I saw an article by Post & Courier recently, randomly as I do not follow this publication, and was attracted to its topic, being the impact of restaurant reviews and their power to close a restaurant down. Being our country’s harshest restaurant reviewer, this got me thinking about why the top chefs in our country, including Giorgio Nava, Bertus Basson, Peter Tempelhoff, Liam Tomlin, and Scott Kirton & Co are so sensitive to constructive criticism by banning (or attempting to) me from their restaurants, yet new (to our country) chef Wunderkind Rikku O’Donnchü of Gåte Restaurant welcomes it so!
Let’s begin with the longest-standing dislike and ban by Chef Giorgio Nava, an Eat Out superstar in his day with 95 Keerom Street restaurant. When he opened Carne restaurant across the road from his then award-winning restaurant, he felt it necessary to lie about the origin of his beef, lamb, and game, and claimed that it was organic, without it being validated by any testing authority. I did an investigation, and called him out on his dishonesty. Legal action was commenced, but when I presented the truth and proof, the defamation case with a demand for R300000 damages quietly was withdrawn, a confirmation of the dishonesty! Because of my posts about the matter, Nava has seen fit to ban me! He has never made the Eat Out Top 20/30 list since my exposé.
The legal link takes me to Chef Peter Tempelhoff, the most recent banning attempt of his new restaurant FYN, from which he banned me two days prior to its opening, reversing a brave and bold statement just ten days prior to me personally that everyone is welcome at his restaurants. I wrote about it, speculating what the chef had consumed and/or smoked while writing it as it was inconsistent and contradictory in its rationale, and sent at 23h00 at night. Tempelhoff reacted on Twitter, rule 101 dictating that one never do so as it attracts attention to one’s own followers, denying being a ‘drug abuser’, words I had never written nor thought of! Off to High Court he dragged me, but settled in the last minute on the court steps, with the FYN banning undone in return for me removing a sentence and altering my headline, the latter alluding to the chef not thinking that his food at FYN is fine enough (pardon the pun) to meet my reviewing standards, and therefore banning me. When I eat at FYN it will be the most expensive meal ever, for me, in paying the legal cost of R60000 to defend this matter brought by Tempelhoff! Photograph of a FYN dessert top left.
Chef Liam Tomlin banned me from his restaurants because of my evaluation of his Chef’s Warehouse on Bree Street not meeting the criteria of a fine dining restaurant, and therefore should not have been nominated by Eat Out as a Top 20 then and Top 30 restaurant more recently. Ironically Eat Out agreed, never having awarded it a Top 10 status, yet proclaimed Tomlin Chef of the Year for the success of his Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia in 2017, which should have gone to his Head Chef Ivor Jones running the restaurant instead! A consolation prize!
Chef Bertus Basson disappointed greatly with his Spek & Bone restaurant tucked away off Dorp Street in Stellenbosch, and I could not help refer to it as ‘crap’ in all respects except for the food, six times in my Review, not a spoken word I use regularly, and never used by me in a review before. Basson has sunk to his lowest depth in this restaurant, and took the Review very personally, in a hate campaign designed to get me banned from all top restaurants in our country, selling signs to state that ‘Whales not allowed’ to other restaurants. I don’t answer to that name, so laughed at the only one I saw, in addition to the one at his De Vrije Burger take-away, equally crap! I ordered there anyway, the staff having no clue what the sign was about. Karma is a bitch, as they say in the classics. Basson was unable to juggle owning six restaurants, selling his anti-Whale signs, cooking at functions, and participation in TV shows. He had to pay a price, and that was that his former Top 10 restaurant Overture fell dramatically to number 18 last year in the Eat Out Awards, which must have hurt like mad, and that he has had to close his Spice Route establishment recently, after dreadful reviews! I have been told that Spek & Bone’s reservations increased after my controversial review. My Review Blogpost had the highest readership ever in the ten years of my writing. A win-win for both parties, and hardly deserving of his anti-Whale campaign!
Scott Kirton and his La Colombe restaurant group have banned me too, in support of Basson, despite only the best reviews written by me about La Colombe ever. It is surprising that they have stooped to such a low level of association with …..dare I say crap restaurant Spek & Bone. Marketing and PR madness!
Chef Rikku O’Donnchü is a breath of fresh air, opening his first restaurant Gåte at Quoin Rock four months ago. He decided to face me head on, not knowing me, and invited me to be the first to visit the wine estate when the restaurant and wine cellar were still heavily under construction, telling me that my international eating experience at Michelin star and World’s 50 Best restaurants in New York, London, and France was lacking in other restaurant writers. He is irreverent, a hard worker, multi-tasker, diplomatic yet outrageously honest, and totally willing to accept critical feedback to improve his offering, which he has proven in the recent adjustments which he has made to his Gåte Tasting Menu. And he himself has Michelin star and World’s 50 Best Restaurant kitchen experience, which no other local chef has! Photograph of ‘Not an ashtray’, the ash and cigar being totally edible!
I can look back at my restaurant reviews over the past eleven years, and there is no restaurant that has shut down due to my review. I might have wished it upon Cafë des Arts in Franschhoek, but it survived my description of it as the worst Franschhoek restaurant, supported by the locals. This does not mean that all poor restaurants survived – fortunately or unfortunately many have closed down for other reasons! I see the banning by the restaurants as a tremendous honour, and huge reflection of the huge egos of our top South African chefs!
I wish to conclude with the last paragraph of the Post & Courier article:
‘To be clear, I am in no way disappointed by my inability to kill off restaurants with my keyboard. I don’t want restaurants to close, I want them to get better. My fear is that as more restaurant owners siphon off a limited talented pool, that might not happen. But what that means for their futures is up to you and your fellow diners to decide.’
This article in Post & Courier inspired this Blogpost:
’Plenty of things can keep a restaurant from succeeding, but a bad review isn’t among them’, by Hanna Raskin of Post & Courier:
‘Q: Do you keep a scorecard on how restaurants do after your reviews? I first corresponded with you during your brouhaha over that misbegotten Stereo 8 which limped along longer than they claimed they would after you “destroyed jobs and lives.” How have other restaurants you reviewed done over the years?
A: One of the great powers in a critic’s arsenal is the ability to send customers to a worthy restaurant they never before considered. I was thrilled a few weeks back to get a tweet from Asanka Kitchen in Columbia reporting that a busload of 52 Charlestonians showed up at the Ghanaian restaurant after reading my write-up on postandcourier.com.
It’s not a superpower, unfortunately. Every restaurant critic can reel off a list of now-defunct places they championed on every web page, social media account and email newsletter for which they held a password.
Among the Charleston area restaurants that I couldn’t keep open are Lana, Spero, Ernie’s, Congress, Saint Alban, Bar Normandy and McCrady’s Tavern in its original Gilded Age iteration. There aren’t enough stars in the galaxy to ward off the problems that stem from high rent, bad timing, short staffing, old buildings, scant parking and fraught landlord-tenant relationships.
I’ve heard all of the above factors cited by restaurant owners forced to close up shop. But I’ve yet to hear a restaurateur blame his or her failure on a single negative review. In fact, while there’s only anecdotal evidence on this score, it’s not uncommon for customer traffic to pick up following a pan, in part because rubberneckers want to get a first-hand look at the reported disaster.
And that’s hardly a local phenomenon. The New York Times’ critic, Pete Wells, who has more sway than any other restaurant reviewer in the country, famously took down Per Se; owner Thomas Keller called the assessment “devastating.” Three years later, the place is doing just fine.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, positive reviews can do more damage, since small, new restaurants aren’t always ready for the traffic they incite. That was the premise of Kevin Alexander’s recent Thrillist essay “I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It.” The piece immediately went viral, and then was almost as swiftly condemned for overlooking the burger joint owner’s criminal past. He’d been convicted for trying to strangle his then-wife.
Those are the kind of facts which can derail a journalist’s career and really mess with a restaurateur’s success.
April Bloomfield last month closed one of her two New York City restaurants still extant following The New York Times’ report that Bloomfield’s former business partner allegedly harassed their employees. At the end of last year, Mike Isabella shut down his hospitality group, “making Isabella the first chef involved in a #MeToo scandal to see his empire completely dissolve,” according to Eater.
Facts can be fatal. Opinions only wound.
And there’s no question that those wounds hurt. Every restaurant owner would rather deal with a busload of new customers than a boatload of cancelled reservations. But generally, what does in a restaurant — beyond the external circumstances noted earlier — is lousy food or inept service, both of which are hard to keep secret.
A critic doesn’t produce bad food or service by publicizing it. If the shrimp served to a critic is consistently rubbery, other guests are getting mistreated seafood, too. That’s a fact.
It’s a critic’s job to accurately describe a restaurant so potential patrons can knowledgeably decide if they want to go there. Readers can do as they choose with the accompanying opinions. I strive to be so reliable in my reporting that a reader can be sure they’ll love a restaurant because I hated it, or vice versa.
For instance, I tend to object to restaurants which were obviously created just to make money, rather than express a worldview or honor the Lowcountry’s bounty. But guess what? Those restaurants make money.
I don’t keep a scorecard. But at your request, I went back through the archivesto find the rare one-star reviews. There were five in the last three years: Wiki Wiki Sandbar, Tradd’s, Edmund’s Oast Brewing, The Granary and Pawpaw. It’s too early to tell what will become of Wiki Wiki and Tradd’s. But Edmund’s Oast Brewing and Pawpaw are both going strong. The Granary closed on Dec. 31, nearly two years after I reviewed it.
Did I somehow hasten its demise? And should I have refrained from writing about it if I thought I might? I’d say no on both counts. I’ve already explained the former, but on the latter, it’s worth pointing out that my obligation is not to a restaurant’s investors, but to the people who might spend their hard-earned money there.
(I’m not sympathetic to the argument that a bad review upsets low-wage workers’ livelihoods, since food-and-beverage employees have their pick of jobs here. The Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has created an entire division dedicated to correcting the supply-and-demand imbalance on the restaurant staffing front. The good folks there would happily provide a list of openings to any employee who feels stuck at a restaurant that hasn’t garnered critical acclaim.)
To be clear, I am in no way disappointed by my inability to kill off restaurants with my keyboard. I don’t want restaurants to close, I want them to get better. My fear is that as more restaurant owners siphon off a limited talented pool, that might not happen. But what that means for their futures is up to you and your fellow diners to decide.’
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein