There could hardly have been a better venue for last week’s Adelaide Food & Wine Festival’s event “Eating Their Words”. The Daniel O’Connell has probably generated more words than almost any other Adelaide pub in recent months. Winner of the “Best New Restaurant” category of the 2013 Advertiser Food Awards, this heritage hotel in North Adelaide has been reincarnated as a gourmet pub. Largely thanks to the intrepid experimentation of Chief Cook, Phil Whitmarsh, and inspired by the nose to tail eating philosophy made popular by Fergus Henderson, the food is amazing, surprising and delicious. Combined with splendid wines by Fox Creek, it was a memorable dining experience and a fitting setting for a vigorous and impassioned debate on the subject of food journalism.
Representing opposing sides were David Sly (South Australian journalist and well respected restaurant reviewer in publications such as Australian Gourmet Traveller and SA Life) and Christina Soong (writer, food stylist and popular Adelaide food blogger at The Hungry Australian). Moderated by George Ujvary (another well known Adelaide food identity and blogger at the Foodologist), there were contributions also from Phil Whitmarsh, our chef, and via Skype from Melanie Jappy a UK food writer, TV producer and Director and author of The Singular Gourmet.
Barely waiting for the opening remarks to be dispensed with, the audience sprang into the discussion, fired by passionate convictions and possibly a glass or two of the Fox Creek. It’s an argument that’s been widely played out in recent years and many experts, self-styled and otherwise, have weighed into the debate, so I won’t reiterate it here. For a somewhat acerbic synopsis of the various battles, have a read of Melanie Jappy’s article “Blogging or Blagging“. It boils down to what a recent Crikey article called “forks at 20 paces” or journos versus bloggers. The eye of this particular storm is restaurant reviewing. As I’ve written about previously, journos point the finger at bloggers over things like lack of disclosure, being unaccountable, unethical, unprofessional and uninformed. Bloggers and other social media enthusiasts say the journos are just bitter and twisted Luddites worried about their own leaky boats.
It’s clearly important that whatever your medium, you exercise integrity and honesty and conform to a reasonable standard of ethical behaviour. Provided you do, surely there’s room at the table for all forms of food journalism. While it’s great to enjoy a leisurely read of a well written article by a professional restaurant critic in the weekend newspaper supplement, there’s still a place for citizen journalism on platforms like Trip Advisor and Urban Spoon, especially when you’re travelling and have to make a quick decision about where to go for dinner.
Whether you’re reviewing a Michelin starred temple of gastronomy or the new Sushi bar at the local shopping centre, and whether you’re doing it for a salary, for your own amusement or in hopes of a freebie, there’s one common element. What you write is going into the public domain. If your comments are scathing, scornful or cruel, there’s a person at the other end of those words who will be affected. Sitting at a computer screen veiled in the perceived anonymity of the internet, this is where unscrupulous writers can do real damage. “It’s like a bullet to the heart,” said Amanda James Pritchard about the drubbing her recent Market Feast event received at the hands of some aggrieved social media commentators. When asked whether bad restaurant reviews hurt his pride, chef Phil Whitmarsh said “it doesn’t hurt my pride, it hurts my soul”. It’s all too easy to sit back in a glow of self-righteousness and pass judgement. Just a little harder to realise that whatever endeavour it is you’re tasting the fruits of, someone, somewhere has put their hearts and souls into making it the very best they can. But they’re only human and occasionally their efforts may not meet everyone’s standards of perfection. There is of course a place for criticism, but it needs to be fair, balanced and couched with a level of sensitivity for its target.
At some point in the evening someone mentioned the word “story”. I think it was in the context of getting back to basics, which is good strategy when arguments become prolonged and convoluted. Regardless of where, how and why you write, it’s only going to work if you practice the age-old art of story telling. It means telling what’s true, and making it compelling, human, original and relevant. That’s something to hold onto amid the furore. If we food writers, journos and bloggers alike, can call a truce and just get on with telling our own stories, that’s likely to generate a whole lot more engagement and real interest, which is what we want.
As Mel Jappy so aptly says in Blogging or Blagging, the unrelenting drive to be at the foodie cutting edge (and not slice your hand off in the attempt) and the constant sniping and one-upmanship this generates is creating a situation where “the joy is being sucked out of food”. And that’s a sad state of affairs.
But it doesn’t have to be that way and last week’s event was an example of how good it can get. Brilliant food for the palate and stimulating food for thought.
Who do you go to for a restaurant review? No prizes for the right answer but I’d love to know. Do you think journos are more honest, ethical and trustworthy than Facebookers, Twitterers or Bloggers? Or when someone says “where shall we go for dinner?”is something like Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon or Yelp your first port of call?
by Anne Green