From all sides: Food writing, working in a kitchen and absorbing critiques

Food writer turned chef on restaurant reviews

Jackie Lee London pastry chef

The first bad review I received made my heart drop into the pit of my stomach. It was akin to learning that somebody dear to me had died. I leaned against the counter, hands balled into fists and asked, "What did they say, specifically?" My head chef sighed, rolled his eyes and said, "They hated everything; slated the whole meal. They said the rum baba was not a ‘real rum baba’, the dough was clearly bought in and they knew what it should be like because they regularly made it for their supper club."

Bought-in?“ I thought incredulously. “I make that dough by hand! Who does this person think they are?

And then, in a mixed flurry of anger and shame (which I'm sure there must be a German word for), I realized that I knew exactly who they thought they were because I used to be that person.

Just over three years ago, I was a freelance food writer, scraping by on complimentary meals and poorly paid editorials, and full of opinions. I was a good home cook, an avid reader of food literature and loved to eat out, but did that qualify me to judge others? I thought so and I ate at some of the best restaurants in the world, praising some, tearing apart others. The decision to move out of food writing and into the kitchen was one I made when I realized that I derived much more joy from cooking the food than relentlessly eating and judging it. The desire to create was much greater than that to consume. So, I laid aside my pen and put on my chef's whites.

These days, I make my living working in kitchens as a pastry chef. I now find myself in a position where I've seen both sides of the coin and I'm torn. On one hand, I know how much hard work goes into making the food that ends up on your plate at a restaurant. Those petits fours you just ate in two seconds? That took three days to make and somebody nearly lost an arm doing it. So much time and effort that you never see goes into your food and, naturally, there is a lot of pride in the finished product, because that dish? That dish came from my imagination and now it's on your plate and all I can do is hope that you love it as much as I do.

On the other hand, mistakes happen, people become jaded and there are questionable practices I've witnessed that would put me off eating out ever again: I have met dirty chefs, lazy chefs, insane chefs who you just hoped to God wouldn't flip and stab anybody. Sometimes when a reviewer arrives into these establishments, they are fully justified in their comments and it's a fair judgement. In these cases, changes need to be made.

Then, sometimes, there are reviewers who just believe that they are justified in their negative comments, who forget that on the other side of the pass, there's a person who poured their heart and soul into their dish. Ashamed though I am to admit it, I have been that person.

I once wrote a review of a local restaurant which slated the food, atmosphere and even the toilet door's positioning. Following publication, someone told me that the owners had asked him, "What is wrong with her? Why would she write those things?" Another reader emailed with, "I'm not sure they warranted receiving quite such a death knell."

Even my own family declared me a food snob, but I ignored the shame in my stomach, avoided that end of the street and carried on slashing and praising restaurants left, right and centre. I believed that I had every right to express my opinion and woe betide any fool who opposed me.

In short, there were times when I was kind of a dick.


These days, when I look back at those moments, I feel embarrassed because, really, I was just a girl with an opinion, who knew very little about what it meant to work in a kitchen. When I graduated culinary school, over my first job, I cried everyday for six months because it was so much harder than anybody had told me it was going to be (sometimes I cried in the back, sometimes I hid in the bathroom, one time I cried on the floor of the Tube). At another job, I worked in a popular restaurant that churned out 600 covers a day: I regularly started at 8 a.m. and didn't finish until well past 2 a.m., with one half hour break in the day. At another place I heard how somebody had collapsed from exhaustion and everybody else had walked over him to carry on because they were a week away from opening and there was too much to do.

There is a lot of fear in restaurants, and that's something nobody ever tells you.

Just add ice cream. #YesChef

A photo posted by Jackie Lee (@jaxies) on

Now, when I see diners photographing their food relentlessly before eating, or hear others enthusiastically debating over that Instagram post, I cringe. I do so because I know what it is to be the chef just hoping to God that they hurry the hell up and eat their ice cream before it melts, and because I recognize myself in them. I still have those conversations, still take photos of almost everything I eat, am still, at heart, a girl with many opinions. I'm too close to both sides to know how to feel.

It's a constant struggle: who do I side with? Am I the ex-food-writer, sympathizing with those shouting into the abyss of opinion? Or am I the chef, fiercely defending my rum baba dish to the death? To be honest, even now, I'm not sure. I'm like a coin, forever spinning in the air, unsure which side I'll eventually land on, or if I ever will.