Culture Food

Chef Bites Back: Marina O'Loughlin

Five stars on the house for the Sunday Times' anonymous critic!

Food critics wield an extraordinary influence over the restaurant industry. With a flick of the pen, they have the undeserved power to make or break careers. They love to dish it out – and make a tidy sum doing so – but no one questions their knowledge of cuisine. The Fence has hired a Michelin-starred restaurateur to go undercover and analyse their oeuvre. This time, it’s the turn of the anonymous Marina O’Loughlin, lately of the Sunday Times.

History is littered with anonymous artists. What is it about the mystery of a hidden identity that we all love so much? From Jane Austen to Banksy, Burial to the Brontë sisters, there is something about never quite reaching the person behind the artwork that tantalises us.

And, from one anonymous reviewer to another, I have to say Marina is my favourite critic. For more than a decade she has remained masked. In our industry, we are all hooked, because like any great anonymous character, she denies us access to her world.

Celebrity as a concept is meaningless in the modern age. Everybody opens up to display everything – their homes, friends, children’s lives, etc. No stone is left unturned in the vacuous hope to get more traction; to gain more followers. And we all lap it up.

But Marina is different, she’s worked very hard to ensure we can’t find out who she is. Even the picture of her holding a book in front of her face is someone else. Even her bloody avatar has a disguise. She’s known as a master of camouflage. She fooled me once, coming into one of my places in a blonde wig.

Not much is known about her, apart from that she’s Scottish while also claiming to be half-Italian – but a lot of Brits say that in an attempt to sound a little more continental. Her anonymity sets her apart from the rest of her parasitic peers who are dying to be spotted. Jay Rayner once wrote, ‘I do sometimes envy the true anonymity of my colleague @Marina O’Loughlin. She does get the skinny on crappy service in a way I cannot…’

Yeah, sure Jay, is that before or after you jumped out of your seat (uninvited) to play the piano at Quo Vadis?

Of course, I could moan about some minor gripes. Her conflict of interest with Noble Rot: she’s an investor in the restaurant, a writer for the magazine and champions the brand on Instagram. Then again, she’s never reviewed it, so why should I? I could slag her off for her incessant moaning about the absence of carbohydrate, or her slight shortsightedness regarding wine. Like all the other reviewers, she talks of hipsters and wines that taste of cider. (Accept it guys, there are entire cities that only serve natural wine. To not engage with it and dismiss it as vinegar is failing as a journalist who writes about restaurants). But I won’t because she is unashamedly honest. She can be forgiven for thinking a meal is not real without a large slice of bread or holding the view that all wine can be improved with a sprinkling of sulphur.

I want to find fault and be mean about Marina – but I cannot, not least because she is clearly a lovely person, genuinely not in it for the fawning glitz. Nothing like Giles Coren, who’d review a toilet to keep him in column inches, nor our friend Jay who picks restaurants based on the thickness of their pastry and the number of figures at the bottom of the bill. (There, at least I could be mean about someone in this column.)

The Metro, the Guardian and then the Times is a pretty stellar trajectory. There aren’t many people who could fill A A Gill’s shoes. Some people didn’t like Adrian. Some loved him. He did shoot a baboon so I can understand why some people didn’t, but I think most people loved his turn of phrase and his review was revered within the industry. Back in the day, the saying was ‘the Times is the one you want’ – and you didn’t always get it. These days any major opening gets a review from the Times, but in Gill’s heyday that just wasn’t the case. You had to really earn it.

Marina’s arguably the most important restaurant critic. She is such a heavyweight she can choose where she wants to go: the depths of the Scottish countryside, a restaurant she’s already visited or just abandon the review in favour of an opinion piece instead. Editors and readers will have to stop and listen. Take this review of Arthur’s in Haggerston:

‘Arthur’s a young chap behind the counter in shorts, nimbly assembling sandwiches from loaves of pillowy white bread or enormous brown rolls, all from Raab’s bakery on Essex Road. This is the “grandson”, James. His concentration, his almost choreographed speed of assembly, his good humour: they all lead me to suspect that Arthur’s may well be continuing to delight for at least another couple of generations. This makes me very happy.’

Then there was the time she reviewed a reviewer! (She beat me to that too). After a disastrous trip to a restaurant in Croatia she decided to write a review of TripAdvisor (by the way, I like to read all of her reviews in the voice of Nicola Sturgeon). Here we are:

‘Personally, I don’t hate TripAdvisor because it enables reviews of and tickets for cruel animal attractions, or for its climate of blackmail-enabling entitlement. I hate it because it enables reviews of and tickets for cruel animal attractions, or for its climate of blackmail-enabling entitlement. I hate it because it’s shit.’

What a legend.

She writes beautifully about food, in pictorial limericks that leave you licking your lips, ‘Hand-chopped steak tartare with sunshine-yellow egg yolk laced through; sweet surf clams partying with the grassy reek of just-harvested garlic,’ or ‘The fish flakes with a creamy sigh, just a suggestion of gelatinousness at its core.’ Her writing is never overly verbose, laden in rich, precise imagery that mirrors the dishes on the table.

It’s sad that due to her anonymity Marina and I can never actually speak. I think I would really love her in real life. She’s like your mum’s best mate. I reckon you could be smoking weed in the back garden of your mates’ birthday party and she’d ask for a puff. The type of woman who would always get on the fags with you on your family holiday to Menorca.

I think she knows she’d love me too. I try not to get defensive, as there are a few of my peers who are pals with her. Maybe she just doesn’t like my restaurant enough to make me a pal?

The real tragedy is the sacrifice she has made in respect of journalism. She wrote a poignant piece on anonymity in lockdown, observing that it came as a surprise to her how much she missed people. Imagine having to live your life in the shadows of an industry you clearly love. Think of all the potential friendships that could have been in the 20 years of her career as a critic.

Yes, she gets to dodge the sycophants at openings, but surely after an amazing dinner with her friends she might like to say hello and thank you to the chef? Anthony Bourdain once described the hospitality we give to each other in our industry as ‘the kind of warm welcome and name recognition all of us beaten-down working-class slobs crave when we go out for dinner.’

Everybody wants to go where everybody knows your name, even me, sometimes I get spotted when I go out for dinner. I have to admit I enjoy it. On occasion, I even solicit bookings using my work email. I justify it by thinking they’ll want to know that I am coming. Or do they? Maybe they’ve never heard of me and really don’t really care.

When you think about it like that I’m almost as bad as Giles. ‘How can they ply me with claret and young waitresses if they don’t know who I am?’ Well, maybe not, no one is as bad as Giles in that way. But none of us have made the sacrifice Marina has. And for that, she should be saluted. So, here’s to you Marina. Slàinte mhath! Or should I say Salute?

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