Read ‘em and Eat: New papers mean new critics. So who are these people?

From Restaurant Magazine
October 25 – November 27, 2006

They get to wine and dine at tables with waiting lists that make us weep.  They’re required to plonk their forks into the plates of their dining companions in the name of research.  They gush and grumble—the crumbs of which we lap up week after week.  And then they get to write the whole ballyhoo off.   Is this the best job in the world, or what?

It might well explain why there isn’t much turnover in the privileged, over-stuffed land of restaurant reviewing.  You can’t really blame them. And now we’re seeing a bumper crop of hungry hacks sure to feast on their luck for as long as they can.

The recent afternoon free sheet war has spawned a whole new venue for craving critics, including Feargus O’Sullivan in the silver-spoon slot at News International’s baby, thelondonpaper. O’Sullivan writes punchy pieces that young nine-to-fivers can swallow on the evening commute.  Mondays are local restaurants, Wednesdays usually feature an opening and Fridays are all about going out.  It’s expensive one week, cheap the next.

Meanwhile, The Sunday Telegraph now has columnist Zoe Williams talking food in Stella Magazine, where the approach to choosing targets is a bit more fluid. “Sometimes it’s because they’re new; sometimes because they’re precisely not new.”

It’s clear that both of them are after an edgier style of restaurant reportage than the veterans who have, shall we say, been tempted to serve up slightly too much of themselves or stripped the dining experience of its inherent fun.

So, how did these two become holders of their palette passports?  Just what makes them worthy of the bottomless breadbasket?  And what makes them good enough to tell us what we should eat?

FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN of thelondonpaper

“Service has to be really rubbish before I start bitching about it,” says O’Sullivan, whose only previous brush with the restaurant business was doing three years as a waiter in Berlin. “But it also made me realise food can be done well.”

During a writing gig for The Sharp Edge, he interviewed Pied à Terre’s Shane Osbourn, who said he couldn’t see how Gordon Ramsay got into his kitchens being as busy as he is outside them.  The story got quite a bit of press, and O’Sullivan, who loves to cook, cunningly capitalised on it.  He now writes a weekly column, “DVD Dinners,” in The Times. How about some elk and beans while watching the boys on Brokeback Mountain get it on?

When thelondonpaper was poking around for a writer, it asked several contenders to review Gilgamesh in Camden.  O’Sullivan’s stood out.  “Whatever it was, it worked,” he said.

For him, the best part about the job is the blurred boundary between business and pleasure. “You’re not going to kneel at someone’s altar but enjoy a social occasion with great food and someone you like.”

Pick:  Arbutus.  “It’s not really a scene.  Quite no frills.  And the food is just exquisite.”

ZOE WILLIAMS of Stella Magazine

Things come a little easier when you’re Zoe Williams.  Stella’s editor simply offered her the ultimate food lover’s expense account.  But that was only after honing her singular voice for over ten years in the Evening Standard, The Guardian and Marie Claire, among others.  She has also written food reviews for a London property magazine.

Stella isn’t going for a traditional Maschler-esque column, even though Williams admits our own Dear Fay became that over decades. Instead, they try to keep things conversational.

She says choosing which restaurants to review is a black art.  Restaurants with big PR machines make her depressed, so she’ll often let the buzz die down before jumping on the bandwagon.  For her, dining is not just about the food.  It’s about the memories, the associations.

As a teenager, Williams did a two-month stint flogging dessert wine at Harvey’s in Chancery Lane. “An abject lesson in how not to behave,” she remembers.

She’s come a long way since and loves where the job takes her.  “You can get very capital centric.  When you go to Oxfordshire, you get stuff we stopped doing in 1992.”

Pick:  Kensington Place.  “It’s like jumping on a feather bed.”