There is no doubt about it: criticism hurts. It doesn't matter how many compliments precede or follow a harsh remark, it is always painful. "Darling, I love your new restaurant; everything about it is simply divine. It's just a shame about the king prawn crumble at your last place." That sort of thing always stings. You try to brush it aside, but it smarts like a playground graze, and always leaves a scar.
Why does criticism hurt so much? Because, no matter how objective it's dressed up to be, or how constructive or how scientific it is, criticism is usually personal. "You don't like my king prawn crumble, you don't like me."
And some of the worst people in the world for taking criticism personally are chefs. The best chefs design, carve, sculpture and decorate works of art, but, unlike other artists, most chefs see their masterpieces masticated within minutes. Little or nothing of their work survives, except the memory (and the bill). Second opinions can rarely be sought - cooking a meal provides a one-shot chance at pleasing the audience; which is why, like actors, chefs crave praise. They need to hear the crowd cheer.
Unfortunately, some of the people can't be pleased some of the time, and a dissenting voice may be heard occasionally. It might be the voice of the environmental health officer, or the bank manager or the grumpy landlord. Or it might be a journalist whose weekly column needs a pick-me-up.
The Chef Conference in London last week heard Sir Terence Conran talk about restaurant critics and, later, heard The Times critic Jonathan Meades talk about restaurants.
Meades says that he writes, not for the restaurant industry, but for the readers of The Times newspaper, many of whom, he says, will never visit the restaurants that he reviews. Without realising it (although he probably wouldn't disagree), he supports Conran's premise that many restaurant reviewers are journalists more interested in creative writing than well-balanced criticism.
And there, for the critic, lies the awful truth. Despite the self-importance that some writers attach to their work, newspaper articles have very little effect on the trade of restaurants. All publicity is good publicity, and the readers of a bad review will probably want to try out the restaurant for themselves. Many will find, because reviews are subjective, that they actually like the food. After all, good food will always attract good custom.
If the food is not good, the reviewer has done the public, and the restaurateur, a service. But if the food is all right, then a bad review will damage no more than pride.
If a restaurant receives a bad review and fails, the reasons will probably have more to do with price, location and service, than what one journalist in one newspaper has written.
Critics are there to entertain, not to be taken too seriously and, certainly, not to be taken personally.
Caterer & Hotelkeeper