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The real cost of restaurant reviews – we speak to the chefs

It’s all too easy to scoff at one of Jay Rayner’s notoriously brutal restaurant reviews and think of it as entertainment. Closer to home, though, when you know the owners or staff, a scathing review suddenly becomes a lot less funny. And if you happen to be the chef in question, casual cruelty can end a career.

Midlands duck with homegrown carrot at Hartford House. Photo by Jan Ras.

Midlands duck with homegrown carrot at Hartford House. Photo by Jan Ras.

Ever since the Internet exploded and anyone with a keyboard and time on their hands could publish opinions without the rigorous processes required by real journalism, the battle lines have been drawn. There are numerous court cases in Australia and England that have threatened everything from jail time for the reviewer to million-rand payouts for the restaurant. But what about the human cost on the chefs in question?

After launching our first-ever Best Reader Review award in a bid to raise the standard of online reviewing in general, we ask the chefs at SA’s best restaurants (nominated for the 2016 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards) to spill their guts about what reviews mean to them, their teams and their businesses.

Yellowtail with avocado, radish and ponzu at Chefs Warehouse. Photo by Jan Ras.

Yellowtail with avocado, radish and ponzu at Chefs Warehouse. Photo by Jan Ras.

Many concur that reviews do have their place – with some caveats, of course. Liam Tomlin of Chefs Warehouse in Cape Town says, “I am all for reviews as long as they are constructive and honest, and written by somebody who actually has a good knowledge of food, wine and the running of a restaurant.”

Restaurants are businesses that need to make money in order to pay staff and suppliers, acknowledges George Jardine of Jordan in Stellenbosch, so guests’ genuine experiences are very important. However, you can’t focus only on the reviews. “Restaurants that are real businesses are not in a popularity contest to see which blogger or magazine likes you or not. It can become like the dog chasing its tail. When guests return – this is what it’s all about. Returning, happy, paying guests.”

Jordan patio

The outside seating at Jordan Restaurant. Photo by Jan Ras.

Arno Janse van Rensburg of The Kitchen at Maison in Franschhoek is rather unperturbed about reviews: “I try not too think too much of them, or even read them for that matter. It is such a personal preference, food, taste and experience all varies from individual to individual.”

Feedback sessions

Reviews can be a useful tool to inspire their teams, whether they are positive or negative, say the chefs. Liam is pragmatic: “I look for constructive feedback and I also find these [social media and online] platforms are good to see what customers really want and expect from our restaurant.”

Lee-Ann Fouché-Wessels, general manager of Foliage in Franschhoek, where Chris Erasmus is chef, says that a review can often result in a feedback session to inspire and thank the team or to adjust and learn.

La Colombe_Azelia cremeux, Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream, compressed grapefruit, Manjari twigs and hazelnut

A dessert of azelia cremeux, Jerusalem artichoke ice cream, compressed grapefruit, manjari twigs and hazelnut at La Colombe. Photo by Jan Ras.

At La Colombe in Cape Town, reviews are shown to staff, whether good or bad. “We look at the bad ones in a positive way to see how we can improve if we decide the review is justifiable,” says Scot Kirton. “But at the same time, people have different tastes…so we don’t always change something as we believe in what we are doing.”

Terroir_Poached Kingklip miso lime sauce green asparagus, fried ginger soy pearls and yoghurt

A dish of poached kingklip, miso-lime sauce, green asparagus, fried ginger, soy pearls and yoghurt at Terroir. Photo by Jan Ras.

At Terroir in Stellenbosch, chef Michael Broughton prints out the reviews. “If I see a bad review but feel it’s an honest one I’ll print it out and put it in the kitchen for all to see. I then call everyone together and go through the negative points. If the review is inaccurate we’ll casually discuss it and perhaps see if there is any validity to it. The exercise here is for me to educate my team as to how someone else sitting on the other side of the pass could experience the food, and not so much of who’s right or wrong,” says the chef.

Constantijn Hahndiek at Hartford House in Mooi River, KZN, says he shares reviews especially when particular members of staff are mentioned. “It’s very uplifting, and helps connect those that are normally behind the scenes to how much their hard work is appreciated. Negative reviews are constructively discussed and assessed, and systems are put in place to not let that event happen again. They are important to hear.”

“We take the good with the bad,” says Michelle Theron of Pierneef à La Motte in Franschhoek. “When you don’t receive a good review we go back and look at why. What went wrong? How can we improve? This is, however, only the case in fair reviewing.”

Camphors at Vergelegen

A dish of garden herbs and sprouts, smoked hen’s yolk, chestnut and pollen at Camphors. Photo by Jan Ras.

Michael Cooke of Camphors at Vergelegen in Somerset West agrees that if you’re going to accept the glory from good reviews about your establishment, then you must accept ownership of bad ones with just as much consideration. “My team understands this. I sit down with my team weekly to discuss everything about the restaurant, and we always look for ways to improve. We’re probably harsher on ourselves than anyone else could be.”

This view is echoed by Arno: “We are our own worst critics. That is our drive.”

George says if you are hands-on, you will have a very good idea of whether a negative review is valid. “If so, we [at Jordan] have a management meeting to discuss and react. We always try to put things into perspective and discuss what went wrong – if something did, in fact, go wrong.”

Critics vs customers

Are reviews by professional critics taken more seriously than those by everyday diners? To Michelle at Pierneef, they are both equally important. Michael from Terroir agrees: “No one customer is more important than another.” At Foliage, the average customer’s feedback is sometimes more valued than that of a critic, as they tend to have more of an open mind, says Lee-Ann.

A pickled fish dish at Pierneef a La Motte. Photo by Jan Ras.

A pickled fish dish at Pierneef à La Motte. Photo by Jan Ras.

At Jordan, too, the experience of regulars is of great interest. “We really value the opinion of regular guests and even first-time guests,” says George. “[These are] people who come to our restaurant with no other intention but enjoying themselves.”

“Often reader reviews are the most important,” agrees Scot, “as this is the experience everyday diners have.”

Chef Michael Cooke of Camphors. Photo by Jan Ras.

Chef Michael Cooke of Camphors. Photo by Jan Ras.

Michael at Camphors always assesses the credibility of the reviewer first, whether the review is good or bad. “Some ‘reviews’ are very clearly advertorials organised by a restaurant’s marketing team, and others are paid for in the form of a free meal in exchange for a positive review. This gives a very biased opinion, and is not necessarily reflective of what others should expect to experience when eating there,” he says. But, he says, the customer review is still worth something. “They’re the ones giving honest feedback on their paid experience.”

When comparing the two, there is, rightly so, a discussion about the level of competence of so-called professionals on the scene. George feels that there are not many professional reviewers in South Africa. “Unfortunately a lot of reviewers/bloggers get paid or not charged, or have some hidden agenda.”

Scot agrees, “There are way too many people setting up blogs with little experience in international food…But there is a small group of professional reviewers we take very seriously as they know what they are talking about and appreciate what we are trying to do.”

When things go wrong

Online reviews are popular for everything from cellphone providers to insurers. But restaurants are unique in that they are so intensely personal, with the chefs serving their souls on the plate. This vulnerability has big risks. “Most of the time you only get one shot, one impression to make,” says Constantijn.

Chef George Jardine of Jordan. Photo by Jan Ras.

Chef George Jardine of Jordan. Photo by Jan Ras.

“It is so easy to go online and write whatever you want with no repercussions,” says George. “Often the complaint is something silly that could have easily been sorted out [had we been] informed. There is almost always a solution to be found on the day. Unfortunately guests often insist everything is OK until they get home and write the review. This is very unfair to restaurants.”

Being misinterpreted, misquoted or just generally having incorrect information in a review is also an issue, says Michael Cooke. He has seen it all, from people who take photos, write notes, or even leave with a copy of the menu – and they will still get it wrong in their review. “We care so deeply about what we do and we put so much effort into ensuring every item is perfect – only for someone to not bother taking the extra minute to fact check their information. Once it’s out there, there’s no getting it back.”

Michael Broughton has also had experience of writers getting the details wrong. “If a review has the facts confused, we can’t ‘send it back’ or ‘take it off the bill’. It’s there permanently,” he says.

So are reviews worth anything at all?

“It’s always good to be reviewed and keep the restaurant in the public’s mind,” says Liam. Constantijn agrees that good reviews can draw more business to his restaurant in the Midlands.

Chef Michelle Theron of Pierneef a La Motte. Photo by Jan Ras.

Chef Michelle Theron of Pierneef à La Motte. Photo by Jan Ras.

“It gives us the chance to do better, try harder and strive for more,” says Michelle. “This is the service industry after all. We all chose to do this because we love hosting, feeding and entertaining guests. Sometimes it’s not perfect, so we try harder if we know where we went wrong. That’s the beauty of this industry.”

Final word

Something that’s important for both casual reviewers and serious critics to remember is how hard the industry can be on bodies and minds. “It requires a lot of sacrifice from every member of staff, from the hours they work to just pure physical and mental input daily to ensure the happiness of clients,” says Constantijn. “Damaging, uneducated or biased reviews can squash the spirit of a team so easily, and for many of us this is our whole life on the chopping block.”

It’s clear that fairness of feedback is of utmost importance, whether it’s dealing with mishaps on the night, being respectful to the people behind the scenes, or understanding what the establishment is trying to achieve.

“We don’t pay mind to someone who will just blatantly attack a restaurant or chef. You can still write about an experience that was not the best in a respectful way,” says Michelle. “And if every restaurant was the same, how boring would it be to eat out? Don’t compare restaurants; appreciate and celebrate their differences.”

Michael at Camphors is on the same page. “Rate the restaurant for what it is, and what they’re trying to be – comparing apples with apples. Give feedback immediately during your dining experience so that we have an opportunity to rectify any problems right then and there – there’s no point suffering silently throughout your experience to then slander it once you’ve left.”

The Kitchen_Asparagus, crayfish, amasi, trout roe

A dish of asparagus, crayfish, amasi and trout roe at The Kitchen. Photo by Jas Ras.

Arno remains grounded, with sound advice for chefs to take it all with a grain of salt. “People need not be so sensitive when it comes to this reviewing process. If you absolutely try your hardest, good things will happen, I believe!”

Eat Out critics dine anonymously and independently, and pay for their meals in full. Read our editorial policy here.

Fancy yourself a great reviewer? Enter our Best Reader Review award here.

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