The Which? Good Food Guide is a long standing, trusted companion – providing an interesting read as well as a reliable source of information.
The Guide was founded by Raymond Postgate in 1951; during the last 58 years there have been only seven editors. Elizabeth Carter (left) is in her third year as editor and found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide.
Interview took place Thursday 2nd April 2009 at 2 Marylebone Road, London.
Tell us some background about yourself?
I was born to work in guides. I grew up in a family that relied exclusively on The Good Food Guide and from about the age of twelve I wanted to be the editor. So I’m doing my dream job (smiling).
The first position that whetted my appetite was working for the American Nancy Fielding, who, with her husband Temple, founded Fielding’s Guide to Europe. But it was when I got a job with Egon Ronay’s Guides that my hardcore training in guide books really started. It was incredible – we would travel all over the country visiting hotels, restaurants, cafes and pubs – apart from the ever present report writing I sometimes had to pinch myself that I was actually doing a job.I met Tom Jaine, the then editor of The Good Food Guide, at the launch of my book, Majorcan Food and Cookery. When he asked me to come on board to edit Out to Eat – the budget Good Food Guide, it seemed a natural progression. During this stint at Which? I also wrote and inspected for The Good Food Guide. Eventually I built up my freelance career, going on to edit various guides, the AA Restaurant Guide among them. Then a couple of years ago, quite out of the blue, Andy Turvil called me to say he was standing down as editor of The Good Food Guide and suggested I apply for the job. I had a big smile on my face when I got it.
And you’re only the seventh editor in the Guide’s history?
Yes and the first woman! There’s been a lot of continuity in general but also with myself as I had previously worked under Tom Jaine and with Andy Turvil (two previous editors).
What was your immediate brief?
We were looking at a big re-launch of the Guide. It had become very ‘cheffy’, very ‘haute cuisine’ and had a danger of drifting out of touch with readers. Which? was seeking fresh eyes to look at how the Guide was put together, to broaden the appeal, and be in tune with how people are eating out today.
As well as addressing the modern needs of the consumer we wanted to pay respect to our roots – Raymond Postgate founded a consumer-led Guide in 1951 – and so we wanted to deliver reader-led awards, which we inaugurated in 2008 (in conjunction with the broader Which? Awards). These are now held annually in June and help to promote our reader feedback online – we had 20,000 restaurant nominations last year!
How have you stamped your personality on the Guide?
Well Which? always go through consultations with the consumer before making significant decisions and certain focus groups were conducted. The first result of that was a preference for county navigation. This made perfect sense as you are generally travelling to an area looking for a restaurant and can navigate the guide accordingly. Previously the alphabetical list put too much reliance on the maps in the guide to actually find a restaurant. Now the map for each county is on page one of that county and readers can navigate to restaurants from that point – this has been a real hit with the readers although there will always be those who prefer the old alphabetical list way of doing things.
The Top 40 list is a new departure and one that I think was overdue. The previous way of just listing those restaurants at seven and above needed updating.
It’s also important that the “Also Recommended” restaurants are credible restaurants of their type. They are restaurants that may not be worth a score but are in keeping with the quality standards of recommendations made by the guide. “Reader Recommendations” are those entries that reliable reporters have put forward, based on a consensus of reader reports suggesting inclusion. We will not have had the opportunity to send an inspector, but if the reports are from trustworthy sources we will run them as reader recommendations and see how they develop over the year.
The marking scheme is out of 10, any plans to change?
No. It has been out of ten since 1996. I know in the past we’ve had schemes out of twenty and out of five but ten fits well and everyone knows how it works.
And are the marks purely about food on a plate?
Good question. To a certain extent it has to be; service is very subjective, one person’s bad service is another’s walking out of the restaurant best friends with the maitre d’. And one style of décor or ambiance may appeal to one demographic and not another. However, there is a slight softening on the stance about food on a plate from The Good Food Guide. For the general public the sum of the parts that make up the overall experience is important. We have a slight advantage with our guide in that we can write about all of these things and inform our readers accordingly.
Our trusted reader reporters and inspectors are able to benchmark and compare restaurants and part of it is experience and instinct that allows them to say “this restaurant is on a par with that restaurant” and so on. Should you become too analytical about the detail of the cooking then you lose sight of the overall dining experience.
Having said that our top inspectors have a lot of international experience, so when they are assessing the likes of Marcus Wareing, The Square, Ramsay or the Fat Duck they are making comparisons with the very best in the world. “How does this compare with Michel Bras, El Bulli, Noma or Per Se?” They may ask.
How are the team of inspectors organised?
They are divided up regionally. We have some cross fertilisation of inspectors going on longer inspection trips to ensure consistency, but I tend to prefer a regional inspector to be able to tell me what the top ten restaurants are in their region and give me the marks for each. We have actually taken on more people this year, new people tend to approach us and we test them out to see how they would get on and this system works well. I also have a great senior editor in Lisa Grey, who looks after the day to day running of the guide. She has picked up what we’re looking for very quickly and is doing very well.
Do you have a dual role of inspector and editor?
Yes I do. With the inspecting experience it just makes sense. In fact I travel some long distances, especially to check out the top 40 feature!
How do you think restaurants will cope with the recession?
Some restaurants are still doing fine. I’m finding that with our top 40 restaurants, often I’m able to ring at 3pm and get a table for that night. Not that they’re empty – but trade is a little slower and I’ve even seen them take walk ins. Elsewhere, the ones that have the price right, have the food right and the welcome right are doing well.
We’re finding that many of our potential new entries are the more affordable, flexible and perhaps more informal restaurants. This is a trend coming through.
It would also be nice for wine lists to get more realistic and this too may happen.
Something good or at least interesting for the restaurant scene has often come out of a recession – In the 1980s we had Marco Pierre White and modern British cooking, out of the 1990s came the Gastropub (which subsequently became too expensive, leaving a hole in the mid-market) . This time around we may find that all day dining is the next big thing.
What do you think of the rise of the internet and the amateur food critic?
I often do a quick google to help form some research and develop a consensus idea about a new recommendation from readers. It goes no further than that; the inspector has to make the decision entirely independent of discussion on the internet.
Is there an internet version of the Which? Good Food Guide.
Which? Have around 750,000 subscribers and that audience has an option to gain access to an excellent on-line version of the Guide.
How often can an included restaurant expect to get inspected?
Between trusted reader feedback and inspectors every restaurant will be covered in the year. In terms of pure inspector visits there is a rotation system that ensures all entries and those with potential are visited within a fixed period of time.
The Good Food Guide can be ordered on 01903 828557 (£16.99, p&p free) or at www.which.co.uk/books or bought from bookshops.