Restaurant Criticism - A Look at 'The Age Good Food Guide'

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The Age Good Food Guide is a publishing phenomenon selling about 38,000 copies annually - a remarkable achievement in a city the size of Melbourne. It is not surprising that its publisher, Anne O'Donovan and her editors are proud of it.

But there are problems, Gayle Austen, Editor of The Age's Epicuresection for the past two and a half years, contributor to theAGFGfor three years, Editor of two editions of Cheap Eats, says: "I am not writing for theGuidethis year because I do have some concerns with it. Those concerns relate to being asked to write about places freshly which I have not revisited within the past year. I don't think that's correct - to write new copy and give people the assumption that the place has had a new assessment. The public deserves a current entry - a current appraisal.

"My other concern is that contributors have no input into the rating system. We are invited to recommend a list of places for the hats but then there is no further consultation. There may be a slight conversation about it but there is no really serious discussion; no formal meeting about gradings amongst contributors.

"In past years - at the Guide'sbeginning, they apparently had meetings but not in the past three years. There was once a procedure that may have existed but there has never been that situation since I have been doing it. One instance which I was involved in was recommending the Napier, it definitely deserved a hat - that was ignored.

"The gradings are a confidential process, that I, as a contributor was not party to and as far as I know no other contributor was party to.

"It is very difficult to cope with the idea that you can eat somewhere and then someone else makes a decision. I would like to be consulted and I would like to be acknowledged. I think it would be an advantage to readers to know who had done the entry and also when the listing was done."

Two thirds of its pages are used to grade restaurants. This area is the responsibility of the editors. Editor Claude Forell says: "I don't believe that the grading of restaurants is our main job ... this is of interest to a small number of people." These gradings however, have a greater effect on the life of a restaurateur than anything except acts of God and, it should be noted, this by-product of The Age Good Food Guide (AGFG) is something the editors don't delegate.

Stephen Downes says about Claude Forell's remarks: "you are talking of hundreds and thousands of dollars to somebody's business - that's typical, that suggests the man does not know what he is doing that he doesn't know the power he has got and what effect what The Age says has got on the restaurant scene and on its patronage ... I think the book is seen, unfortunately, as the bible of eating out in Melbourne ... I bet you they have resulted in quite a lot of closures."

Beverley Sutherland-Smith says: "They [the public] really rely on the ratings, it's what determines people's choice of restaurants. It's logical that you choose the top ... I'm surprised that Claude doesn't think that the ratings are the big issue - that's where the power comes from - that's what the launch [of the AGFG] is about. That's the major thing. Without the ratings there would not be the publicity for the book."

Co-editor Rita Erlich says: "In the end Claude's judgements and mine are pretty similar." If they're not?: "They always are - and if there is a disagreement it tends to be a fairly marked distinction and whoever feels more strongly about it - wins. Terry [Durack] and I do not always agree. Claude and I are editing the nextGuideand we have some really strong editorial control."The gradings are made by Claude and Rita who are presumably supposed to take into account the opinions of the contributors. Without doubt they are making decisions on restaurants where they have not eaten at all - or not recently.

Beverley Sutherland-Smith said of the general discussions about the hats that once took place: "the meetings allowed everyone to comment. For about four years there was a real input from all contributors - now so many have gone." Geoff Slattery : "I don't know how that thing works at all, I had one year of involvement in it, that was last year, and I wrote half a dozen of the hundred and fifty word pieces and what I wrote, and this is reasonable, was not what was published ... I'm not doing it this year, Claude asked me. Because I felt that my input was not considered ... I was never involved in any editorial discussion, I was asked to submit a list of my beliefs, re order of hats and the most obvious thing that I thought was a most ridiculous judgement was that Watson Place didn't get a rating at all ... once that was not considered well I just couldn't be bothered ... There was never any discussion, there may well be an editorial discussion between others but I wasn't involved, I was just asked to give a list."

Well Geoff we've got news for you - you are contributing. Claude Forell says: "we are using, for budgetary reasons, some of his [Geoff Slattery's] recent reviews in The Sunday Age as the basis for new and updated listings."Claude Forell says: "The main qualifications of all the contributors is that they are professional journalists or that they possess a high proficiency in the craft of writing ... It is necessary to produce clean, perceptive. meaningful, readable copy in the correct format within a limited time-frame."

Surely a contributor's passion for restaurants should rank before their ability to describe this passion. Claude Forell admitted that much of the copy is, for various reasons, re-written by the editors. Anne O'Donovan says: "I get the material after it has been re-edited by Claude and Rita, but there is a homogeneity to the style of the book that would reflect that there had been quite a deal of re-writing."

Why use journalists, who are word-smiths not restaurant aficionados, as contributors and then have the "clean, perceptive. meaningful, readable copy in the correct format" that they have submitted re-written, possibly, as Gayle Austen points out, by someone who has not visited the restaurant under discussion in the current year.Beverley Sutherland-Smith is the food consultant to David Jones, she edited Benson & Hedges' Australia wide restaurant guide, she is the Melbourne contributor to the (still to be published)Fodor GuideandThe Wall Street Journal Gold Book , she has written many books on food, she has been writing on food forAge Epicurefor over twelve years and she contributed to theAGFGfor its first eleven years. But she is not a journalist and this year the AGFG dispensed with her services without notice, or even a phone call.

It was suggested that she was dropped for budgetary reasons. Beverley said: " ... for the Guide the entries were done gratis."

Claude Forell is apparently aware of theprocess of attrition that has taken place in the last few years amongst the AGFG's contributors and, it was he who invited Terry Durack to join the team and, it is he who has listened to his input.

Following is a list of this year's contributors and the areas on which they will be writing.Rita Erlich and Claude Forell, editors; Terry Durack, Chinese and bars; Jim Clarke, Chinese; Jenny Brown, Indian; Virginia Trioli, Japanese and some Italian; John Schauble, Malaysian-Indonesian; Margaret Simons, Vietnamese and Roger Just, Greek. Cheap Eats will be compiled by Cathie Gowdie; David Mathews, Asian; Mark Shields, pubs. Plus contributions from Peter Cole-Adam, Pamela Bone, Fiona Athersmith, Michael Shmith, Ross Warneke, Jill Baker and Simon Mann.

June 1991

Mietta O'Donnell & Tony Knox
©Mietta's 1996