Giles Coren is the man who checks out new eateries for British newspaper The Times – a dream career choice that sounds like the best job in the world to many people. Here he talks about angry chefs, dining with strangers and what makes a good restaurant awesome.
How did you get into this, Giles?
I was editor of the department at Tatler magazine which was responsible for the restaurant critic, who was expensive – so I fired him and hired myself because that was the job I most wanted to do. I then had ‘restaurant critic’ on my CV so I got a job doing that at The Independent, and when I went to work at The Times they decided to hire me to do it for them because I had a CV with two previous jobs as a restaurant critic.
Is it the dream job that everyone imagines?
Absolutely. I mean, sometime I do get a bit bored with it, but not as bored as I would with any other job. Sometimes it’s a bit of a drag having to go to another new restaurant, but really, it’s a walk in the park.
How does it work – do you turn up unannounced?
I book under an assumed name; I never tell them I’m coming. They recognise me mostly in flash new restaurants but less so in ethnic restaurants and I always pay and then claim it back off The Times. I usually go with someone – my wife if she wants to go, but she’d often prefer to stay in and watch telly – so I may take a friend or even a couple of friends.
Why do you feel qualified for the job?
I don’t. I’m a writer who is good at describing things. My job is to describe the food on my plate, the room I was in, the people I was with and tell a story. There aren’t any qualifications you can have because it’s all very subjective. If you want scores and ratings, there are websites.
Do you go on your own?
If it’s an emergency and I have to write something that day I will go on my own, but that’s a lonely thing. I sometimes end up doing it with strangers who email and beg me out of the blue.
You’re pretty well known now – how do you know you’re not getting special service?
I almost always am. But it’s usually so special that it is awful – they’re just fawning and obsequious, which is why a few critics go in disguise. But it’s just not how restaurants operate these days – they want you to have a nice time.
Do chefs ever come out?
What happens quite often if they know I’m there is that it will make them really reluctant to let the food go out to me without it being perfect. So I normally have to wait twice as long as everyone else for my food to come. It arrives late, cold, covered in thumb-prints because the chef’s tried to make it perfect; I’m better off if they don’t know.
Have you ever caused a restaurant to go out of business?
Probably a few times, but that’s not what I set out to do, and actually a restaurant goes out of business because it’s no good, and if I have said so in the press, that’s not my fault. Also, I almost never review a small independent restaurant badly – if they’re no good I just don’t write them up. I reserve my really bad reviews for what are usually well-funded places.
Have you ever suspected that a chef who doesn’t like you might serve up a steak that was ‘accidentally dropped’ near the toilets?
No. I’ve worked in places in the past where we did that – it was a bit like when George Orwell wrote about how poor, put-upon, often immigrant people working in the kitchens hated the rich people in the dining room, but it’s all different now. Kitchens are open – you can’t drop a steak on the floor. That said, I wouldn’t go back to a place I’d already given a bad review to or go to a place where a chef I had been mean to was cooking.
Is there a review that you regret?
Yes, but not for a long time. I once wrote a review where I criticised the waitress, who they fired, and she wrote to me very angrily and I found her another job quite quickly. Since then I don’t refer to individual members of staff. If you push the envelope and try and be exciting, you will occasionally overdo it.
If we came round to your place for dinner, what would you make and how many stars would you give it?
It depends on who you were – if it was just a couple of you we’d probably have roasted organic chicken with green salad and a baked potato. You’d give five stars for the service and ambience, but I wouldn’t presume to comment on how the food would be. My baked potatoes are baked as hot as the oven will go until they are blackened on the outside, and then served with loads of butter and salt. If I was trying to impress you I might serve you chops off one of my own sheep grilled over a wood fire.
Have you dined out in the UAE?
Yes, I came with my daughter on holiday a couple of years ago. We ate at Georgio Locatelli’s restaurant on The Palm and they had a pizza-making thing for kids and my daughter had a lovely time doing that.
What are the three elements a truly awesome restaurant needs?
My wife said, ‘If only they understood that all they need to do is get a drink in his hand immediately, then give him something that is hot and salty and they’ll get 10 out of 10’. And that’s it. Any restaurant that tries to do anything else is wasting its time. I think the perfect ingredients are an immediate smiley welcome, being shown straight to a nice table, bringing me cold drink very quickly and giving me something hot and salty. After that it’s plain sailing.
What would your death row meal be?
It would be the jacked potato I just spoke about – but I’d have to make it myself.
And then you’d die happy?
I would die full.