That was the slogan of last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It got me thinking about food critics, and what they do. We tend to only reflect on the role of food critics when they’re in extremis: Leo Schofield getting sued for defamation; the French chef Bernard Loiseau and the loss of a Michelin star; or – horror of horrors – the Australian’s John Lethlean laying into Cheong Liew.
But what is restaurant reviewing all about? Nowadays, for most of us, if we want an opinion on a new restaurant in our neighbourhood, we’d probably go to some online site where diners rate the reasturant and offer their opinions. There’s a lot of debate about whether we’ve yet reached the age of the citizen journalist, but surely we’ve reached the age of the citizen critic? When it comes to something as quotidian as dining out, or a film, or a brand of whitegood or hi-fi, surely everyone is a critic. Do we really expect a food critic to add to this? Do we expect a restaurant critic to approach the task in the same way as a music critic will approach a recital, or a drama critic a play? Did they ever? Do we need a ‘specialist’ to interpret the dining experience to us in the same way as, for example, an art critic interprets art? What does it mean to a ‘specialist’ when it comes to consuming food in a restaurant?
I lived in Toronto in the first half of last year, in a neighbourhood at the west end of Queen Street West (that is, west Queen Street West). Queens St West runs from downtown, but the wester it goes the more it becomes like an extended version of Gertrude St Melbourne: a motley mix of convenience stores, pawn shops, second hand dealers, ethnic eateries, independent avant-garde art galleries, trendy cafes, social service providers and boutique hotels.
The area, like Gertrude St, is bordered by public housing – or what they call ‘project housing’ – and a local performance artist, Darren O’Donnell (no relation), worked with kids from the local Parkdale High School on a project called ‘Eat the Street’, glossed as Parkdale Public School versus Queen Street West (Darren likes working with kids: one of his earlier projects was to offer passing adults ‘haircuts by kids’ – under the supervision of a stylist of course).
O’Donnell took a group of students from Parkdale to review eleven restaurants in the Queen Street West area, over a month and a half, culminating in an awards ceremony. Here are examples of what some of the schoolkids-turned-restaurant reviewers had to say about some of the restaurants on the project’s blog:
‘The washroom is too small, smells bad and it dirty. Atmosphere is good. Pretty room colours. Good outfit. I like the music’ – Tenzin Paldon
‘Very good chicken curry with rice. Okay service’ – Tenzin Chokden
‘Service was pretty fast for a big group. There was a hair in my food’- Anh
‘It was very good and spicy’ – Tenzin Choesang
‘Bathroom = 8/10. Small, but feels good, isn’t dirty. Although small, feels nice and comfy. Sorta loud. Deer Burger: I feel really disturbed and disgusted. Wonder how it’ll end up like… Burger good and all but the sauce and ingredients on top are too overwhelming and strong. Doesn’t quite fit in well’ – Ann
‘Talihun threw up some food in a toilet because it tasted like his hair’ – Monlan
(You may have noted the apparent surfeit of kids named Tenzin: the area is home to one of the largest expat Tibetan communities outside of Asia)
Badging this as Parkdale Public School vs. Queen Street West 2: Eat The Street is explicitly oppositional. But it highlights what is at stake here. When a street like Queen St West or Gertrude St starts to change and gets a reputation as a hip or cool or edgy place — whether for its food or its art or its clothing boutiques or whatever — it is because a group of people has interpreted it this way and sold that interpretation to the world. Sharon Zukin, an American scholar of gentrification, calls these people the ‘critical infrastructure’: they range from the museum curators to the art gallery staff; from the restaurant waiters through to the restaurant reviewers — and, we would now have to add, online reviewers and ‘subcultural guides’ and blogs and so on. As she says, they ‘establish and unify a new perspective for viewing and consuming the values of place’. And in this way, of course, they also establish market values. And for Zukin, what goes for the built landscape goes for the menu as well: that shift from place-defining to market-defining.
Yet although the group that is able to communicate information about new consumption opportunities is expanding thanks to the internet, the critical infrastructure is not a job for everyone: it requires people with the requisite cultural capital, if not financial capital. Those kids from Parkdale Public School do just what critics do: they visit restaurants and write up their reactions. But what they’re doing, in the context of the gentrification of west Queen St West, is also something totally different from what restaurant reviewers do.
Update: there has been an Australian version of Eat the Street in Launceston (with a photo blog and (pdf) awards), inspired and supported by the Toronto collective Mammalian Diving Reflex. There’s a lot to say about this phenomenon as performance art: the place of children in public dining; their empowerment and voice; being made to remember what was important to us as kids when dining out; and so on. In my post I’ve focused on a fairly narrow aspect of the Toronto example – the seeming opposition between Parkdale School and Queen St West – to make a point about gentrification and cuisine and the role of restaurant critics however broadly defined. I don’t know enough about the demographics of Mowbray Heights Primary School to say whether any of this is relevant to the experience in Launceston. Anyone? Anyone?