Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The critical point: Tom Sellers vs Fay Maschler

When I read Fay Maschler's 1 (out of 5) star review of restaurant Ours in the Evening Standard last week, I asked myself a few questions. When you say them out loud, actually how different are the words 'ours' and 'arse'? Is it likely that a restaurant that features a 30 foot catwalk as it's entrance ever going to be anything else other than a magnet for reality TV stars, minor league footballers and low-rent royals? And how the fuck can anyone justify charging 12 quid for one scallop?

I might have been a one man Question Time, but one thing I knew for absolute certain was that Ours's consulting chef Tom Sellers of Michelin-starred Restaurant Story wasn't going to be happy when he'd finished reading the review. And I knew for sure that the one thing I didn't need to see was a smugly passive aggressive 1000 word 'review of the review' by Sellers. Call me a psychic mentalist mind reader with mad telepathic skillz, but when you see phrases like 'weirdly slithery', 'tasteless' and 'mouth-puckering saltiness' used about food, you know the person responsible for cooking it won't be jumping up and down with glee.



Nevertheless, within hours of Maschler's 'Tricky sequel for Sellers' review came Sellers's essay 'Faymous'. Unless Sellers was given a preview of the review, it seems unfair to parse his writing style given that the piece must have been bashed out in a matter of minutes. Whatever the issues with the prose, Sellers's raw emotions come through loud and clear as he picks over Maschler's review like food returned uneaten to a restaurant kitchen.

He regrets that a salmon dish, which he claims was tasted by the critic and which the chef is obviously proud of, is not mentioned. He quibbles over just exactly how a table was assigned to Maschler (she:' I have been recognised. Suddenly there is a table ready'; he: 'the table reserved for your pseudonym was always your table and the delay was due to the staff re-laying it'). He complains that his CV is referred to in the review, even though he has a version of ratatouille by Thomas Keller (one of Sellers's famous mentors, along with Rene Redzepi and, unmentioned by Maschler, Tom Aikens) on his menu, and at a whopping £17 a portion.

On closer examination, there is little of substance in the piece, underlined by the fact that his main bone of contention is that the critic has failed to correctly identify some of the ingredients in an eschabeche of red mullet. Maschler guesses beetroot and red cabbage, Sellers says onion, fennel and purple carrot. Although I did wonder why Maschler didn't check with the kitchen on the ingredients either on the day or by phone later on, Sellers might be better off considering why the flavour of his food can't be detected by a critic of more than 40 years standing and if he needs to do anything to make them more distinct, than pondering whether she had 'eaten out too many times that week, or that day even, and become confused'.

By concentrating on the apparent error, Sellers allows himself to brush aside the actual criticism, that the ingredients, whatever they may have been, were 'dissing what should be a delicate flavour' as Maschler put it, and unbalancing the dish. And by letting a bad review get under his skin, Sellers has also missed two crucial wider points. He might have received plenty of support on Twitter for the piece (just check out his feed at @tomsstory, he's re-tweeted most of it) but 'Faymous' ultimately has brought a great deal more attention to a bad review than it might otherwise have received and his defensive tone has only served to lend weight to Maschler's carps.

The greatest irony however is that Ours is the kind of restaurant that is mostly immune to reviews. The sort of people likely to head to South Kensington for an £8 kale salad or a £10 side order of asparagus have probably never heard of Fay Maschler. Or Tom Sellers. Better that the chef kept a dignified silence or at least appear to take the review on board rather then dismissing it out of hand. 

Although Maschler's visits were both in the first week of trading, the restaurant was charging full price and it would be unlikely that Sellers would have refuted a positive review on the basis that they had only be opened a few days. 'Give us time we are working extremely hard to reach the level we desire' pleaded Sellers in response to a tweet from a paying punter who agreed with Maschler's assessment. But the only way new restaurants can buy time from reviewers and customers alike is with free family and friends nights and reduced price soft opening weeks. That's when mistakes can be legitimately made and compensated for, otherwise chefs and restaurateurs have to accept they are fair game as soon as they start charging full whack.

What is most disturbing about Sellers's riposte is the implication that critics are something the restaurant industry has to endure, like rat infestations or immigration raids, that the award of just one star was somehow invalid because Sellers chose not to accept it. If he's unwilling to accept the judgement, based on two visits, of one of the country's most experienced diners, it makes you wonder how seriously he takes customer complaints. Sellers should be delighted to have been given what is in effect free consultancy (Maschler has been know to charge for the service through the now defunct Private View company she set up in 2008), the pay off being that it was conducted in the full glare of publicity of course.

Does Sellers take no notice of reviews when he's deciding where to dine? Does he never talk critically about meals he's eaten in other chef's restaurants? The truth is that everyone who eats out on a regular basis and cares about food is a critic, whether they are paid for it or not, whether they have a column in a newspaper or just tweet.

Restaurant critics (and critics of any stripe, be it opera, theatre or cinema etc) are not parasites, living off the work of others, taking and not giving anything back. They are part of an essential dialectical relationship that improves the restaurant scene for everyone. You only have to look at London compared to the rest of the UK to see how important that relationship is. There are of course many other factors at play, but I firmly believe that strong critical voices have at the very least speeded up the evolution of the London scene, and that their absence elsewhere in the country is sorely felt.

Although Sellers accuses Maschler of being 'confused', infers that she's weak on detail and lacks passion and quotes cartoon restaurant critic Anton Ego saying that 'the work of critic is easy' (sic), he also claims that his respect for Maschler 'goes beyond description' and hopes to one day enjoy dinner with her. If he isn't being hugely disingenuous and is simply suffering from a little cognitive dissonance (he is, after all, 'just the guy that cooks the food' as it says on his website) , then a Sellers/Maschler summit might not be a bad thing. 

Because there is a real risk that the growing lack of patience displayed by chefs in general with criticism received through sites like Tripadvisor is spilling over to reviews in general and that is a dangerously blinkered attitude to adopt. It's something recently recognised by James Lewis creative director at Gauthier Group who told a Caterer magazine summit that negative reviews provided 'incredible data' that operators should 'relish'

Perhaps a meeting between Sellers and Maschler might begin to mend this apparently broken relationship. Maybe they can work out their differences over a dish of red mullet served with beetroot and red cabbage. And onions, fennel and purple carrot.