Of all the UK’s restaurant guides, the Good Food Guide – the UK’s longest-established restaurant guide, now published by Which?, the former Consumers’ Association – is, perhaps, the one that bangs on most self-importantly about its independence.
In celebration of this independence, we’ve compiled the following quiz.
Q1. Which celebrity chef did Which? invite (paid or not, we don’t know) to give away awards for the Guide earlier in the year?
Q2. Which TV celebrity did Which? build up as Britain’s best chef in the pre-publicity for the Guide?
Q3. Only one other non-gastronomic restaurant was also praised in pre-publicity for the Guide; which celebrity chef was responsible for its menu?
Q4. Which celebrity chef is pictured a staggering ten (!) times in the introductory pages of the Guide?
Q5. Which celebrity chef endorses the Guide on its cover?
You guessed! Yes, the answer to all of the above is: Heston Blumenthal!
Independence is crucial to guides, but surely the whole point of an independent guide is not only to be independent but also to be seen to be totally independent? Yet Which? has invested so much of its credibility of late in what looks suspiciously like a two-way relationship with Heston that some people might – totally wrongly, obviously – suspect that its ability to be truly independent was being compromised.
It is precisely to avoid giving such a suffocating impression of cosiness that serious guidebook publishers have in the past tended, for example, to avoid using puffs from celebrity chefs on their covers. And if you had to nominate the one person in the world who should not be endorsing a guidebook, who would it be? Surely it would be chef who is crowned by that very guidebook as Britain’s best?
On further investigation, it turns out that it’s not just in connection with the Guide that Which? appears to have its head quite unduly turned by TV celebrity.
If you look at the Which? website, you’ll find a news section. It’s full of rather grey articles about important consumer developments… plus some product puffery relating to celebrity chefs. Take “Gordon Ramsay launches professional kitchen range”. Which? tells us nothing useful about the products; it hasn’t tested them yet, so it can’t. It is reduced to telling us pearls such as: “You can get a Gordon Ramsay jug blender for £99.99 at Argos, or a hand blender for £44.99”.
Or – hold the front page – “Jamie Oliver launches kitchen appliances”. Again, it’s nothing to do with Which? test results, which don’t yet exist. It’s simply a desire to grab on to any passing celebrity coat tails. Why else publish a ‘story’ which is reduced to rehashing PR drivel such as: “The gadgets are styled in black and stainless steel and designed to make cooking easier and your kitchen more stylish”.
As the late John Junor used to say: Pass the sick-bag, Alice.
PS (25 September) Ping! An email arrives from a well-known London chef. “What about the scandal that if you want an ‘as featured in the Good Food Guide’ window sticker you've got to buy a guide from them? No one else does it”.
Gosh, wouldn’t it be awful if a restaurateur formed the impression that future coverage might depend on paying money to Which? this time round? But then we all know that the Good Food Guide couldn’t possibly be influenced by such considerations. They endlessly tell us so, after all.
PPS (29 September) There’s a whole lot of contact that seems to go on between many guidebooks and celebrity chefs that just leaves you wondering: why? What, legitimately, can they really have to talk about? Surely a degree of remoteness is conducive to forming judgments which are not only independent, but seen to be so.
And it’s not just the Good Food Guide with its hotline to Heston. Reports – all hearsay – reach of us of at least one recent tête-à-tête between Jean-Luc Naret (figurehead of Michelin guides worldwide) and our own Gordon Ramsay. Gosh, what interest in common could they have to talk about? We personally haven’t seen J-L in the flesh since we saw him some years ago at the Dorchester having lunch with, well, the people from the Dorchester Group. Nothing cosy there either, obviously.
Here at Harden’s we never have private lunches with chefs in their own restaurants because… well, it just doesn’t seem right, does it?
PPPS (2 November) And so it goes on… Hold the front page for this important Which? news announcement: How Heston changed Little Chef - Watch Channel 4 tonight at 9pm to find out