You got served…(now write about it)

Food is a subject that interests a vast audience. This is especially true in recent years, where food writing has become more accessible to the general public and not just for the ‘foodies’.

Where else, but the field of food reviewing, can a posh, cravat-wearing bloke like Matt Preston become a celebrity?

Food reviewing has gone from a part of culture mostly associated with high society to something that has, according to Michael Symons, “changed the attitude of Australians to what is put on their plates”.

However there are many things to consider before taking the plunge into the depths of food writing.

The Media Alliance Code of Ethics contains guidelines suitable for good journalism. It contains twelve clauses that journalists should be able to recite in their sleep.

However, does the code cover the ethical issues in all fields of writing or do food journalists need more specific guidelines to, as the MEAA states, “strive for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts”?

To figure out if the MEAA code is too general for restaurant reviewing I talked to Ed Charles, freelance food and business journalist and blogger extraordinaire, about the tricks of the trade and the ethics of reviewing.

Ed Charles describes himself as “more of a punk rock food warrior than a foodie” and tries hard not to fall in to the trap of the ‘food snob’ style of writing.

“The normal person going out to eat, that kind of person is someone who is coming from the outer suburbs, they saved up, they’re out for a big meal,” he tells me.

“It’s going to be really special, they probably don’t go out that much and they’re probably not that sophisticated.”

Charles has been a journalist ever since he graduated from university in England in 1984. He finished a technical degree but went on to an in-house journalism course at London-based publishing house IPC Media to pursue a career as a writer.

Since moving to Australia he has been published in newspapers such as the Herald Sun and The Australian, as well as printed and online magazines.

He says that “the ethical guidelines are the same for all journalists.”

When he writes about personal finance and business news he is supposed to be objective and the same goes for food journalism.

“I think sometimes, especially in America, they get tied up with their codes of ethics for food writers,” he says.

“Most of the lists of what you should and shouldn’t do are totally irrelevant.”

One of the ‘lists’ he is referring to is the code of ethics compiled by the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ).

Instead of the general guidelines provided in Australia by the MEAA, the AFJ provides specific suggestions on how a food journalist should ‘act’.

Apart from their statement that “[restaurant] reviewers should subscribe to the same accepted standards of professional responsibility as other journalists” they set out preferred procedure for multiple visits, anonymity, ordering, payment, and new restaurants amongst other things.

According to the AFJ, a restaurant critic should visit the venue they are reviewing at least two but preferably three times.

However Charles says, “no restaurant critic who is writing for a daily newspaper visits more than once because the budget doesn’t allow it.”

He continues to say that a customer who goes to a restaurant with bad food or service “won’t give it a second chance, so why should the critic?”

How about the importance of anonymity?

The AFJ writes that reviews “should be conducted anonymously whenever possible” because “critics should experience the restaurant just as an ordinary patron does”.

Charles agrees that anonymity is desirable. However, in a relatively small country like Australia, reviewers are guaranteed to be recognized, “at least by the high end restaurants.”

“When I started out nobody knew me, now everybody knows me. If you get recognition and people are nicer to you, of course it will affect you, it’s inevitable. It’s not an ideal situation,” he says.

Sometimes, journalists probably wish they could be completely anonymous.

The Sydney restaurant Coco Roco sued Matthew Evans and theSydney Morning Herald‘s publisher Fairfax for defamation after Evans’ negative review ‘When dining on the view is the only recommendation’ was published in 2003.

The Coco Roco case has taken many turns; at first the newspaper was acquitted of its defamation charges but, after an appeal, the High Court ruled that the business had been attacked in the review.

There is still no final ruling in the case that was defended on the notion of truth and fair comment.

The High Courts ruling scared the critic community. Reviewer John Lethlean told The Age that he thought it was “a real worry…I think it’s going to send the scares out on all Fairfax press whether they comment about restaurants or cinema or theatre, literature, whatever.”

Ed Charles says that today’s critics as well as publishers are careful with what they print.

“If you are writing a negative review, like with anything in a newspaper that is contentious, it will go through the lawyers.”

He has never been accused of defamation; the only negative response he has received from a venue was after he published the review ‘Urinal restaurant, shit bar’ of Melbourne restaurant Red Spice Road on his blog.

“I got uninvited from their launch party,” he says, with a tone that suggests that the consequence did not bother him all too much.

Ed Charles’ blog Tomato – Melbourne + Food +Drink attracts about 30 000 views monthly. He recommends up-and-coming food journalists should do just that – start a blog.

“The [food] sections are getting smaller,” he says, explaining why many restaurants now are turning to bloggers for publicity.

“There’s not that many opportunities for a restaurant to be reviewed. They’ve got the Good Food Guide, the newspapers and some magazines.”

They are getting smaller indeed, and the magazines fewer. Even the most prestigious publications are struggling.

In October of this year New York based publishing group Condé Nast announced the cancelation of the acclaimed Gourmet Magazine, the ‘foodie’ bible since 1940.

That is why Charles’ other advice to aspiring food journalists is to diversify, “you are going to have a lot of trouble 
making a good living from just food writing because here [Australia] the market is 
small and the media is laying off food and wine writers.”

If blogging is the way of the future, are the ethical guidelines of blogging the same as for traditional journalism?

“I follow the same principles when reviewing for my blog as I do for professional reviews,” Charles says.

“I was trained properly by proper journalists.”

However the reality of blogs is that they are written by amateurs, not trained journalists who have the code of ethics engraved in their memory.

If they are not journalists should they turn to the MEAA or somewhere else?

In an attempt to regulate the credibility of blogging, The Cyber Journalist website published ‘A Blogger’s Code of Ethics’ in 2003.

They claim that certain guidelines are necessary in the ‘blogosphere’ and that “responsible bloggers should recognize that they are publishing words publicly, and therefore have certain ethical obligations to their readers, the people they write about, and society in general.”

The nineteen guidelines provided by The Cyber Journalist lie below the sub-headlines; ‘Be Honest and Fair’, ‘Minimize Harm’ and ‘Be Accountable’.

They say, amongst other things, that “bloggers should be honest and fair in gathering, reporting and interpreting information” and that “ethical bloggers treat sources and subjects as human beings deserving of respect.”

Furthermore, to bring validity to blogging, more specifically food blogging, the American food writers Brooke Burton and Leah Greenstein wrote the ‘Food Blog Code of Ethics’.

They believe that food bloggers are unfairly labeled as “untrained and power hungry individuals empowered by anonymity” and wrote the code to “draw attention to the food bloggers that hold themselves to higher standards.”

Burton and Greenstein’s code suggests that food bloggers should follow the same rules as traditional food journalist to maintain a respectable and fair blog.

Their guidelines were brought to attention by the New York Timesblog on dining out – the Diner’s Journal – where the writer Kim Severson suggested that “the code might seem a tall mountain for some bloggers to climb.”

As a response to the article the blogger and former journalist Tamara Kaye Sellman wrote that she “love(s) the idea that bloggers are interested in taking on a code of ethics…It’ll sort itself out, and the best will rise to the top, the worst will fade. We need to be patient. It’s still a new format, an evolving medium.”

However not all comments were that positive, the signature JdG wrote that “to require guidelines [for blogs] would be to hobble a medium that revels in its freedom.”

While the debate continues over the ethical standards of the food blog community, it cannot be ignored that bloggers are influential and changing the way reviews are conducted.

Ed Charles tells me that he has “noticed how reviewers have been going in to restaurants much earlier now…sometimes they go in within the first week or month.”

“I think that might be the influence of blogs.”

The AFJ suggests that critics should wait at least a month before visiting a new restaurant, to give the venue time to get organized. Charles does not agree with that clause.

“When you open your door for business you should be ready, it should be working.”

Whether you abide by the Ed Charles or Association of Food Journalists style of reviewing, the most important things to consider when reviewing is provided in the MEAA guidelines’ first clause.

“Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.”

Charles agrees and says writers should “make sure to be independent and give fair comment.”

“I’ve been doing it for over 20 years so I don’t have to refer to those kind of things [codes of ethics].”

Even if you do not turn to the MEAA code on a regular basis, it is useful. For those of us who are not as far along in our careers as Ed Charles, or have yet to even start, it can be a good shoulder to lean on.

Food journalism is a profession where the notion of defamation and inaccuracy can be haunting and limiting. It is where you will have to say things people do not want said and where your popularity can fluctuate as much as the stock market.

However, if you do it well and respect the boundaries of traditional journalism, you will be rewarded.

As esteemed wine critic Robert Parker once said: “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.”

*This article was originally published on Upstart – The magazine for emerging journalists

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Desayunos en España

While most of Europe is paralysed by snow and wintery cold, Barcelona is blessed with the warming sunshine of early spring. The streets are vibrant and filled with locals as well as a shocking amount of confused guiris (word used for white, non Spanish speaking tourists).

As an aspiring food journalist the dream would be, in the spirit of my house god Matt Preston, to  visit the world famous Barcelonan restaurants El Bulli and El Celler de Can Roca which both made it on his list ”The five best restaurants in the world”. Albeit as I lack both the exquisite  palate and the funds of good ol’ Matt I decided not to wet my beak in the posh culinary world where he belongs, instead I’ll just write about what I know – breakfast.

The multicultural city of Barcelona inhabits approximately 3 million people and by the looks of it about as many bars and restaurants. Tapas, paella and seafood are specialties in most of them and the food is (generally) magnificent. However, the problem arises when I realize that here, as well as in most European cities, the breakfast variety – in lack of a better word – sucks.

As I stroll around the streets of the ’bohemian’ barrios (areas) such as Poble Sec and Raval the picture filled menu’s displaying the various desayunos (breakfasts) makes me contemplate if I might skip the first, and most important meal of the day and go straight to lunch. This, coming from a proper breakfast aficionado is a sign that the spread isn’t exactly impressive.

Disappointed with my first try to find a proper and delicious breakfast I decided to try some barrios where the restaurants (as well as the punters) are a bit posh. The area by the harbor and the newer parts of Barcelona such as Poble Nou (which shockingly translates to New Colony) also displays a vast supply of restaurants, bars and bodegas. Sadly the menus are the same as the day before, except for the images.

Fried eggs with two stripes of bacon and some French fries seem to be the most popular egg dishes, although you rarely see anyone eat it. Good on them, I’d rather go hungry than have fried potato strips for brekky, the exception being the scrumptious Spanish style potatoes – Patatas Bravas.

Coffee and a baguette appear to be the choice for most Spaniards, and guiris. I asked the waiter in one of the lovely and extremely kitsch eateries along the horrendous tourist strip Las Ramblas if they served poached eggs in which he replied: “No se señorita” and quickly escaped in to the kitchen, probably to laugh with his mates at the blonde tourist who wanted them to boil her eggs without the shell on.

A few days into my Barcelona trip I start to understand the Spanish way of eating. You eat something very small for breakfast so you can fit the large amount of food you scoff down for lunch and dinner. So, when in Rome.. Um Barcelona I eat small sandwich and have a coffee for breakfast – and I’m pretty happy about it since my lunches and dinners has been exquisite. However don’t expect me to kick my habit forever; in about a month’s time you’ll have a fair chance to spot me shoving large amounts of poached eggs and mushrooms or eggs Benedict down my throat at my normal water holes (Northern Soul, Maize or Mixed Business).

For a person who likes a sandwich, baguette or croissant for breakfast Barcelona is a smorgasbord of opportunities. For an egg crazy person such as myself, there’s no place like Melbourne.

Still eating

Don’t worry my minions – I have developed neither an eating disorder nor an egg-intolerance. I am simply feeling the wonderful stress of the last couple of weeks of uni. This has limited my ‘free’ writing, but luckily, not my eating. Soon reviews of The Breakfast Club, Soul Food Cafe and Maize will be covering these empty pages.

On another note, please treat yourselves to a marvellous Cup Day breakfast!

Champagne breakfast

Northcote’s full blood

palomino

Palomino: “Colour type of horse distinguished by its cream, yellow, or gold coat and white or silver mane and tail.” (Britannica Online)

It is also a white wine grape grown in Australia amongst other countries.

Most importantly though (for this blog at least), Palomino is a café located in Northcote (236 High St).

I must say though that the café has some resemblance to the breed of horse mentioned above, as the horse, it seems to think it is a bit better than the other half-breeds in the stable. At least according to their service.

The food however, is another story. The egg selection steers away from the conventional scrambled, poached or fried – instead Palomino offers them soft-boiled in the shell ($7 without extras), baked ($10) or wrapped ($13).

However the glory of Palomino must be their sandwiches, and that is usually what I order there. Even if I am a bit cuckoo about eggs from my experience the eggs aren’t the safest bet at this particular café. Don’t get me wrong, I really do enjoy the soft-boiled eggs – at times – however more often then not they have been a bit on the sloppy side when the egg white has been almost softer then the yolk.

Eggs are served until 2pm, so if you’re not sure you’ll make their deadline and you’re in the mood for eggs  – don’t bother you will not be served.

Palomino does serve good coffee, and some good food. However the problem with the place lies in that they seem to think they are much better than they actually are.
I once waited 40 minutes for my Mushroom Bruschetta (which actually is pretty good) only to be told that they ran out of mushrooms, no apologies, no rebates.

The lack of service and the ‘too-cool-for-school’ attitude of the staff is something that really puts a cloud over the food experience. When researching the venue this seem to be something other punters (i.e. the comments on this post) also have reacted on.

Still, they sure have something going for them; Palomino is undisputedly the water hole for Northcote’s “latte-sipping trendies” (described in Suzanne Robson’s article Northcote branded a suburb of posers).

Brekky with a side of Spain

bebida

Bebida (325 Smith Street), the Fitzroy Tapas bar and cafe is the home of one of my favourite Melbourne meals.

Luckily (for them) I am not reviewing their dinner/tapas menu – please don’t call it tapas when you obviously cannot master the Spanish cuisine- but their breakfast.

More so, their piece de la resistance – Huevos con Jamon. A breakfast so perfect that I honestly cannot tell you anything about the other items on the menu; haven’t ordered anything else, and (if I don’t develop an allergy against prosciutto, or god help me – eggs) I probably never will.
Just say the words; Huevos con Jamon, feel them roll over your tongue. Not really as exciting as Eggs with Ham (Eng. Translation). However there is nothing boring about this dish.

Let’s start from the bottom, a thick slice of sourdough toast – maybe not toasted, perhaps lightly fried – covered in cream cheese. A couple of slices of prosciutto (or is it Serrano in Spain, always mix that up) topped with a perfectly poached egg. You know, when you slice it and the creamy yolk runs out over your bread but somehow the white isn’t runny at all. To finish it off a reduction of roasted capsicum drizzled over the entire thing. Come on, how good does that sound?

Sadly an error in the creation and printing of their new menu’s resulted in shock one morning when I came in for my Huevos fix. Looking through the menu (in order to not stress my friends who don’t share my passion and needed some time to decide) I realised that my meal was not on there. With the anxiety growing in my chest (or probably stomach in this case) I went up to the bar (where you order) and asked worriedly if they still served the marvellous meal, luckily they did.

huevos con jamon

The Huevos con Jamon in all its glory


If life would play a dirty trick on me and the Huevos would be no more. From what my friends that have been dragged there over and over by their ravenous pal gather (and from the bites I have stolen from them), the Croque Monsieur , the Big Daddy (basically a regular big brekky) and the Bebida Burrito are all very good while the Breakfast Pide and the Corn & Coriander Fritters should be avoided if you’re not a big fan of grease.

Oh listen to me going on and on, I haven’t even described the atmosphere, service or locale. Well I’ll try to sum it up; Bebida is a cosy restaurant, especially the fairy lighted courtyard. The staff is friendly, but not in your face. The coffee (Atomica) is very good but varies depending on the barista, and the price is reasonable (at least for breakfast).

Their full menu, with prices is available here. Please don’t be discouraged that you can’t see the meal I’ve so thoroughly just described there. Just go in and order it, so they never, ever, remove it completely.

Mix(ed) business with pleasure

mixedbusiness

Today was a very busy Saturday at the best cafe (that I’ve visited)  in Clifton Hill, had to wait a couple of minutes before a table was ready for me and my fellow eaters. Though I must say, it was worth waiting for.

Mixed business (486 Queens Parade) is the pearl of Clifton Hill. The minimalistic interior is somehow cosy even if the bare concrete floor and white tables wouldn’t normally convey that feeling. Maybe it’s the friendly staff or the laid back background music (Tom Waits the choice of the day). However if the weather is nice and you get the chance, try to steal a spot in the courtyard out the back; the table by the lemon tree is probably the best seat in the house.

Food wise, well the varieties of styles that accompany their poached eggs on sourdough is almost overwhelming. In my opinion the best ones are the pancetta and parmesan as well as the potato and rosemary rosti (the Swiss take on a potato cake) and avocado – served with one of the best relishes I’ve had. There are also variations’ including beans and avocado, sausages and white beans as well as other delicious combinations.

Poached eggs seem to be their speciality, they only have one other egg item on the menu – cobbled eggs (baked), so if you want them scrambled or fried; this isn’t the place for you. Other than that they have a vast selection of sandwiches that looks pretty tasty, but I obviously haven’t tasted those ones, hey – eggs are my life. The lunch menu/specials board is changed frequently if you’re bringing a buddy that doesn’t share your ‘brekky’ passion, pfft.

To go with your breakfast of choice, you will of course need a cup of coffee. Mixed business is renowned for their tasty javas. Serving beans from the speciality roasters St Ali’s (located in South Melbourne) the baristas succeed in bringing the punters excellent coffee.

The meals are fairly priced, the poached eggs range from $8-14 and the coffee will cost you around $3 (20c extra for soy). Be sure to bring some cash though, no eftpos available. Furthermore please don’t repeat my mistake of venturing out there on a Monday, they’re closed. Open all other days from 7.30am til 5pm (4pm on weekends)

They certainly get this aficionado’s seal of approval; go, eat, drink and enjoy!

Not saying that it was the only reason..

“I never eat any breakfast”
– Lizzy Andrew Borden who brutally killed her father and stephmother in 1892.

Lizzy Andrew Borden

(Image from People Quiz)