Sunday, September 07, 2008

Another Restaurant We (Probably) Won't Be Eating At

Jay Rayner, a food critic at the Guardian, had an unusual experience at a Chinese restaurant which he felt worthy of a blog-post the other day. To summarize, he ate at a place, liked it very much, decided to review it, and was shocked when the paper's photographer was denied permission to photograph it. Poor Jay can't imagine why this happened, why this Szechuanese restaurant (or maybe not: see the comments) didn't want his publicity.

I sure can. And I say this as a former professional restaurant reviewer myself.

Ethnic restaurants are often there primarily to provide a service for an ethnic clientele, a taste of home far from home, a place where people not living in the extended families they came from can enjoy Mom's (or Grandma's) cooking, as best it can be replicated elsewhere. I don't know London well, so I can't say if Bethnal Green is a part of town with a large recently-arrived Chinese immigrant population, but it's entirely possible that it is. Rayner makes the point that he and his companion were the only two non-Chinese in the place. Well, yes. And while I'm willing to assume that Rayner knows his Chinese food, I'm far from willing to make that assumption when it comes to his foodie readership. If a lot of them show up, they're likely to stick to a few dishes, or even complain if what they get isn't to their taste. Like the guy who owns the joint should care.

This, Rayner should realize, is what reviews do. I remember when a friend's restaurant got a four-star review in the San Francisco Chronicle: he said it was the worst day of his life there. They were mobbed for about a month with people who never came back but made insane demands on them anyway. The regulars were driven away because they couldn't get in. And, of course, after the sheep headed to the next hot place, they were empty. He and the crew solved this by going to places in town where they were known and ordering a beer or a sandwich or something and loudly going "Wow, I'm sure glad the rush from the Chronicle review is over" so that word got out that they'd like to see some familiar old faces in the place.

There's also a more sinister possibiltiy to why Gourmet San's proprietor doesn't want attention. On the corner near my old place, where White Trash started, there was, for many years, a restaurant called Kaiser des Chinas, which was so bad even Germans wouldn't eat there -- or, not twice. But it was huge, and it stayed open for years, even though hardly anyone went there. One morning I went to take out the trash, and in the trash bin were a bunch of waiters' wallets -- empty. I wondered where they'd come from, then, later that day, noticed that Kaiser des Chinas wasn't open. There was no note on the door or anything. And it stayed closed. Then, when Wally was moving White Trash in there, I stopped to say hi, and asked him if he had a clue what had happened. "Not really, but they got out in a hurry. Here, come in the kitchen." And there, in a long line of bowls, were things like mushrooms and onions and so on, all withered up, but all measured out as they would be if an order came in.

I mentioned this later to someone who knew a bit about the Berlin underbelly, and he said "Of course, don't you know how places like that work? They open up, they've got, say, eight staff, all of whom have legal ID they've acquired legally. But they count on the inability of the Berlin cops to recognize other races: they all look alike to them, so that although there's a guy with a card that says Li Weng, Li's cleared out long ago to another city, and an illegal immigrant has taken his place. As soon as the organization's found a place for New Li Weng, another one takes his place. It's not only the Chinese and Vietnamese places, the Indian ones do this, too." Legal Li probably has a way to replace his "lost" papers once he gets to Cologne or whatever the next stop is, and he's now a step up in the organization. That also explains why the food in these places is no good: they're not predominantly interested in the restaurant business, so they all work off the same template of recipes.

I prefer to think that Gourmet San is like many another ethnic restaurant: they welcome knowledgeable non-ethnic patrons, because they're there for the food, not because it's a hot new place someone's discovered. They treat the proprietors and other patrons with respect, and don't impose cultural stereotypes on their experience there. This goes equally for the Indian guy who goes to a good French restaurant and the British patron who walks in Gourmet San's doors. (And, although I don't want to get into German-bashing just now, it's part of the reason why there are so very few good ethnic restaurants in Berlin). And, the title of this post notwithstanding, I'd go there, especially if I could go with, say, Fuchsia Dunlop, whose amazing Szechuan cookbook has provided me with a disproportionate number of good meals since I bought it. (And I suggest you click the link and get it yourself). Or with anyone else who spoke either Szechuan or Mandarin.

Finally, a word of advice for Mr. Rayner: any restaurant reviewer who doesn't want to get "rumbled," as he says, shouldn't allow his or her photo to appear anywhere, ever. This is such a basic thing that I'm amazed I was staring at his face right there on the top of the page. But that's part and parcel of why he was shocked Gourmet San didn't want his review: he's under the impression it's about him. And it's not.

(Thanks to bowleserised for the tip!)


braingirl said...

Ed, thoughts are really changing across the industry about how or whether restaurant reviewers/critics should stay anonymous. At least one lawsuit, and a whole host of changing editorial concepts about what reviews should be have led a lot of papers and magazines to change or relax their policies on reviewers' identities (not to mention food bloggers, many of whom are very well known to chefs and journalists, alike.)

The correlary to this, of course, is that so many papers and mags are cutting their expert critics in favor of low-level "reviewers" who can just describe the average customer experience.

Ed Ward said...

Gee, that all sounds so familiar. Reviewers vs. critics...hmmm, where have I heard that before?

Oh, I know. All over the newspaper and magazine business. That's why nobody I know is working.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ed

As I've only been doing the job for, ooh, about a decade, your post told me lots of stuff I didn't know. Thanks for the education. Such insight really is a loss to the profession.

One thing. Nowhere in my post did I say I was shocked. I said it was refreshing. Quite different things.

Jay Rayner

Bowleserised said...

Maybe this explains the difficulties at Vietzahn?

Ed Ward said...

Partially. Although about half the multi-person tables in the last place we ate were non-Vietnamese dining with Vietnamese. But even they might have trouble getting through to the unpriced specials on the last pages of the menu.

Tamar said...

Ed - Thanks, a very interesting post. There are many reasons why there are no decent ethnic (esp. Chinese) restaurants in Germany, and this might be part of it:

Dr. Sardonic said...

I recently was inspired by Fuchsia Dunlop to go on a grazing mission to a warren of Szechuan food stalls in Flushing, Queens. Tasty morsels here:

tim_g said...

so are you saying that he shldnt have reviewed gourmet san? or are you just explaining to him why they wouldnt have wanted a review? if it's the former - i'm not really sure why that would be, his job is to inform ppl abt good + bad restaurants in london. and if it's the latter - i think he already knows why they didnt want a review.