The Art of the Review

It is often said that “context is everything”. Those three words carry even more wight when writing a review; everything must be judged according to its own merit *and* it’s perceived aspirations. This ends up causing quite a bit of confusion, because inevitably a street side sandwich stand will get the same number of “stars” as a fine dining establishment. It is important to remember that these are not in competition with each other – they are in different weight classes, and naturally, cater to different tastes and aspire to be different things; one wants a Michelin star, the other, simply wants to feed people.
Adding to the complexity of a review is the inherent differences between reviewers: different tastes, favorite ingredients and dining expectations often make for very subjective reviews only helpful to people who share the same views and palates. Since most (freelance) food critics are merely enthusiasts, they do not possess the technical knowledge necessary to make an in-depth criticism of the venue they are reviewing. This knowlegde is attainable in two ways: either by pursuing technical training or by accruing the knowledge in tidbits over the course of a long career. It is the latter that makes for more entertaining reading; colored by the layman’s own sepia toned view of things not fully understood, yet woefully subjective and ultimately useless to the true gourmand, or “foodist”. The first type of writer, therefore, can provide the most objective, and helpful, review for the masses.

Marco Pierre White, arguably England’s first true celebrity chef, famously derailed professional food critics claiming that chefs were being judged by “those who possess less knowledge than (the chefs) themselves”. The first time I heard this, I discounted it as the rantings of a man disillusioned with an entire industry. But later, as I found myself occupying both roles – chef and critic – I began to understand it so much more. The heat of a kitchen during a busy dinner service is daunting and is not a place for the weak willed or those accustomed to a plush lifestyle. Yet, the men behind the stove are judged as though preparing 40 dishes in 20 minutes was easy. The writer must have an inkling as to what goes on in a kitchen in order to speak from a place of authority. This will help bring some objectivity into their reviews.

Cairo has a very vibrant dining out culture and the selection of restaurants and cuisines expands every month. Yet very few of these restaurants take local food critics seriously. Why? mainly because there hasn;t been a bad review in the mainstream media. If all the reviews are so positive, then why should a restaurant owner care when his restaurant gets a rave review? Just another 4 star restaurant, in reality, is probably not worth more than 3 stars. Still, there are some restaurants and hotel chains that pay attention to reviewers, “comping” the meals and doling out gifts in (often successful) efforts to skew the reviewer’s verdict. In my opinion, reviewers that accept these gifts run the risk of compromising their editorial integrity and should take extra special care to ensure it doesn’t affect their judgment.

The flip-side to the status quo is that any negative reviews are immediately shelved for fear of legal action taken by the owners. In the publishing industry, a bad review can very easily mean lost advertising revenue, and I have heard many stories of reviews retracted for fear of legal backlash.The complex nature of the Publisher-Critic-Restaurant relationship means that no single party is solely responsible for the current state of affairs. Freelance writers, such as myself, can operate outside of the system by self-publishing and foregoing any advertising revenue. Maybe that’s a step in the right direction for publications whose sole purpose is to provide reviews for the everyday consumer. And even salaried writers can refuse to review a venue that does not meet their standards; that way, only the press-worthy and praise-worthy restaurants make it into the media. There is one caveat, though: sometimes a restaurant is so horrendous, it must be crucified and paraded around for everyone to see. Cautionary tales make for the funnest reviews to write and to read. Case in point is my review of Armada Boat, which to this day is still one of the most popular articles on the website. Since they haven’t gone out of business, maybe its time for a revisit, n’est pas?

In all the reviews I’ve written for websites/magazines (including my own) I’ve tried to be as tough as possible where relevant; hotel restaurants catering to sophisticated palates and wallets can not be judged by the same yardstick as populist Egyptian restaurants, since each promise – and strive to achieve – different things. The kitchen’s timely delivery of courses, the demeanor of the waitstaff and the consistency over a number of visits have the most weight when coming to my own conclusion. The ultimate question for a reviewer should always be “would I stake my personal and professional reputation on recommending this restaurant to others?” We are what we say, and if what we say is not to be taken seriously, then we must suffer the same fate.

I’ve been accused of being harsh in my reviews; only 2 restaurants I’ve reviewed in Cairo received 4 stars, still only 3 more have received 3.5 stars and the rest all fell under the 3 star mark. I refused to give anything over 4 stars because if anything is deserving of 4.5 stars or the maximum 5, then it must be one of the most memorable and consistently excellent restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. That isn’t to say that I necessarily disagree with any review that has been awarded high marks, a perfect case in point is Soraya Morayef’s review of Belle Epoque, with which my only criticism is that it was too short (yes, I know, web-publishing guidelines and all that).

I’ve been disappointed many times; my (forewarned) initial visit achieving magnificence, followed by a repeat (unannounced) visit that failed on even the most basic tenets of restaurant management. Free desserts be damned: it’s like putting a band aid on an amputee. My father always told me the best way to rectify a mistake was never to make it in the first place.  I think I’ll stop here, because it will segue beautifully into my own review of the Kempinski Hotel’s Floor Ten.

Simmered, 2 hours.

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About Wesam E Masoud
Chef Patron of @chefsmarketmasr, Host of @CBCSofra's #matbakh101. I have one degree in Medicine & 3rd degree burns from cooking.

3 Responses to The Art of the Review

  1. alwayshungrycozinevereatatnight says:

    i bet you’d give the jazz club food over four stars.

  2. Silverfoot says:

    Nice article! Very well put Wesos. Let’s hope you live up to your word 🙂

  3. Wesam Masoud says:

    @alwayshungrycozinevereatatnight:

    As it stands, I would not give the CJC four stars for their food. I would give them a solid 3 stars – be aware that Cairo360 gave the jazz club 4 stars in 2 previous reviews. The Jazz club has never been known for their food, but I think with a new menu, new kitchen workflow and better trained waiters, we’ll be able to put out some very comforting and refined Gastropub food.

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