Dining Out on Criticism

Does dissecting your meal add any value to the experience of eating out?

When did we become so precious about food? These days you can’t go out for a meal without someone at the table announcing they’ve had a better souffle down the road or declaring that the fruit in the dessert is “twee”.

“So often you hear, ‘I don’t like the beetroot with it’ or ‘I’ve had better eggs’,” says Auckland business owner and frequent diner Shelley Ryder. “They’re eggs. People pick on stuff these days because they want something to talk about. They’re definitely more critical.”

This modern affliction might be a good conversation starter but it’s threatening to spoil the fun. In our quest for the perfect dish, we’ve forgotten the pleasures of eating out. Who doesn’t love parking up in an atmospheric bistro with friends, and not having to worry about the cooking or the cleaning up?

These days it’s not that simple. There’s usually at least one stuffy companion dissa-tisfied with their meal and, if you look at the less favourable reviews on TripAdvisor or Zomato, the evening can come crashing down on the strength of the waiter’s tone of voice. A recent outing to Ostro ended in shame for Ryder when one of her fellow diners sent back what looked like a perfectly good steak without even taking a bite.

“I wanted to curl up and disappear. You just know the restaurant has to start from scratch. She had to wait an hour for something else — and there were people waiting for our table.”

Fair enough? Or brazenly rude? You could argue it’s impossible not to have an opinion about something you eat, and that, if you’re paying $30 for it, you’re perfectly entitled to expressing it. But long gone are the days when we graciously accepted a plate of food with a sense of joy and wonderment and ate with our senses rather than our brains.

In these food-obsessed times, we’re more likely to screw our noses up before Instagramming the meal or heading online to dash off a hysterical review.

Perhaps it’s inevitable. Between 2014 and 2015, the projected growth in the number of cafes and restaurants in New Zealand is 2.5 per cent, up from 1.7 per cent the previous year and 1.1 per cent the year before that. As our palates are exposed to more, our expectations, naturally, get higher.

We’re also more confident home cooks. The top-five non-fiction books in New Zealand are cookbooks, and we’re so busy trialling new recipes through the likes of My Food Bag, it no doubt takes more to impress us when we venture out of our own kitchens.

Such a devotion to food in the general culture represents a kind of perversity or decadence, wrote British writer Steven Poole in You Aren’t What You Eat.

“Yes, food is the new drug for former Britpoppers and the Ecstasy generation, a safer and more respectable hedonic tool, the key to a comfortingly domesticated high.”

But part of the blame lies with the endlessly analytical food shows such as MasterChef, in which contestants are dismissed for their cloudy consommes, or the bitchy My Kitchen Rules, in which a skew-whiff fork meets the same derision as a fraudulent politician. The constant criticism has trained us to approach food with a nitpicking attitude.

“I have a friend who will always find fault with something, even where there is none,” says HR manager Stacey Mariu. “Often, he’ll be rude to the staff or he’ll tell everyone at the table that he’s had better elsewhere. He won’t send stuff back but he’ll be quite vocal about announcing his disappointment.”

There’s also a degree of control freakery at play — no longer are we prepared to sit back and trust the chef, feeling compelled instead to tweak the menu to our increasingly particular tastes. Ryder, for instance, says she’s trying to avoid sugar.

“But I’m not allergic to it so if I do eat it, I won’t die. You look at paleo and those strict sorts of diets — I don’t know how restaurants deal with it. I’ve actually heard people say that if restaurants don’t cater to the 10 specific ingredients they won’t eat, then they can’t be any good.”

On any given night, Sofitel head chef Nick Honeyman deals with an array of food “allergies”. He says it’s great we’re thinking more about what we eat, and is diplomatic about meeting customers’ demands. He even admits to feeling a swell of pride when he sees someone Instagramming his food. But catering to the modern diner can also be frustrating. “A lot of people who say they’re gluten-free are not coeliacs. It’s more of a fad thing, like they made themselves intolerant.”

Strangely, the meal people are fussiest about, he says, is breakfast. “They turn up knowing exactly what they want to eat and how they like their eggs. Some people want this kind of toast, some don’t want dairy, and often there are five or six different options for each dish.”

Then there’s the issue of Instagram. Free advertising, sure, but the chef has no control over how a dish is shot, and the whole process can slow the service right down. Often, by the time a customer has uploaded the image to the internet, the dish has gone cold.

An unofficial study conducted by a busy New York restaurant found that the average time a customer spent at the table from start to finish in 2004 was one hour and five minutes, while in 2014, the average time was one hour and 55 minutes. Why? We’re so distracted by our phones. “Some people are there to be seen,” says Honeyman, “and make sure their friends know that they’re there.”

It’s not just fine-dining establishments dealing with increasingly picky patrons. Sophie Finemore, an experienced barista and cook who works at a popular Freemans Bay cafe, says on one hand she’s become the “pain-in-the-ass customer” who reads up on the latest nutrition studies and critiques her meals accordingly when she dines out. But she’s also used to being on the receiving end. She reckons one in five customers will make a fussy remark about the food or the coffee she’s serving, a trend she’s seen increase in the past five years.

“People think they’re connoisseurs these days. They have coffee machines at home, so they spend half the time telling you how to make a coffee or that they’ve tried that blend before and they do it better. It makes you feel completely sh*t! You just want to say, ‘Hello?’ But, as a professional, you can’t tell someone to get stuffed. So you cop it on the chin.

“A guy asked me for coconut sugar in his coffee the other day, and it was like I’d ruined his whole day because I didn’t have any.”

Viva food editor Nici Wickes reckons we all just need to take a chill pill with our side of duck-fat chips, and while we’re at it, a slice of humble pie.

“Customers have become incredibly demanding,” she says. “We’ve forgotten about respect. Somebody has created a dish and that is the way it needs to be presented. If you’re having eggs bene on gluten-free toast, fine. But don’t expect the chef to dance on a dime on the night. You don’t go along to an art show and say, ‘I want that painting smaller in blue’. It’s a creative process and the customer is not always right.”

Wickes points out that street food became popular in countries where not everyone can afford a decent-sized kitchen; therefore eating out is an everyday part of the culture, appreciation communicated simply by turning up more than once.

“Whereas we still think eating out is quite a big deal. Ooh, we’re at a restaurant or a cafe — aren’t we flash. People know a lot about food now. Before it was this mysterious, beautiful process that unfolded, now you see a battle go on tableside, with diners keen to prove what they know or defend what they don’t know.”

The pendulum swings in the other direction, too. If we’re not dismissing the underseasoned pork medallions, we’re showering praise on the chicken to an embarrassing degree. It’s one thing to express your enjoyment, quite another to do it for an audience.

Over a recent meal at a highly regarded North Shore restaurant, a woman at my table spent much of the night loudly discussing the wine’s tawny finish, which perfectly complemented the creamy corn reduction, leaving explosions of piquant flavour in her mouth. Seriously, you’d think she was having an orgasm.

New Zealand food writer Lauraine Jacobs agrees we’ve become obsessed, and not just about the food.

“It’s self-obsession,” she says. “I’m guilty of putting photographs of food on Facebook but so often you see these pictures and you think it’s not about the food. It’s ‘Look at me with my friend in this restaurant; look at what I’m eating’.”

We’ve also become precious, she says, a trend she blames on print food critics.

“They concentrate on the food with these endless adjectives, they’re completely obsessed with themselves and what they ate. They’ve forgotten about fun. I don’t care if someone says something’s too salty, someone else might find it perfect.

My husband doesn’t eat salt. You don’t want a blow-by-blow account. But it’s what you read everywhere. I think people find that they should do that, too.”

Jacobs says we need to get back to letting our hair down when we go out, and having faith in the chefs. They wouldn’t have put something on the menu if they didn’t think it was good.

Marisa Bidois, CEO of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand, says our fascination with food is only a good thing for business.

“People are out more and wanting to experiment and try new flavours. Any feedback received, restaurants will take that on board.”

But she concedes the most contentious aspect of feedback is online reviews. “Everyone is entitled to an opinion,” says Bidois, “but how do you control that? Are people getting the right information? What are the credentials of the reviewer, and how are you justified making those decisions? Are you dining out a lot, do you have culinary experience? It’s those things that add up to credibility. It’s interesting because in the last five years there’s been an increase in online reviewing.”

There’s certainly value to be had in getting an impression from, as opposed to, thoroughly examining online food reviews. You can generally sort the reasonable voices from the extremists, and although you might not always get much detail as to how an opinion was formed, you can get a feel for how popular a place is — or isn’t, thanks to the sheer numbers.

Most reviewers describe their experiences in general terms — running the gamut from “had a great time” to “rubbish”, often with little explanation as to why. Perhaps the same could be said of our picky friends. Next time they complain the ribs are boring, the crab cakes aren’t authentic or the venison isn’t organic, it could be time to stage an intervention.

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New Zealand Herald

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