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The love-hate relationship that exists between chefs and food critics is a well-known fact: while most chefs long to have a famed critic visit their restaurant, it’s also an event viewed with trepidation. When the critic has the standing of Giles Coren, the writer, journalist, and respected (and feared) restaurant critic – whom Heston Blumenthal defines as a “ferocious” genius with “unquestionable” competence – the anticipation is even greater.
Coren’s last book, How to Eat Out, which is already a bestseller, is almost autobiographical. With the subtitle, “lessons from a life lived mostly in restaurants”, the confessional book explores his long career of accolades and insults published in Tatler, The Independent and The Times, his own journey in therapy, his venture into fatherhood and marriage. But from the fine dining standpoint, this book is full of revelations.
Here are 10 tips and suggestions that anyone who loves to eat out should keep in mind. Whether you’re in London, or anywhere in the world.
1. Book a table, not a restaurant. The most useful relationship to cultivate is not with the chef, but with the person who books the reservations. Ask for “a nice table”: if you don’t, you may find yourself seated somewhere that’s too small, poorly-lit, or too close to the kitchen or bathroom. The best tables usually go to regular clients/friends/big spenders/celebrities, or else they are kept free in case “Russian gangsters drop by”.
2. Bread is not the first course. Do not begin eating bread as soon as you are seated. In London, except for the costliest restaurants, you’ll be paying for it later on your bill. It will ruin your appetite, your budget, and it will make you fat.
3. Waiters. Like so many of us, Coren worked as a waiter when he was younger. And he urges diners to avoid restaurants where servers just plant themselves in front of your table:“Thus saving your dignity and wallet.”
4. Wine. A brief conversation with your waiter is very helpful before ordering wine. Tell your server what your preferences are, and if he or she suggests something too pricey, feel free to respond politely with: "The others are undrinkable, are they?"
5. Chinese Food. Begin by ordering something green and vegetable-based. The idea is that by eating some healthy bok choi, “you’ll eat (a bit) less of the fatty, salty, stodgy stuff”.
6. Sushi restaurants. Sit at the bar and always ask: ‘What’s the best fish today?” Order hamachi (yellowtail), like the Japanese do. It’s better than sushi and sashimi.
7. The veggie option. Coren opens the chapter by making the claim, “I am vegetarian”, and then halfways through he writes that he eats meat at least 4 times a week. One may conclude that he’s a moderate carnivore, or a rebellious vegetarian. “Like any food fad, vegetarianism is so often a smoke screen to adopted to disguise a body-dysmorphic eating disorder. It is simply an excuse not to eat.”
8. Eating Italian. When in an Italian restaurant, don’t give into the temptation of ordering pasta or rice with grated truffle. It’s too dangerous for your wallet, as it is very easy to find yourself having spent 100 extra pounds without realizing it.
9. Indian Food. When it comes to eating Indian Cuisine, Coren is quite direct: “When ordering Indian food, don’t. Try to avoid it altogether.”
10. To Complain. If there’s one thing to learn, it’s how to tell the restaurant that there’s something you don’t like. You should be kind, polite, but firm. Coren suggests saying something like, “I’m terribly sorry, but this fish isn’t as fresh as I hoped. I’m not able to eat it.” Explaining to a chef what it wrong, is a good way to help he or she improve. If this isn’t done, (and here he speaks primarily to his fellow Brits), then people will always complain that “one eats better in France”.