Signature Dish: I've blown my cover, but the food's still bad

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 9:55am

I've been outed. Or rather, I outed myself. No, it's nothing to do with my sexual proclivity (which, as long as it takes place between consenting adults, is nobody's business anyway). Rather, I outed myself to the world with my photograph in my cookbook, A Celebration of Food, which was published last month.

I've been food and wine editor of this newspaper for 15 years, and have kept a low profile. I accept very few invitations, try to keep a distance between myself and chefs and restaurateurs, and usually avoid being snapped at events (and if I am, I give the photographer a pseudonym). I am so low-key, in fact, that when I met someone who was a big fan of my work, he said he thought I was "like Betty Crocker" - in other words, he thought I was a mythical creature.

The decision to publish my photo wasn't taken lightly. One reason I've been fairly anonymous for so long is that I review restaurants, and worry that if people know I am at their establishment, they might make much more of an effort, rather than giving me the experience of an "ordinary" diner.

For advice, I turned to Nicholas Lander, the restaurant reviewer for the Financial Times. Lander, for many years, was also quite anonymous - if you did an internet search of his image, most "hits" would be of his red socks.

But with the publication of his book, The Art of the Restaurateur, he's come out of the closet, so to speak. At an event I moderated for him at Kelly & Walsh bookstore in Pacific Place, I asked him how important anonymity was to a reviewer, and he replied: "Not much."

In truth, there's not a lot a chef or restaurateur can do if they suddenly spot a reviewer in the house (and just because I'm dining in a restaurant doesn't necessarily mean I'm reviewing it - I also eat for pleasure, not just for work). In her book, Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for The New York Times, writes about dining at Le Cirque as an anonymous person, and in her official capacity as a reviewer. The meals were like night and day.

But if I have been spotted in the dozen or so reviews I've done since my photo was published, the staff have been a lot more discreet about letting me knew they knew it was me. The service didn't go from mediocre to attentive at one restaurant, or from dull to amazing at another. To use an annoying expression that seems to be popular now, the restaurant "is what it is", and just because a reviewer is in the house doesn't mean it's going to get any better.