Marina O’Loughlin’s reviews are recommended reading for anyone hoping to get a gig as a restaurant critic. Her perfectly phrased commentary and anonymity have made her one of the most respected authorities on food in the UK. She told us all about her job, from top tips for wannabe writers to a secret soft spot for cheese on toast…
How did you start out as a restaurant reviewer?
I’ve always loved restaurants, even as a kid. Working in advertising, with the benevolent approach to lunches and expenses, I got to eat out more than anyone has a right to. This was before blogs, or I’d have almost certainly have had one. I was approached by Metro – sheer nepotism: I knew the features editor and her methodology was to employ enthusiasts who could write (I was a copywriter) rather than established niche writers. I’ve never stopped since.
What do you like most about your job?
Restaurants! Even after nearly 16 years in the job (and quite a few years working in them), I never cease to be excited about the next restaurant on the horizon. And it’s what I do on my days off too. I’m an absolute restaurant obsessive.
Is there anything you dislike about your job?
I don’t like being negative and critical about small ‘mom ’n’ pop’ restaurants where people’s livelihoods depend on it. Which is why I try to find the good stuff wherever I go. But, bloated celebrity chefs or joints backed by billionaire moneymen are fair game.
You’ve chosen to remain completely anonymous throughout your career – that can’t have been easy! Why do you think it’s important for a restaurant reviewer to keep a low profile?
It’s not easy – and increasingly difficult with social media (especially as a Twitter addict). There have been a couple of times recently when I’ve felt very much ‘clocked’. This only really happens in London where restaurants are far more likely to have savvy PRs and keep a beady eye on internet activity. But by and large, I manage – and as far as I know my face doesn’t appear on any of the mugshots pinned in restaurant kitchens.
For me it’s important simply because you get treated the same as everyone else. No matter what they say to the contrary, famous faces get special treatment and that can most definitely sway opinions in favour.
Have you ever had someone guess who you are while on a job?
See above. And someone took a photo of me in one of my ‘50 Favourite Restaurants’ recently and put it on Instagram – fortunately with a giant emoji over my face. The irony was that he was there because I’d written about it. It does make me anxious that there’s a picture of me out there…
Do you make notes while you’re in a restaurant?
I never take notes – have never needed to as I have an almost eidetic memory for food (but not for important things like birthdays or anniversaries). Recently, my camera phone has proved invaluable – and since everyone snaps their food these days, it doesn’t mark me out as a critic.
Do you read food reviews yourself, and if so, do you have any favourite critics?
I read every one. And many overseas ones, too. I can’t tell you which are my favourites because we now all know each other and I wouldn’t want to step on any toes. But I do prefer reviews that are more about the restaurant and less about the critic. And it makes me rage when I read columns by people who clearly don’t know a great deal about food but are still happy to inflict their opinions on the rest of us.
What would your advice be to young people looking to get their foot in the door?
Write, write and write some more. Create a blog and put it in front of people whose opinion you respect – much easier now that you can contact people via social media. Make sure it’s in your own unique voice rather than trying to ape any heroes. And read too – all you can get your hands on. Pitch regularly, and don’t be deterred by rejection – it happens to all of us. But also remember that there are only about five people in the whole of the UK who make a living out of being a restaurant critic (I’m not keen on the expression ‘food critic’ as it makes me think of people who sniff plates, and I’m more about restaurants as a whole). So, if that’s your heart’s desire, prepare to create your own niche rather than chase one of the existing ones. I’m afraid those of us lucky enough to have a regular gig are holding onto it for dear life.
Are there any courses or qualifications that you would recommend?
I think The Guardian does courses on how to be a food blogger and I contributed some quotes to Kerstin Rodger’s Get Started in Food Writing but that’s about it. In terms of experience – eat out as much as you can afford, subject yourself to as many new foods and cooking styles as you can come across… and travel!
What is the biggest misconception that people have about being a restaurant reviewer?
That we’re all red-nosed, cravat-wearing posh blokes. The field is every bit as female these days as it is male.
Do you have a favourite place to eat?
I have many, depending on mood. I collated my 50 favourites in the UK for The Guardian last year, and I stand by all of those. When I’m in London, the excellent Noble Rot is just on my doorstep. Plus, I adore Bo.Lan in Bangkok, Cibus in Puglia, Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco…
Not naming any names… what’s the worst meal you’ve ever eaten?
I’m quite happy to name the name – it was a New York import to London called Hotel Chantelle. I described it as Frankenstein food. They liked to hang jamon on little washing lines, fashion foie gras into the shape of Lego bricks and inject donuts with pipettes of goo. Utterly imbecilic in every way.
On the rare nights that you eat at home, what is your favourite thing to cook?
Cheese on toast. Honestly. Couldn’t love it more. In my house, it’s my husband who’s the creative cook.
Do you believe in following food trends, and if so, what do you think we’ll be seeing more of this year?
Not really – I tend to find this sort of thing a bit reductive, food-as-fashion. But I think that the increasing informality of restaurants – especially high-end – is set to continue. And I welcome this: ambitious, intricate and sophisticated cooking without all the hauteur and hushed reverence – I’m all for it.
Feeling inspired? Whatever your skillset, we’ve got plenty of insight into kick-starting a career in the food industry:
Are you a restaurant reviewer, a food blogger, or simply keen to get onto the restaurant scene? Let us know in the comments below…