Culture Features

Chef Bites Back: Giles Coren

Food critics love to dish it out – and make a tidy sum doing so – but no one puts them under the spotlight. Until now.

Now I didn’t grow up eating coal in a coal mine but I feel I can also say with some certainty that every Giles is a posh twat. In fairness I have only ever known two people called Giles. One went to Eton and the other went to Oxford, and the latter is Mr. Coren himself – yes, we have met. This is conclusive as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll be honest. Mr. Coren was top of my hit list of reviewers. Number one. The thought had me cracking my knuckles and stretching out my wrists. But the powers that be chose Mr Rayner which, in retrospect, was a very good thing. Now my teeth are not only cut, but they are also sharp – and ready for Giles.

My first thought was to go for the jugular straight away. There’s simply so much to go at. Every week there’s another ‘Giles-ism’: he’s either sending another of ‘those emails’ or breaking an injunction on Twitter or being homophobic to prominent journalists. But it felt too easy, too obvious, because everyone knows Giles Coren is a prick.

The other annoyingly obvious thing, which everyone wilfully forgets, is that he is a brilliant writer who, while he can be totally insensitive and a howling Tory, for the most part is very funny. It’s confusing to be confronted with someone whose talents are matched only by their unlikability. But then, if you think about it, the world is full of men who are very talented but no one likes: Novak Djokovic, Robbie Savage, Lewis Hamilton, Richard Dawkins, Eminem.

And this is the thing. You can win an argument, but it doesn’t mean you’re not a prick. Of course you’ve been there: slashing away with your tongue, like Jon Snow putting his sword through White Walkers, reducing the room to a pile of body parts. Then at the end of your rant you realise that you stand triumphant – but everyone thinks you’re a prick.

We are all pricks, to a greater or lesser extent, and prickishness cannot be limited to just one type of person: it is something we can all be accused of, a state which we can drift in and out of. To some people, such as our family, we are pricks on occasion; to others, like our ex’s friends, we will be pricks forever.

So I put aside my preconceived ideas and mild hatred and began my research as usual, going about the forensic process of reading every review Coren has ever written. It’s quite hard to find the early ones. Well it’s not that hard, you just click through lots of pages until you find the first review.

Giles’ first restaurant review for the Times was in 1993. The world was a different place then: before the internet changed our lives, before 9/11, before iPhones, and Instagram, or even iPod and mp3s, before Tony and Gordon had grey hair, before the financial crash, before austerity, before Brexit, before we realised that global warming heralded the extinction of the human race. Yes, the world was a very different place, and so, my dear readers, were its restaurants.

I was at first surprised at how illuminating it was to read 27 years of restaurant reviews. Giles’ writing, like it or not, is a document of the evolution of British food and culture. The start of the list is 50 shades of beige. Everything begins with a ‘The’: The Greyhound, The Connaught, The Goring, The Yorke Arms, The Belsize, The Burlington.

You can practically feel the thick shagpile carpet under your bespoke loafers, the red leather couches against your three-buttoned blazer, the inevitable sneer from the conflicted Maître D’, whose job it is to serve you, but also to ensure that you are the right type of guest.

It’s quaint to think that at the turn of the century there were not enough restaurants in London to keep reviewers in the business of writing weekly columns. Imagine grumpy old Coren, or rather grumpy young Coren, having to hop into his Audi A4 and drive another 30 miles outside London to review another gastropub no one gives a fuck about. It’s a laughable idea now, 20 years later, when you could review three restaurants a week for the next however many years and plonkers like me would still be opening them quicker than Giles could put pen to paper.

What’s very transparent is that over the last two decades restaurants have changed – undoubtedly for the better. They are no longer places where ordinary people unequipped with ‘good etiquette’ feel uncomfortable. There are still only a few exceptional restaurants in London, along with a thousand that are good, a few hundred that are great and fifty or so that are brilliant. The bar has been raised and that has most certainly been helped on by a few hip young things in the last five to ten years. Here is Coren summing it up nicely in one recent review:

‘I love the new relaxed way of eating out and its prioritising of well-sourced and not overfiddled platefuls ahead of fancy decor and all the pomp and ceremony of yore. Assuming I can get into a hipster joint without standing for an hour in the rain, I am generally delighted by the long eating bar, cheap furniture, bare brick walls, mismatched crockery and imaginatively painted youths who come to divulge the restaurant’s “concept” to me in all its mystical complexity, as if it were the foundation text of a privileged religious sect to which I should consider entrusting my soul.’

And here’s the rub: I have to confess, I actually have a soft spot for Giles. I started off really wanting to hate him (just hating him, actually). But there is an inimitable flow to his sentences. When you try to rinse him, you end up at the bottom of the sink looking up at yourself struggling to turn the tap on. I can’t deny it. He’s a very good writer and the biggest, most frustrating discovery of all is that he does know about food.

So I feel slightly stumped. But I must push on. I have to review his ability to review.

Coren’s problem is that while he knows about food, he doesn’t care about it. He wants to write something that makes him look cool and doesn’t mind if the unlucky restaurant is part of the debris. He is by far the most unpredictable of the major reviewers. He is so grumpy that no one ever knows what he’s going to say about a restaurant. Getting a good review from him, as with many of his contemporaries, is dependent on how hungover he is from the night before. Sometimes it just makes no sense: he reviews somewhere that is undoubtedly brilliant and he gives it one star. On the other hand, he has penned a dubious number of stellar reviews for restaurants that are unarguably total shit.

He’s extremely good at writing on a subject he doesn’t much care about, and it gives him a very strange but unique objectivity. But his major flaw is that this objectivity is completely compromised by his see-sawing mood swings.

So back to my process. Just as a serial killer’s victims become pictures on a detective’s pin board, each review gives me increasing insight into the mind of this writer. I absorb his vocabulary and spot patterns in his vernacular. Where was Coren when he wrote this piece? What room was he in? What was he wearing? (Actually, the last question is easy. He was wearing red trousers.)

The question I keep returning to is: how much does Giles know about food? Sometimes I’m not so sure. But I still think he knows a bit about food. More so than Jay Rayner does. For every handful of one stars he dishes out, there is another kind of review he does, like when he managed to swing a table at El Bulli back in 2003. ‘Feran Adria gives your eyes one thing, your tongue another, then sits back and watches as your head falls off’. Read that review if you don’t believe me: it’s classic Giles. He himself often says he’s not a restaurant critic, he’s a writer that happens to write about food. For the most part I agree. But reviewing El Bulli, he was both.

Anyway, I’m contracting Corenavirus after that paragraph of effusive praise.

In truth, he’s like a late series version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I have served and met him a few times, and even sat down and dined with him once. He has a tendency to showboat and try to be one of the lads – an overcompensation that makes him come across as a total bellend.

But then there is a funny Giles, who is actually very sweet, to the point that it’s hard to reconcile this sensitive soul with the idiot who says things like, ‘If someone describes a Chinese restaurant as a good local chinky is this bad?’ or when he said he didn’t care what profession his son chose, ‘as long as he isn’t fat’, or this absolute mouldy peach of a tweet – ‘Girlfriend away and what do I do? Bang the mum next door? Take drugs and rape a stripper? No. I watch Miss Congeniality and cry. Sniff.’ And my personal favourite – ‘Next door have bought their 12 year old son a drum kit. For f**k’s sake! Do I kill him then burn it? Or do I f**k him then burn it?’

Is there an appetite to cancel Coren? Could we get a snazzy T-shirt made, saying ‘Cancel Coren’? It could have legs. It’s catchy, a bit like Bollocks to Brexit. Do you think we could do it, readers, like how if everyone took a reusable cup made of reusable cups to Pret a Manger, they would have to stop making disposable cups? Perhaps if we all came together we could cancel Coren.

Wait. Damn it. I’m forgetting that Coren’s audience are the rich, deplorable readership of the Times. And they love him. So I think the idea is a non-starter, as fun as it sounds. Sorry guys.

And let us also not forget Giles has done the odd completely amazing thing. There was that time he put Keith McNally in his place. Keith McNally, if you didn’t know, is a very successful New York restaurateur, and his most notable restaurant is probably Balthazar. Balthazar opened as a new Parisian-style bistro made to look like an old one, and for a while it was in every film and loved by every film star – basically, the coolest restaurant in New York for a time. Balthazar works in New York, because it’s like a Parisian Bistro Theme Park and, well, Americans love theme parks. Foolishly, Keith thought that we’d like this in London, forgetting two key factors: firstly, that the British really don’t care much about theme parks and secondly, we don’t need a Parisian Bistro Theme Park in London, because it takes us two and a half hours door-to-door to eat at Chez George or Bistro Paul Bert in Paris.

Anyway, Keith decided it was a good idea to bring Balthazar to London. For a couple of weeks during the soft launch everyone got very hot under the collar thinking this was the most exciting restaurant in London, including the critics. In this moment of blind awe and sycophancy lots of reviewers went and ate the godawful food in Keith’s massive, over-styled room and said they loved it, giving it the big five stars, probably because they wanted to be friends with Keith. Then Giles went for dinner, thought it was awful – so bad he went back for lunch to confirm his opinion – and wrote a review saying so; saying moreover that he didn’t believe any of his peers could have written that they loved it with a shred of integrity. To him it was the ‘best restaurant in London but the worst food in Europe’. Keith took this as a personal affront – and an insult to New York – and wrote a public letter to the Eater website. Giles, being the prick that he is, responded with an open letter saying that he loved New York, because ‘the cocaine there is amazing’ and ‘very attractive women will sleep with you because you have a British accent.’

It was a laugh. But I think the last and cruellest laugh is at Coren’s expense. Some would describe him as a narcissist; I think he’s a Sysiphist. What’s that, you ask? Well it isn’t a word – but if it was the etymology would lead us back to the Ancient Greeks, like narcissist leads us to Narcissus.

Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra, known not only for his cunning but also for his deceit. He thought himself smarter than the gods and after successfully tricking Zeus – a bad move and totally something Giles would do – he was sentenced to death.

Instead of receiving his punishment though, he tricked Death, managing to slip his eternal chains round Death’s throat. With Death all tied up, there was a sudden lack of death going on in the world, until eventually Sisyphus was rumbled. This time Zeus banished him to the underworld, where his punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a hill that was equally steep on either side. Whenever the boulder reached the top, it would immediately roll down the other side. Sisyphus was trapped in an eternal loop of meaningless manual labour that left him forever unfulfilled.

It would seem to me there are many parallels with Mr. Coren. Giles is tricky, deceitful and thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. But what he wanted to be was a novelist, which he has failed at totally. Now he writes on a subject he doesn’t really care about. Maybe that’s why he says such vulgar and abhorrent things? He must hate the disposability of his own writing. Perhaps his column is like Sisyphus’ boulder. When you think about it from this angle, it becomes quite sad. So I would urge you to just ignore the next Giles-ism, because behind the outrageous comment there is nothing more than a perfectly amiable but miserably frustrated posh prick.

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