Thursday 18 October 2018

AA Gill was a bit harsh, not everyone agrees with him - Darina

Chef and food writer Darina Allen at home in the gardens of Ballymaloe Cookery School at Shanagarry, Co Cork.
Chef and food writer Darina Allen at home in the gardens of Ballymaloe Cookery School at Shanagarry, Co Cork.

Liz Kearney

HE'S the world's most feared food critic, and his caustic critiques have been known to push some chefs over the edge.And AA Gill's recent visit to Cork has left a bitter sweet taste with two of the area's most renowned restaurants.

Having stumbled upon the "unexpected treasure" of the Farmgate Cafe in the city's English market, Gill, famous for waspish take-downs of high-end restaurants around the world, awarded it a rare double-five star review.

But a few miles down the road, things didn't taste as sweet. Dinner at Ballymaloe House, the grande dame of east Cork's culinary scene, left Gill cold.

An unfortunate lamb curry was "insulting both to the lamb and to India". There were too many carrots. Lobsters appeared as salad one evening, before being "hurriedly and nastily potted the next lunch".

"Altogether you could sense that this is a kitchen running downhill, a dining room that had possibly once been epic and was now just adequate," he wrote in the 'Sunday Times' of London.

This week, Farmgate Cafe's Rebecca Harte and Ballymaloe's Darina Allen were reflecting on their contrasting fortunes, and what kind of lasting impact Gill's review would have on their businesses, particularly with regard to tourism.

Power

Famous food critics wield massive power at a time when holiday-makers increasingly plan entire trips around what they'll eat and where. A glowing review - or a stinker - can make all the difference to a restaurant's chances of securing a piece of the tourism pie, an industry worth €4.3bn last year.

"A good review from someone like AA Gill means a lot, as he genuinely knows food," said Harte. "We have been very busy since the review appeared last Sunday, and there have been a few new faces in, but whether that's as a result of the review itself or simply the fact that a lot of people are in town doing their Christmas shopping, it's hard to say.

"On the day he came in, it was one of the hurdy-gurdy days in Cork city. There were water protests outside, there was a downpour of biblical proportions, and people were taking shelter inside in the market, creating a real buzz.

"He arrived a bit too early for his table and he just joined the queue like everyone else. As he stood there, he was looking down at the stalls below, watching people buy their chicken or their meat or just going about their business.

"He saw all of Cork on that day. And I think he really got what we are - we are genuinely a simple cafe serving market food in an unfussy way."

At Ballymaloe, a very gracious Darina Allen was philosophical about the hotel's less-than-stellar write-up.

"Of course we take reviews very seriously, and while you might feel a little hard done by on one or two points, we don't dismiss them and we go over each point and see why they might have come to that particular conclusion," she said.

"Not everyone fully agrees with what he wrote, and many people contacted us and said they felt it was a bit harsh - but nonetheless we very carefully note what critics say because there is always something to learn.

"AA Gill writes in a particular kind of way. He was a very nice man when he was here, very pleasant, and we were sorry that he didn't appear to have enjoyed it," she added.

"We are very much a family-run country house hotel, where people feel they can be comfortable. If you are comparing us with some of the Michelin stars places, we have a different feel."

Allen conceded that reviews, good or bad, do bring in business or drive it away.

"Americans, above all, are terrific for taking clippings; they have a folder or file where they've read about a restaurant and they come in clasping a copy of 'Food & Wine' or 'Gourmet' magazine which might be 20 years old, but they've finally made it here."

The critics are particularly important at the more lucrative area of high-end, luxury travel.

"You have two types of tourists," said 'Food & Wine' magazine editor Miriam Atkins.

"You have the ones that use TripAdvisor and take their lead from that, but many food critics and restaurateurs can be critical of open forum online reviewing because they aren't fact-checked and there is always the possibility of fake positive or negative reviews.

Famous

"And then you have the type of tourist who would take their cue from the Michelin Guide, or gravitate towards famous Irish names such as Ballymaloe, which has built up a fantastic reputation worldwide.

"There are certain places in Ireland that rely heavily on wealthy tourists rather than the local trade - Ballyfin Demesne (in Co Laois) is one example which markets itself to overseas customers.

"In recent years we've been very good about building our reputation for excellent food products, like seafood and beef and dairy."

Paolo Tullio reviews Brabazon restaurant in Tankardstown House in Weekend magazine

Irish Independent

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