I was recently treated to a meal at a very posh restaurant with my favourite restaurant reviewer... One of the dishes wasn't very nice. Actually, the combination of flavours meant that it was inedible.
"Did Madam like her food?" asked the waiter, clearing away my uneaten dish.
"No Madam didn't" I said.
They still billed for it though.
The reviewer in question doesn't complain, she can't really, it would ruin her anonymity, a precious thing if you are doing a fair review. If you are instantly recognisable as a restaurant critic, you are evidently going to be treated better than the general public; your review therefore has less authority.
I see things from both sides of the fence; I sometimes review restaurants and I also run a restaurant of sorts. So I always give feedback. How are they going to improve if they don't know you don't like it? I once reviewed a restaurant whose entire 'special' menu was misconceived...I found myself explaining how they could improve it rather than going home, sharpening my mouse and ripping them apart. As I said, I'm split between two worlds.
But how do you complain in a home restaurant? There you are, in somebody's home, surrounded by their personal possessions, meeting their family/partners/kids and although you are paying for the food, it seems impolite to complain. Do you raise objections about the food when you go to a dinner party at your friend's house? Unlikely.
The food critic A.A. Gill once did just that; he describes in 'Table Talk' how he sent back a dish at a dinner party:
"I said that I didn't think I could eat the stew. There was a silence you could have spread on toast....
Then the hostess said: "It is a bit disgusting isn't it? I've got some eggs..."
He said he hasn't been invited to a dinner party since.
But a home restaurant is different: to begin with people wouldn’t start a supperclub if they thought they couldn’t cook. Yet people who can’t cook frequently host dinner parties. But, at a supperclub, you are paying...
I'd prefer it if people told me to my face, politely if possible, or sent me an email giving feedback. If it's really bad, they can ask for a refund (not all at once please!)
But as a guest you must be fair and take everything into account: the fact that it's a fixed menu, that you are generally getting a good deal for your money and that, whereas one dish may be disappointing or not to your taste, the rest of it may well be delicious or at least adequate. You are also not only paying for the food, you are paying for the event, the theme (if there is one), the entertainment (if provided), the opportunity to socialise and to share intimately, if only for an evening, someone's home and life.
It dismays me is when dissatisfied guests, rather than giving you feedback, just post anonymously on the Internet about how much they disliked you, your home and your food.
Is it British to be afraid to confront and complain constructively? Or is the thrill of putting you in your place in public more exciting than any fair attempt at improving what you do?
Chatting to another home restaurant hostess recently, a very good one in my opinion, she told me about a guest, who blogged that their enjoyment was spoiled because of the stress exhibited by the hosts and the 'skanky' bathroom.
This judgement was based on one evening when there was a problem with their grill and hence delays in the food. Of course, having come across this review, the supper club hostess was very upset ...
In the middle of hosting the first Harry Notter night, I got the news via Google alert that a 'friend' (not anymore mate) had posted a vicious piece on me. I felt like I'd been punched in the solar plexus and found it a struggle to continue with the evening. I'm now very careful about reading reviews.
Another guest wrote months later on a site how much he hated my restaurant and my cooking, describing the 12 tapas courses and cocktail for £25 as a rip-off. On the actual evening, he said nothing. Nada. Not a peep. Not even an email afterwards. Dismayed, I wrote to him, apologising for any shortcomings and offering his money back. He used this as another opportunity to have a pop at me.
You can't please all of the people all of the time...
I guess we will all have to develop a thicker skin.
But, just like me, many supper club hosts are new to this, the relentless pressure that any of your guests could be a blogger and that you are being judged.
There are times, due to fatigue or stress, when I snap at guests, for instance, last week ... I normally make an announcement 'feel free to come into the kitchen after the main course' (1) but I didn't have time.
Invited in by my parents (who were unaware of this rule) a girl came into the kitchen and tried to chat to me. I'd had two hours sleep and my brain, still having to coordinate several dishes, just couldn't cope with any more activity. (Cooking, never considered intellectual, uses an enormous amount of brain power as well as physical energy). In the end I just said
'I'm sorry, I'm just too busy'.She probably felt rudely rebuffed and for that I apologise. But while I love the idea of blurring the boundary between kitchen and dining room, would you expect to chat to the head chef in the middle of service in a normal restaurant? You'd get short shrift if you attempted that...
It also seems unfair to judge a home restaurant or any restaurant on just one visit. My esteemed colleague, food blogger Bellaphon, only reviews after two visits, especially if the first was not so good.
I'm all for openness and democracy; in the kitchen and on the Internet. It's in equal measures wonderful that everybody is writing about their lives and what they are eating and also terrible. People now have carte blanche to exorcise every bit of stifled anger and resentment, exhibit their prejudices and grievances in public. It is so much easier to be nasty when you are anonymous. People write things on the internet they would never have the courage to say to someone.
So, harking back to what that blogger said about stress...as a diner, do you prefer to feel like everything is coming out smoothly? Or do you want to know about how it is behind the scenes? Is the feeling of knife edge riskiness part of the appeal of an underground restaurant? Or a hindrance to your enjoyment?
And supperclub hosts, how will you feel when one of your guests, on a forum or on a blog post, complains about your voice, your taste in decor, your standards of hygiene or your food?
(1) One of the lessons I have learnt from doing this for almost a year now. Once the main course is out, you can relax, the pace slows down, you can act human again.