Cage Fight Between Michelin Chef and Prominent Food Critic Highlights Power Shift

Chefs, Foodies, Restaurant Critics and even the general public in Ireland will, in the last 48 hours, have found it difficult not to have noticed a bare knuckle fight has broken out between one of Ireland’s most celebrated Chefs and one of it’s more well known restaurant critics. Chefs, all of them, hate a bad write up and critics, some of them, are believed to relish writing them. A, ahem, recipe for conflict. However until recently it’s been the critic who’s held the whip hand. Not anymore. Oliver Dunne the chef in this brawl has created and successfully steered his Malahide Restaurant “Bon Appetite” to a Michelin Star. – No mean achievement, which means that if angered he could be a formidable adversary and this is proving to be the case – Now he’s joined forces with the former Head Chef of “Locks Brasserie” (also possessed of a Michelin Star) Rory Carville and opened an ambitious new small plate themed restaurant in what was once, the once wonderful, Tea Room in Dublin’s Clarence Hotel.

Head Chefs Bite Back – Especially if they’ve a Michelin Star

Two Michelin Star chefs coming together to open a concept restaurant is a gaping invitation to ridicule and criticism if it’s less than perfect. Dunne and Carville, in an attempt to dampen down expectations of perfection from day one, decided to apply a 20% across the board discount to their menus for the first month. This seems a reasonable and common sense measure which builds into the cost of the meal a discount which the owners have, preemptively, decided might be warranted until they’ve got everything running as well as, well, as well as their professional track records suggest they are capable of doing. Whatever the expectations of food critics, or even the general public, new restaurant openings, especially high concept ones, apart from being a test of endurance on par with the Tour De France, are also fraught with hiccups, snags and unanticipated problems. There are quite simply too many different moving parts to get nailed from day one. Having just completed Danny Meyer’s (owner of Union Square Cafe, Blue Smoke, Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern; a man acknowledged as one of the best and most successful restaurateurs in the world) “Setting the Table” I know that even gods of hospitality like Meyer aren’t immune from teething problems. Is it reasonable to expect better of Dunne and Carville? Lucinda O’Sullivan seems to think so.

Restaurant Cleaver East Review

Lucinda O’Sullivan’s Restaurant Cleaver East Review

Lucinda O’Sullivan’s review of Dunne and Carville’s Cleaver East appeared in last Sunday’s edition of the Irish Independent. Dunne’s counter attack appeared the next day on the restaurant blog.

Dunne used his own Twitter account to get the ball rolling:

It might have been prudent to let the draft sit for another 24 hours before publishing because Dunne holds nothing back. Or not, maybe it’s working out better that he did fire it off while that adrenaline and vitriol cocktail was still pumping through his system. A more sanitised response probably wouldn’t have went viral so quickly and so completely. I know that it did, go viral, simply because I picked it up in my Facebook newsfeed late last night (from a decidedly non foodie friend).

Figuring that this might have some legs, and relevancy to my own Twitter followers I shot off this Tweet: 

 

Chef Dunnes Counter Offensive Goes Viral

12 hours later and I checked my social stats (all part of the job these days) to find my tweet had spread like a bad dose of shingles: 50 Retweets, and or Favourites, and a staggering (at least by my modest standards) 736 click throughs to Oliver Dunnes blog post, all in a matter of hours. Working on the assumption that this phenomena is relatively widespread across the Twitter accounts of others who’ve picked up on this story then it’s not unreasonable to assume that Oliver Dunne’s flaming blog post ended up with a readership equal to, or greater than, Lucinda O’Sullivan’s column in the Irish Independent. If you feel a rumbling underfoot it’s the tectonic plates of media power shifting right under your feet. A column in a, relatively, high circulation paper isn’t the bully pulpit it might once have been and Lucinda O’Sullivan is finding that out now.

My suspicions that this had gone viral, very viral, were confirmed here:

 

I think it’s only fair to say that O’Sullivan’s review isn’t actually as bad as Dunne’s response might lead you to believe (assuming that, like me, you completely missed O’Sullivans review and are only coming to it now via Oliver Dunne). However for anyone who really wanted to know about the food and the service at Cleaver East this probably wasn’t the review to read. All I learned from it is that Lucinda O’Sullivan didn’t enjoy her evening there, for a variety of ill defined reasons, that might not have a huge bearing on her readership, a readership who probably wanted to know more about the food and less about her impressions of the, apparently, overtly masculine artwork which depicts Dunne and Carville. Dunne’s annoyance fuelled response is both angry and personal, yet there seems to be no sign of him suffering any blowback from it. On balance his piece is more unkind to Lucinda O’Sullivan than her piece was to him, yet the crowd seem to be firmly with Dunne if the twitter-sphere is any indication. I think the reasons for this shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out. Dunne’s talent, as a chef not a wordsmith, is beyond doubt, recognized by both a discerning public, who vote with their money, and authorities higher up the food chain than Lucinda O’Sullivan (Unless O’Sullivan picked up a James Beard Award for food writing that no one told me about).

Paid to Eat, So Tell Us About The Food Please

Lucinda O’Sullivan gets paid to eat in, for the most part, very nice restaurants and write about it. What a job. It’s 2013 and there’s a landscape populated with people who’ve more Twitter followers than they do Euro in the bank, these people are viewing this spat as cage fight between, as they might very well see it, pampered privilege and a very hard working craftsman. In the early noughties O’Sullivan could have published her review comfortable in the knowledge that the worst that might happen is being snubbed at the RAI Annual Awards Dinner. In 2013 she wakes up to find that media landscape is changed, changed utterly and that all of a sudden some uppity Chef is, to an audience of at least tens of thousands, probably more by now, calling into question her own fitness for purpose.

Above, as I hope you noticed, I’ve embedded a camera catch of O’Sullivan’s review (you’ll probably have to enlarge it in your browser) and what you think of it, Oliver Dunne, Rory Carville or Cleaver East, if anything, is up to you. Personally I was left feeling slightly uncomfortable by some of the review’s opening remarks which to me seem a “bit off.” Off in a way that were they aimed at two similarly enterprising women would doubtless give rise to cries of misogyny. Perhaps the only direct criticisms I feel qualified to make of the review itself (declaration: I haven’t eaten at Cleaver East yet so have no opinion of my own) are why so little about the food, are we supposed to read something into that ourselves, really that’s not our job, we’re readers we want to learn, O’Sullivan is getting paid to eat this stuff so why can’t she give us more about that and save the art criticism for an audience that cares; and really, reviewing the place on it’s second night open? It’s a “legitimate” thing to do, but is it a “reasonable” thing to do?

Disclosure: I’m not a personal friend of either Lucinda O’Sullivan or Oliver Dunne, similarly I have no enmity for either, but if anyone can detect a pro Dunne bias here I’ll probably have to fess up and accept the fact that I’m a not completely impartial actor. I worked in kitchens of all shapes, kinds and sizes over 22 years and here’s what I know, it’s punishingly hard word. I haven’t worked as a restaurant critic but I do really enjoy dining out. My sympathies are probably leaning more towards Dunne for the same reason that so many others seem to be, we suspect he works a lot harder than O’Sullivan, he puts it out there night after night, and he’s creating jobs in a market where they’re becoming scarcer than food critics.

  • Christy

    Well written, out if the whole thing I find it remarkable that O’Sullivan blatantly lied in her piece, for example that she booked a month previous, and she hasn’t the grace to apologise for it. Her opinion is her opinion and she is entitled to it, but lying to damage a new business out of what must be pure vindictiveness is about as low as it gets. Her employer should take note.

    • http://topchefs.wpengine.com/ David Hall

      Thanks Christy. The way I’d phrase it is that her version of events, with respect to when she booked, is “in dispute.” :-)

      • Christy

        You old politician you !!!
        ;)

        • http://topchefs.wpengine.com/ David Hall

          LoL, well this is a business website, or at least that was the original intention until I got out of the habit of banging on about how great we are and onto, well basically, whatever I felt like rambling on about at any given moment.

  • Forbes

    To understand the reaction you need to under the woman! All her articles have very little written about food and are quite sarcastically written. The woman is the bane of every restaurant except of course her favorite Indian!

    • http://topchefs.wpengine.com/ David Hall

      Oddly enough, and by complete coincidence, I was wading through Hotel Facebook “Pages” today (another part of the job) and I tripped across another highly awarded place which posted, on their Facebook Timeline, a lengthy rebuttal of, what I assume to have been, a similarly critical LOS piece written about them.