Elizabeth Carter on the Good Food Guide 2011

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd November 2010

Elizabeth Carter on the Good Food Guide 2011.

Liz,  first and foremost thank you for your time today.  If you could just start by explaining the origins of The Good Food Guide 2011.  You are celebrating 60 years.

Well, The Good Food Guide is a result of the Second World War.  In 1951 rationing was still going. There had been some terrible practises sanctioned by the Ministry of Food during the war, to help the war effort - things like roasting joints and letting them go cold; slicing them thinly then re-heating them - who needed a chef! Whalemeat rissoles, synthetic custard and fake everything else was embraced whole heartedly by the catering industry, and if anyone complained, all they had to say was "Don't you know there is a war on!!" (Laughter) ...

Yes, but like you say the war offered a great excuse.

But the sad thing was it was still going on in 1951. That just shows you how bad it really was. Raymond Postgate was depressed by some of the meals he was faced with (he was a journalist and social historian) so he started a campaign against cruelty to food.  This caused a flurry of correspondence from across the country, you could say he galvanised an army of like-minded people. They sent recommendations of reasonable places to eat which resulted in the formation of The Good Food Club, which led to the publication of The Good Food Guide in 1951.  So right from the beginning The Good Food Guide has been based strongly on reader recommendations.  And that is something the Guide will never lose sight of.

Right, and is the fact that you're a consumer guide your USP as a Guide?

Yes, because unlike other Guides who have full time inspectors with year round inspection schedules, we are more organic in the way we work. Every restaurant attracts reader feedback throughout the year - even for the few months we are not in production, we still get a lot of feedback - and it gives us a great view point of what is going on around the country. And I think that helps with the scoring system; it helps with the general overview; it helps with the top 50. It means that I feel very confident about how things are throughout the country because of the quality of that feedback.

How do you stop the inevitable scammers, the restaurants trying to self-promote, the restaurants trying to knobble the competition? Because we have read it on things like Tripadviser and various other sites and we hear "Oh, I know that's my rival bad-mouthing me" - I am sure there must be a system in place to stop that?

It's just common sense, really.  We get so much feedback - thousands and thousands over the year - that dodgy ones just stand out. I have to read the feedback every day, if I leave it for a few days it becomes a BIG job.  So I make it my start to the day and I really enjoy it.

I guess that keeps you in touch, as well?

It does.  And you know the genuine stuff - it's obvious, you can spot the comments that restaurateurs have got their customers to send in.  Curiously, we get very little trashing by restaurateurs about other restaurants.  We do value the genuine reader "recs" and have built up email relationships with many regulars.  And I have no objection to the restaurateurs getting in touch with me via the feedback system, as long as they say who they are and do it honestly and openly. Yes. And I tell chefs this every time - if your chef is leaving or you are leaving and you are going to do something else, then for god's sake tell us.  I think one thing that I am very strict on is confidentiality. Chefs have contacted and told me months before it has been announced in the media that they are going to move - they know with me it will go no further.

Absolutely, you have to be discreet.

It's not in my interest to tell anyone else.   It is in my interest to be told because we can then plan and we can ensure that we do the right thing by that chef.  It's all about communication.

Liz, how do you find new talent, how do you ensure that your not missing people?

Through our network. We have a team of wonderful freelancers who eat out all the time, often spending their own money. They're good writers, enthusiastic foodies and they've got their finger on the pulse in their various areas. Together with the reader reviews through the feedback system I'm very confident that we hear about most operations. Plus we have more flexibility than the Guides with inspectors on the road who have to cover hotel operations too.

Liz,  would you encourage Chefs to be pro-active also if they are perhaps new to you?

Yes of course, they can send me an e-mail with where they are, who they are and their menu - but I don't need pages of waffle about their ideas on food. In fact I've just had a sniffy email from a restaurateur miffed that we failed to look at a restaurant he has an interest in for the 2011 GFG. If it is that important, put it in writing to us, preferably between November and April.

Who, as chefs, do you think we should look out for?  Who's on you radar?

It's hard at the moment because I think some of the younger ones are struggling.  I have always been a fan of Tristan Mason of Restaurant Tristan out at Horsham - he's never recognised yet is a very talented. Dominic Chapman at the Royal Oak, Paley Street, I really like what he is doing, and his profile is growing. He's part of a lovely trend, along with chefs like Guy Manning at the Red Lion in East Chisenbury, Willtshire and Simon Bonwick at the Three Tuns, Henley, all doing food in pubs that make you sit up and take notice.

Liz, with regards to the Guide you have a rating that basically works numerically 1 to 10 rating system?

Yes. When we relaunched the Guide in 2008 we did look at the grading system but felt the scores worked extremely well.

How does that ranking/rating score system work?  What makes something a 1 and something else a 10?

Well, a 10 has got to be a perfect experience and it really is not just the food. Like every restaurant guide editor, I'm jealous of Michelin's star recognition, but I genuinely feel that every restaurant in the Good Food Guide knows where it stands with the scoring system.

OK, so it's not just a food based rating it is experience and service linked?

It has got to be.  A chef who has worked as hard at getting his front of house as perfect as his food and ensuring the entire experience is flawless is a chef worth recognising.  Now, it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea, you know we once had a complaint about The Fat Duck and it was obvious from this very long letter ...

Wasn't from Jim Rosentile was it?

(Laughter) ... Well, who ever ... they should have turned away at the door.  It was just a meeting of two complete opposites and they would have been happier at The Hinds Head.

Absolutely,  perhaps a tick box dining having to dine at The Fat Duck.

You could see it; you could read it.  It was nothing against The Fat Duck; it was just really the person complaining just hadn't understood what it was all about; or it wasn't to their taste; So I am not saying that everywhere is perfect but in the general scheme of things Heston is a chef who has worked every aspect out, the same with Gordon (Ramsay).  Gordon is very lucky with his staff.  I think his maitre d', Jean-Claude Breton, is one of the best in Europe.

And, of course, Clare (Smyth) in the kitchen.

Yes, in fact I think Clare does Gordon better that Gordon.

There seems to be a lot of people on the "Let's knock Gordon" bandwagon currently; they're saying "He doesn't deserve three stars ..." "He's going to lose a rosette" and yet, he is still 9 out of 10; number 2 in your Guide.

And the feedback from readers is very positive. if I'm asked "Where can we take our parents/grandparents/in-laws for a special occasion?" then it will always be ... Gordon Ramsay.

But Liz does this then enforce that Good Food Guide is not just about that Gordon delivers at Hospital Road?

No, It's the whole package.  It's very comfortable restaurant.  They really look after you there. When I was last there you could still get a glass of wine for £5.

Wow! That's not bad for a three star restaurant.

Exactly. Some time ago I took my son, then 18 and very into food; he really wanted to go there.  Now he's not going to be in a position to be a customer of Gordon Ramsay's for a good many years but they bent over backwards to talk to him, make him welcome.  He was offered the tour of the kitchen afterwards; they had no idea who I was, but they came to him and said "Would you like to meet Clare?  Would you like to see the kitchen?"  because they saw that he was interested in the food - that doesn't happen in many top restaurants.

No, it doesn't.

They really looked after him; when I went off to the loo - Jean-Claude went over and had a little chat with him and said "Where's next on your list?  What's the next great restaurant you are going to visit?"  I thought that was fantastic.  He's got this wonderful way with people; great charisma - It's just an example, but this is how he charms people.

Is that an advantage for people like Gordon and Le Manoir?  They are very iconic operations; they are very established, does that give them an advantage over  very small stand alone restaurants, that maybe don't have the same opulence and grandeur, but is maybe delivering equally as good food?

It is an advantage, but small, personally run, stand alone restaurants like Ode, one of our award winners this year, will always be a pleasure to visit. I remember years ago visiting the Black Chapati in Brighton, which was small, very basic, with very functional décor and at a time when everybody smoked.  The chef's name was Stephen Funnell and he produced some of the most extraordinary food - they called him "the father of fusion" which was a title he hated, but he had done the hippy trial; came back with a renewed understanding for all aspects of food - spice, texture, everything and his cooking was outstanding.  That was a restaurant you looked forward to going to, yet it was in a grotty part of Brighton; with rickety tables and chairs, but amazing food. It's a shame he never attracted backers to move on to a better part of town and attract a larger clientele. Remember, Raymond Blanc started out in a small restaurant in Oxford - to great acclaim, but where would he be if he hadn't attracted backers and moved to Le Manoir?

So it's more than fixtures and fittings?

It is more than fixtures and fittings but what I am saying is - to be in the top ten you have to be a top scorer in The Good Food Guide. Yes. If you are a 10 then you will be at number 1; if you are a 9 you will be at number 2; the interesting bit is when you are an 8 and just where do you fall because all the restaurants are good.

Absolutely.  There has been some quite sizable changes in the list this year, I mean Marcus Wareing - down; Sat (Bains) - up; Simon (Rogan) at L'Eclume - up.

Yes and I actually found that this year it was the out of town chefs who were actually pushing the boundaries.  The London guys are cooking well but there seems to be a lot of similarity in what they are doing.  I can think of a lot of restaurants where I had some really WOW dishes, but not all the way through.  Eating in London this year we found a number of the chefs had similar ideas on their menus.

Do you think the provincial guys such as Sat Bains and Simon Rogan, have to work harder?

Yes, if you are Marcus Wareing and you are full for lunch and dinner everyday you are working your kitchen hard, so it's understandable that being able to step back and be a little more creative gets harder and harder.

Because you're running the day to day and that is so important.

He's in there to satisfy his customers and to make money - that's the business.  You can't criticise him for that, but Sat Bains and Simon Rogan, they not only have more space, but also they know they are going to have quieter evenings when they are not going to be working their brigade quite so hard and there is going to be more energy, which allows them more creativity.

Liz, how has the internet changed how the Good Food Guide operates?  We can all email now.  We can go on the web. Information transfer is so much easier now than 60 years ago when The Good Food Guide started up, so has that been a big revolution that you have embraced? Yes. And how are you working with the internet?

We have an on-line feedback system, which is phenomenal.  It has been a huge, huge success.    The Good Food Guide in its heyday got a phenomenal amount of mail - and a previous editor, Tom Jaine, talks about receiving 10,000 letters a year. Of course, with the rise of the internet postal mail started to tail off, so starting our online feedback system for the 2008 Guide really revolutionised how we operate.  Each year we get more and more online feedback.  We have also opened The Guide up to a wider customer base - it is suddenly so much younger.  I felt in the past it was only relating to an older readership, whereas now we are online; we're bringing in more media and more younger people. We have the Good Food Guide app for the iphone, this has been a great success and is something that I use when I travel, so we are working with the internet, I don't think it will ever replace the Guide book as it's a great read.

Yes it is, it's very user friendly to read. Liz, how do you go about being a contributor for Which and the Good Food Guide?  Do I just go to Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, write a review and send it to you?

Yes, but it would only be for The Good Food Guides' eyes.  We have just started a website - and it is in its infancy but that will develop - it's "watch this space" to see what we are doing. (www.thegoodfoodguide.co.uk) OK. But certainly, at the moment you can send in a review of Andrew Fairlie to the feedback system - it will be read, not just by me but by the people who go to review the restaurant and write the entry -they also have access to all the feedback of that particular restaurant.

Now, this year you are celebrating 60 years.  You've got a wonderful recipe book; some fantastic chefs in there - is that purely a celebration of 60 years or ...?

It is. We wanted to show how far British cooking has come since The Good Food Guide was first published. The idea was to have some of the chefs who linked us with the past ... people like Stephen Markwick of Culinaria in Bristol who worked with George Perry Smith, one of the great chefs discovered by Raymond Postgate in the 1950s, and Shaun Hill, now with the Walnut Tree, which is another iconic Good Food Guide restaurant, mixed in with some of the current culinary stars, as well as the young guns who have come to prominence in the last five years. But the book is not just about top chefs' recipes, for a keen home cook looking to up their culinary game, it's one impressive master class.

OK.  So there is none of these chef myths that it doesn't work?

No, they have all been tested in a domestic kitchen and chefs contacted if there were problems - and the problems have been ironed out, so I can honestly say that every recipe works.

You're  obviously on the record now,  e-mails to you if they don't work!!! Liz (Laughter).

We've got some pub chefs and the recipes range from very, very simple ones - Steve Harris at The Sportsman in Whitstable, did his beetroot soup, which I had a few weeks at The Sportsman - it was delicious.

Fantastic. ...Right through to Simon Rogan, who's cooking is a little bit more complicated, he devised a dish for the home cook that actually captures the essence of what he is doing in the his restaurant L'Enclume. Fantastic. So chefs have come at it in different ways.

Liz, thank you for your time today, good luck with the next 60 years

>>> Read more on the Good Food Guide 2016

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd November 2010

Elizabeth Carter on the Good Food Guide 2011