The Blog

Interviewing the Critics - Gaby Soutar, Restaurant Reviewer for The Scotsman

This is the first in a planned series of very short interviews with reviewers and the reviewed. I'll talk to the professionals, the amateurs and the people somewhere in between.

I have always been wary of criticising others in print. A few years back I mentioned in a column for my local paper that I wasn't the biggest fan of the work of 2006 chart topper Sandi Thom. Sandi somehow stumbled on this comment and responded by writing the song 'Ode To Learmonth' which mostly consists of her singing 'fuck you, fuck you, fuck you'. It is by far the best thing she has ever done.

Needless to say the realisation that my words or my thoughts on another person's work could lead to such raw emotional intensity surprised me more than it should have. It's probably why I've not done much since.

But where I have shown cowardice hundreds if not thousands of people in this country still share their thoughts and their opinions for the benefits of others. And they do this fully aware that maybe if they're incredibly unlucky a washed up pop star might write a song about them.

This is the first in a planned series of very short interviews with reviewers and the reviewed. I'll talk to the professionals, the amateurs and the people somewhere in between.

The first person I spoke to was Gaby Soutar, the restaurant reviewer and features writer for the Scotsman.

With restaurant reviewing there seem to be more variables than any other form of reviewing. I asked Gaby how she chooses what to eats when she's reviewing.

Gaby said, "When working, I am always looking for the most interesting dish to try.

"Sometimes I'll go for the oddest-sounding thing on the menu that might give me something to riff off in my piece. This sometimes backfires when it's a long menu, as the chef has to dust off some dish that only gets ordered once every six months.

"And, obviously, if I'm eating with someone, we can't have the same thing, so there will be an argument over who gets the venison."

This must be the trickiest part of being a restaurant critic, you don't just judge your own experience but you have to judge the experience of the person you're eating with. And there's always the danger that the person you're eating with could be tricky. I'm quite sure I'm not the only person who's had a good meal ruined by the person I'm eating with.

"I've been out with friends who don't like me poking at their food after the only feedback I can get from them is that something they're eating is "fine", and I've eaten out with hyper-critical people who have ridiculous standards."

What about other forces? What about bad days at the office? "I think I'm pretty good at editing out external forces that might affect my judgement. I've had arguments over dinner and still written a positive review."

Restaurant reviewing has changed hugely in the last few years. It used to be the preserve of newspaper writers whose reviews would appear maybe on a Saturday and Sunday. Now anyone with a Facebook account can log in to Tripadvisor and leave their thoughts. According to Tripadvisor there are now 75 million reviews online. Every minute another 50 are added.

One thing the professional reviewer has going for them is that they probably eat out a lot and in a lot of different places and that they don't often have the luxury of choosing where the go to eat.

"We're looking for a news peg. So it'd have to be a new restaurant, or a new menu or new chef, although, we can sometimes get away with a timely peg, if it's National Curry Week for example."

Eating out a lot in a lot of different places means that they have a decent knowledge of what every other restaurant in town is doing.

"For me, it's mostly about taste and presentation, and comparison - how does this place measure up against the other places I've been, in this area, and in this genre.

"I guess it's also about how individual elements wrap up into a whole experience, so you are left with a feeling. You know if it's been a great place if you keep having happy flashbacks until the next day, and beyond."

Apart from a couple of shouty phone calls the only time Gaby has had any reprisal from one of her reviews is when she once had to hide in her office when an irate restaurateur came calling. I imagine he had a large knife. Gaby doesn't say if he had a knife or not but I assume he had knife. Like a cleaver.

Gaby said, "The weird thing was, none of those reviews were bad ones, they were just average, okay places, with matching write-ups."