Why I am not a food critic

The recipe 

I am often asked why I do not review local restaurants. More often than not my reply is that “ […] no-one could not pay me enough to put my life on the line”. The truth is, no one would pay me. Period.

I seldom visit restaurants because they are convenient alternatives to home cooking. I am not lazy enough to put my food fate in the hands of others, and I am curious and skilled enough to keep my own food interesting. Perhaps even more so that the average line cook in the average franchised restaurant.

One recent experience is the case in point. Having skipped breakfast one chaotic Wednesday morning I ducked into a large restaurant in one of Windhoek’s growing number of malls. With a substantial appetite and a pile of magazines I found a quiet corner and requested a menu.

I was handed the wine list. I pointed to the fact that it was only 12h30 on a weekday and that I still had nearly half a workday left. My attempt at being humorous was met with an array of clicks that might have been Lüdertiz’s new name but I could not be sure.

Home-made gnochi
Home-made gnocchi

I ordered the jalapeño burger cooked medium rare and a sugarless soft drink. The restaurant was empty save for the large contingent of serving staff that lazed around.

My burger arrived mid-way through the second magazine. It was stacked high and showed some promise. The fries on the other hand looked a mess. Limp like spaghetti and oily like the UAE. Cooked once (perhaps) in cold oil (definitely). On to the burger then.

The sesame top of the bun hinged precariously on the side of the plate. It was untouched by lubricant of any type – butter, or oil, or sauce. Naked as when first sliced, and it was clearly nowhere near a toaster or grill. Dry bread in all its glory. When I touched it, it crumbled, like the Berlin Wall of yester-year but with less concerted effort from me, the destroyer. It was old. Very, very, old – and cold. From thumb to crumb in less time than it took to say: “jalapeño burger, please”. The dry pile of crumbs joined the greasy fries in happy marriage on a side plate and in the furthest corner away from me.

All that remained of the chef’s original craft on my plate was the bottom disk of bread, a soggy, wilted leaf of lettuce on top of that, a slice of tomato, followed by the patty and on top of that, a pile of cream cheese enough to grout an entire bathroom. A dried, cracked slab of cheddar cheese that has maybe seen more plates than just mine, balanced precariously on top of the glug of grout, and finally there was the Pièce de résistance. What a work of art it was too. A large, pickled jalapeño pepper, freshly fished from a jar, split and forced to straddle the cheese.

I took a bite and as if choreographed the waiter approached my table. “Is every thing alright?” I wanted scream “Hell! No!” but the cream cheese gout glued my tongue to the roof of my mouth to such an extent that I momentary lost the ability to breathe, let alone speak. Not getting an immediate response from me, he must have sensed my disapproval, for he simply shrugged his shoulders, turned around and disappeared out of sight. Clearly, he had seen chocking customers before.

Home-made gnochi dish
Home-made gnocchi

Ironically, I was happy to see the back of him, for I could use my finger to scape the muck from my palate in total privacy. All this cost me nearly N$90, drink included.

Now, I am all up for adventure, of any kind, anywhere, but this was too much for me and the mere thought of having to do this on a regular basis put the fear of God into me.

The acclaimed British food writer Jay Rayner once participated in a high-end TV cooking show in the USA and told a big-name chef who proclaimed that his dish had been ‘made with love’: “Listen […] if I want a blowjob I’ll call my wife. From you I want technique and good taste”. And herein lies the crux of the matter. Many restaurants in this country are not worth reviewing, for the food is not good enough. And who wants a job as a professional female canine?

I am not just slaying chefs for sake of slaying them. I personally know a few really good chefs, and I generally enjoy their food. I also enjoy the food of a few that I do not know personally. These chefs are not only highly skilled, but also well endowed by technique, knowledge and curiosity. It shows in their food, and they are the reason I still eat in local restaurants and spend good money in them.

The person who cooked my burger clearly had not had even the most meager understanding of ingredients or cooking. Why serve old buns? Why put a hot patty on fragile lettuce and watch it wilt? Why have cheddar cheese on top of cream cheese? Why serve a whole chili the size of the Hindenberg? Why cook the patty to the point of woody caramel when I asked for it medium rare? But most importantly: who don’t you care, chef, why don’t you?

Home-made gnochi

To be honest, I left the restaurant enraged, and for a minute I thought of many nasty things to say when the floor manager asked: “Did you enjoy your food?” I wanted to scream: “How dare you ask me that? Would you enjoy that muck?” But I did not. After all, what she is expected to do, is to work the cash register and ask rhetorical questions. I am prepared to bet the price of that meal that she did not care about the foul, cheezy aftertaste in my mouth, or the dent in my food soul.

So now you know why I don’t review restaurants, and please don’t ask me again, for you might get an unexpected earful.

To Chef David Thomas and his team, congratulations for winning the African Culinary Cup. It is chefs like you who give me hope and that is always a good thing. For me at least, don’t know about you.

I have had a few requests from readers to give more “how to” recipes. So here is one for homemade potato gnocchi. Lovely little Italian dumplings, BUT only if you make them correctly!

Jokes aside, they are quite easy to make, and it takes a lot less time to make than what it took to destroy my burger. Just keep your potatoes dry, and do not add too much flour and overwork the dough, and you’ll be fine. Serve with a well-made ragu or pesto and you’d be damned if you ever consider becoming a restaurant or food critic.

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