Yesterday I was honoured to attend a meeting with New Media Publishing, publishers of Eat Out, to discuss how this year’s Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant and related Awards can be improved, and the criticism about it reduced and ideally eliminated.

Attending the meeting were Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly, New Media Publishing Director Irna van Zyl, CEO Bridget McCarney, and Aileen Lamb.  Aileen is preparing herself to take over the GM role of a number of New Media Publishing titles, including Eat Out, in April and she is driving the process to fix what the industry thinks may need attention, a most noble initiative. Aileen is planning a series of interviews with Top 20 shortlisted chefs of the past years, some restaurant owners, the sponsors, industry persons, and the Eat Out audience, to give various players in the restaurant industry a voice.

I found the meeting to be open-minded in receiving my feedback about the 2011 and 2012 Eat Out Awards, everything which I have written in this blog already.  While it initially seemed odd to hold the meeting two months after the Eat Out Awards, the time period did help to focus on the really key issues, which I summarised as follows:

*   appoint a panel of (South African) judges, perhaps representing not only chefs, but a cross-section of the food industry

*   do not make changes to the Awards for the sake of change. Dropping the panel of judges in the past two years was too drastic a move.

*   Consolidate and improve the Awards, and regain credibility

*   Potential new categories for the related Awards were discussed, a Best South African Restaurant category being an obvious opportunity

*   The over-focus on Luke Dale-Roberts of The Test Kitchen in the Woolworths’ Taste magazine was discussed, and it was explained that Woolworths has a business relationship with Chef Luke, which sees him being featured as a contributor in every issue.  The challenge is for Abigail to distance herself from Chef Luke in her role as Food Editor of Taste, given her role as judge for Eat Out.

*   the predominance of Cape Town and Winelands restaurants on the Top 10 list is not an issue, in my opinion.  It does seem to irk Johannesburg restaurants, but new restaurant openings in Johannesburg may better balance the playing field this year.

*   The rules should be 100% consistently applied, for example in respect of chefs taking over from their departing bosses, and being in charge of the kitchen for a full twelve month period, to avoid criticism about restaurants (e.g. Rust en Vrede, La Colombe, Grande Provence, The Roundhouse) having been left off the Top 20 shortlist due to chef changes.  The Eat Out website never listed the rule that a chef should have been at a restaurant for a year, to be eligible for the Top 10 Restaurant Award, even though it was applied in practice. After pointing out the omission on this blog, the rule has now been added to the Eat Out website.

*   Should there be any doubt about the application of the Award rules, Abigail and her panel of judges should act with caution and ‘strictness’.

*   The results should be audited, and should be available to those restaurants that wish to receive feedback. Currently Abigail only does this on request after the Awards presentation, not sharing the feedback proactively.

*   No consulting relationship may exist between Abigail and any restaurant, to not damage her image and that of Eat Out.

*   Eat Out should regularly inform the industry about the Awards, and the work it is doing to improve them.

*   The Eat Out Conference is a good concept, and should attract more chefs, which means that it should be held in winter, and preferably on a chefs-day-off Monday.

By the end of March or early April Aileen and her Eat Out team will have finalised their interviews, and we will meet again thereafter to discuss the summarised results.  The first indications are very positive, and I was privileged to hear some of the ideas being considered, which I will not write about until they have been finalised.  We parted on a Saigon note, and it was clear that Abigail and I would not agree on last year’s Best Asian restaurant award!

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio:  www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage