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Talking table with AA Gill

With a collection of his famously savage reviews newly published, AA Gill talks restaurant criticism, wafting aromas and camel snot.

If AA Gill isn’t the most feared restaurant critic in the world, he’s certainly the most entertaining, and definitely the funniest. This is something borne out by Table Talk, a new collection of his writing about food taken mostly from his restaurant review column of the same name published in London’s Sunday Times. Gill, who pens our must-read travel column AA Gill is Away each month, spoke to fellow food critic Pat Nourse about the book and the business of reviewing. Here, we present the expanded version of the interview that appeared in our January 2008 issue.

Tell us about your new book.
I haven’t read it, and I always said that I didn’t want to do a book of reviews because what possible use is a 12-year-old restaurant review?

Fortunately you write very little about restaurants in your reviews.
I said I’d let them do a book of reviews as long as they didn’t mention any of the restaurants. They laughed, thinking I was joking, and I said, no, I’m really not joking. Quite apart from anything else, I think a restaurant getting a bad review is not the nicest way of spending your Sunday, but to get the same review 10 years later, anthologised is really unkind.

So they found this brilliant girl, Celia [Hayley, the book’s editor], who said, look, I’m just going to take all your long-drop intros and we’ll see if we can make them into pieces. Because she read absolutely every single one, she said, you’ve written about vegetarianism four times, you’ve done country pubs three times – I can knit them all together and make proper essays out of them. Sometimes she just said, you’ve completely contradicted yourself, you have two articles about the same subject saying diametrically opposite things. Which one do you believe? Consistency, I think, is one of the most overrated virtues.

I see, though, that your editors have included your 2000 review of Acclaim!, the restaurant at London’s Millennium Dome. I think that one was emailed around the world at the time as an example of one of the more stinging reviews ever written. I especially liked “here’s a gap (  ) for you and I to wave our palms at heaven and speechlessly make like a goldfish. It’s beyond language.”
One of the problems with bad reviews is that you can over-egg their filthy pudding to the point that it becomes a sort of disaster tourism. People go just to see if it really is that bad.

“Fishy, liver-filled condoms” and “Why is there never a Palestinian suicide bomber when you need one?" are two of your comments which get raised whenever people are discussing your work. Do you have any favourite Gill-isms?
Once I’ve filed, there’s some button in my head that just goes Delete. I cannot remember with any accuracy even the restaurants I’ve visited after I’ve filed the column. Happily, neither does anyone else. I’m rarely noticed in the street and I’m not a celebrity, but occasionally people recognise me from my byline picture and they’ll go, oh, it’s you, that thing you wrote last week, gawd, that made us laugh, what was it? It was the – you know, what was it? And I’ll be saying, I’m sorry, I don’t know, and we have this terrible dialogue of the idiot and the amnesiac where I can’t remember what I wrote and they can’t remember what it is they read.

You have something of a reputation as the gross-out guy in reviewing.
I think shock is one of those things that’s entirely down to the recipient. People who are shocked are people who quite enjoy being shocked. If you arrive at the restaurant review after flicking through the rest of the paper and you’re still shocked, then you just have a really, really low shock threshold.

I know what you mean, though – it’s about the simile and the metaphor. I knew when I first took on this job that there were two immediate problems. One of them would be the ‘and my partner had…” conundrum, which all restaurant reviews seem to suffer from. You have to eat with somebody, or you sound like a sad f***, and you need to write about more than one dish, so someone else has to eat it, so you have the “and my partner had” thing, which sounds weird, like you’re speed-dating or something. I knew I had to invent a character who would be the “and my partner had”, which is why I invented The Blonde. Although The Blonde actually is a real person, from the point of view of the reader, she can be anybody, you can fill in your own character. It’s not too specific.

The other problem, which is much more fundamental with writing about food in English, is that though it’s the most amazingly expressive language for almost everything, and has more technical and descriptive words, more adjectives – I mean no other language comes close to the amount of descriptive words English has – it’s incredibly bad for describing food. Particularly the qualities of eating and tasting and the appreciation of food. There are cultural reasons for that, mostly that it’s always been thought of as being bad manners to mention food. It was not a polite subject for conversation. You assumed that food you were given was perfectly adequate, and to mention it would have been to imply that at times perhaps it wasn’t. And it wasn’t manly, and it was something that foreigners did.

That might seem to be a terminal problem for writing about food, plus the fact that the very few words that we do have, I find really difficult to use. I really am not ever going to write that something is succulent. Wafting aromas. Nestling. Drizzled, moist – I can’t write jus. That menu-language isn’t fit for serious or popular joined-up writing. So you have to find another way of talking about food. I thought about it before I ever wrote anything down, and I thought, well, the truth about food is that it’s the great metaphor for all of life. There’s nothing that hasn’t been used as a simile or a metaphor for this life – a chicken in every pot, the bread of life, the salt of the earth – everything about food pertains to something about life, so why can’t you do it the other way around? Why can’t all of life be used as an allusion for food?

And people say, how do you know it tasted like camel snot – have you ever eaten camel snot? And you go, well, (a) it’s a metaphor and that’s not how metaphors necessarily work but also (b) you know what camel snot would taste like, you know that if someone strained an ashtray through a tramp’s sock and then turned it into a jelly, that’s what it would be like. I suppose that’s what a lot of people read the columns for. They like that.

Chefs seem aggrieved that you further cope with the problems of writing about food in your reviews by not writing about food in your reviews.
What I am is a restaurant critic. I write about being in restaurants. For most customers, the food is only part of the experience of being in a restaurant. It may be that Michelin judges and a few very anal, effete metropolitan gents will sit down and critique the food as they’re eating it, but most people don’t do that. Most people know if the food isn’t nice, and they know if the food is particularly good, but what they go out for is a whole mixture of stuff – hospitality, atmosphere, a feeling of largess and a sense of comfort, to be with friends, to have a mise-en-place that reflects on them in a way that makes them feel grander than they would necessarily be, or sexier, or more comfortable, or a juxtaposition to the way they live or work, or makes them feel that they’re in a chicer place than they’d normally be or where other chicer people might also be, therefore making them slightly more fashionable than they would normally imagine themselves. There are all sorts of reasons for people going to restaurants, and when they choose where to go, they make probably an unconsidered calculation of all of those things, of how much money they’re going to have to spend, of how hungry they are, who they want to impress, whether or not they want to be heard. Those are all things that count as much as the food. I don’t think anyone goes to restaurants because they’re hungry.

If you’re really hungry, what you have is bread and cheese. If you’re hungry, you have cornflakes. You go to a restaurant because you have an appetite, and appetite is not the same as hunger.

What about the business of not writing about the restaurants at all, or for at least a large part of your reviews?
Again, there are a number of practical reasons for that. An awful lot of journalism, as you well know, is practical reasons dressed up as higher callings. It’s not that there’s a limited amount of things you can say about food, it’s that there’s a limit to the amount most people will read about food, and unless you’re going to get to the point that a lot of food writers are of being erudite specialists who write about food in the same way some people write about yachting or golf or gardening and have a limited audience of people who are generally semi-expert or gifted amateurs in that way. That’s all well and good, but I realised that wasn’t an audience that I was being employed to write for or really wanted to write for, and there are lots of people who know more about food than I do who could do that. The likelihood of people who read about these restaurants eating at them is probably 0.001 per cent, so they must have a reason for reading the columns, and that reason needs to be that they’re entertaining. So the introductions which tended to be the tease to get you in to the article got longer and longer, so the entertaining bit rather took over the peregrination. There are also some restaurants you visit where you go, this restaurant deserves the review this week, but actually, there’s f***-all to say about it, apart from that it’s adequate. The most common thing that a restaurant reviewer gets is a perfectly decent, ordinary dull restaurant that they never want to go back to again. That is the nature of most things: it’s what most people are, what most football games are, what most cars are. The median is that most things are medium. It would be a lie to say you’d be happy to devote the same amount of space and time, the same 1200 words to a perfectly dull mediocre restaurant as you would to one that was fabulously wonderful or spectacularly dreadful. The amount of space tends to go up and down with what the restaurant was like.

But also there’s a philosophical reason, which is that one of the things I wanted to do in writing about food was to open up what food was about. I think a lot of food writing and a lot of restaurant writing was narrow in its scope and very formulaic in what it thought was its remit. Food is everything. It’s the one thing that every person on this planet does.

The universal art.
I’m not sure it’s even an art. The universal craft? It’s just universal. In doing this book tour, one of the questions that comes up over and over again is, don’t you ever get bored doing this? And I say, what do you think you do when you’re bored with food? It’s not like I was an art critic and I got fed up so I stopped doing it. You can’t, actually, "I got really bored and gave up eating." Whether I write about it or not, I’ve still got to eat three times a day. You never stop doing it. It is always part of your life, and it’s the one thing you know that every single one of your readers has also done that day. Nobody would claim that they’re an expert eater. It would be an absurd thing to say because we all eat. Everybody who has their own teeth and no tracheotomy is an expert eater. There’s a whole lot of stuff that as a critic you don’t have to explain, which is great. I don’t have to explain to people what a knife and fork does. If you’re an opera critic you can’t always assume that everyone understands what you’re talking about, but at least with the food you know that everybody’s swallowed it, and everybody’s been to the loo.

Do restaurant critics close restaurants?
No. Bad food closes restaurants.

Are there foods you habitually avoid?
I generally won’t have the steak on a menu because unless it’s a restaurant that serves steak and not much else, I just think a steak is a steak is a steak. Less so now, but it also used to be one of the things you’d put on a menu to attract men who didn’t like going to restaurants.

And what about the converse – are you drawn by ‘critic-bait’?
I don’t know what happens, but there’s a Freemasonry with critics – we are all drawn to innards. If there’s offal on the menu, we’ll all have it. I don’t know why that is. I do love offal.

It’s the road less travelled.
Yes. Back passages-r-us.

How do you manage the fatness?
Other people’s or my own? I don’t get fat, obviously, because I throw up all the time. And how do I mind it in other people? I’m more forgiving than most of the people in my business are of fat people. Fat has been one of the big changes in the 12 years that I’ve been doing this, and the body-consciousness-ness of people who eat and people who serve food. Fat is becoming a social issue. It’s dressed as a social issue, but it’s a marker of your class. Successful, rich, attractive, nubile, shaggable, bankable people are thin people, and fat people are security guards.

You try being thin in Ghana and all you’ll get is people pitying you. It’s almost as if, having cut off all the subjects that people have been allowed to be prejudiced about, race, sex, religion, all the stuff that people have been bigoted about, and you can’t be bigoted about now...but you can still be bigoted about fat people. And it's because it’s a choice. You look at someone and go, your fatness is your CV. You walk into a room as a fat person and it tells me that you’re lazy, you have no willpower, you’re indulgent, you eat your feelings, you’re miserable. It goes on and on and on, and it’s all nonsense. Thirty years ago, you’d have looked at a fat person and you’re good-humoured, the life and soul of the party, you’re fun to be around. All of those things were associated with being fat, and now they’re not.

What about defamation?
It’s a big thing in Australia, isn’t it? The nature of criticism is that we are civilisation’s traffic wardens. Our job is not to be there to be loved, our job is to make sure that the traffic moves.

Do you think that defamation laws impede that?
Anything that stands between the freedom of the press and the freedom to read hampers everything. I think the least important thing it hampers is the freedom of restaurant critics to write rude things about restaurants. In the scheme of what freedom of expression counts for, that’s a long way down the list, but it is a freedom. I would worry that if somebody was successfully suing a restaurant critic, I would worry about who else is being stopped from saying things. Once you get to restaurant critics, you’ve probably cut off an awful lot of other freedoms of speech.

If you were writing in Australia under these laws, there are still plenty of ways to say unpleasant things about restaurants if you wanted to.
Usually defamation is in making a statement which you write as a fact. The steak was underdone, or the vegetables were inedible. If you say, as far as I’m concerned, the steak was underdone, or, I couldn’t eat the vegetables, that’s something else. It’s very important that I write in the first-person. What I write is only my own opinion. I think my opinion is worth more than other people’s opinions. If I didn’t, how would I do what I do? That may sound arrogant, but it would be a lot more arrogant as a critic if you didn’t think your opinion was worth more than everyone else’s. That’s the nature of criticism. It isn’t the opinion of the newspaper in that third-person, grand, The-Times-writes way, it’s what I think, and I have the right to have thoughts. I think the right that you have as a private individual to walk out and say, Jesus, that was s***, which we all have the right to do – I think that if you can say it to a friend in the street, you should be able to write it in a newspaper. I don’t see what the difference, as an opinion, between those two things is. Sitting at a table and telling five people seems to me no difference between writing it in a newspaper and telling five million.

Has there ever been anything you’ve regretted writing?
I went to a restaurant very early on, and I wrote that the waiter had terrible B.O., which he did, and I got a letter the next week from the owner saying, we’re terribly sorry you had this trouble and we hope that you’ll come back, of course I’ve fired the waiter. And I didn’t write back, because I don’t ever write back, but what I thought was, you so completely got the wrong end of that stick. You should be employing people and paying them enough that they can change their shirt once every four days and you should be giving them enough time off so that they can get a shower. The reason the guy smelt was because he was working for you, not because he was a smelly guy. That’s typical of the way people use staff, so I’m very careful about saying things about staff that can put their jobs in jeopardy if I think they’re identifiable.

What sort of things do your editors take exception to when you’re reviewing restaurants?
I’m given a pretty free hand. Considering I write in a broadsheet national on a Sunday, and all of the things that connotes. I get a lot of license, and I think that’s because I’m the tarantula on the fried egg at breakfast. I think that the paper reckons it can probably have one or two people like me as long as the rest of it’s pretty wholesome and decent. They tend to draw the line at what they would consider to be gratuitously gynaecological or scatological.

I sometimes have similes where they’ve just said, that is too sickening and will probably make people sick. They get funny about places, too.

Like Wales, Germany and Japan, you mean?
I said a restaurant dining room looked like an Israeli cruise ship and got furious letters, so there are things that people perceive as being off-limits.

Do you self-censor?
No. Sometimes somebody will tell me that there’s somebody who may come into my orbit who’s had a very bad time. Somebody having a divorce or who has lost a spouse or has got a sick child or has got cancer. And if I know, I don’t censor in the sense that I wouldn’t change the review, I just won’t write about them. 

If you were eating a human being, which part would you eat first?
Hands are always supposed to have been a great delicacy. When the football team in the Andes had to eat their own fellow passengers, who were semi-preserved in the snow, once they’d got over the concept of eating people, which they got over really quite quickly, they got bored. They craved different tastes and textures, so they’d go back to corpses they’d already eaten and go and look for bits of offal, just for the sensation of something different.

I suppose what you would avoid is brains, because of kuru, which is an illness you really don’t want to get. I think thigh would probably be rather good. I think that if you butcher people like pigs, which is probably the best way of doing them, then I think a long ham would be rather good. I think people would make quite good ham. Dry-salted, like Parma-person. The other thing that always interests me about cannibalism is what is the ideal age? We mature very slowly, so if you’re farming people, it’s never going to be a profitable business, because to get something like a lamb, they’d have to be fed for five or six years, and to get mutton or beef you’ve got to keep them for 16 years. That’s ridiculous.

AA Gill’s Table Talk: Sweet and Sour, Salt and Bitter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is available for $55 hbk.

PHOTOGRAPHY TOM CRAIG

This article appeared in the January 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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