Tea with Elizabeth Carter, Consultant Editor of The Good Food Guide

I am due to meet Elizabeth Carter, Consultant Editor of The Good Food Guide, and Jane Wilson, its Marketing Manager, and I have chosen a good venue. We are having afternoon tea at The Landmark Hotel in Marylebone Road because I have been told that the cakes, service and atmosphere are all excellent and, wanting to impress them, I have done my research and homework. My previous interview of the day had been with food writer and cookbook author Sybil Kapoor, and she told me “Oh I know Elizabeth. She’s a sweetie!” So I was only half nervous.

As we started talking about how civilised it is to sit down together for afternoon tea, all nerves dissipated. These two ladies may be in charge of Britain’s most important restaurant review guide, now in its sixtieth year, but stand on ceremonies they do not. Chatty, laughing and open, the pair of them might well seem to the other customers in the winter garden atrium of this grand hotel to be shoppers or London visitors out on a jolly for the day.

Despite the unassuming nature of its creators, there is nothing light hearted about TGFG, however. It is published by the bastion of consumer dependability, Which?, alongside recipe books created by the top chefs featured in their listings. The guide’s founder, the Socialist thinking Raymond Postgate, took it upon himself to create a consumer centred, reader led crusade to acknowledge those few places in Britain which were serving good food. At the beginning of the 1950s that was a tall order: Britain was still recovering from post-war rationing and eating out in Britain was a hit an miss affair, a lottery at best. He wrote in the first edition in 1951:

“By buying The Good Food Guide you have become a member of a club. You have joined a voluntary organisation of men and women trying to improve the British standard of food and service. With so many collaborators the guide can never be a racket. You can corrupt one man. You can’t bribe an army.”

I ask Elizabeth the question everyone would if they were sitting in my seat at that moment: do people know who she is when she arrives at a restaurant, does she tell them beforehand or is her reviewing done incognito?

“It is all done anonymously. I have several aliases and e-mail addresses for when I am booking a table, so I do not give my name as Elizabeth Carter, because they might have the guide and then know I am its Editor. I remember once that my husband and I went out for a meal, and I was going to write up the restaurant in the guide. The manager was serving me and out came the champagne and all the trays of complimentary canapés. My husband turned to me and whispered “They know who you are!” So I said to him “No, of course they don’t know who I am, I did not book in my name!” Well, out came more trays of canapes and there was more champagne pouring. So, I turned and whispered to my husband “Okay, yes, they do know who I am!”

And after being at the helm of the good ship TGFG for six years, it is “the army” that cannot be bribed that Elizabeth refers to time and time again. TGFG takes no advertising and it is impossible to enter it by paying the publishers. The 1300 restaurants, hotels, pubs and cafés within its pages reached their entry status because they were recommended by the reviewers and freelance inspectors who ate there, many doing so repeatedly. Each entry is reviewed annually at least once, so that each year the guide is “completely rewritten and compiled from scratch”. And anyone can be a reviewer and write to the guide’s offices in Marylebone, either on paper or online. There are around 3000 “Thank-you” credits at the back of the latest edition: it is an exemplary vox populi feedback and connection mechanism whereby knowledge and experience is shared openly and transparently for the benefit of all.

It is a work of astonishing ambition. The guide is divided geographically into counties and the London section is divided into north, south, east, west, central and greater London. There are maps to highlight the location of reviewed establishments, and a list to show you what the symbols stand for. Many entries are not much more than 150-200 words at the very most, and are written with the short, sharp, unequivocal objectiveness that tells the reader exactly what to expect. It highlights special dishes to look out for and gives scores for the cooking ability: 1/10 indicating “Capable cooking, with simple food combinations and clear flavours, but some inconsistencies” and 9/10 showing “….a pinnacle of achievement, making it a hugely memorable experience for the diner.” 10/10 is “extremely rare”. Interior design is such a subjective field, underpinned by personal, ephemeral tastes and fashions, that it does not enter the scoring algorithm. TGFG is all about good food, not good scatter cushion taste.

Readers’ awards are given every year to those establishments in every region that excel across the board for regional produce, top service and consistency, and last year 27 500 readers voted for their favourites. There are also awards for “Best New Entry”, “Pub of the Year”, “Chef of the Year”, and “Best Value for Money”. Forty eight restaurants have been in the guide for two decades or more and four of those have been in it for over half a century. Imagine how very challenging that must be, in a country where there are 30 000 restaurants.

There is no doubt, taking into account the number of food blogs and online magazines as well as social media, that commentary on restaurants and sharing news and photographs of openings, closings, catastrophes and successes is now deeply embedded in the culture of our generation. Elizabeth agrees:

“Everyone likes to have an opinion, and we are inviting people to give us their opinion. We look at each piece of feedback submitted, and of course, we use our own judgement to ensure that the moaners are not just being negative about everything. What we publish about an eatery in the guide is extremely important to the future livelihood of its owners and their staff and suppliers, so we take our responsibilities very seriously indeed. We do not keep any other guides in the office as we don’t want to be swayed by other people’s opinions.”

It seems that Elizabeth was born for her role, ever since an early age she took a keen interest in food and was raised in the sort of household where good, seasonal home cooking was important. She wrote for both the Egon Ronay, Les Routiers and the AA Restaurant guides before she met Tom Jaine, the previous editor of The Good Food Guide. One day, in 2007, she got the call that was to offer her the role as the seventh (and the first female) Consultant Editor of the guide she admires the most, and to this day she laughs and beams at the thought of being paid to do a job she loves so much. Her conviction was strongly held since the beginning.

“I spoke a language that Angela Newton, the head of Which? books understood. I was brought in to modernise the guide, and yes, I did ruffle feathers in my first year. I think it needed to reconnect with a wider audience. I also believe that it is very important to give feedback to those restaurants that are getting things wrong, and I do point out to them where change needs to take place. There are also some restaurants that never get any feedback. Well, if you don’t get any feedback at all, or if your restaurant is not included one year, it is because customers do not like what you are doing, and we only include those restaurants that reviewers send positive feedback about. There are some disappointed restaurateurs every year, but we base all our entries on the voice of the people, and that is where our integrity lies.”

But equally there are many more that are jubilant chefs Tweeting, uploading their entries on Facebook and placing stickers on the front door: being included in TGFG is an accolade and emblem of recognition worth solid gold in terms of marketing and PR. It puts your restaurant on the map and it puts cash into the till in an industry worth £7 billion per annum.

All of the meals that inspectors go to review are paid for, so that, as Elizabeth revealed, “You enter as a customer and you leave as a customer. We don’t meet the owner. We do not go to PR restaurant launches. The reviewers are not there to be befriended and it is this detachment and impartiality that makes the guide trusted and fair. The costs are paid for by the profits from the sales of the books, and the apps.”

Elizabeth tries to be as discreet as possible when she goes to review a pub or restaurant, not taking a notebook or camera, but making sure she notes every detail in her head. If she is faced with an exotic gastronomic repertoire she is not familiar with she asks lots of questions.

Even as she walks away she begins compiling the report, making notes on the train. She talks to taxi drivers and to locals to see what they think and recommend. Her motherly softness belies a brain that does not miss a trick. She always takes time to think, so that her impressions “settle”, and she even talks a review through with colleagues if she is in any doubt about wording. She voices her concerns about staff training very succinctly.

“It is hugely important that front of house staff be trained well and they should know what the dishes being served are and how they were made. I think there is a big service problem in Britain. Working in the hospitality and catering industry is not respected enough. It should be considered an important profession because the front of house staff can significantly enhance the dining experience. So often I see staff members that have not been trained properly: it does not matter how good the food coming out of the kitchen is if the service is poor. There is a problem also that the rates of pay are so low, and the government is not active enough in promoting the industry as a whole.”

And despite the fact that the standard of food offerings across so many eateries in Britain has improved dramatically since the conception of the guide, and that many of Britain’s best chefs are cooking exciting, innovative and inspirational food, Elizabeth is worried about the future.

“I meet so many chefs who spend their life working every hour, never leaving the bubble that is the professional kitchen: they should be going on trips, meeting producers, meeting other chefs, exchanging ideas and eating other people’s food. There is an obsession with winning Michelin stars, which is not healthy. Food should be about pleasure and enjoyment. I worry about the isolation of the next generation of chefs coming down the line.”

There is no doubt, however, that chefs such as Nathan Outlaw, Simon Rogan and Jason Atherton have transformed the culinary landscape with their new, fresh vision for modern British cookery.

“We are now seeing the sort of food being produced and cooked in Britain that we only used to see in France, in its hey day. Now the tables have turned and London is the international magnet for foreign diners from all over the world.”

The ripple effect of inspiration travels widely and there is scarcely a pub in Britain that does not boast its own free range chickens, kitchen garden, foraging expert and even, in some cases, a micro-brewery next door or cheesemaking in-house. These activities would have been unheard of a few years ago, and certainly the recession and greater food awareness has meant that an increasing number of customers is looking for artisanally produced, local, seasonal food at a fair price. The guide looks for value for money across all its entries, bearing in mind that the squeeze on all our wallets means an ever increasing reliance on its truthfulness and accuracy: we cannot afford to waste money going to the wrong places.

Recently TGFG ditched the appellation “gastropub”, believing the term anachronistic now that more and more country pubs and inns are serving delicious, homemade bar snacks with a renewed sense of good hospitality and no ambitions of becoming a restaurant. It caused quite an uproar but the guide held its ground:

“As a catch-all (the word gastropub) was frequently synonymous with restaurant ambitions. “Have you booked?” is not the sort of greeting you expect in a pub”, Elizabeth stated in the 2012 edition.

She is enthusiastic about the places she visits in her home county of Kent with her American husband and two grown-up children (her daughter works in the events team at the Savoy and her son is at University and also works in a restaurant).

“The Goods Shed in Canterbury is very good indeed, and I also like The Three Mariners in Oare, Reid’s in Faversham and Jojo’s and The Sportsman in Whitstable. We are spoiled for choice in Kent, because it really is the garden of England, so there are excellent market gardens with an abundance of seasonal produce and orchard fruits. I love nothing more than getting the family round the table and cooking a big Sunday lunch. For me that is what good food is all about –it should be part of all our lives.”

When I ask Elizabeth where she would like the guide to be in the next five years, her reply is unexpected.

“I would like TGFG to be in the top ten most stolen books!”

I do believe that she may well achieve her ambition, because a new copy of TGFG has to be bought every single year: business deaths, debts and divorces means that restaurants open and close with the drop of a hat. In 2011, for example, it was estimated that 1300 Britisah pubs closed their doors for good. The guide’s detractors claim that by the time the guide is published and on the bookshop shelves its content is already out of date because the pace of change is very fast in an industry and economic climate that takes few prisoners. There is no other way, however, for a bible that relies on such a labour intensive, manual mechanism to read, check, update, re-write and publish every single entry to be issued any faster. There is a sense of solidity and gravitas about it that the pocket sized guides and the online reviews cannot attain, despite their fleet-footedness. It is a weighty, uncompromised and accomplished work, mitigating risk, setting benchmarks and celebrating skill. Raymond Postgate would be proud indeed of where his brainchild arrived in the world.

Further information

The Good Food Guide: www.thegoodfoodguide.co.uk

Follow the team on Twitter: @GoodFoodGuideUK

E-mail: [email protected]

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