HCE MEETS FOOD COVOLUTION
Have you been looking for well-written articles and reviews that explore and promote your city’s restaurants, cafes, bars, events and news? Food Covolution – a website on the rise – features exactly that, and describes itself as a “one-stop shop for all that’s happening on Coventry’s independent food and drink scene”. We caught up with the food writer who founded the site, to find out more about Food Covolution’s aims and achievements, and what it takes to continually create engaging non-fiction…
When and how did you get into being a food critic?
I used to write about NHS nursing, but after some life changes I was looking for a new subject. I’d always admired Jay Rayner’s restaurant reviews in the Observer, so I thought I’d have a go at that.
I approached it in an unusual way. No one was writing about restaurants in Coventry because no one thought they were worth writing about. But rather than travelling to other towns to swoon over the latest foodie fad, I decided I would limit myself to Coventry: experience what it had to offer, and write about it. The challenge then became to make the uninteresting interesting through the way I wrote about it. Eventually, it occurred to me that what I was writing was giving me a view of the city that no one else had, which was an opportunity. I’m not really a massive foodie. I’m more of a writer, who is currently writing about food.
Do you write in any other forms, or is non-fiction your preferred arena?
Thanks mainly to Fire & Dust poetry nights, I’m now an occasional poet. My output isn’t huge, and I stick almost exclusively to traditional forms – not a fashionable stance, but that’s where I’m happiest. Paradoxically, being forced to stay within the confines of formal poetry is what pushes me to think outside the box. I rarely write fiction. I’m hopeless at plot.
You’ve already reviewed loads of local establishments and events on the website so far. How do you manage to keep the writing fresh when you’re essentially focusing on the same topic every week?
Nice question! A restaurant review is essentially an account of an experience, and because it’s likely to have been a relatively short one, you’ve got the opportunity to explore your feelings about it in some depth. Your first reaction when a dish is placed before you is often worth returning to. It may well be something that can be retold in a humorous or relatable way.
But as well as deepening, you can also broaden. Good restaurant reviews are never only about the two or three plates of snap you chow down on the day. Contextualise the experience – make it say something about British culture generally, or Michael Gove, or (God help us) Love Island – and you’re keeping it relevant; plus, you’re tipping a knowing wink to contemporary culture (cool!) and offering tantalising glimpses of your personal hinterland (intriguing!). My own ‘hinterland’ is the city of Coventry. I often use the reviews as vehicles for making some wider point about the place I call home.
There’s a lot of humour and creative language in your reviews. Are these devices your tools of persuasion, or do you figure a lot of readers seek out restaurant reviews as a form of entertainment?
Restaurant reviews are a form of entertainment: polished gems that shine from every facet. If you take a critic like Jay Rayer, thousands of people read his articles, but few of them will ever visit the places he reviews, or want to. So why are they reading about them? Because he’s giving a masterclass in the craft of writing, that’s why.
Is it tricky to take notes discreetly at the table, without raising suspicion for the staff – or has phone technology made this job easier?
I rarely take notes. I use my crappy phone to take notoriously bad photos – which doesn’t attract much attention these days – and refresh my memory of menus by revisiting online. Otherwise – it’s all in my head.
Any tips for beginner food critics?
When you’re writing a review for publication, your number one priority is to keep readers reading. Readers love sharp similes, pungent colloquialisms and witty asides but what they love most is something much more mundane: logical progression. It’s a demand they may not even be fully aware they’re making, but believe me – they know it when they don’t see it.
So while judicious use of humour may be what distinguishes a good review from a merely adequate one, readers don’t stop reading because you’re not making them laugh; they stop reading because they can’t see where you’re taking them.
Irrelevant or over-elaborate metaphor, however brilliant, stalls forward momentum and leaves readers feeling confused – and irritated with you for making them confused. Confused and irritated readers are on the brink of becoming ex-readers. Ex-readers are a writer fail.
As the writer, your job is to guide your readers through your work. When they’re confident they’re in safe hands, they’ll relax and stick with you.
What have been your best and worst food critic moments/experiences so far?
Best: Vegan Night at Street (Earlsdon, Coventry), January 2018
Worst: Too many to mention (eating out in Coventry has historically been a somewhat masochistic pleasure) but being served lasagne in a dish that looked like it still bore traces of someone else’s dinner has to be up (or down) there.
Is it difficult being honest sometimes, like if you’re hoping for a restaurant to succeed but they fail to impress when you visit?
I used to stick the boot in, but I don’t anymore; Coventry has enough people wanting to pull it down. Nowadays, I try to say at least some positive things about every restaurant I visit. If I can find literally nothing positive, I don’t review.
Do you get many haters responding, or do businesses welcome your opinions as constructive criticism?
Some bloke blamed the demise of Etna (see ‘worst experience’ incident, above) on my review, but that’s just garbage. If a restaurant is serving food on plates that look unwashed, it’s writing its own obituary; it doesn’t need my help.
What was frustrating was the implication that it’s disloyal to Coventry to give a restaurant a bad review. It’s not. Experiential dining is booming – but Coventry is largely missing out on the economic benefits a thriving restaurant sector can bestow. I want the city to get a piece of the action – but if we don’t call out the level of service I got at Etna, how will things ever improve?
On the other hand, a big part of what I do isn’t reviewing; I also write features that celebrate the many unsung heroes of independent food in the city. Wearing that hat, I usually get a good reception.
Overall, how does Coventry compare to other cities you’ve lived in/visited in terms of the food on offer?
Was miles behind, now slowly improving – still a long way to go. Vegan offer: ahead of the game, could be built on. City centre: swamped by bland, predictable chains; ballsy independents would beef it up. Far Gosford Street: which way will it go? Better places emerging, oversupply of bargain basement dross holding it back.
As you’re a vegan, are you aiming to team up with a meat-eating foodie to cover more ground, or do you plan to focus purely on the ‘V’ side of Coventry’s culinary world?
I’m open to guest reviews/opinion pieces. If anyone would like to submit one, they’re very welcome to do so. However: it has to be written to my standard.
Opportunity to plug your social media and any upcoming projects/events:
Following Coventry Culture Show’s recent competition to find the best pork batch in Coventry, we’re hoping to launch a competition to find the best vegan batch later this year.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Don’t be smug. The restaurant sector is an important part of the economy, and reviewers have a role in promoting it. But dining out remains a privilege. If you’re reading this in the UK, the chances are you’re not far away from someone whose last meal came from a food bank. Don’t forget that.