Rossouw’s Restaurants is South Africa’s only restaurant guide (Eat Out may have more glitz and glamour, but it does not come close to this ‘Platter’ equivalent to restaurants), and its owner JP Rossouw has established himself as a credible source of restaurant information, despite one not actually knowing what credentials Rossouw has to be a restaurant critic. That credibility has now been questioned, with readers of his largely negative review of the new La Mouette restaurant in Sea Point grilling (pardon the pun!) Rossouw on his use of other reviewers, yet marking them with his initials, as if he had written the review himself.
Whilst knowledgeable about wines, and earning a living from them, in that he often wrote about wine in the Cape Times, is said to compile restaurant winelists, and consults to restaurants about wines, Rossouw commendably has been focused on only writing about restaurants in his blog (even though he does not know the difference between a blog, a blog post and a website) and in his annually updated Rossouws’ Restaurants hard copy guide. Confusingly the book may contain some reviews that his blog does not, and vice versa.
On Friday, after publishing his very critical review of La Mouette, the first critical commenter “Eric” lashed out at Rossouw for his review: “Phew JP, you were mean! This review is so out of character for you â€“ long, nitpicking, nasty, disparaging. You must have been having a bad day before you went for lunch to La Mouette. I hope you go back to get with the programme”. This was followed by a further critical comment by “Cormac” (someone using the name of Portofino Cormac Keane, or the man himself?) “I am also quite surprised reading your review, it is unduly harsh for a restaurant that has been open for two weeks. I have eaten there twice and found the food to be very good, and I am not easily pleased”.
Rossouw’s loyal fans “Bazil” – could he be a Rossouw reviewer, the same Bazil that is a ‘Food Fanatic’ on Eat Out’s restaurant review panel, who lists La Mouette as one of the restaurants that he has reviewed, and who wrote in his 2 May Eat Out “review” that he had been to the “new and officially not open” La Mouette? – (and likens Rossouw to AA Gill, the “revered and feared London food critic”!) and “Michael” quickly jumped to Rossouws’ defence, and a spat developed, which led to the closing of the Comments section of the restaurant review, an unprecedented move. Rossouw later explained that he felt that comments had become personal between commenters, and removed the offensive comments. When this writer had exposed Carne in not being truthful about its “organic meat” and Karoo origin claims, Rossouw allowed commenters to attack the comment writer without censorship. This was picked up by one of the commenters and questioned.
Impatiently wanting to get her point of view across, and reacting to Rossouw’s comment censorship, “Sisteranna” used another restaurant’s comment box to give Rossouw a most articulate piece of her mind, questioning:
1. Rossouw’s censorship and deletion of comments
2. The cowardice of commenters in using pseudonyms
3. Writing restaurant reviews after one visit only
4. The credibility of reviews published with Rossouw’s initials JPR but not written by himself :”I am afraid thie (sic) entire state of affairs has cast serious doubt in my mind as to the integrity and veracity of any reviews published here”.
Every time she wrote a comment, Rossouw wrote back, and he clearly started tripping over his words, in that he had to admit that he had sent another reviewer to review the restaurant. Here things become a little hazy, especially as Rossouw had removed a response by him, in which he had admitted to “Cormac” that he himself had not been to the restaurant, but that his reviewer had written the review. He added that what was posted was far less harsh than how the reviewer had written it, implying that he had edited it to tone it down (one questions why the ‘truth’ should not have prevailed, given that it was a pretty harsh review anyway).
When he was challenged about not writing all reviews himself by the commenters and on Twitter, he changed his tune, and implied (in a fudgy sort of way), that he had first sent a reviewer, and then had gone to the restaurant himself to review it. However, observing this as a regular Rossouw’s Restaurants blog reader, it is quite out of character for Rossouw to review a restaurant within 2 weeks of it opening. In the past Rossouw has been surprisingly slow on restaurant opening and closure news, and reviews of new restaurants. Many reviewers will give a new restaurant some time to settle in before they attempt a first review, and one saw Rossouw’s time delay in the past to be for this reason.
Then he tripped himself up by stating that his reviewer had been to the restaurant for dinner, yet he quoted lunch prices (La Mouette has different prices for its dishes for lunch and dinner). Had Rossouw been at the restaurant himself, he would have known about the price difference. Rossouw claims his reviews are independent, paid for and unannounced, which is how it should be, but he his well known to established restaurateurs. Restaurants would pull out all the stops were they to see him arrive. One wonders how he deals with the “independence” issue if he is paid by restaurants to consult to them about their wines.
Rossouw further claimed that he had written the review himself. However, it was unusually long, and very critical, especially about the wine prices, and this again is out of character with Rossouw’s “Mr Nice Guy” image, according to “Eric”. Rossouw normally only writes three paragraphs or so, and often one has been frustrated that he has not been critical enough, but he clearly does not want to offend restaurants (generally). Rossouw replied to “Sisteranna”: “Where I do use a team is for the reviews that appear in the printed guide. …. the blog and the book are separate but are linked”. Does this mean that Rossouw will publish the review in his 2011 printed guide? He continued: “All blog reviews on this website are written by me and only after a meal which I pay for”, contradicting himself again.
One of the commenters has told me that his comment was edited by Rossouw before being posted, to make himself look good and the commenter look apologetic, which was not what he had intended.
Many of the 33 comments to date (as at 10h00 this morning) are the diatribe between Rossouw and the tenacious “Sisteranna”, who, when challenged, revealed her identity as Sonia Cabano. A Google search identified her as a chef (who trained in London, at Kensington Place amongst others, where La Mouette chef Henry Vigar was the head chef until a few months ago), cookery book writer (KOMBUIS) and as having presented cooking programmes on kykNET and SABC3, a lady who clearly knows what she is talking about. She is persistent in her questioning of Rossouw’s inconsistencies in his comments, and subsequent responses.
In having created a stimulating debate and raised a few laughs, the La Mouette review and the comments received have raised important ethical and procedural issues about restaurant reviews.
POSTSCRIPT: JP Rossouw has written a very calm and reasoned response to this post on his website.
POSTSCRIPT 8 JUNE: In response to a request by JP Rossouw to “correct” my blog post, I replied to him on Friday 4 June, and asked him to meet with me, to tell me the whole story and to show me the two La Mouette invoices for the meal for himself and for his reviewer, to prove that both of them ate at the restaurant. He has not replied to this invitation to date. We also note that Rossouw has edited some of his comments on his website relating to this issue, to emphasise that he and another reviewer went to the restaurant on separate occasions, telling a different story to the way he originally told it via his responses to comments to his blog post.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com