Tag Archive | critics

Square plates, narrow minds

An abomination. According to the dictionary, that is ‘something that causes disgust or hatred’. Are we talking about Russia’s anti-gay reign of terror? Are we talking about Syria’s use of poison gas on its own population? Was this word perhaps used to describe the ongoing practice of fracking? No. This word was used by William Sitwell to describe how he feels about food that is being served on square plates.

Really William Sitwell, can't you fuss over something more worthy?

Really William Sitwell, can’t you fuss over something more worthy?

William Sitwell is an employee of a large UK supermarket chain, and as such he writes all sorts of inoffensive and  informative articles for the in-store magazine, that are solely meant to make people buy a certain product. It has nothing to do with journalism, but everything with marketing. For some obscure reason, Sitwell was chosen years ago to become a regular food critic on Masterchef, and his bespectacled face has become a regular guest in our household since then. And it seems that the rise to tv fame has gone to Sitwell’s head.

Suddenly, he sees himself as a real food critic instead of a glorified supermarket checkout girl. Someone, who must leave his mark, someone who could be directional when it comes to steering British cuisine into the 21st century. And so, he has started to have opinions, and to value them, and to impose them on others, in short: he had become a Proper Food Critic.

If great cooking is a pure act of love -and that’s how I see it anyway- then food criticism is all about murdering that love. The food critic in general is a sad, joyless creature, who has long ago blurred the lines between being witty and being cynical, and who really only lights up when he finds fault in a certain dish, so he can then start his verbal assassination. Food critics only have few words to praise a meal, but millions of ways to say what they do not like. The more expensive the restaurant, the more absurd the scrutiny they’re under. Peas not all of the same size? Abomination! Slightly lumpy mashed puree/celeriac/swede/parsnip (oh, the UK and its enduring love of baby food!)? Abomination!

The animation film ‘Ratatouille’ was definitely not one of Pixar’s greatest, but one thing they did do well was how they portrayed the food critic Anton Ego, a self-inflated ball of bile and cynicism, always trying to find fault in whatever he eats (for free) and then of course finding it. I’m afraid real life food critics (and yes, I know a few in person) are more like Anton Ego than they would dare to admit.

Anton Ego hits closer to home than most critics would dare to admit

Anton Ego hits closer to home than most critics would dare to admit

Once, these food critics probably really loved food, and appreciated it. But they have taught themselves to suppress their enojoyment and to be ruthless killjoys, in the name of journalism. Heaven forbid, after all, the food critic gets accused of having a cushy easy job, with lovely free meals in expensive restaurants! Oh no, we mustn’t think that! No, it’s hard work to have to struggle through a slightly underseasoned saddle of venison, or to have to plough through yet another dodgy crème anglaise (custard to us commoners). And to then sit down and shoot the whole meal down in flames, that’s seriously hard work!

The joyless trio of the Great British Menu

The joyless trio of the Great British Menu

Take a programme like the Great British Menu for instance. There, three regular critics get to taste the creations of the chefs… but all they really do is try and outwit and outsmary… and outcriticize one another. If Prue Leith says she loves a certain aspect of a dish, it’s the signal for suspiciously thin (I believe people who say they love food ought to look like they do!) Oliver … to quip that it is completely awful, and then Matthew Fort chimes in with his posh accent and slightly effeminate manner that is so common in upper middle class Brits, to really destroy the entire dish just for the sake of being witty. It is as depressing as it is predictable, and I am sure that the critics in question don’t even realize how miserly they come across to a public that probably never ate venison sweatbreads or pickled grouse tongue and can only afford fish fingers.

I am sure William Sitwell used to be a kid that loved food, and that was excited to try new things and flavors. But now he too has turned into this unpleasant ogre, this food-Scrooge, who is cynical just for the sake of it, or because that is what a Serious Journalist is supposed to be. And one morning he woke up with a bright idea to carve a name out for himself in the overcrowded world of food writers. He would begin his very own crusade… against something nobody had thought of before. A crusade against square plates. Square, he reasons, goes against what is natural. An abomination!

Let me say this very clear. Nobody gives a toss about what sort of plate food gets served on as long as it’s clean and big enough. I have had great food from round, square, rectangular, oval, oblong, triangular, octagonal, parallellopippidoic plates. Plates that were made from porcelain, majolica, terracotta, glass, plastic, melamine, cardboard, slate and recycled potato peels. If William Sitwell has truly reached the stage, where he fusses more over the shape of a plate than about the food that’s on top of it, then really, he hasn’t got anything left to write or complain about.

I suggest he retires, before he starts complaining about the diabolical evil that is the three-pronged fork.

In defense of the food selfie

We are all gripped by the selfie: the pointless, egotistical guilty pleasure of photographing ourselves with our smartphone, to not only document the mad and wonderful life we live, but to rub other people’s noses in it. Selfies may be taken for oneself, of oneself and by oneself, but they are almost never kept to oneself. Instead, the selfies almost immediately find their way onto Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and all those other wonderful soapboxes of the internet, where we stand and scream and shout to announce and validate our existence.

Best suckling pork in the world at Lvi Dvur in Prague!

Wonderful Estonian starter at Kaerajaan, Prague.

I am not so big on taking selfies, perhaps because I just don’t find myself all that interesting or photogenic. I do, however, take lots and lots of phtotos of food and drink, and of myself eating and drinking. Recently, I have been reading articles about snooty restaurant chefs taking offense of this harmless habit. They declare war on guests who take photos of their carefully constructed culinary creations. Apparently, they are quite willing to sell you these edible works of art, but they want to maintain intellectual ownership. So you may destroy the food with your knife, put it in your mouth, dissolve it in gastric acid and send it to its demise in a porcelain toilet bowl, but you are NOT allowed to take a photo of what you just paid 50 euro’s for to keep as a memento.

These chefs have no idea about food and about what it does to emotions and memories. Let me explain how it works for me. Great, memorable meals are always more than just that. They are also great, memorable times spent with great, memorable people. A terrific meal by oneself is really quite a depressing affair. A great meal in great company is the best thing imagineable. Life just does not get any better. So, when I take a photo of a lovely plate of food, I also place a marker in my memory of a truly great moment. What chef would not be proud, to be part of someone’s dearest memories?

Yours truly having a wonderful lunch at Pillnitz Palace in Dresden.

Yours truly having a wonderful lunch at Pillnitz Palace in Dresden.

Apparently, the chefs who protest against food selfies, and who in some cases have gone so far as to explicitly forbid photography in their restaurants, are afraid that their intellectual property gets infringed upon. Yeah right. As if a crappy iPhone photo of some exquisite food is suddenly going to make you able to replicate that same food in your own kitchen. I have phtographed lots of food, but never once in order to copy a dish at home. Simply put: if a restaurant serves the kind of food I can cook at home, I am not going to eat there. The beauty of a home cooked meal is just that: that you or a loved one made it, and that you eat it at home. In a restaurant, I want to be stunned and amazed by ingredients I cannot get my hands on, by cooking skills that require years of training, by beautiful presentation I could never pull off on my cheap plates. And I want to remember that, so I want to take that photo.

Deal with it, snooty chefs, and allow me the pleasure of hanging on to what should be a wonderful memory. If you see me taking a food selfie in your restaurant, the you can be damn sure I am having a wonderful time, that I want to remember long after the food has been digested. So please… indulge me, or better still, pose with me! And you can be sure I’ll be back.

Superb starter at Villa Richter in Prague

Superb starter at Villa Richter in Prague