As Ruth Reichl flew down from Los Angeles to take over the job of food critic at the New York Times, she came to a realisation that would change her professional life. “If every restaurant in New York knew what I looked like, I had to look like someone else.”
Reichl, who went on to head Gourmet magazine after a stellar career at the Times, was echoing the American position on how to review restaurants. Most respectable US food critics believe that if they’re recognised, they’ll get a tainted review — better service and food than the average diner.
As the battle for the coveted “stars” handed out by reviewers grew fierce, anonymity became the cornerstone of the American food review. This led to truly bizarre situations, as when one Colorado newspaper ran a campaign trying to out a food reviewer who uses a pseudonym and works on a rival paper. (Their point was that the pseudonym allowed the food critic in question to slam restaurants without being held to account for his opinions.)
In many ways, the American system works well. Most food critics have substantial expense accounts, and the conscientious ones will often visit a restaurant several times to ensure that they offer a well-balanced view. It’s easy to get one great meal at a restaurant, but the real test of any decent restaurant is whether it can deliver amazing service and good food consistently — to all of its clients, whether they’re celebrities or not.
India couldn’t be more different. Food reviews used to be the preserve of the amateur — it’s what you sent off a cub reporter to do when you didn’t know what else to do with him. Most Indian papers and magazines don’t provide generous expense accounts, so many food reviews reflect the experience of the reviewer at just one meal. That’s pretty subjective, and years ago when I worked on the food beat, I found this aspect of food reviewing deeply uncomfortable, as did many of my colleagues. Freebies and specially arranged food tastings for select reviewers are so common as to be unremarkable.
The system shouldn’t work, but four food writers in particular ensured that it did. Vir Sanghvi and Rahul Verma have very different approaches to food writing. Vir travels a lot, and while he may be on every restaurant’s list of critics to pamper, he also eats out extensively on his own initiative.
His opinion on gourmet dining is well-informed, he’s retained his objectivity, and his curiosity extends beyond just the restaurant experience to other aspects of food. Rahul Verma’s passion for street food took him to the other extreme, to places where a critic rates only about the same respect as the local neighbourhood foodie, and he is still one of the best guides on how to get a great, cheap meal in Delhi.
Maryam Reshii worked for years with this paper, and her passion for food was evident from day one — she could induce a feeding frenzy just by describing the two or three classic ways to cook biryani. The last of the four, the redoubtable Sabina Sehgal Saikia, is being mourned in Delhi this week after her tragic death in the recent Bombay attacks.
Sabina exemplified how to get restaurant reviewing right — even when she was the most famous face at the table. There was no question of anonymity with her; heads would turn as she walked in, and seasoned professionals would shiver as she bellowed: “Chef, your basil is NOT FRESH!” She was often seen as one of the most powerful food reviewers in India — her reviews could make or break a restaurant — but what she really had, more than power, was enthusiasm.
People trusted her even when they disagreed with her, because it was understood that Sabina was passionate about food, about covering apparently every restaurant in Delhi for a food guide from the tiniest hole-in-the-wall place to the fanciest gourmet restaurant.
Years ago, I saw how she watched other customers to see what kind of service they were getting, how she could look around and tell whether a restaurant was going to be successful or not. I asked her once about anonymity, and she laughed. “Can you be HONEST?” she said. “When the chef is a friend and you know how much a good review means to him, can you still be HONEST? That’s it. That’s all that matters.”
So which system works better, the American or the Indian? Probably the former; but if you need an example of how to make a flawed system work really well, read Sabina’s reviews. n