As Canada’s most notorious food critic, Chris Nuttall-Smith carefully guards his anonymity – but it can be hard when your picture is hung in the kitchen
Late one Monday evening in the fall of 1998, AA Gill, food critic for the Sunday Times, dropped in on Gordon Ramsay’s newly opened restaurant on London’s Royal Hospital Road. The previous year, when Ramsay was the head chef at a different restaurant, Aubergine, Gill had slammed him in the Times; the menu, Gill wrote, was “tasteless and embarrassing”, the restaurant “utterly forgettable”. Ramsay had not forgotten. Before Gill placed his order, Ramsay himself left the kitchen to say hello – and goodbye. Gill wasn’t to dine there that evening. Ramsay kicked him out.
Let's not whinge at waitersNot all restaurateurs are as vindictive as Gordon Ramsay. But many restaurant critics are as feared and loathed as AA Gill. Intimidation is a tool of the trade. Ejection is an occupational hazard. And finding that a chef will brood over your remarks for months, even years, is an unavoidable fact of the job.
Chris Nuttall-Smith’s face doesn’t appear on television or in magazines. He isn’t on Facebook or Instagram, and his Twitter, despite boasting more than ten thousand followers, bears an avatar of an unidentifiable torso, a suit and tie cut off at the neck. His anonymity is rigorously cultivated. Nuttall-Smith is the dining critic for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s most widely read national newspaper. His weekly reviews of restaurants in Toronto are read by hundreds of thousands, and the authority he wields is unparalleled in the city. An effusive rave will overwhelm an eatery’s reservation book for months to come. A pan will shutter doors. His influence, both positive and negative, is colossal. But the trust only goes as far as his professional diligence – and his scrupulousness about not being made.
“I pretty much always assume I’ve been made,” Nuttall-Smith tells me, glancing at a waitress with suspicion. We’ve met at Hanmoto, a Japanese izakaya in a trendy part of town. In a review this spring, he called it “one of the most thoroughly annoying restaurants I’ve been to in six months”; he’s back, he tells me, because he’s considering naming it one of the best new restaurants of the year. (Classic Nuttall-Smith: by his standards, even one star out of four is considered acclaim.) “I resent being recognized because I want to have an ordinary experience,” he continues. “But it gets difficult. Anyone who tells you they’re never recognized after doing this job for two or three years is lying.”
With so much to lose over a bad review, you can well imagine how desperately a restaurant would want to know when they’re serving the city’s most imposing critic. And so in Toronto, as in other cities, information has been rooted out and servers have been duly trained. “My picture is in kitchens,” Nuttall-Smith explains. How? “Stills from security cameras.” To get around the problem, he changes up his look, and, needless to say, never makes reservations under his own name.
In fact, he’s astonishingly strict with his dining companions. Prospective invitees are sent a list of rules in advance: no talking about the paper, no talking about food criticism, no referring to him by name – he even has a dining room alias.
“Most people don’t know what a restaurant critic does or how they do what they do,” Nuttall-Smith says. “They say [they saw] a restaurant critic on Three’s Company once and they think that’s how it works. So the rules are to tell people what it’s like. For them this is a social occasion. But I’m there working. This is work.”
Most important – and most easily broken – is the rule that bars conversation of any kind while the waiter is speaking. Nuttall-Smith isn’t simply listening attentively. He’s recording every word: he comes to dine equipped with a live microphone to be sure, when it comes time to write, that he’s got every detail right.
Details are significant – particularly when a restaurant’s reputation is on the line. Nuttall-Smith remains attuned to “small details: garnishes, things someone said, what’s happening in the room”. And as a result, his reviews are more than mere impressions. They’re persuasive; they’re concrete. “Any idiot can have an opinion,” he says. “I don’t want to have an opinion. I want to be right. I want to get a restaurant right. I want to know that when someone goes to a restaurant after I’ve written about it that it’s going to be the same for me as it was for them. That’s a stupid goal because things change constantly – but that’s why I try to do. I try to be right.”
An honest critic metes out a kind of justice: good work is rewarded with booming business, while bad work is punished with an empty house. Which means there’s more at stake in getting it right than integrity. There are jobs and livelihoods to consider. Nuttall-Smith is sensitive to the repercussions of his censure and praise. Indeed, before a review runs in the paper, he calls the restaurant under scrutiny to warn them either way.
I called a chef earlier this year about a bad review. He actually started crying – it was horribleChris Nuttall-Smith“And they already know,” he says. “Restaurateurs know the problems with their restaurants. It’s rare that someone is surprised.” Not that it’s always easy to break the news. “I called a chef earlier this year after a bad review. He started crying – it was horrible. He’s a good kid, and I like him, but he has an awful restaurant. That sucks. It’s a terrible feeling.”
Jen Agg, one of Toronto’s best-known restaurateurs, was asked in an interview earlier this year about the untimely closure of Raw Bar, her short-lived seafood spot. She didn’t hesitate to assign the blame. “Chris Nuttall-Smith’s terrible review closed us down,” she said.
“A lot of the food is awful,” reads the review in question.
“The kitchen … treats seafood for the most part as if it’s meat: it’s something to be wrestled down, transformed, forced to submit to brine, sauce and heavy seasoning. With many dishes, you wouldn’t know you were eating fish.” It’s a lovely bit of writing – Nuttall-Smith is a wizard with descriptive prose. But you feel for Agg. A seafood restaurant could hardly be made to sound less appetizing.
“We have this assumption that if you fail, you suck,” Nuttall-Smith says by way of explanation for the Raw Bar review. “But if you fail, you should pick yourself up and do better. Raw Bar was a great restaurant with a terrible kitchen – and the food was awful.” As for Agg: “She did well. She closed and went and did something original that’s much, much better. She’s better off for it.”
Readers, of course, love a good pan – the crueler, the better. And unsurprisingly, Nuttall-Smith’s most celebrated piece was perhaps his most ruthless. Last winter he paid a visit to America, the new fine dining restaurant at Toronto’s Trump Hotel. The review is a masterpiece of gleeful opprobrium.
The servers lost the wine he ordered. The hostesses sat him and his dining companions at separate tables, a room apart, failing to realize they belonged under the same reservation. “It was as if nobody had ever worked in a real restaurant before,” he writes. It would be funny if it wasn’t so mortifyingly bad.
The America review promptly blew up online. It was shared on Twitter widely, by Americans as much as locals, and within the day had been shared on Facebook more than fifteen thousand times. It was a first for Nuttall-Smith: his pan had gone viral. And the fallout? America fired its entire front of house staff. “I felt bad about that,” he admits. He felt bad for the chef, too. (“He will go far,” the review says. “He’ll go far, far away from America, I hope.”) But he wasn’t surprised by any of it. “The review wrote itself,” he says. “You couldn’t possibly ask for better material.”
Given the enthusiastic response, I have to wonder whether a critic like Nuttall-Smith doesn’t yearn for more disasters – for more rude servers and flailing busboys, for the kitchen nightmares that make for such exciting drama on the page. But it doesn’t work that way, Nuttall-Smith says. “Most restaurants are bad in uninteresting ways,” he explains. Serving them a negative review has more to do with correcting the course of a misguided operation.
Bad food ought to be called out for what it is. Nuttall-Smith is serious about his responsibility as a critic, but he believes restaurateurs have a responsibility too – a responsibility to do their best. Everyone does. “I feel like if you’re going do something in this life, knock it out of the fucking park. If you’re going to open a restaurant, do it right.”