Restaurants

As with food fads that are in constant flux, the culinary media landscape has also undergone a major overhaul in the wake of new platforms, social media and Covid-19 lockdowns. By Mark Best.

Biting into the food media

Renowned restaurant reviewer Leo Schofield.
Credit: Nine / Sahlan Hayes

Restaurants and the food media have always been uneasy bedfellows. What should be a comfortable love triangle between the media, restaurants and their dining public is often a fraught and scratchy dynamic.

Pandemic notwithstanding, legacy, or traditional, food media is undergoing existential anxiety as it faces demographic change and virulent competition from new food media and SEO-driven sites all scrambling for eyeballs, relevance and revenue. The Covid-19 shutdown meant the critical press was for a period left with no story other than pivoting to provide moral support for an industry that had no public.

The legacy titles’ best days were analog, before fringe benefits tax and GST. Erudite personalities – such as Leo Schofield, Joan Campbell, David Dale and John Newton – wrote about a nascent Australian culinary identity for an audience of their upper-middle-class contemporaries. There were folkloric boardroom stories of long lunches, accompanied by many and varied (mostly) French wines and the obligatory digestives. Thick-waisted men with heroic expense accounts dined at linen-clothed tables.

Neil Perry received his first review at Barrenjoey House in 1983 from Leo Schofield. It was a solid 17/20 and an enthusiastic Schofield waxed lyrical, proclaiming “the kid’s a star”. Perry, who went on to become one of Australia’s most renowned operators, characterises that review as being “massive and career building”.

“Joan [Campbell, who went on to become the groundbreaking food editor of three Vogue publications] gave me a good review in the Sunday Tele, which had a bit of an impact, and also Vogue Living was becoming influential, but there was really only one voice [Schofield’s],” Perry tells me.

“There was no online, no distraction or white noise – I mean there’s so much noise around now, it’s hard for any of the reviews, even the main ones, to cut through.”

Perry, who seemingly fell to Earth a fully fledged media animal, has crafted his media identity as carefully as he crafts each plate and has commanded centre stage in the food pages for decades. There is a symbiosis between such a grand career and the media that writes about it. It’s hard to see daylight between his business needs and theirs. Perry talks about opening the doors of yet another multimillion-dollar eatery with typically glib excitement. If experience is any lesson, his carefully chosen words are unlikely to diverge a great deal from the in-house media release and the reviews and puff pieces to follow.

Over the years, as readership numbers and advertising revenues decreased, the broadsheets became increasingly desperate and upped the ante, lionising predominantly white male chefs, with just the odd exception. They fed egos and celebrity with hats, stars, scores, lists and hagiography. The peer-to-peer reviews and scores were used to boost a narrow segment of the industry for the incumbent readers who could afford to eat at these temples of gastronomy. They were mostly positive and the reviewers were very happy to pull their punches to maintain a mutually beneficial status quo. They were also opportunistic bullies when it suited and many culinary stars felt the deep cold of the other side of a stellar run. Punching down on much-loved establishments from inside paywalls was another tactic to bring the metrics up. What seemed like a heroic epicurean era was, in hindsight, a culture war and the protracted death throes of a dying breed.

The digital media age was largely ignored by print publications until it was too late. In the food space, this change was heralded by Sydney food bloggers (remember them?) writing about a changing food landscape reflecting their city’s broad multicultural identity. The writing was often attacked for being “grammatically rudimentary” with “too many superlatives”, but it was positive, supportive, vibrant and immediate and found an audience that responded to these new voices.

Curated safe spaces such as Time Out, Broadsheet, Concrete Playground and Urban List began changing the way reviewing worked and hacked away at the power base. Old-school media, desperate to combat the digital incursion and their own readers’ evident ennui, scrambled to be part of an expanding and crowded conversation about food and dining.

In the media boardroom there is considerable pressure to follow the SEO metrics and coalesce around particular personalities, stories and recipes that produce the most page views, click-throughs and time spent on the page. This is the inventory that is sold to digital advertisers and brands. Because the fiscal requirements are self-evident, this means there is a very narrow line food writers and editors must walk to produce anything culturally meaningful around the click-throughs and scrolling banner adds.

Social media platforms such as Instagram have become the dominant aggregators of these digital spaces with algorithms “enhancing” the user interface and promoting interactions. Word-of-mouth discoveries are promoted via comments, forwards and screen shots.

Thirty-five-year-old Daniel Pepperell has worked at some of the Sydney’s fine diners but found his own fame through his time at the natural wine lover’s bolthole, 10 William St in Paddington. Word of his simple and delicious Italianate dishes was delivered to the public via the chef’s carefully curated Instagram feed. Simple afternoon, window lit, overhead shots. The reviews followed but were superfluous – 10 William St’s simple direct digital marketing had already found its target audience. Pepperell went on to open Restaurant Hubert and Alberto’s Lounge, both of which shared a remarkable similarity in that they were impossible to find and impossible to get into.

One of the first old-style reviews out of the blocks for 2021 is of Pepperell’s Gallic revival Bistrot 916 in Elizabeth Bay. His financial partners, The Swillhouse Group, know that location is everything and have tapped into the needs of Australia’s most densely populated suburbs, and also one of its wealthiest. Two weeks after opening it is already at capacity with one octogenarian habitué dining four nights a week. Pepperell says the diner always has exactly the same thing: “two negronis and a plate of brains”.

Nine’s Good Food chief restaurant critic for Sydney, Terry Durack, starts with an extended riff on Pixar’s film Ratatouille and goes on to broadly cover what everyone already knew. He awarded 15.5/20 as a ready reckoner for those diners who need a number to decide if it’s for them.

Pepperell and his team are very happy to receive Durack’s review. Waiting for something to be posted online is, of course, very different from receiving reviews back in the day. Pepperell remembers in 2008 waiting after midnight on a Monday for the first hard copies of The Sydney Morning Herald to drop in Taylor Square. “I remember the good old days,” he says. “Waiting, waiting… Opening the paper to see who was reviewed and their score. It was a tradition and it’s nice to have the record. We don’t need it – but of course it must help business because not everyone gets written up in the paper.”

“The public stomach”, Leo Schofield, doesn’t read reviews – he knows what he likes and likes what he knows. He lives just across the road from Bistrot 916 and has had his table from day one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "Old scores".

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Mark Best is one of Australia’s most innovative chefs and is internationally regarded for his contribution to contemporary Australian cuisine.