The Which? Good Food Guide has been a constant companion for many years. The Guide is reliable, credible, consistent and interesting to read. Each editor has brought their own personality to bear on the style of content and no doubt Andrew Turvil will prove no different. It was therefore a great thrill to meet only the sixth editor in The Guide’s history at their offices on Marylebone Road. This is what Andrew had to say.
Interview by Simon Carter, April 2005.
Tell us some background about yourself
I joined The Good Food Guide in 1989, aged 24, in a junior editorial capacity. I’ve worked under two editors – Tom Jaine and Jim Ainsworth – and by the mid-nineties I was controlling the management and co-ordination of the team of inspectors. I undertook my first inspection in the early 1990s, so I’ve seen the dramatic improvements to the UK scene over the last fifteen years.
I’ve edited three editions of the Which? Pub Guide (the first of which was under the title The Which? Guide to Country Pubs), but the GFG has always been my main job. In 2003 I took over editorship of The Good Food Guide from Jim Ainsworth.
What has becoming Editor meant to you?
It is quite something that the GFG has had only six editors in over 50 years, and it is certainly a privilege to be in the hot-seat, especially at such a vibrant time for restaurants in the UK. I’m very aware of the history of the guide, and the knowledge, enthusiasm, and loyalty of the readership. (Andrew hands me a copy of the orinigal 1952 Guide).
This is the only copy we have of the original Guide from 1952, and it has hand-written notes, quite probably by Raymond Postgate, the founding editor. We keep this under lock and key. (The book is around A6 size, well thumbed and full of hand written notes, there are no marks for restaurants, I was aware of a sense of history in my hands!).
What does the Which? Good Food Guide ‘brand’ mean to you and your readers?
Well, The Good Food Guide actually pre-dates Which? by a few years. Raymond Postgate linked-up with Which? in the early 1960s, and the organisation is in many ways an ideal publisher for such a consumer-focused guide. Which? is a registered charity and recognized nationally as a wholly independent body striving to improve goods and services for the consumer. Within that context the GFG’s independence is not in doubt, and our strict policy of not charging restaurants for inclusion, taking freebies, or taking advertising, sits very nicely within the company. The guide has always stood for robust good sense, and continues to do so.
A restaurant making the guide at all is in the top 1000 in Britain?
They are the 1000 restaurants most enjoyed by the GFG readers and inspectors. We’ve about 1300 restaurants in the guide in total (including the ‘useful in the area’ section known as the round-ups). I think our rating system of 1 to10 is quite clear to regular readers of the guide – they seem to use it and understand it – although those less familiar might have the misconception that a mark of 1 or 2 or 3/10 is a failing restaurant. On the contrary they are likely to be in the top few percent of restaurants in the country and have reached a level of quality that warrants inclusion. This means the dishes may be straightforward, but the quality of ingredients used and technical competence of the chef are worthy of entry. Low-scoring entries are often good, honest places and well worth visiting. As you climb the ladder to the top few percent, those receiving 8,9 or 10/10 are exceptional restaurant, and undoubtedly among the best in the world.
The marking has been a score out of 10 since 1996, any plans to change?
The marking system is just a guide, an indication of the level of achievement of the kitchen as judged by readers and inspectors. It is quite possible to have a more enjoyable time in a low-scoring restaurant over a high-scoring one. I think the score should only be one of the factors considered when selecting a restaurant from the guide. And no, I’ve no plans to change the scoring system at present. Many readers read the GFG cover to cover and eat out all over the country, so a consistent approach to the marking system is important. But so is the quality and detail of the descriptions. They are fundamental to our approach; the GFG should be a good read. The articles at the front of the book also give our readers something extra, and are an aspect I hope to develop further in the coming years.
Is the mark for food only? What role does service play?
We are very clear that the mark is for cooking, taking into consideration the quality of the produce used, balance of the dishes, technical competence of the chefs, and creativity. The service, atmosphere, ambience and so on are all part of the restaurant experience, so essential elements. We write about those and comment on them, but they don’t count towards the score. Dazzlingly creative food served in a leaky barn could score highly, but we would point out to readers that they’d get wet if it rained.
What are your views on standardising service charge arrangements for restaurants? What are the current issues with the service charge and tipping according to your readers?
Service charges in the UK are confusing for residents, so must be especially baffling to tourists. The 12.5% ‘optional’ service charge seems to be the service charge of choice for most city restaurants these days. The big issue right now is what happens to that service charge. I think most people would assume this money is going to the waiting staff, but recent stories in the press suggest otherwise.
I’m not a fan of tipping and would much rather see inclusive prices. If the cost on the menu is the cost charged to the customer (VAT and service included) there can be no confusion.
What trends have you noticed in fine dining?
Firstly, I don’t think fine dining has had its day, as some have suggested. Sure there is a need for more good quality restaurants at the lower end of the scale – good value, informal, relaxed – but I think people are still willing to pay for a special experience. The problem comes when restaurants charge high prices for not-very-special food. As far as current trends are concerned, the rise of south east Asian-influenced food, particularly in the big cities, is really taking off. Many new openings, though, seem to spend so much money on interior design so as to catch the eye and be the next big thing. Whatever happened to simplicity or understatement? Maybe that will be the next big thing. The rise of decent food in pubs is good to see, and their informality and casual attitude can be refreshing. A broadening in geographical spread of quality restaurants has been evident for a few years now, and most UK cities have somewhere decent within the fine dining genre.
I’m interested to see how the very top-end of the fine dining scale develops over the next few years. Heston Blumenthal is the obvious chef to single out at the vanguard of cooking in this country, but there are others who are also pushing boundaries and exploring new areas of flavour. There has been a steady but discernable increase in overall quality of restaurants in the OK over the last 15 years or so, and a restaurant receiving the equivalent of six out of ten back then would doubtless score something like a four today.
How many inspectors are on your books?
We have around 70 inspectors. They are all volunteers – meaning they’re not paid salaries (future applicants please note), and they visit restaurants at my direction. Many have professional experience within the industry (ex-chefs, restaurateurs, food or wine writers), and others have proven their knowledge over time. They are reimbursed the costs of all inspections, which consist of a full meal for two people. By eating with a guest the inspector’s experiences is the same a regular customer. The inspectors know what is expected from them in terms of depth of analysis of the food, and they have to write us a detailed report on all aspects of the meal, so not just the food.
And what is the process for awarding marks?
The score is allocated by looking at the body of evidence, which amounts to the official inspection and readers’ reports. We often have feedback from more than one inspector as they will always feed us with more information if they go in an off-duty capacity. It is my job to reflect the balance of the feedback and to draw a final conclusion on the score. This is easy when everyone agrees, but less so when there is conflicting opinion. And I won’t have visited every restaurant myself of course! The bottom line is a lack of consistency speaks volumes in itself, as a restaurant achieving 5 or 6 or more is expected to be consistent.
What are the exact criteria used by inspectors at each of the broad (5) banding levels?
The judging of the food starts when you look at the menu – its length, composition, seasonality, provenance of ingredients are all considered. While eating the inspector is looking at every element of the dish, from what it looks like on the plate to the timing of the cooking, from the quality of the ingredients to the appropriateness of the cooking techniques. The lower end of the rating scale includes places with a straightforward approach and allows for some inconsistency. Not everything may be spot on, but we are starting from the baseline of good, fresh produce carefully prepared. By the time you get to the 5- 6 mark we are dealing with serious restaurants, with extremely competent kitchens producing high quality food. A high degree of skill is required to score at this level, and most restaurants in this bracket offer highly creative cooking. By the time we get to 7 and above, we are in the top 40 or so in the country. The ingredients are expected to be as good as they get, and in most cases there is a high degree of creativity and individual flair.
Many of the top inspectors eat out all around the country (and abroad for the matter, but we can’t pay them for that unfortunately) which helps us maintain consistency at a national level. This ensures a benchmark standard of marking across the country. As editor, a key responsibility is to vouch that a mark of 5 in London is same as a 5 in Yorkshire is the same as a 5 in Scotland.
How many visits per week might a typical inspector make?
That can vary a lot and depends on a number of factors ranging from where they live to their areas of expertise. They have to fit the inspections into their normal lives (Yes, they have normal lives!). This means an inspector might take on only one official meal in a week, thus avoiding the jaded palate of a “professional” inspector. Others might do more, but there is rarely any need for a GFG inspector to visit more than one restaurant in a day.
How many reports do you receive a year from your readers?
We get thousands of reports a year – sometimes up to 10,000 comments. Some readers are quite prolific in their output of reviews and provide us with some fantastic stuff. The passion, knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject shown within these reports is uplifting. An increasing proportion of these are coming via email, of course.
When the guide is compiled, how is it written?
Each entry is based on all the feedback at our disposal. That consists of the official inspection, readers’ reports, further feedback from inspectors, plus menus and wine lists supplied by the restaurants. A team of writers and myself write the entries from all these sources, with the greatest input coming from the official inspection. We sometimes quote readers and inspectors, but the tone and balance of each entry should reflect the feedback received over a given year. It is my job to underpin the guide with a level of editorial consistency. We also employ a writer to specifically write the wine copy situated at the end of most entries. This means we have a single person looking at all the best wine lists in the country, and he is able to compare and contrast. This level of analysis is, I think, second to none.
Has the inclusion of discount vouchers been a success? (eg now £20 and used to be £15, introduced in 1999)
They effectively mean you can make a profit by buying a copy of GFG! The guide costs £15.99 and you get four £5 vouchers inside. The uptake of the vouchers is nothing like 100%, and we make it very clear to restaurants featured in the guide that participation in the scheme has absolutely no bearing on their entry. It’s entirely optional. Most restaurants in the scheme are in rural areas, and I dare say they see it as a way to boost numbers in the quieter sessions (they need only accept vouchers in 70% of sessions). Over the course of a year any semi-regular diner is likely to visit four places which accept the vouchers.
Are establishments allowed to advertise GFG inclusion in their literature/on their websites?
Yes. Since the mid-1990s restaurants have been allowed to refer to inclusion in the GFG in promotional material, and we provide free window stickers for display on the premises.
What role does the internet play in your research?
The GFG is available online at present to subscribers to Which? Online, and we are always looking at further ways to make it available, but you’ll have to watch this space. The internet has certainly made life much easier for anyone involved in research. Key in a name of a new restaurant or an unusual ingredient and something is bound to pop up, even if it is not what you’re expecting. It is a great forum for bringing people together, too, and there is no shortage of people passionate about food and wine.
The Good Food Guide can be ordered on Freephone 0800 252100 (£15.99, p&p free) or at www.which.net or bought from bookshops.