Giles Coren was in Time Out today. Did you see it? If you were anywhere near a tube stop and red-liveried Time Out hawkers, it would have been hard to miss. It would have been hard to miss because “GILES COREN IS HERE” was emblazoned on the cover of Time Out in slashed white block capitals on a red background, and Giles himself was there, down at the bottom right, holding a pen and looking a little desperate.
And it made me sad, seeing Giles Coren in Time Out – like it was one step removed from seeing him on the cover of The Big Issue, and only a couple of steps removed from seeing him sell it. Because we’ve got previous, me and Giles, Giles and I. I even met him once, out the back of a ghastly food awards ceremony called The Chowtzers (yes), where he’d been judging something, and where he was now awkwardly waiting for his taxi so he wouldn’t have to speak to this very enthusiastic but plainly tragic idiot yabber at him about how good A Wong (a dim sum place he’d recently reviewed but I’d been to first) was. But that meeting, earth-shattering in import for both of us as it was, isn’t the previous I’m talking about. The previous is his review of Nahm – a now-extinct Thai place which when it was not-now-extinct was not far from my office – which may be my favourite restaurant review of all time.
When written well, a review can do so much more than tell you whether or not you should go to a restaurant. In the case of the Nahm review, it made me want to fly 10-plus hours across the world. For who could read this passage and not want to?
It felt like a journey through dark kitchen secrets – a raft trip down a hostile, gastronomic Amazon – and we liked it that way: the market that mushroomed at dawn on a rail track to do its business as fast and efficiently as possible before the train came rattling through and killed everyone, where we flung all manner of green leaves into steamy bowls of pig offal soup from random stalls and seasoned our morning with clouds of chilli, then mollifying our mouths with the sticky sweet condensed-milk chicory drink someone must once have told them was coffee; the boat trip up the backwaters where floating hawkers sold us rice noodle soup of unimaginable freshness and flavour, steaming with relevance and context; the staggering power of the chilli, the potent heat of the food which gave meaning at last to all that sweetness (it’s to offset the heat, of course, but in England, where Thai cooks are afraid properly to spice the food, the effect is cloying and grim); the quality of the fish sauce and condiments in a land where strong flavours and quality ingredients are not yet a privilege of the wealthy; the night trip to Chinatown for crispy-soft oyster omelettes and cold beer; the whole business of going to one place for one dish and not stretching its repertoire, as one does wherever people eat on the street, moving on if one wants another dish to the place that does it best; the general clatter and yelp; the feral, cadaverous rankness of fresh durian; the simultaneity of timeless oriental charm, venereal seediness and modern corporate greed…
So I read it, on October 23 2010, when it was first published, and I wanted to cross the world to visit Bangkok, and see it for myself. And less than 18 months later, I did – Lizzy and I packed a few t-shirts into a couple of those cabin-appropriate suitcases and flew to Bangkok and it was everything that review of that restaurant in Halkin Street, just off Hyde Park Corner, promised it would be. And less in some ways, obviously, because we didn’t repeat that precise experience, but also and more in other ways, because those clouds of aroma and flavour and those noises and sensations were ours now, and we experienced others of our own – I remember the stink of durian but also the stink of squid drying in the sun; I remember the clouds of chilli but also the clouds of jasmine from the blossom we grabbed as an impromptu nosegay wandering through a particularly noisome market; I remember the pig offal soup but also I remember a bowl of sticky rice, eaten at the roadside just after dark had fallen, with slices of mango that need no description other than to simply say they were perfect.
Isn’t that something, to inspire someone to travel across the world with a few hundred words you banged out for a Saturday broadsheet? Isn’t it something to – at the same time as inspiring them – educate people (about why Thai food is so horrible in the UK, and so sweet, and always tastes so in need of correction)? Isn’t it something to have that power at your fingertips? And isn’t it sad, therefore, to see someone with that power reduced to acting as a seasoned grump-for hire, rolling out yawnsome truisms about life in the city vs life in the country in Time Out, or leaving his family at home to film a show poignantly titled Million Dollar Critic, which they’re broadcasting in Canada? Doesn’t it make you think that there is something fundamentally perverse about the way we identify and incentivise and reward talent in the market, that actually top-notch restaurant reviewers should be as exalted as highly as top-notch chefs, as the necessary complement and corrective to their capital-G-in-a-Romantic-sense Genius?
Writing well about food, and restaurants, and where eating and eating out fit into culture, deserve a whole lot more care and thought than they currently receive. There are a disgusting, ridiculous, mind-boggling number of food blogs out there, where people with limp literary aspirations and a high-powered camera string a series of expertly-taken photos with a series of po-faced pronouncements (“the scallop was fresh, but underseasoned”) and consider themselves worthy of sharing the table with someone who has slogged at their craft for years. Because it is a craft. Writing is effort, and pain, and revision upon revision, and shit hours and shit pay. But at the end of it you have created something that can change a person’s life, and send them on a journey (sometimes even a literal one). And sometimes being a chef is like that too, so there’s kind of that natural affinity and mutual understanding there, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make. All I’m trying to say is that when it is done well, criticism of the three courses you just shoved down your intestinal tract can be transcendent. And when it is done badly, by amateurs, it is a waste of everyone’s time. So I ask you to think about that, and I ask just one more thing. When you’re taking the tube home tonight, pick up that tattered copy of Time Out that seven consecutive people have flicked through quickly then dropped back onto the train floor. Read Giles Coren’s piece. Read how terrible it is. And feel real pity for him – a man who has the power to send people across the world, but who is instead confined to a carriage on the Circle line, going round and round in pointless perpetuity.