Restaurant Critics


Story Details

Chef James Dincer and restaurant owner Tim Spiechowicz took Stephen Duval's complaint personally.

“I was set upon by no less than five or six people; punched in the head by the chef and owner, they threatened to kill me. My septum was deviated by 90%”, Stephen said.

Thankfully, most chefs can control their tempers -- and that's a good thing. Our love of cooking shows has made us a nation of amateur food critics. Worldwide, there's an estimated five million blogs -- one in four Australians have their own blog. All you need is a smartphone and an opinion.

You may not recognize Mel Kettle but she is a very powerful player in the restaurant industry. A marketing consultant by day, by night she's behind the blog Cooks Notebook. “I didn't think my blog was influential until PR companies started ringing me and saying ‘could I send you my product for you to write a review of’. When I had six requests in one week I thought someone's reading my blog yay! There are a lot of restaurants now who have blogger functions, getting invited to events and treated like a member of the media because it is being recognised that we do have a big influence”, Mel said.

Our appetite for anything food-related is insatiable. 350 million photos are uploaded on Facebook every single day. Behind snaps of our kids and holidays, food is the third most popular subject to be photographed.

“I see cameras blazing away all the time. I know there are bloggers out there, I have to be prepared for bloggers”, said celebrity chef Adrian Richardson.

Adrian can't help but pay attention to the mountain of food blogs responsible for dishing out praise and criticism on restaurants around the country. “It could be a competitor coming in and writing a nasty blog about me, there's a lot of that thing. The idea with a restaurant is to try and treat everyone equally and do the best all the time and get it right. Every now and then we do get it wrong, if someone rings me up and lets me know, I'll deal with it”, Adrian said.

“Social media and Twitter and Facebook in particular are terribly powerful. What they don't put on their blogs is how much eating they've done because all eating is really comparison, you really have to have gone to a lot of restaurants to criticise”, said Australia's longest serving restaurant critic Stephen Downes.

Stephen knows firsthand the impact negative reviews can have. “I’ve had a couple of calls in the dead of night by anonymous people asking whether I've ordered the prosthetic kneecaps yet! That's happened a couple of times”, he said.

Officially it's estimated there are a thousand food bloggers and reviewers operating dedicated foodie websites in Australia. But review sites where the public vote on their dining experience can be far more damaging to a restaurant.

When university professor Hadyn Green complained by email to the owner of the Positano Restaurant in Perth, expressing his disappointment at having to wait more than an hour for his meal, he was shocked at the response. "If you wanted fast food you should have gone to McDonald's. I don't need you or want you to come back".

So Professor Green took to Facebook and Urbanspoon and the spat went viral.

“Online reviews are a very powerful tool. One has to be very careful to make sure criticism is justifiable and not just said purely out of spite”, said David Galbally QC.

David warns bloggers or reviewers who don't hold back are at risk of defamation proceedings. “Anything written on the internet -- whether it is a blog, whether it is a comment on Twitter or Facebook that is unjustified is at risk of being the subject of legal proceedings. I warn everybody who writes on the internet to be careful what they post”, he said.

Mel Kettle says food bloggers are here to stay. US blogger Deb Perelman turned her blog into a $600,000 book deal. “The proliferation of food blogs is phenomenal, there are so many in Australia and internationally, I think it's fantastic”, Mel said.

As for Stephen, he's undergone two surgeries since the 2008 incident. His attackers pled guilty to assault and occasioning bodily harm; chef James Dincer was given a suspended sentence and ordered to pay almost $10,000 for Stephen's medical expenses. He appealed but didn’t show up to court.