Love them or hate them food guides and bloggers have a way of influencing us. Whether it is a word of mouth recommendation, a food blog, a tweet or photo on Instagram, a review on trip advisor or a guide book (Michelin, Gault Milau or Gambero Rosso for example), the way we make our choices these days is very much influenced by what we read.
It was therefore incredibly refreshing and thought-provoking to listen to Fulvio Pierangelini speak about how he hated the internet and food blogs. “I reached my limit when I said that food bloggers are to gastronomy what peodophiles are to love.” That might sound like a very harsh statement but it is one which epitomises the love/hate relationship that chefs and restaurant owners have with guide books and food blogs.
Here was one of the best chefs in the world, who had one of the most important restaurants in Europe hitting out at the internet, which had probably helped make him successful in the first place. He said (you can read about this in the previous post on Food and Wine Gazette) that despite being loved, he had to take radical positions against the fake democracy of the internet.
Pierangelini of Gambero Rosso was a chef who had the highest ranked restaurant in Italy in the World’s Best 50 but had no website, no public relations or email when he closed his restaurant in 2008. He was also critical of ‘celebrity chefs’ who had been exploited on TV for a few minutes of fame.
The Google culture – People know nothing about everything
But Pierangelini is not the only one to hit out at the superficiality of the internet. I recently heard Massimo Bottura, the greatest Italian chef of the moment speak about what he called “the Google culture where people know nothing about everything.” He was referring to people not digging deep but rather looking for information in a superficial manner. While that might also be harsh, it is a reflection of today’s society.
As the Michelin star season starts, it might be good to sit down and reflect about the influence that these guides have on chefs in general and on gastronomy in particular.
We are well aware that it would probably take a very special character not to be bothered or in the least influenced by guides or influential bloggers. They have the power to turn the fortunes of a restaurant on the basis of a recommendation.
But in my view there is another way, another route that chefs can take. It will require work, it may require courage but in the end they could still be rewarded for the risks they take.
Let’s start with an example. For someone who loves gastronomy, would it really matter, other than for your ego or the chef’s ego, whether Noma, to mention the restaurant that is currently considered to be the top of the culinary world, has three Michelin stars or not. I frankly would not care whether Noma has one star, three stars or none at all. I know that I want to eat there, the sooner I can manage the better. For the record, it is considered to be the best restaurant in the world but still has two Michelin stars.
Stars are irrelevant: What matters most is the experience
I am of the view that in today’s world this should be pretty irrelevant because what matters most is the experience. What stays with you is not what the critics say about a particular chef or restaurant, or the photos that are published by bloggers. The individual experience, to my view, matters much more. At the end of the day, the emotions that a chef conveys, the experience and the memories that remain after a lunch or dinner are by far more important.
So when we visited Gambero Rosso, we did not really care whether this had two or three stars. What we cared about was the quality of the experience. What stayed with us eight years after the experience was the quality of the food, the service, the use of exceptional produce and the simplicity with which they were served. The memory lingers on despite the fact that more than eight years have passed, we had not taken any photos or written any notes.
But what will someone like Pierangelini encounter if he eventually returns back to cooking in his own restaurant (and we really hope that he does because he has a lot to offer at the top end of the culinary world).
It is a world that has completely changed. If bloggers in 2008 were only entering the scene, they are now not only pervasive but some are also incredibly influential. At that time, few people had smart phones, you would rarely see anyone with a camera in a restaurant, Instagram or Twitter were still not born. Chefs were not yet the celebrities they are today making appearances on television.
Can a restaurant today work without a website? Can it ignore the guide books and the blogging world?
I believe there is another way. It is one which values discerning customers and which allows chefs to tell their side of the story. Why should customers only be guided by a guide book, blogger or review on a website like Tripadvisor or Yelp? In this regard, the democratisation of the internet might not necessarily be good. Particularly at the top end, where chefs are more like artists than cooks, they can sometimes be misunderstood.
So if we could humbly make a recommendation, it would be for chefs to take matters in their hands. They need to be able to tell their side of the story. Like Jonnie Boer of De Librije, who paid homage to his suppliers who he said are the secret to the success of restaurants, we believe that chefs need a platform that allows them to share their passion. It has never been easier. They already have that platform in the form of their website, social media or Youtube page. What they need is to prepare compelling content that enables a customer to feel as though he is participating in that passion or story.
Guide books and bloggers will always remain influential. But at least chefs, today, have the possibility to fight back.