As anonymity becomes harder for restaurant critics to maintain, the Guardian's Marina O'Loughlin admits that she is "probably one of the last of a dying breed." In the UK, where her fellow critics often publish their headshots alongside their reviews, O'Loughlin has famously defended the practice of critic anonymity. And, by all accounts, O'Loughlin has had great success in maintaining what fellow critic Jay Rayner calls her "true anonymity."
Last weekend, formerly anonymous New York magazine critic Adam Platt revealed his identity with a splashy cover story in which he called anonymity among food critics a "time-honored Kabuki dance." The essay sparked some debate among UK critics, including O'Loughlin herself. In the following interview, conducted by email, O'Loughlin reacts to Platt's essay, calling it both "a little disingenuous" and an "excellent move." She also talks about why anonymity is important to her, how difficult it has been to maintain over the years, and why it might actually be easier to remain anonymous in the UK.
Generally, what did you make of Adam Platt's decision to reveal his identity? What were your thoughts reading his piece?
I enjoyed his piece very much, but it came across as a little disingenuous. It felt a trifle grudging, a little "everyone knows what I look like anyway so I might as well make some money at this lark." Still, from a brand-building perspective: excellent move.
Platt argues that anonymity is "less important than a sturdy gut and a settled palate," with an expense account being the most important thing. Do you agree/disagree? Why?
Since everyone in the NYC restaurant biz appears to know what he looks like anyway, he would say that, wouldn't he? I'd say yes, a good palate is important, but also insight and experience and context. Totally agree with the expense account point, freebies rarely result in impartial reviews.
But where does he talk about the ability to write knowledgeably and entertainingly? Most important of all.
Do you think that booking under a pseudonym is adequate in creating that element of surprise that he discussed?
Yes. Also, if you phoned to book under the name Mr. Important Critic, I'd be forced to conclude that you were an utter wanker.
2/2 I do sometimes envy the true anonymity of my colleague @MarinaOLoughlin She does get the skinny on crappy service in a way I cannot...— Jay Rayner (@jayrayner1) December 30, 2013
How does the extra measure of anonymity help, though? Some would argue that using the pseudonym is enough because even if you're made, there's not much a restaurant can do about the food at the last second. So why is anonymity better?
They can't change the food, but they most certainly can change the service. Read any kind of diner surveys and bad service is always the number one complaint. I've been in the same room as well-known critics and seen them get extra courses, glasses of champagne, the full schmoozathon, while I'm abandoned somewhere near the loos desperately trying to score a glass of wine. Once in, dishes that would get served to other customers will get discarded before reaching Mr. or Ms. Big Name.
Relatedly, if the most important thing is to write knowledgeably and entertainingly, how does anonymity help you with that?
Good question. The — hopefully knowledgeable and entertaining — column I'll write is more likely to reflect the real experience rather than the artificially manipulated one offered to TV celebrities or critics with photos as bylines.
I noticed you reaffirmed to your Twitter followers that you were not tempted to follow Platt's example. But how has your ability to remain anonymous gotten more difficult through the years, if at all? How often do you get recognized?
Recently, and thanks mostly to bloody Twitter, a few more industry insiders know a couple of key descriptors of me. I do know that a recently opened restaurant instructed staff to be extra-nice to any person fitting this description, so to all of the stunning 25-year-old Asian women who've been recently to [redacted], you're welcome.
I'm still smarting about a cheat-sheet from a high-profile restaurant, shown to me by a mole, which describes my fellow-critics Fay Maschler ("the queen of the scene") and Tracey Macleod ("tall and glamorous"). Beside my name, it only says "tweets a lot."
Are you still waiting to be outed or do you feel pretty safe at this point?
I have moments of intense, uncomfortable paranoia when I know I've been clocked. (Mostly by people who pay far too close attention to my Twitter feed. For the anonymous critic, Twitter is both an extreme blessing and a curse). There's a handful of people in the business who have figured out who I am, but fortunately they're intelligent people to whom I've given great reviews, so they're on my side.
Do you face any pressures to reveal yourself?
Only from my husband who says we could do with the money.
Last year, the Houston Chronicle asked their critic Alison Cook to give a public talk. What kinds of conversations have you had with your editors about anonymity? Can you talk a little about the role editors play in all this?
So far, mine are perfectly happy with the status quo. I think they regard it as something of a USP [unique selling point].
What are your thoughts on the differences between restaurant critics in London and those in the US with regard to their approach to anonymity?
I think US reviewers and readers regard restaurant criticism as a branch of consumer journalism. We don't. I want a giant flashing neon above my work saying, "I'm not here to tell you where to go for your dinner." Our job is to be entertaining, a good read. It helps if we know what we're talking about, but it's not always a prerequisite. I've argued with US internet reviewers who complain we don't go into enough detail about the food, the processes, and techniques. We find this kind of thing beyond boring and a bit gauche: that's the kind of spoddery the internet was invented for. I get people saying they read me who aren't even bothered about going to restaurants (the WEIRDOS), and I read favoured reviewers on films I don't intend to see because I enjoy the writing. That's the job done.
I think it's probably easier to remain anonymous in the UK because it's less of a big deal. As far as I'm aware, nobody's tried to out me much beyond a swift Google image search. But then the US still regards us as tinpot eccentrics who didn't know what a burger was until we were shown the light by Shake Shack.
Are we going to be having this debate forever? Or is anonymity eventually going to be too hard to keep up?
I don't think we'll be having this debate for much longer, no. Nobody can really make a living as a newspaper restaurant critic alone, and every high-profile journalist has now got an eye on more lucrative opportunities. It's impossible to be an anonymous reviewer on TV. Believe me, I've heard the pitches. And if you write the book, how do you do the publicity?
Fortunately, I'm a lazy sociopath, so am happy to continue as I am. And I know from feedback that readers like it too — everyone's wise to the fact that known faces get preferential treatment. Like, duh. As Giles Coren said to me on Twitter — only half joking? — "How can they ply me with old claret and young waitresses if they don't know who I am?" The way the media is moving, realistically I'm probably one of the last of a dying breed. Platt talks about "the myth of anonymity." In my case, it's still a fact.