This morning I sat down to read the final column by Perth food writer Gail Williams. I had the pleasure of meeting her once, for a story she wrote on the rise of the share food phenomenon, but after fifteen years at the Sunday Times, she is putting away her pencil, and hanging up her serviette.
I have always enjoyed reading Gail’s reviews as she presents a fair, yet engaging story of her meal. If she thinks something is truly atrocious she will say so, but she never skewers people with either her fork nor her wit, and she comes across as a genuinely nice person. I take a lot of inspiration from her style of writing: she both respects the people in the kitchen, and as such is respected by them.
I have been doing restaurant reviews in a much lesser capacity since 2010 when I started writing for WeekendNotes. I was looking for a paid writing job that I could do in my own time, and the advert to write about ‘things you could do on your weekend’ appealed to me. I was regularly eating out, so why not write about it and get paid at the same time?
Since then I have clocked up more than 300 articles and even though not all of them are restaurant reviews, I can easily say I have covered a fair bit of ground in the Perth culinary scene. Especially at breakfast time.
So what does it take to be a food writer?
Know Your Limits
Are you a chef? A nutritionist? A sommelier? A molecular gastronomist? No? Then don’t pretend to be one. The first rule of all writing is ‘write what you know’, and writing about food is no different.
I am very upfront in my reviews that I am not a trained expert when it comes to food, wine or coffee. I don’t pretend to understand the intricate cooking techniques or care about food providence. I know exactly squat about coffee, except that I need at least two every morning.
What I am is a consumer. I write about my experience in visiting a restaurant. I can tell you if the menu is limited or breaks the mould. I can tell you if a restaurant is better suited to big noisy groups or intimate dinners. I can tell you how the service staff treat you. I can talk about price and value and serving sizes. I can describe the room. I will even talk about idiosyncrasies of a place such as access to toilets or parking issues.
By the end of the review I want you to feel like you have already been there, and that you have some ‘insider’ knowledge. Preferably, I want you to feel inspired to go and eat there yourself.
Know Your Niche
So you may not be a trained chef, but you might be a student on a budget. A vegetarian. A mother of small kids. You might be gluten intolerant, or particularly concerned with paddock to plate principles. You have a niche and you should exploit it. Whether you are writing for a blog or a website you will gather followers who also like to eat the same way you do.
I have three young children, so I often write about the child-friendly aspects of restaurants. And as parents will know, it takes more than a plate of chicken nuggets to be really child-friendly. Menu considerations such as price, portion size and child-appropriate meals are obviously important, but the way children (and parents) are treated by service staff is probably even more crucial.
Does the restaurant offer colouring in? Are they happy to rearrange chairs to fit a pram or high chair (do they even have a high chair?). Are they conscious about serving temperature and appropriate utensils. Do they have a play room or a baby change station in the toilets? How do they feel about breast feeding?
You can even write yourself a checklist of items you want to write about every time you do a review, a checklist specific to needs of your particular audience.
Do Your Research
One thing I always try to do in my reviews is to provide background information about a restaurant. Perhaps it might be mentioning the big name chef who run it, perhaps they recently won an important award. On the flip side, perhaps a place has previously been lambasted by the review sites but has now changed management and they deserve another go.
If you don’t understand what an ingredient or technique is, don’t just ignore it or write about it blindly, research it. If you are serious about your craft, you can always call the restaurant and ask for more information, otherwise Google will tend to give you answers for most things.
Take Photos of Everything
A well structured photograph of beautiful food will boost hit rates of an online article tenfold. People eat with their eyes, so when reading about food they want to see what their stomachs will enjoy. Not only do I take photos of my food and everyone else’s food (my friends now know not to start eating until I have taken a few images of their dinner), but I also photograph the menu so I can later write with authority about prices, ingredients and the range of dishes offered.
If there is something unusual or quirky about a place, perhaps they have unusual table decorations, a striking view or they use particularly beautiful dishes I always try and take a photo. If there is unusual wall art or overhead lighting, I make sure my readers are able to get a feel of the room.
It’s important to be judicious when taking photographs though. Other people might not want to be photographed, and constant flash lighting can be irritating to other diners. It also attracts attention to you.
Ask Your Companions What They Thought
If you are dining in a group of six, ask the others what they thought because their experience of a restaurant, not to mention their meal, might be very different to yours. Your steak may have been cooked to perfection but their fish might be badly overcooked, or their soufflé hard as a rock. If you have a friend who is vegetarians or gluten intolerant, ask them whether they thought there was sufficient options for them. Ask your wine snob buddy what they thought of the wine list.
While there are certain things you can generalise about, you also can’t go making wild assumptions about a place. There are a number of restaurants these days who have a split personality, and while they are a cheery casual café during the day, at night they might become a fine dining establishment. If you visited a place at lunchtime when the menu is quiche and sandwiches, don’t make wild guesses about their 10 course degustation dinner.
I only write about the food I have personally eaten, unless someone dining with me has specifically commented on their dish and asked me to include it. I also make sure to mention if the specific time I visited might have affected the service or quality of the food, such as if they are in the midst of a major renovation and are operating on a limited menu, or if there was a huge football game on and the restaurant was packed to capacity.
Don’t Write Anything You Wouldn’t Say to a Person’s Face
This last one is just a personal thing. I don’t believe in lampooning people from behind my computer and I always put my name to my reviews and articles. I need to be able to back up everything I write, and yes, I have been contacted by restaurants and catering companies before who didn’t like what I wrote. The first time it happened, I received written letters and obsessive phonecalls from the owner. I briefly considered calling the police, until a quick check on Google showed me that hundreds of other customers were equally upset. The difference was that I put my name to my review, so I was easy to track down, and the others had vented their spleens anonymously online.
I take plenty of photographs, and in 99% of reviews, will take notes either in my phone or in a notepad, dated, so that if a query is raised I can go back to my notes and say ‘this is what happened’.
My basic principle is that if I have more negative things to say about a place than positive, I won’t write the review. There are a few places I haven’t bothered to write about because I had little to say that would be nice. I realise that it could be argued that people should be told if a place is dodgy or poor quality, but I think I will leave that up to the experts (and the State Hygiene Inspectors).
Finally, a restaurant review might be a functional piece of writing, and the primary goal is to supply information, but I do not believe that’s any reason not to make it beautiful as well. I try and tell a story with my reviews, so that even if you have no intention of visiting a restaurant I am writing about, you still enjoy reading about it.