Blogging or Blagging. Who gives a f*ck?

In the office of a very famous chef there is a framed cover of a Radio Times. It features a long dining table around which 13 chefs sit, all laughing and joking in their pristine whites. They sparkle as if they can’t quite believe that they, mere passionate craftsmen and dedicated cooks, have found themselves in this ridiculous glow of celebrity. I can’t remember exactly who is in it but the Antons (Edelmann and Mosimann) are there, the still spiky Gary Rhodes, at least one Roux and a young Gordon Ramsay all quaff and eat for the camera with genuine gusto.

Whenever I am in that office I look at the photo and remember it being taken. I recall that all these people liked each other and had nothing but good things to say about their colleagues’ talents and largesse. They all revelled in that camaraderie that long hours and hard work bring to a band of brothers and sisters (I think Sally Clarke is the only woman who features).

I am not alone in having such fond memories of those years: The excitement of walking down the stairs at the Mirabelle, the naughtiness of sneaking a Quaglinos ashtray into a handbag (not me…I’d never do that) and the glamour of sitting on the terrace at the Blueprint Cafe with a hovering Jeremy Lee in the background. And I remember that those were simpler times. It was a joyous lacuna when I was a tiny part of the huge explosion of interest in food, cooking and chefs that many people today think was invented at the same time they first tasted a St John doughnut. So when I see at that picture, even that squirrelly little AWT and remember those halcyon days, I always wonder when it was that someone decided to draw a penis over Gordon Ramsay’s head.

I say all this because I find myself now in a world where the joy is being sucked out of food. Some people seem to find themselves in a perpetual state of anxiety that they haven’t been to the latest restaurant. Others don’t seem to want to venture an opinion of their own until they have read the views of 10 others. Personally if Jason Atherton or Russell Norman is opening a new restaurant, I can safely say that at some point in the future I will probably cross the threshold. But I don’t feel the need to get there within days just so I can rinse the thesaurus for yet another word for ‘delicious’ in my self-important witterings.

So let me throw my own boring old cronut into the ring here on this issue of whether someone’s opinion is more or less valid or truthful because they have or have not paid for a meal. It was Jay Rayner‘s comment on ‘wet lipped food bloggers’ who kicked at the dying embers on this everlasting fire again I believe. Rayner isn’t keen on bloggers but is a reviewer I like reading. He does know what he’s talking about as far as the subjective world of restaurant reviewing requires. Yes he can be a total arse but I think can be trusted to spot good scoff when he eats it. Coren, Maschler and Macleod all merit reading when time allows. But for me it is  Marina O’Loughlin who is never to be missed. Not only because she writes with flair, wit and knows her roscoffs from her cipollinis, but because she still manages to convey that sense of joy at eating out. A bad review from Marina is never bitter or cynical (AA Gill take note), it always seems to be marked by disappointment that her best hopes for a jolly supper with a mate were dashed by poor soup. And that, my friends is what I like most.

But the issue at hand is not whether they can write and know good food or not. Those facts are  generally self-evident. It is whether those professional reviewers are more or less corruptible because they are paid on expenses rather than given a free meal by the restaurant they are in.  Well, I like to think it’s less. They collaborate with editors to choose their restaurants, book under futile false names and don’t have a direct relationship with the restaurant. This is their career. It pays for mortgages and colonic irrigations. Surely that financial need for credibility brings with it some implication of honesty? That said, while I’m sure the present stable of broadsheet munchers are as straight as a Evesham Asparagus tip on a sunny day,  if rumours are to be believed there is one former reviewer whose doggy bag was a case of Grand Cru Burgundy on a regular basis. But that probably is just a rumour…

The issue here isn’t really about paying or not paying. It’s about power and influence. The PR industry has convinced the restaurant industry that bloggers have power. And maybe they do. Personally I couldn’t give a fuck if Vegetable & Vaseline’s latest blog posting was written about a comp’d meal or not. I don’t know the writer and generally speaking if their talent for prose is in any way related to their palate, they wouldn’t know a subjunctive from a strawberry. In days-of-old PRs would invite people from the media to restaurants, try and persuade us to feature their clients and at the end of the month point at report sheet and say, ‘Look. I brought Miss TVTosser to lunch. That’s me doing my job. Please pay my £3K bill even though you’ve got nothing to show for it’. Restaurants would argue, ask for real results in column inches and air time and the PR gals would have to save up for a new Louis Vuitton handbag for longer than they’d like.

Now PRs invite bloggers to events who for a wink from the bartender and a limp handshake from the chef will write 1000 tedious and adjective-strewn words before their electric blanket has gone cold. The PRs point at the blogs, characterise them as ‘results’, the restaurants don’t have a clue how many hits the blogs get but nobody cares about that except the bloggers who feel more and more self-important in their otherwise boring lives of quiet desperation… and so the cycle continues.

In convincing the restaurant business that these opinions do matter, the PR Bubbles have created the very monster that’s going to kill them. Sad? Not really.

This may sound like I’m bitter at not getting so many lunch invitations these days. TV is a long game and the bar is very high. I understand why the once-regular invitations don’t arrive as often. But honestly I’m not bothered. I’ve eaten more great dinners than anyone has a right to enjoy. On the rare occasion I do get invited to places for ‘events’ I just feel a bit awkward and old. I find many bloggers dullards focussed on one upmanship and self-promotion and a kind of monomania that precludes discussions about anything other than a dissection of the food on the plate in front of them. Like teenagers and sex they all think they invented good food but honey, if you weren’t in the Criterion the night Mati first threw her engagement ring at Marco, frankly I don’t want to know you. (I will concede that’s a bit like being at the Manchester Free Trade Hall the night Sex Pistols played.)

I started my own blog as a joke when I asked my friend Brett Farrell how all these 20 something year old bloggers could afford to dine the Electrolux Cube thing on top of the Festival Hall. He laughed at my innocence as he told me none of them had actually paid. I quite fancied going but couldn’t afford it and we wondered if I started a blog if I’d get an invitation. I didn’t. Do I care? Not really but it looked like fun and I still wonder how the marketing department justified the enormous expense and exactly how many people paid for a meal up there. I dowrite the occasional gobbledygook about something I’ve shoved in my cake-hole, but for all the hits I get it’s really for my own memory bank. I get 50 times as many hits when I blog a recipe for a fish pie. For the sake of transparency I am currently the recipient of a loaner from Thermomix on the basis of writing some blog postings about it so I can’t get onto too high a horse here…

I sound like I hate all bloggers. Of course, I don’t. There are blogs I do read – The Food Judge and Cheese & Biscuits. I respect both because I know those people (Nicky Richmond and Chris Pople) in real life. Which I think brings me to the crux of all of this. Surely blogs should be viewed through the same prism we’d regard any other opinion? If my close friend Nicky tells me enjoyed a meal at NoBlowJobNoTable I’m likely to believe her whether she blogged it or not. If a total stranger walked up to me in the street and said, go to WankyNewSmokePlace I’d think, fuck off you nutter; you don’t look like you know one end of a heritage carrot from another.

Publishing your opinion doesn’t give you credentials. Newspapers we trust (and Bob Granleese) provide us with that unfashionable but valuable notion of curation. Blogging requires no such intervention and to my mind is just telling your mates if you liked something through a bloody big megaphone. Does it matter if they’ve been paid or not? If you don’t know who’s blogging it will only matter if you’re the type of person who also clicks on weight loss links on Facebook or uses Tripadvisor to plan your holidays.

I went to a free screening of a new movie called the Long Way Down this morning. It was pretty shit. Not paying didn’t mean I enjoyed it more than if I did. Why are restaurants different? Should I not tell my mates that I enjoyed the food on those occasions where a restaurant has entertained me in some way? In the last six weeks I’ve been comp’d in Ember Yard and Lockhart – both superb and I told anyone who was interested. Dan Doherty at Duck & Waffle sent 3 extra dishes and gave my goddaughter chocolates for her 12th birthday. I was even gifted a Scotch Egg (excellent) at The Ship the other night. Is my opinion nullified because I only left a big fat tip? Of course not, because I like to think my mates know that I know good food when I eat it. Should anyone I don’t know care what I think? Absolutely not. Go and read a professional opinion.

The touch paper lit by Rayner and stoked up by James Lewis and the Twitter Gang’s suspension is really about solicitation. And that’s what we should care about. I didn’t solicit those complimentary meals or dishes. They were a pleasant surprise. Neither establishment had any more evil motive than being generous to a few old meeja birds (sorry Thane) who might tell their friends they had a jolly old time. My friend Nicky (The Food Judge) chooses not to blog about comp’d meals but I wouldn’t trust her any less if she did. So here’s my conclusion should anyone care to note it: Bloggers – knock yourself out. If PRs and restaurants are stupid enough to pay for it, stuff your freeloading faces as often as you like. I for one, couldn’t give a fuck.

(This blog posting was conceived while enjoying a splendid lunch at Brasserie Chavot costing £61.88 When it opened it was heaving. Some people said it was awful. Others really liked it. Nearly a year on it’s still there so it must be doing something right. The only difference was, I could walk in and get a table while the rest of the bloggerati are crying outside Chiltern Firehouse. Here’s a tip – wait a few months, it’ll still be there. It’s quite good but not worth having a stroke. But I would say that. I’ve been.)