Ask The Experts: The Chef Rant

Welcome to Just Opened London’s restaurant problem page, where we ask industry experts to answer the questions that are on everyone’s lips. This time, it’s all about chefs responding to critics.

We asked a restaurateur, a food writer, a PR and a chef for their views on this burning issue…

Another chef recently posted an online rant in response to a negative review of his restaurant written by Fay Maschler. It’s now been deleted but the gist was that she couldn’t appreciate the food as she was too inebriated. We asked our experts…

 Should chefs ever respond publicly to criticism? 

The Restaurateur: Carl Clarke, Chick ‘n’ Sours and CHIK’N

Carl Clarke‘We all have the right to free speech – such is the wonderful world we live in.  So anyone can say what they want. The big question is: should we though? In the case of The Drunken Butler (the chef who posted a  response to Maschler on his website, now deleted), there are two sides to it.

Here is a chef who has invested everything – money, time, heart in his new restaurant venture, and he should be saluted for that. But equally, if you invest in a PR company to promote your restaurant you’ve got to put your cock on the block and expect the rough with the smooth. We’re not all Marco Pierre White, who would just throw you out of his restaurant if he didn’t like you or what you said about him, such was his integrity. There are some who rant and rave on Twitter just to raise their profiles, which is sad and something I wholeheartedly disagree with. Personally, I think you’ve got to put up, shut up, and learn from it.’

The Food Writer: Nicola Miller

I’m wary of attempts to shut down voices from the hospitality sector but when it comes to a chef’s right of response to criticism, there’s an important consideration: are they equipped to go up against someone who writes for a living because publishing verbal incontinence on a business website simply will not cut it, especially when said rant is in caps lock.

I understand why chefs are incensed by poor reviews, especially if they contain factual errors: a right of reply is so important in the context of the Internet’s very long memory. And it must be frustrating when a highly-regarded critic doesn’t like what you are doing for reasons that seem unfair. A bad review can feel like super-powered trolling and a chef’s reasonably-argued rebuttal might lack the reach that a national newspaper has. There’s a perceived imbalance of power.

So, what’s the most facile way of redressing this? Gaining clicks by getting personal.

And this introduces another issue. Are female food critics more likely to receive feedback which is abusively rooted in misogyny? Are they more likely to have their objectivity, skills, and level of sobriety questioned, not just by chefs, but by below-the-line commentators as well? Do some chefs struggle with the idea of powerful older – and expert- women? When men express strong opinions, we indulge them as passionate, beloved contrarians who only want the best for both industry and consumer. When women do the same they must be drunk and vengeful and unable to take a step back.

Maybe we’ve heard quite enough from shouty male chefs who are unwilling to engage constructively with genuine critique although [sadly] I suspect there exist people who still admire Gordon Ramsay for ejecting AA Gill.

It’s not all bad though. If chefs simply must reply, Richard Corrigan’s recent Twitter response to a review of his eponymous restaurant by Marina O’Loughlin is the very definition of grace under pressure: ‘The problem with us cooks is, we would rather be runnied my [sic] praise, than saved by criticism, a brilliant fun piece Marina, AA Gill would approve.’

The PR: Katy Riddle, Market Fresh Communications

‘Chefs will no doubt want to create dishes that not only do they personally enjoy, but that other people visiting their venue will enjoy too. But as the old saying goes, ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time,’ and as taste is a subjective sensation each customer will have their own preferences.

I have no doubt that if I were a chef (which thankfully for you all, is not likely to be anytime soon!) it would be disappointing and upsetting to learn after a reviewer had left that they did not like all of their meal and to read their negative comments, and it could also be frustrating if I felt that the dishes being criticised or my wider culinary ‘concept’ had been misunderstood. Therefore it’s natural for chefs to want to give their view in these instances, and of course they do have a right to reply publicly – however that’s not the same as having a duty to reply, and my feeling is that this isn’t the most helpful thing to do as it can actually end up being more damaging long-term.

By responding publicly to criticism to ‘argue their case,’ a chef will certainly draw more attention to those negative points as they will inevitability have to refer to and repeat these in order to refute them. The chef’s reply may also be picked up by other publications or industry influencers, keeping the criticism in the public key and extending the ‘life’ of both the initial review and wider story of any disagreement for even longer.

There may be some cases where a response is important – mainly if there are factual errors in the review that need changing – but I would say that this is still best done privately. There is a difference between someone not enjoying a dish because it didn’t suit their personal taste, or because they think it was cooked incorrectly, and the team may wish to investigate those instances where there is a clear complaint about poor execution (rather than an expression of preference) but I’d say it’s better to follow up directly as this takes the conversation out of the public eye.’

The Chef: Gary Usher of Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle, Hispi and Wreckfish

I was at Burnt Truffle the day Jay Rayner walked through the door unannounced for lunch. After his lunch, I was absolutely devastated about what we had sent out of the kitchen. I sat the whole team down and told them to prepare for our first terrible national review. I was sure it was going to be awful. I told them to take it with total humility, that we would all be able to improve by taking on constructive criticism, and that I would publicly apologise to Jay for not getting it right.

We were lucky that Jay loved his experience at Burnt Truffle!

Critics and certain food bloggers, in my opinion, are absolute experts at the guest experience at a restaurant. I have always defended my business and the teams that work in it and I understand the frustration of receiving a negative review. However, when it is from professionals in the industry I think chefs/owners should use it as a tool to improve rather than having a public hissy fit.

Tripadvisor ‘critics’ are however another story

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