Interview: Elizabeth Carter, Waitrose Good Food Guide

Posted on: September 15th, 2014 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
GFG Photos 2015 Guide (2)

Elizabeth Carter Editor Waitrose Good Food Guide 2015

Elizabeth Carter is in the planning stage for a ninth book as Good Food Guide editor, here she speaks to Simon Carter of fine dining guide over lunch at 2015 Best Newcomer, Andre Garrett at Cliveden.

How are you continuing to enjoy your tenure at The Good Food Guide UK?

What can I say? I love it.  There’s something about this book, I don’t know quite how to describe it – a national treasure, an iconic publication? – but it is an honour to be custodian of the Good Food Guide.

I know when we first met for interview, when I had just taken over as Consultant Editor of the then Which? Good Food Guide, I said “give me three books”. But then I found I couldn’t imagine wanting to work anywhere else and now it’s eight books later (with a ninth in the planning stage) and I’m still loving it.

It’s not as though I’ve had a particular long term plan, I focus purely on the book in hand in order to make it the best book possible; an approach, I find, that keeps things fresh and keeps me focused. Researching and writing the Guide means six months of meeting challenges, deadlines, and it can be intensely stressful, but when it is all done the sense of satisfaction is enormous and that’s a great feeling. I must add a big thank you to the editorial and inspection teams who have worked especially hard over the last year as we settle into our new environment.

In what way has the Waitrose takeover affected The Good Food Guide?

Not at all.  Having said that from an editorial team perspective we were pushed out of our comfort zones a little (as I have told chefs in the past, no bad thing from time to time). If anything it has only been a challenge in the sense that the working environment was new to us, and that took some getting used to.

In the same way that our founder Raymond Postgate had reasons to sell the Good Food Guide to what was then The Consumers’ Association (now Which?) in the 1960s, we were looking for new marketing possibilities. It was the right time to find The Good Food Guide a new home and I’m delighted that Waitrose have welcomed The Good Food Guide with open arms. We’re mutually very happy!

Update us on the current and planned status of all digital aspects of the Guide?

We’re taking our time on the website front; we want to get it right, and that meant going through at least a full year’s cycle with Waitrose before committing to a digital strategy.  There are no plans currently to integrate the Good Food Guide website with, although as you can imagine that may be subject to change.

For certain there is investment in a new iPhone app which should be published and available in November.  The app has historically sold very well without affecting book sales, so we’ve been delighted with that area of development.

From a social networking platform perspective, there are currently in excess of 123,000 twitter followers, which has an enormous reach and something we’re very proud of having achieved.

For 2015 pre-release, the Good Food Guide website published a Top 50 pub list – this is a new feature!

This is the first year we’ve produced The Good Food Guide from scratch for Waitrose, last year they purchased the finished content.  We found there was an opportunity to do something new, and a Top 50 Pub list made sense, as food-led pubs remain very much part of the readers’ culture.

We expect to continue working on this in future editions. Our readers want the best talent highlighted, whether restaurants or pubs. And as pubs are very popular, it seemed a natural thing to produce.

What do you see as the state of play in the restaurant scene in 2014?

There’s everything to play for!  For example, the renaissance of the country house hotel as the economy picks up.  There’s a wave of talented young chefs coming through to challenge the established order.  We have spoken before about this, and I remember expressing concern that there didn’t seem to be a talented new generation coming to the fore. Now they are, with a vengeance.

I believe the ones who prove successful are likely to be supported by astute restaurateurs and hoteliers – it really is asking too much to take on chef/patron responsibilities too young, too soon.  Gareth Ward is a truly worthy winner of our chef to watch in the 2015 Good Food Guide; a young chef who has found a great stage at Ynyshir Hall and the support of one of the best hoteliers in the business, Joan Reen. Liam Finnegan at the Castle, Taunton, is another good example. I have to say that this year was one of the strongest for this award, so Gareth has done extremely well.

When you see our high-end restaurants dispensing with table clothes and waiters’ ties, you know there’s a move toward a more relaxed kind of formality.  In addition, front of house have ‘a growing personality’, they engage in conversation, which adds to the accessibility of the top-end experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, new for 2015, is the Upton Fish Shop in Lincolnshire.  It is a takeaway, open just two days a week and, as far as we are aware, has the only coal-fired range in the country. Fresh fish, beef dripping and the best Lincolnshire potatoes are what Upton is about. And shows that The Good Food Guide is about good food period, regardless of the surroundings or costs.

What about for the future – 2015 and beyond?

Well that is such a difficult question as the market is so open, there’s pretty much something for everyone today.  I would say that quite a number of our top chefs are focused on tasting menus.  These menus are designed to demonstrate the skills and repertoire of talented chefs such as Sat Bains, Simon Rogan, even the up-and-coming Sanchez Iglesias brothers – and I find them exciting. Elsewhere, my heart sinks when I see a tasting menu. This particular trend does not translate well at mid-market level where a kitchen committed to à la carte and a daily menu is simply not equipped to offer a tasting menu and do it well.

How are the readers awards working out, well received?

Fabulous, very well received.  We’re delighted with the awards and envisage them getting stronger and stronger.  The Guide is about reader feedback, so in a way these awards encapsulate the Good Food Guide. The 2015 winner is, for example, Carters of Moseley, which we consider to be the perfect neighbourhood restaurant.

Anonymous inspectors still determine the final mark in the guide?

Yes, to a large extent.  They go out and report back, there is often a ratification process to check out some of the more exciting/newer venues.  We also have trusted reader feedback which will feed into the decision making process.

The write up each entry is given is important, too.  I regard myself as the custodian of the Good Food Guide’s writing style, a way with words that has entertained and informed readers for decades.  We are lucky to have a strong inspector, writer and editorial team and their input ensures the final entry is what makes the Good Food Guide unique.

Regular readers will also realize that in terms of the marking system a restaurant receiving 1/10 or 2/10 is still a very good restaurant.  We cover only 1300 or so addresses in the Good Food Guide, so there’s 30,000 plus that don’t reach the standards to be included.

There are also ‘Local Gems’ this year.  I specifically wanted to change from ‘Also Recommended’ to ensure we promoted those quality local restaurants that didn’t quite merit a score but were nonetheless well regarded on a local level.

What do you see as the future of the ‘Guides’ marketplace and the Waitrose Good Food Guide role in that market?

We all know that the hard copy publishing marketplace has taken a huge hit in the increasingly digital world.  I am delighted to say that the Good Food Guide is currently bucking that trend with great sales figures.  Waitrose have been magnificent in making this possible, with supermarket sales generating well over a third of total sales.  The combination of the profile of the book and profile of Waitrose are a happy combination. Long may that continue.