The Role of the Food Critic

(Abridged lecture delivered in Berlin, Germany at the European College of Liberal Arts’s State of the World Week conference: What Shall We Eat, February 10th 2011)

 According to Pascal Ory: ‘Gastronomy is neither good cooking nor fine cooking … It is the establishment of rules [pertaining to] eating and drinking, an “art of the table”. Here the cook is promoted to the status of artist, while the gastronome is raised to the level of a critic of art. Also, the gastronome in his most evolved form is not a professional cook. He is a man of letters. His real table is not the one where he eats but the one where he writes. The gastronome though is often a frustrated chef, a deep appreciation of cookery that borders on jealousy of those who dedicate themselves to it prompts him or her to write, but it is with the flourish of the pen that they achieve success rather than with the extent of their knowledge as ultimately the gastronome is not the one who knows the most but the one who speaks best.

This is even the case with many of the modern celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver whose offer more than just recipes; here food is part of a lifestyle. By industry standards they are not the finest chefs; what they are, above all else, is communicators.

Curnonsky, the pen name of the great French food critic Maurice Edmond Sailland who was elected Prince Elect of Gastronomy by Le Soir magazine in 1927 describes the role as follows: ‘There are those who stare with gluttonous resentment, and those who snap impatient fingers at every passing waiter: those who flap huge newspapers in their companions’ faces, and those who shake defiant powder-puffs in their neighbours soup; those who devour bread to repletion, and those who chat so gaily, to the restaurant at large. But there are others, a chosen few who, having developed to a fine degree the study of physiognomy and, coupling this with a skilled pen or pencil, combine their talents in lightning sketches on the tablecloth.’

It is these lightning sketches which distinguish the gastronome, the ability through words to impart what should be the rather dull experience of recounting what one has just eaten. It is a coupling of a profound interest in food and an ability to express, often with humour, that experience.

Pascal Ory asks the question “Does the chef make the gastronome or vice versa? While it is clear is that culinary evolution is largely independent of gastronomic evaluation, without an audience chefs are unlikely to innovate. Just like if we cook only for ourselves we tend not to perform heroics, a cook without a responsive audience might take a functional approach. But innovation and high standards become an imperative when the food critic is there to evaluate. Even if they have nothing but contempt for the breed, virtuoso chefs usually require the validation of critical approval, and boundaries are only broken when gastronomes are there to describe them as such. More to the point, the imprimatur of the critic brings great rewards.

What are the features of gastronomic writing? According to Mennell, one frequent component is the disquisition on what constitutes ‘correct’ practice on such questions as the composition of menus, sequences of courses, and techniques of service. A second one is dietetic, setting out what foods and what forms of cookery are good for one according to the prevailing knowledge of the day, although this is a declining trend as nowadays gastronomes tend to celebrate food in hedonistic fashion, putting aside considerations of health. A third component is the heady brew of history, myth, and history serving as myth.

[An example of this is the story of how chaudfroid sauce came into being. The story goes that a famous host and minister of the crown in eighteenth century France was called away to see the king just as dinner was served. When he and his guests finally sat down to eat on his return hours later, the sauce was found to be as good cold or hot. The story contains two traits common in gastronomic mythology and perhaps the dinner-table anecdote as well: the involvement of the famous personage, and the element of accident.’]

According to Theodore Zeldin: ‘One of the characteristics of gastronomy was that its followers nearly always lamented that taste was decaying and that good food was becoming increasingly rare.’ So Michael Winner the notorious restaurant critic of the Sunday Times writes: ‘In spite of rationing I remember the food during the war as being very good. When the war was over the food in the 1950s was far better than the food today. First of all it was not chemicalised, mass-produced and deep frozen. It was fresh. Every vegetable had an individual taste. As did the meat and fish. It was simply presented, without plates being full of ridiculous red and yellow squiggles. It was generally described as meat and two veg.’

Zeldin also notes a tendency among nineteenth century gastronomic societies to exclude women, so as not to be distracted by the need for politeness. He wonders whether that was why life-long bachelors such as Brillat-Savarin were the leaders of the cult. But in fact Brillat-Savarin saw women as quite capable of the taste required for the job. He even identified a certain female type predestined to gourmandism. Women of that ilk he said are ‘buxom, pretty rather than beautiful’ though with an unfortunate tendency to run to fat’.

It is nonetheless apparent that gastronomes have been overwhelmingly male. It might in part be explained by the expectation that women cohere to an ideal of beauty that does not involve the consumption of the kind of rich food encountered in many fine restaurants. But as women assume positions of prominence in all fields it is only a matter of time before the female gastronome takes her rightful place at the banquet and in this way restaurants may be encouraged to reflect female tastes, if indeed we can talk of taste being divided along gender lines. The days of women being the bit on the side, obliquely referred to as ‘my companion’ or ‘my date’, may be numbered.

What of taste then? It has been said that: ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’, and ‘There’s no arguing about taste.’ While John Stuart Mill put it in more lofty terms saying: ‘A person’s taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse’. While one food critic said: ‘The truth is that with food, as with sex or religion, different people like different things. It is not a moral issue.’ Finally, according to Littre in his dictionary: ‘Taste is a completely spontaneous faculty which precedes reflection. Everybody possess it, but it is different in everyone.’

Thus, the combination of baked beans and sausages in a can has its admirers while others despise the truffle which our friend Brillat-Savarin described as being ‘as wholesome as it is agreeable, and, eaten in moderation, it goes down as easily as a letter into a post-box.

There is no doubt that taste is socially and culturally conditioned, a subjective business. Food likes and dislikes often come from childhood. Personally I spent years overcoming an aversion to onions because of the way my mother used to try and sneak them into her dishes. Moreover pallets can be trained. We can get over aversions, learn to enjoy different flavours.

So, how can the gastronome purport to carry any weight on the subject of taste. Has he or she eaten more meals than everybody else? Maybe the gastronome is equipped with especially acute taste buds? In fact this is not the case.

Linda Bartoshuk, a professor of dentistry and behavioral science, researches genetic variations in the perception of taste. Through studies of the disposition and the density of taste buds on the tongues of test subjects, Bartoshuk divides people into three categories: supertasters, tasters, and non-tasters. According to Bartoshuk most food and wine experts fall into the “taster” category. That is a sense of taste that is not so acute that any strong flavour overwhelms their palate.

One quarter of us are said to be Supertasters. Despite their name, they have too many taste buds to be food critics as they are oversensitive to flavor – they are the type of people who can’t stand Brussels sprouts, and won’t eat any spicy food at all preferring instead bland dishes; They are like the Princess who notices the pea located beneath so many mattresses. Sensitive souls.

Non-tasters, said to be 25% of the population, on the other hand, might be compared to the musically tone-deaf, their palates a joyless void where subtle flavours do not register.

So, the gastronome will generally come from the taster category, the remaining 50% of the population. This makes sense as a gastronome’s taste should reflect the sensibilities of the bulk of the population, allowing most people to identify with their impressions. If the predilections of the supertaster were to hold sway eating out would be a dull affair, while the non-taster would require the pyrotechnics of extreme flavour to register in his palate; the vindaloo curry might be elevated to the most prized dish of all.

But this does not answer our question of what constitutes good and bad taste. Why should El Buli in Catalunya or Noma in Copenhagen be considered the last word in fine dining? How do we decide when food is good or bad?

There are some obvious situations when food is bad or even inedible to humans. We cannot digest grass or raw potatoes for instance. Or, it could be poisonous or otherwise bad for our health, but even here there are times when the slight taste of rot that one discerns in gamey meat is much sought after, while the extensive use of butter that one finds in French cuisine goes against most medical advice. There is no clear correlation between what we like and what is good or bad for us for the simple reason that all tastes are slightly different, just as all individuals deviate somewhat different. So where should we look to when it comes to determining matters of taste.

To Michelin perhaps, whose inspectors are known as the monks of gastronomy for their steadfast refusal to reveal their identity for fear of corruption. The mystery that surrounds their operations leads to them sometimes being accorded the status of objective arbiters on taste, particularly in France

According to Rudolph Chelminsi: ‘The Michelin man is just about the last symbol of absolute virtue that the French can cling to …Michelin has evolved with the years into a secular symbol of professionalism and rectitude, one of the rare bits of their civilisation to which this deeply sceptical and suspicious people willingly accorded their full confidence, untainted by suggestions of conspiracy that color their regard for almost every other aspect of daily existence.’

In France at least but elsewhere too, the lucky chef who is promoted to three stars becomes an instant celebrity and nowadays the economic windfall of even one star for the restaurant approximates a big hit on the lottery; with clientele and profits increasing anywhere from 30 to 60 per cent.

But what qualifies inspectors for the perhaps unenviable task of eating in two restaurants every day of their working week? An anonymous inspector interviewed by the New Yorker said: “You could argue that the inspectors have some biological makeup, or you could argue that they eat so much that they have the grounds for comparison,” she said. “And they have their training, the professional training.”

A degree in hospitality, hotel management, or cooking is mandatory for Michelin inspectors, so the inspectors will know how the restaurant industry works but it seems obvious that this proximity should breed a conservative bias in determining not just what should be eaten but also how. More than anything, the Michelin inspector endorses the restaurant experience as it emerged in the nineteenth century and so their judgments undoubtedly display a Eurocentrism. The ‘civilised’ European, or perhaps more accurately French, idea of taste is that which governs their sensibilities. Belated attempts to venerate such cuisines as the Japanese when Michelin issued a rash of stars to Japanese restaurants to the point where Tokyo became the most Michelin-starred city in the world indicates an approval of non-European dining, but Japan is an undeniably Western country and the form of their dining is quite compatible with French notions of taste.

What also distinguishes Michelin is the virtual abandonment of the written word. Instead we encounter a curious array of symbols comprehensible to any traveller whatever language he speaks. This erodes the role of the gastronome, the poet of the palate is no longer called upon and is instead replaced by a range of stars and forks that suggest a measure of scientific objectivity, much like the similarly obtuse Parker Points for wine. But we can hardly say that a certain dish will appeal to all while kitchens perform unevenly from day to day. The Michelin experience then becomes a status symbol and a boast of wealth and conventional good taste.

Moreover, many people read about food as a form of light entertainment. Michael Winner gives a candid assessment of his gastronomic role saying it is ‘a bit of a game’. ‘It is there to entertain’ he says ‘I don’t profess to be the most knowledgeable person in the world about food. I don’t believe the readers want an analytical breakdown of the sauce or the gravy or anything else on the plate. They want a fun report on my life in restaurants and they want to know whether I think what I ate was good or bad.

But he admits to the economic power which of his often forked tongue: ‘One thing I know for sure: if I say it’s good the place is full for weeks to come.’ Just as the restaurant critic can make a place, he can also break it. A scathing review can send an establishment to the wall and in the case of Bernard Loiseau bring a chef to the point of suicide. Loiseau took an overdose in 2003 after a food critic suggested that his restaurant should lose its third Michelin star. The stakes are high in a massive global industry.

So, the food critic should be careful and fair in his or her appraisal. Recalling pleasure or deficiency with journalistic integrity; acknowledging any personal predilections and prejudices; not seeing himself as any godly arbiter of taste but as an individual sent on a pleasurable outing who has the ability to evoke the occasion of the meal.

A large number of websites, most famously Zagat in the United States, have sprung up in recent times challenging the celebrity gastronome and the established reviews. The citizen-blogger informs his fellow diners what to expect. This is a welcome addition to the food criticism, as it offers a convenient way of ascertaining speedily whether a place has met with widespread approval, but the traditional scope for poetic intensity is squeezed out of existence, and citizen-blogger might well be the proprietor himself or someone working on his behalf.

It remains for me to examine how the gastronome might be a force for good in the world. It is easy to forget in this era of abundance, where most of us devote only a small proportion of our incomes to food, how important an economic, social and environmental issue it is. Thus, the gastronome can play a part in improving our human societies and our environment and do more than simply comment on the cost of a meal.

Having worked briefly in a restaurant aspiring for Michelin star status I am well aware of the appalling conditions that many chefs operate in. The attitude of someone like Gordon Ramsay towards his employees is nothing short of bestial, and he has unfortunately emerged as a role model through a string of hit TV shows. It seems to me that any food cooked in those conditions is tainted by that belligerence. Food has a nurturing quality that the ego of a chef can destroy. An angry or nervous chef will also make mistakes that he make seek to conceal. Furthermore, I find nothing more distasteful than hearing a proprietor barking instructions at his or her waiting staff. It always seems to coincide with bad service and one wonders whether the waiting staff is surly and unhelpful because their manager is a prat.

Also, gastronomes can highlight the provenance of food, and steer demand towards food that is not damaging to our environment. The air miles, and attendant carbon footprint, of some foods is quite shocking and the environmental degradation caused by the modern farming methods is similarly unconscionable. The food critic should engage with these themes but without being sanctimonious or po-faced, because at that point many readers move on. Consumers take time to change their habits, but the gastronome can initiate beneficial trends.

There is also the issue of health and food which is rarely a part of the gastronomes repertoire as he usually revels in the hedonism of feasting, but this is an increasing concern. It does return to the question of whether our palates can be trained, after a fashion, to enjoy healthier food. The food critic is the trend setter and by praising certain food he or she may creates trends, just witness the progress made by Jamie Oliver who brought attention to the nutritional deficiency of the food being served to English schoolchildren.

Finally, the context of Brillat-Savarin’s writing was that Western Europe was for the first time experiencing abundance. Enjoying food ceased to be cruel as it might have been in the Middle Ages when famine was commonplace.

But ultimately the plenty of today has come at great cost especially since the so-called Green Revolution of the twentieth century when pesticides and synthetic fertilizers came into widespread use. This presents a new kind of gluttony which the Medieval thinkers did not encounter. Here excess is not generally at the expense of other humans but of the wider world. A new kind of gluttony has emerged which the food critic should address.

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