Don’t answer back: Faymous last words


It’s a year since THAT chef had a go at THAT critic about THAT review – George Reynolds looks back at the anger between Fay Maschler and Tom Sellers, and wonders just what the relationship is between chef and critic. And if the chef’s at fault sometimes, what’s the point of a critic with an eye on the viral load?

Don’t answer back: Faymous last words

You’ve got to start with Fay Maschler’s review, I suppose. It’s a doozy, a murder by a million cuts so subtle that on first reading you can’t quite understand how a restaurant came to be lying in front of you in a puddle of its own viscera, twitching its last.

A pinnacle of the form; an iron fisting in a velvet glove

But oh! On repeat viewings, how deep that knife plunges: the perfect opening riff on the absurd name (“’What’s Ours is yours,’ says the website, and maybe at the end of each day the cashier assembling the substantial bills murmurs what’s yours is now ours”); the single-sentence dismissal of an evening’s fawning and fakery (“this is not what is usually termed hospitality”). A weary shake of the head in the face of a trend that would grow only more endemic (“It is a dish for the Instagram, not the mouth”); then merciless stark stabs to vital organs (“Its backbone seems to have been broken by the dressing”; “half-roasted cauliflower is not the golden buttery pot-roasted brassica popularised by René Redzepi … but a darkened object compared by its recipient to a suspicious lump fallen from a plane”). A pinnacle of the form; an iron fisting in a velvet glove.

If only you could say the same for Tom Sellers’ retort. You can score some cheap points about the writing itself, but that’s as pointless as remarking that the average restaurant critic wouldn’t last a second in a professional kitchen. And anyway, the quality of the prose isn’t really the issue. It’s the tone and the content – and what they say about the person writing – that is the source of its enduring fascination.

We start at the top of the page, with a man, a myth – this bloody legend: “TOM SELLERS: Just the guy who cooks the food.” There are lots of artsy, out-of-focus shots of him just being the guy who cooks the food (and just being the guy who poses for the photos? Sit down, you at the back!). Then some context, in the style of On the Road‘s opening sentence – his first encounter with Fay; a weird detail about her dislike of the headlights of passing cars (an occupational hazard with a restaurant as on the road as Story). Some fairly admirable stuff about how, although the first review went well, the second didn’t; enough to make you think that, maybe, he’s going to be a big boy and stick to the moral high ground.

And then:

Whilst reading the review, I couldn’t help but think that maybe Fay had done one too many restaurants that week, which had left her unable to correctly identify the ingredients in the dish placed before her. The red mullet escabeche consisted of onion, fennel and purple carrots – no beetroot or red cabbage as mentioned (red cabbage in May, I ask!). Whilst this might not have changed her opinion on the dish itself, I think it only fair that readers receive the basic information accurately, beginning with the correct ingredients. Maybe she had just eaten out too many times that week, or that day even, and become confused. The devil is in the detail, remember.

Remember how like 30 seconds ago you thought he was going to be a big boy? Super, super wrong of you. From the petty aside about the seasonality of red cabbage to the implication that the negative points in Fay’s review represent a series of senior moments, it’s a symphony of you-stay-classy-San-Diego notes. Ethical reluctance to take cheap shots aside, you might also pause to consider the irony that Sellers claims to be on the side of the reader whilst confronting them with a thousand words of prose like his.

Anyway. Onward! Let’s talk about Thomas Keller and Rene Redzepi – only let’s not, because Sellers doesn’t like it when you talk about Thomas Keller and Rene Redzepi. He says so, right there, in the paragraph where he talks about Thomas Keller and Rene Redzepi. Get over Thomas Keller and Rene Redzepi, you weirdo! And don’t even think about checking the “About” section of his website for evidence that he’s over Thomas Keller and Rene Redzepi, because he totally is. You actually won’t find them amongst a string of accolades that are no less impressive for being entirely self-awarded (“Tom Sellers has an impressive CV”; “Tom Sellers is a pioneer of the British culinary scene with over 13 years experience working in some of the world’s best kitchens – including his own”; “Tom has huge admiration for his peers, who he credits with having shaped and guided him whilst giving him the skills and vision to be the extraordinary chef that he is now”). And he literally couldn’t be less interested in how he “went on to work for two years at Per Se in New York under Thomas Keller”, or how “He then went to work at Noma in Copenhagen while it was recognised as the number one in the world, with chef Rene Redzepi.” He doesn’t even mention how “he credits Rene with teaching him how to imagine”, just like he doesn’t imply that Noma got to number one in the world because he was in the kitchen at the time. Moving on! Over it!

Quick straw poll for you: which of the following lines is the best? Is it:

As you know, you ate risotto which I cooked personally and it consisted of peas, broad beans, asparagus and mint. How was this? I couldn’t find your views anywhere in the review.

I have learned something else about Fay Maschler today in that Fay doesn’t like to be noticed: I have been recognised. Suddenly, there is a table ready and it is a good one in the centre of the room – now, I wish I could preserve your ego by letting this lie but in the interest of accuracy, the importance of which is detailed above, this was not the case.

Had I known that Fay Maschler was dining then I would have reserved two tables just in case but of course you don’t like to be recognised or treated like a high profile food writer, so scrap that.

The glass of bubbles was a gift from me because yes, I recognised you and have been reading your reviews for the past twelve years. I have also met you personally several times. Please forgive my hospitality.

Trick question! It’s all of them, and I love each of them like I would a child. But if I’m picking #faves, and I am, it’s absolutely “Please forgive my hospitality”, which on repeat consideration reads less like a pathetically snippy response to someone refusing to be bought by a few glasses of shitty house fizz and more like the sort of mantra that could take over the Western World. I want to start a home entertaining Goop-style newsletter and a fad diet and a fast casual restaurant chain around it; I want to see it on t-shirts and tattooed on people’s faces. I want it to become something teenaged American Valley Girls say in a nasal accent with a shrug and an oceans-deep eyeroll – “Ugh, Gretchen’s mom died and I was all like ‘Sorry about your mom’ on Instagram and she didn’t even reply and I was all like ‘UGH, PLEASE FORGIVE MY HOSPITALITY’” – and I want it written in the marble plaque we should all buy to commemorate Ours, which, like the restaurant it celebrates, will cost a lot of money and be visited by no one.

Neon at Ours, from Twitter

If all this feels unduly harsh, it probably is. ‘Faymous: A Response’ clearly comes from a place of passion; passions run especially high among people working on very little sleep, in a fearsomely tough industry; as someone who has (sort of) been in Sellers’ position, I know a rebuke like the Standard review stings. It is not just the thing you have laboured to produce that is on the line: it is that infinitesimal part of you that you have put into it, something that can’t be abstracted away, however objective and mature you try to be. Any chef welcoming (or tolerating) a critic in their restaurant is implicitly saying, for a few short hours, what’s mine is yours; any critic being welcomed (or tolerated) within a restaurant knows they have to hold up their end of the bargain accordingly: to avoid gratuitous cruelty, and telling untruths for the sake of a good line, and exaggerating deficiencies while overlooking positives.

I think he is being a fundamentally bad, faithless partner to both chefs and readers. The end goal is not truth – whatever that means – but more coverage

(As a quick sidebar, and with the greatest (OK, some) respect, this has always grated in Jay Rayner’s writing for me, when he goes full Inigo Montoya and starts burying places alive. I just don’t believe him; I think he is being a fundamentally bad, faithless partner to both chefs and readers. The end goal is not truth – whatever that means – but more coverage, the lowest-common denominator virality of the common cold; his currency is not honesty but deliberate sensationalism. He is wilfully obtuse and belligerent about pricing (or maybe he’s just economically illiterate); he is self-servingly spiteful. And most of the time we don’t care because it’s some stupid 3-star place in Paris, but I still think that any critic who writes something excessively unpleasant for the RTs and the fleeting Twitter-celebrity – who tells their editor to get the social media channels lined up in support of their latest pan, say – is not really being a critic at all. They’re showing off; they’re abusing their position to further it.)

Sellers would have a much stronger case if the Standard review did read as excessive cruelty, or if the person writing it had a reputation as something of a sensationalist. To be a prominent critic is to have a fairly awesome responsibility to discharge –  you have a real chance to set the tone of the conversation about a specific restaurant. I don’t believe that the longest-serving critic of the bunch takes this responsibility lightly; I’m afraid I don’t read her piece as anything other than scrupulously even-handed. I never ate at Ours (have you read the reviews?!) but I know people who did, and they confirmed that the treatment it received here was far from unduly brutal. Sometimes as a critic your experience is so unpleasant that being a faithful mirror to it means that unpleasantness is the only appropriate language in which you can couch it.

That said, the review isn’t perfect – no review ever is. I would have no issue with Sellers issuing a robust defence, highlighting the (minor) factual inaccuracies and that mysteriously absent risotto; perhaps calling into question some of the more inflammatory language (this is a review bookended respectively by “Arse” and “shite”, after all).

What is so revealing about the response that we actually got, though, is the fact that this sort of righting of (factual/ethical) wrongs plays second fiddle to a far more emotive settling of a far longer reckoning. Clutch me like a Brownlee brother as we flop over the finish line of this endurance reading Ironman together:

What’s ours is yours and I stand by the principle that we give everything to those who choose to accept our hospitality. The most beautiful thing about food is what it reveals in those who engage in it. Thank you for the review.

Kind regards

Tom Sellers

Please share this post as widely as you can

The whole thing gets undermined by that final sentence, which removes the piece from the domain of the singular and into the sort of broader #social context – let’s get this going viral as fuck, mate – that suggests Sellers’ arguments are general, not specific. It’s not just Maschler who’s deficient, it’s critics everywhere who fail to appreciate the genius of Difficult Chefs, who dare to reject them; criticism – per the quotation Sellers crowbars in from Anton Ego, the made-up critic in a kid’s movie about a rat that can cook good – is a “piece of junk” that is far less meaningful than the work of a true artist.

the wisdom of the crowd may get you in the right ballpark eventually but for specific problems you need a professional with exact expertise

It’s not just Sellers who’s gone down this route in the recent past. I had a run-in of my own with David Muñoz, the Mohawked wundertit behind StreetXO, in Mayfair, after I’d given it a poor review (weirdly, he didn’t go after Giles Coren); more than a little awkwardly, Wolfgang Puck spent a good chunk of time on Eater’s Upsell podcast dismissing a recent review of the New York branch of Cut – by Eater’s own Ryan Sutton, no less – as the work of an “amateur” who “doesn’t really know about food”. The crux of both of their arguments – Puck: “I know good food better than Ryan will ever learn to cook or to taste or anything”; Muñoz: “You think you know something about food scene [sic] but you don’t” – is the anti-critic mindset in a nutshell; it is the same mindset that insistently belittles the critic’s importance, focusing instead on other signifiers and means of (self-)validation: in Puck’s case, the opinion and custom of the paying public; in Muñoz’s, the integrity of “true cooks”; in Sellers’, that shiny Michelin star.

It’s understandable, but wrong. Critics can illuminate flaws in a restaurant that the paying public may not notice at first, but which may prove profound, structural in the long term; the wisdom of the crowd may get you in the right ballpark eventually, but for specific problems you need a professional with exact expertise. A chef that treats every review as something to get through and endure – a 700-word Cold War in miniature, insult hidden round every corner – implicitly ignores reviews as an invitation to start a conversation with someone who may help them to get better.

Writing, like food, is something that reveals multitudes about those who engage in it. Most criticism is the work of professionals doing a job; most chefs accept it as such, roll with the occasional punch, and call critics out when they overstep the mark. Responses like Puck’s and Muñoz’s and Sellers’ – whilst explicable, and maybe, to some, justifiable – suggest something that looks quite a lot like arrogance. The rumours, though, are that Ours has gone the way of all things, which may mean Sellers at least is finally ready to learn this truth for himself: sometimes the fault isn’t theirs, or ours, or anyone else’s – sometimes it’s all yours. C