Anthony: Everyone’s a critic.

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.

Gentrification Street West

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?


7 thoughts on “Anthony: Everyone’s a critic.

  1. Hey Zoe,

    It didn’t work so well in Launceston. The real intention of the piece is to create an atypical social situation. in the case of Toronto, it’s the kids who live in the neighborhood and our “audience” of adults who come to have dinner with the students: mostly artsy-fartsy culturatti. there’s a division between those two groups who both call the neighborhood home and we wanted to bridge that gap. the critical dining experience is the excuse for all of that and is what makes it a little more fun. In Launceston, there just wasn’t the audience for that kind of experience – we’ve spent many years building an audience of people who view something like that as entertainment. it’s not self-evident, i don’t think, how having dinner with a bunch of 12 year olds can be considered a performance, but it really is a good time. in Lonnie, the project turned out to be an exciting intervention into the school, where we had great support from the teachers who all came out and socialized with the students and everybody let their hair down a little. during the awards ceremony the pricipal actually danced for the students and their parents – it was really funny and fun.

    anyway, thanks for writing about the project.
    take care,

  2. Hi Darren, it was actually me who wrote the post. I was living between Roncesvalles and Sorauren this time last year – and loving it. Good to get your thoughts and thanks for the info regarding the Launceston experience

  3. Thanks for this post, Anthony, I think the role of the critic of restaurants/eating is in a very interesting place at the moment; you can actually see the waves of fear coming off some of them.

    So pleased that you dropped by Darren, and thanks for the info. (And more incentive to do a bit of a redesign and make the author’s name more prominent.)

    … it’s not self-evident, i don’t think, how having dinner with a bunch of 12 year olds can be considered a performance, but it really is a good time.

    I think that anyone who’d read the kids’ awards and seen the extensive toilet photos might get it.

  4. Thanks Anthony, what an interesting post.

    Gentrification is really interesting because on the one hand, it’s a fairly natural process as cities change. And yet on the other hand, there’s a big element of fashion and marketing and it can often feel slightly artificial and plastic. It’s as though some narrative is being created and bought into by those new people, who use the existing population and area’s characteristics as kind of props in a self conscious ‘lifestyle’, not as actual fellow residents.

    The comments from Sharon Zukin make a lot of sense to me because of how those ‘critical infrastructure’ people reframe what was previously normal, or indeed dodgy, to suddenly become edgy and cool. I’m thinking about Dalston (and the Vietnamese restaurants) in London or what was in decades past undesirable Italian/ Yugoslav Fremantle in Perth. And it ends up with the real estate guff that goes with places like Gertrude St and the whole promotion of its ‘cafe culture’. That kind of commodification makes me quite uncomfortable. I think because it changes it from a natural everyday thing to a constructed artifice.

    That might sound overly harsh, but for example in London, Islington is a by-word for gentrification (now 30 yrs old) yet the finance/law/ creative types don’t tend to send their kids to the local schools so there’s precious little integration.

    I should say that I could be part of a gentrification process. I was saying to The Man the other day that, much as I enjoy my poor, bustling, multi-everything area and the shops that go with that diverse population, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much if some of those things about gentrification that I like weren’t here: like the (one) chic french cafe, all wooden floors and over priced organic biscuits. Mind you, no one’s yet describing Holloway, London as the new up and coming area, so I may be getting ahead of myself 😉

    I love the idea of bringing the local kids together with, as Darren says, the artsy fartsy types who are creating the gentrification. It helps make a neighbourhood more of a genuine whole while giving some of the original residents, who are integral to the re-marketing process, a part in that process.

  5. Just a small point in response to Emica. I don’t think the artsy fartsy types are creating the gentrification. most of them don’t have the capital to buy much more than a macbook pro, let alone lead something like a wholesale gentrification. it’s much bigger money, developers, bigger business folks, etc, who are doing that. I think artists get a bad rap in the whole gentrification thing and that, at worst, their kind of compliant dupes in a process that eventually prices them out of the neighborhood. there are neighborhoods that where artists situate themselves that don’t gentrify and neighborhoods without artists that do gentrify, the presence of artists is a contingency that sometimes greases the development wheels but often doesn’t. to pin it on us is inaccurate, i think.

  6. Quite right to clarify, Darren. It was perhaps my clumsy phrasing. It is an irony that, often, the artist avant garde start the ball rolling but then can’t afford to stay.

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