Monday, 6 July 2020

"It’s not the critic who counts..." Guest blog post from @JamesHa11


It's a while since I've blogged anything, but over the weekend I had the idea of making this space available to anyone who wanted to share "a positive experience" of either visiting a restaurant (post lockdown) or who has used one of the "restaurant at home" or "restaurant meal kits" that many places are now offering...

The intention behind this being to with "signpost to others what's out there" or an attempt to "reassure people's fears about returning to restaurants".

The first to take me up on this "guest blog" offer is @JamesHa11 who asked if I could share something he had written at the start of May, when he was "really missing restaurants". Here it is... 

"It’s not the critic who counts...

The credit belongs to the chefs in the arena of their restaurants, whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood.
Unintentionally continuing this gruesome battle analogy using Roosevelt's famous quote, there exists two conflicting definitions of a critic: “a person who expresses an unfavourable opinion of something” squares off against “a person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works, especially one who does so professionally”. 
Food critics are often accused of being the former, whereas, in truth, we mainly fall into the latter. We go to restaurants for myriad reasons, but every one of the these reasons centre around finding joy in one way or another, each way as individual to the critic as the critic themselves. For some, this joy is the first cut into their porterhouse at Hawksmoor and seeing it cooked so perfectly medium-rare. It is the joy of introducing their friends to a (now not so) hidden gem like the Moorcock Inn at Norland that the mainstream critics were yet to discover, and revelling in showing them the colossal smokers outside before dipping their heads under the low stone opening of the restaurant. It’s even the joy of ‘accidentally running out of time for breakfast’ so you can sit in your car with a Sausage and Egg McMuffin, wryly smiling and raising your eyes to the sky before taking a satisfying intake of breath ahead of that first bite, then wondering how they get their eggs so wrong yet so definitely right at the same time. 
However, in a time when our beloved restaurants have been forced to keep their shutters down, we critics, without our daily dose of joy, have been forced into shutting up. We can no longer spend todays dinner thinking about tomorrows breakfast. We can no longer enthusiastically pretend to our partners that ‘our food is coming!’ to see them go wide eyed before chuckling to ourselves how we were just kidding. We can no longer order our “usual” or ask, “what’s on special?”. We now realise how all our restaurants were oh *so* special in their own right. We now realise… we can no longer critique. 
For we are not critics anymore. During this period of isolation, we, like the hospitality industry we adore, are undergoing a transformation of metamorphic proportions. “Life is so unnerving for a servant who’s not serving”, a line so frighteningly apt sung by the maître d' turned candelabra in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Lumière. It is an unnerving time for the industry and its immense value chain; from the fishermen and farmers to the kitchen team and front of house. This is why we are not critics anymore. No, we have transfigured into advocates. We are the lumière who will do all we can to shine on the beauty of the restaurant industry and the joy it gives us and those closest to us. 
In keeping with the Disney theme – yes, I did sign up to Disney + and forgot to cancel after the free trial period during lockdown – the fictional Parisian Chef Gusteau in ‘Ratatouille’ is famed for saying that ‘anyone can cook'. He’s probably right. Lockdown has shown us how anyone can cook banana bread it seems. But it doesn’t matter if I have the finest ingredients, the fanciest pans and my wonderful wife for company in our own dining room, nothing, absolutely *nothing*, compares to the joy of having the professionals do it for you.
My wife and I like to make lists. Lists of restaurants we want to visit in Manchester, then across the U.K, and also the World. Some have 3 Michelin stars whereas others could well have 3 hygiene stars, but in their own unique way, they are all absolute shining stars. When lockdown hit, we made a ‘Covid-19 Takeaway list’. Slowly more started to close and the list decreased as restrictions increased. But then, our chefs and restaurateurs all over the country began to adapt. Coombeshead Farm shipped their delicious sourdough from Cornwall for us to swoon over alongside their Mangalitza belly bacon. Double Zero Pizzeria offered ‘socially distanced collection’ of their stupendously delicious Neapolitan pizza. Chef Calum Franklin began cooking his ludicrously tasty pies and selling them at a local Butchers, with all proceeds going to the NHS (Nationwide delivery please, Calum). Casa Italia, the family run deli in Didsbury, offered contactless home delivery of their beautiful produce so we could pretend we were celebrating my wife’s Birthday in Roscioli Salumeria, not Stockport. Chef Tom Brown started selling his salmon pastrami to those lucky enough to live close enough to his Hackney Wick restaurant, Cornerstone. Paul Ainsworth began feeding those most vulnerable in around his beloved Padstow – completely free of charge. Within a fortnight of lockdown, ‘The Makers Market’ went from a physical weekly tented market around Greater Manchester, to a seamless online portal offering a weekly delivery of all their traders’ goods. Simon Wood started ‘Wood at home’ so my wife and I could don our chef whites (£25, Amazon) and shout ‘service!’ after we attempted fine dining style plating. Was it the same? Of course not! But it was fun, and it quickly became clear that the future of the restaurant industry was in the safest, most innovative, caring hands. The hands of those who had provided us with much joy in the past would, in one way or another, continue do so in the future. 
And it is for these reasons that, for now at least, “it is not the critic who counts…it is those who spend themselves in a worthy cause”. I can think of a cause no more worthy than using your skills to spread joy during a time where it has never seemed so few and far between. So, bravo and thank you to the above listed and the hundreds more from the restaurant industry around the U.K., working tirelessly to continue their mission to provide hospitality whilst brightening up peoples days in spite of these most challenging of times.
“If you focus on what you left behind you will never see what lies ahead!” – Chef Gusteau and Disney, bang on the money again. If, when lockdown eases and it’s safe for restaurants to re-open, we find they don’t look how they did before, we must all adapt as the restaurants have. We must pivot into the new and be the advocates who they will so desperately need to propel them into their future glory. We will not be providing future diners with assurance that a new restaurant is the hottest ticket in town, but with reassurance that they can, and should, support them as they deserve to be supported.  As Ego puts it, “the new needs friends” – let’s make sure restaurants know they’ve got a friend in us, their fiercest advocates, and that we can’t wait to ‘be their guest, oui their guest, be their guest’ once again."

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