overrated. Not a day goes by without a celebrity cook unleashing venom against the competition, restaurant critics, or, as when Nigella recently ranted against French cooking, an entire national cuisine. The latest lippy cook is Andrea Brambilla, the chef at the three Michelin star Giannino restaurant in Milan. Last week Brambilla launched a poisonous attack on a foodie blogger who dared complain about his restaurant’s new off-shoot in Dubai. I understand that his pride was piqued; but I find such self-importance indigestible. Today’s chefs regard their opinions and judgments as important. I long for the days of Elizabeth David, when cooks were read and not heard.”
I probably wouldn’t go as far as the last statement as I love constructive feedback from chefs, after all how else do we learn?
But what do chefs think? Professional chef, Luke Mackay expressed his opinion in The Guardian when Mario Batali and other top chefs united against a UK food blogger’s recent review of Hibiscus. “Here’s the truth: if you cook nice food you’ll do well, if you don’t you’ll close. If you demand the ‘respect’ of your customers you are a self-important idiot who has positioned the art of cooking up there with fighting in the trenches or treating the sick. It’s not. It’s cooking. I do it, you do it, and my 90-year-old nan does it. It’s just cooking.”
Back here, David Miras, Executive Chef of Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa shares his opinion, “We all learnt that feedback is gold, there are very rare occasions where the feedback is nasty just because of personal agendas but those are easy to spot, and ignore. It is also very easy to spot the true and constructive feedback, often you already know that the subject of the feedback was going to come up sooner or later. Feedback in my case is a motivator. I either make things as perfect as I believe it can be so that I face no risk of negative feedback or for the few times that we receive negative feedback on items that we know aren’t great we take a team effort into making things right. One of the keys to good feedback is to actually repair the damage before the guests have left. We all make mistakes but speed and rightful resolutions are better than delayed apologetic emails.”
Can a negative review impact a restaurant’s business?
Note here, the irony of the Giannino review is that my experience was complementary to the food, with the high prices and service the main issues. The post went viral because of the chef of the sister restaurant in Milan’s plagiarised quote from Arrigo Cipriani in the 1980’s using rather colourful language.
The new online world we live in where anyone can be a citizen journalist helps create more awareness of dining options. Whether a blog post or a tweet is negative or positive, it all helps drive interest and create intrigue. After all even bad news, sells. Unless a restaurant has a series of negative reviews in credible, high readership media titles, websites and blogs (where the reviews are paid for), I think it’s unlikely to affect their business. At the same time, if the reviews and opinions are constructive, then it forms fantastic feedback for the restaurant to help improve the dining experience. If the restaurant takes the time and trouble to respond to all comments (regardless of whether they are positive, neutral or negative), they will usually find that they create credibility in the eyes of the diners and, more importantly, potential diners. In effect, why should a restaurant pay a mystery shopper and F&B consultant when it can get feedback for free?
But let’s take a peek at what a couple of Dubai restaurateurs think…
Ajaz Sheikh, Director of Zuma Middle East that was voted no 83 in the World’s Best Restaurant Awards this year noted, “The importance of food reviews on a venue’s success – especially during the all important launch phase is key. In most cities, critics and reviewers can certainly have an impact on the initial momentum of a launch. However most readers of such reviews are also savvy people and usually tend to make their own judgments. To be honest, the role is similar to that of a film critic; you will listen to what they have to say, and then you decide if you still want to see the movie or not. Whilst perhaps we can’t say that our own reviews have a direct impact on Zuma bookings, it is safe to say that our relationship with food writers and the media in general – print or online, has helped us maintain our credibility and status four years after opening.”
Meanwhile, Ross Butler, Managing Partner of Gaucho Dubai said,“The internet has become a much more important factor in whether a business succeeds, and to what extent over the last five to ten years. This is evidenced by the huge increase in the percentage of reservations that are made online. Social networking sites and online review forums have become increasingly important as they have replaced traditional word of mouth recommendations. Any comments, positive or negative now have a greater impact than was previously the case, for instance, a negative comment can remain in the public sphere for years and can lower the profile of the restaurant concerned. A negative review can then amplify the power of an online comment. I am a strong advocate of this process as I think it makes choosing a restaurant a more transparent process and provides valuable feedback to the business.”
Anyhow over to you FooDiva Friends, what do you think? Would love your thoughts…just remember to be constructive ;). On the subject of feedback, thank you for taking the time to comment on the Giannino post – truly much appreciated.
And before I sign off, I will leave you with a recent New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant, his response, and for a giggle, a spoof. I wonder how a review of this kind would have gone down in Dubai?!