Restaurant critic and writer, The Observer
Finding someone willing to eat with me for free should be the easiest part of my job as The Observer's restaurant critic, but I am horribly disorganised. Usually, a few hours before the booking, I'm casting around for someone — damn it, anyone — to keep me company. Not tonight. I have to review a new Sichuan restaurant in London's Soho, and I have lined up a food blogger and his brother to accompany me.
This is butch, fiery food, which is why Simon and Robin are the ideal candidates. They are not afraid of ‘husband and wife lung slices' or strips of pig intestine, to be cooked in the bubbling Sichuan hotpot.
We rampage across the menu like the Mongol Hordes over the Russian Steppes and run up a bill so large, I know Observer expenses won't cover it. This happens occasionally, but the boys are keen to help make up the shortfall. They are a restaurant critic's dream, though perhaps not a newspaper man's.
Simon gets home and posts his account of our terrific dinner, complete with pictures, before I have sat down to breakfast the next day. As ever with Simon's blog (read it at majbros.blogspot.com) it is well written and, most worryingly, online almost three weeks before my piece will run. At the moment only 300 or so people read the blog every day, but anybody who dismisses the challenge to print by the blogosphere in years to come is a fool.
For the past 20 months I have been making it up, and now I can stop. Today I put the last comma in my new novel and dispatch it to my publishers. It's about a siege in a restaurant kitchen. When a jewel heist goes wrong, two gunmen take hostages: a bunch of cooks, the Tory Party treasurer, a High Court judge and a restaurant critic, to whom no good can come.
Horrible things happen to restaurant critics in my novels and no more so than in this one. You don't need to be a shrink to wonder whether I might have ‘issues' about the way I make part of my living.
I take the train to Leeds where Kamal Ahmed, The Observer's executive editor, is to deliver a speech. Kamal and I worked on the student newspaper while at Leeds University, as did many others now in the business — among them the sainted Paul Dacre, Jonathan Calvert at The Sunday Times, Damian Whitworth at The Times and David Smith at my own newspaper — but it is Kamal the university has invited to lecture on the future of newspapers in an iPod generation.
Despite my gloom about the power of blogs, he makes a robust and coherent defence of our trade. Afterwards the current crop of Leeds Student journalists gather round him like Bunny Girls around Hugh Hefner. Actually Kamal would look rather good in a silk dressing gown. Must send memo.
My job this weekend is the one all restaurant critics dread: I must choose the place where we are to dine afterwards, and hope it's not a dud. It works out fine. 3 York Place delivers the goods and the waiters only spill one glass of water, but it's in my lap, so nobody else cares. The waiter looks a little distressed though.
Back home to London and family, and an hour to catch up on emails. Mostly this means sending furious replies to illiterate PRs who think it's OK these days to send press releases as massive attachments so I have to print them out for them. It isn't.
I have a simple policy: if it's not on hard copy I won't look at it. I could quite happily survive without any press releases at all.
I am an idiot. Weeks ago, I was invited to give a speech to 200 chefs at a conference run by Hotel and Caterer magazine.
The only reason I could think of for saying no was cowardice, and that's no reason at all.
But now here I am, facing a room full of people trained to use knives, and cowardice suddenly seems a great reason for saying no. Still, I press on, telling them that while food in British restaurants is improving, most service is lousy and that it is their job to sort it out.
Usually I get a laugh or two in a speech like this. Today, nothing. Afterwards, during a question-and-answer session, I am asked whether restaurant reviewing is a ‘proper job'.
I consider telling them that no amount of money would compensate me for some of the dreadful stuff I have to eat, but I clock the audience again, and mouth something instead about the challenges of writing a column week in, week out.
Not that tonight's will be difficult. I am eating at Dans le Noir, a restaurant in Clerkenwell, which aims to replicate the experience of blindness, and it is a gift from the god of restaurant critics. We eat our dinner in a completely blackedout room, and try not to spill our food down our shirts.
Increasingly in restaurants my anonymity is blown the moment I arrive, because The Observer likes to run a picture byline on my column. No chance of that tonight: the waiters are all blind.
The food is foul, though: a starter of gnocchi in a blue cheese and whisky sauce with lavender ice cream, anyone? No, thought not.
A day of old-fashioned phone bashing. Very few of us who write restaurant columns do only that. As well as the books and some magazine work, I write features for The Observer, and news stories, and it's one of those today.
Not all of them are food related, but this one is. It's about Welcome Break motorway services and a disappearing sea bass. It almost sounds like the beginning of a new novel. Now all I need is a part for a doomed restaurant critic.