MetroPlus' resident food critic Shonali Muthalaly, aka The Reluctant Gourmet, on fan mail, hate mail and what it takes to be a restaurant reviewer
“Shame on u Shonali, u r a saddist … by the way we the people have a misconception of fine dinning in fact there is nothing called fine dinning, its good dinning. Appreciate what's created rather than sounding to be a saddist” (sic)
(Anonymous hate mail from restaurateur, circa 2009)
I try. After all no one wants to be a ‘saddist,' which I'm presuming is a crafty mix of sadism and unhappiness. It's so much easier to be charming. Restaurateurs love you. Beaming chefs unveil complimentary desserts. Cheerful waiters hover fondly, sending occasional flying kisses. (Okay, so wistful imagination runs away with me occasionally.)
It must be admitted, not everyone loves The Reluctant Gourmet (RG). Ironically, in hindsight, that seems to be what makes this column work.
Just as our grammatically-challenged ‘saddist' friend points out, people do “have a misconception of fine dining”. (But then she said ‘dinning', which might just be a completely different thing.) As the country's culinary scene grows at an exhilarating, not to mention bewildering, pace, pretentiousness sometimes overshadows quality. Ambition overrides ability. And, pricing derides common sense.
How does a food column make sense of all this? Especially when its writer is neither a cook nor a restaurateur?
Well, when the column launched, in response to the growing interest in food among Chennaiites, we decided to make it sound like an unabashedly honest friend. The kind of person you call for an opinion on where to eat. Or what to wear. Or to check whether yellow looks good on you. Brutal honesty offered with chatty updates became the RG tone. It worked, and the column eventually went national.
I don't claim to be an expert, but I do try. So, instead of preachy lectures, RG canters excitedly into the colourful world of food, tugging its readers along — so far we've plodded through muddy vegetable markets, animatedly broken warm bread with baker-convicts at Chennai's Puzhal jail and nibbled nervously on ‘hashima' custard, thickened with the ovaries of a snow frog in a hip Singapore restaurant.
Restaurant reviewers have to be tough, because people should get what they pay for. It's infuriating to go for a celebratory meal only to get lacklustre food, snotty service and a ridiculously high bill. This is my way of fighting for culinary justice. At the same time, I realise fairness is essential. After all, a lot of work goes into every restaurant opening, every menu and every meal. As everything in life, the truth is never black or white, instead, a perplexing range of greys.
Judging by the endearingly friendly mail from readers, this approach seems to work. (On the flip side, the RG tone's proved so comfortingly familiar I'm called constantly by friends, acquaintances, friends of acquaintances and acquaintances of friends to provide hour-by-hour restaurant updates, food explanations and cocktail suggestions.)
As the opening letter shows, some of the restaurant folk are less enthusiastic. My friends are terrified to eat out with me, because they're worried about chefs spitting in our food. (For the record, I think chefs are fabulous people. Shiver!) There's the occasional threat from furious investors. And, after a review that's less than flattering is published, I tend to stay away from the restaurant for about three months. I figure that's long enough to ensure I don't get a steak knife artfully positioned between my ribs. (It would just ruin my lovely Miu Miu evening wear.)
Actually chefs are astonishingly open to criticism. Many even have a reassuringly quick sense of humour. I once referred to a chef as Shylock, because his portions were tiny. The next time I was at his restaurant (after the obligatory three-month wait) with friends, a chocolate cake was delivered to our table. It has just three words across, in happy vanilla icing — “With Love, Shylock!”
In fact, The Reluctant Gourmet works, thanks to the many chefs, cooks and foodies, who've patiently explained ingredients, techniques and recipes to me over coffee, hot stoves and meticulous cookbooks. That's also how it gradually acquired its politics — pushing local flavours, promoting food diversity, supporting sustainable eating. And, of course, its recurring theme — exploring the amazing way food from every part of India is so uniquely distinct. In this deliciously diverse country, food styles vary every 100 km or so, and every single household has an individual recipe for even something as basic as dal.
The restaurant scene changes almost every week in Chennai alone, which is where I'm based. In 2006, we wrote a MetroPlus food guide to the city, which went into reprint after reprint. Today, it would be a very different book. The city now has water sommeliers, wine libraries, and sashimi counters. The same things are happening across the country.
Things can only get better.
Meanwhile, I try to stay incognito to get an authentic experience. Sometimes I fail. So I'll admit it: my prawns are bigger, my parathas fluffier, my pizzas more generously laden with cheese.
Think that's fun? You try eating with a dozen hostile men in suits studying you all through dinner, like you're a particularly twisted lab rat.
Though it must be admitted, drama like that makes for a good story. Even if that does make me — sigh — a bit of a ‘saddist'.
Keywords: Reluctant Gourmet