New Media Publishing has released the results of its qualitative and quantitative research conducted amongst top chefs and restaurant diners, respectively, in guiding the 2014 Eat Out Top 10 Awards this year. The proposed changes are likely to improve the image of the Eat Out Restaurant Awards, which reached an all-time low in the past two years.
To recap: Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly lost credibility for offering (undisclosed) menu consulting services to the newly established Makaron restaurant at Majeka House two years ago, a restaurant which was awarded the Boschendal Style Award in that year, personally chosen by Mrs Donnelly! Even worse for her reputation was the appointment of herself as the sole Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards judge in that year, having fired her co-judges (MasterChef SA judge) Pete Goffe-Wood, Anna Trapido (author of the book on Nelson Mandela’s eating and drinking habits), and Chef (and MasterChef SA Culinary Manager) Arnold Tanzer. To fix the dissatisfaction following this fiasco, Mrs Donnelly chose to appoint an unknown British food blogger and occasional online Wall Street Journal newsletter writer Bruce Palling, who proved to be a disaster, with no scruples in divulging his judgement of our top restaurants six months after evaluating them, trashing all but four restaurants, and refusing to return for the Eat Out Top 10 Awards gala dinner because he was not offered a Business Class ticket by New Media Publishing. Not only did we criticise the choice of appalling Mr Palling as a judge, but Top 10 Chef George Jardine of Jordan’s Restaurant spoke against the use of international judges from the stage when receiving his third place award, to loud applause, a slap against Eat Out! The 2013 Top 10 restaurant list was criticised for being predictable and more of the same, and Mrs Donnelly was slated for selecting Saigon as the Best Asian restaurant in the country!
One must salute New Media Publishing, and its new Eat Out General Manager Aileen Lamb, for taking action and for not brushing the criticism away. Having been one of the most outspoken critics of the handling of the Eat Out Awards in the last two years, we were the first to be interviewed about what the ideal top restaurant award should entail, and what should be changed. I found the New Media Publishing team, consisting of Ms Lamb, Mrs Donnelly, Director Irna van Zyl, and MD Bridget McCarney to be very open and receptive to the feedback. Our detailed input to the Eat Out Awards discussion can be read here. This was the start of a series of one-on-one interviews conducted nationally with 34 chefs who had featured on the Top 20 finalist list in the past three years, food bloggers, and restaurant owners.
From the qualitative interviews conducted by New Media Publishing, the following changes will be made to this year’s Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards, the media statement issued yesterday announced:
* a panel of judges will be chosen to evaluate the restaurants, and they will come from a ‘variety of expertise in the restaurant industry’ (e.g. head of chefs schools, suppliers, food writers, restaurateurs, and wine experts)
* only South African judges will be appointed, with Mrs Donnelly as ‘Chief Judge’
* the names of the appointed judges will not be released prior to the judging of the restaurants, a radical departure, and resembling the Michelin system. This is to prevent restaurants from offering judges a different treatment compared to other diners.
* restaurants are to be evaluated on an ongoing basis (not clearly defined in the media statement, but hints at evaluating menu changes linked to seasonal changes, as well as other restaurant changes) and each of the judges will evaluate each of the candidate Top 10 restaurants).
* chefs will be able to access their audited judging performance after the Awards ceremony, in the ‘interest of transparency’.
Ms Lamb said that she was heartened by the frank feedback she and her team received from the industry, and the willingness of top chefs as well as those aspiring to make it to the top to participate in the ideas exchange, “…believing that making the Awards ongoing and credible for years to come is most beneficial to the entire industry‘. Unfortunately, from a purist market research perspective, the results from the qualitative research were quantified, an absolute no-no, given the small sample size!
A diner survey, sent to the Eat Out e-mail list that receives the weekly newsletter, it would appear, received good support from 750 readers, in terms of sample size (the mailing list size was not revealed) and feedback. Eat Out was said by 82% to be trustworthy as a brand, and its Awards were supported by 77%. Three quarters of the respondents had eaten at a Top 10 restaurant in the past year, showing that the Awards drive diners to the top restaurants, Mrs Donnelly said. She is quoted as lauding the ‘credibility’ of the Eat Out Awards, yet New Media Publishing would not have conducted the surveys amongst the top chefs and diners had all been in order, reflecting that she may still not have got the message that she severely affected the credibility of the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards in the past two years, making her concluding statement in the media release inappropriate and arrogant: ‘Collectively the feedback reaffirms that the Eat Out brand is seen very much as the gold standard of the South African culinary industry. With a heritage of celebrating excellence, Eat Out carries the highest credibility amongst chefs, restaurateurs and diners’.
It will be interesting to see how the 2014 Eat Out Restaurant Awards evolve this year, given the changes announced by New Media Publishing yesterday. While the research conducted and changes announced are commendable, they reflect that New Media Publishing recognises that the judging process and therefore the results of the past two years were not optimal. One would hope, in the interest of transparency, that the company can express this to the industry in the process of moving forward and leaving the mistakes of the past behind!
POSTSCRIPT 7/8: Über controversial Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant 2012 international judge Bruce Palling has left the Wall Street Journal Europe and has joined Perowne Charles Communications to set up its food and drink division. ‘Palling will lead PCC’s account team representing well-known food and drinks brands, Michelin-star chefs as well as new launches, with clients including Epicure at Le Bristol Paris and Aziamendi at Iniala Beach House in Phuket‘. Funny is reading the agency’s blogpost about Palling’s appointment, clearly written by him and how he quotes his Eat Out excursion in his ‘CV’!
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage