30 Jul 2010

Exuberantly Anonymous: Marina O'Loughlin

Marina O'Loughlin, the restaurant critic for Metro and gastro-traveller for Olive, on techno-sexual bloggers, kaiten-sushi conveyors and print’s vast soap opera-ish future...

How important is anonymity to you?
Hugely. Despite what other critics say – mostly those with byline photos – you do absolutely get treated differently when you’re recognised. That’s not a typical experience. I want to know what the restaurant is like when you go as a punter, not A.A. Gill. I’ve been in restaurants at the same time as the well-known geezers and it throws the place into an unattractive tizz with freebies and foofed dishes and fawning chefs. And there’s nothing more anxiety-inducing than a fawning chef.
Do you enjoy anonymity?
Yes. Yes I do. People tell me things they’d never tell a recognised face. I can slope in to restaurants, get pissed as a rat if I want to and not be bothered. I love restaurants almost more than my children but I hate the clenched atmosphere you get in the presence of a big name critic. I don’t know how they stand it. Must be an ego thing.
Does anonymity mean you must avoid PR and promotional events?
Of course. But I’m relentlessly antisocial and hate parties so I don’t mind.
Excluding editors, approximately how many people know your real identity?
Well, nearly all my friends do.
In the biz, only three who have caught me out, all sworn to secrecy or I’ll kill ‘em. And one who I came out to because I have a terrible teenage crush on him. (Hi, Paul…) And one who has known me forever because I’ve been a regular customer for years and he doesn’t give a monkey’s.
Has anyone ever threatened to expose you?
I know of one fellow journalist who told a PR she was going to track me down and find out where I live (good luck with that one). And there have been various rumours across the years about people – including Big Sweary – offering money for a pic of me. I usually point them to images of Nancy Dell’Olio, for whom I am a dead ringer.
Have you found Twitter liberating?
I adore Twitter in an almost unhealthy way. After ten years of being on my own with a computer I now have hundreds of virtual chums who share my obsession. Having said that, I was a really early adopter of forums, and went along to outings organised by the likes of eGullet and Opinionated About Dining masquerading as Agnes McGlumphur down from the sticks. It was there that I discovered that people who are hugely entertaining on the internet are not necessarily quite as much fun in real life.
Which fellow critics do you heed?
Fay Maschler was always my heroine. I used to read her stuff religiously in my provincial youth, dreaming of the Capital’s fleshpots. I really enjoy Giles Coren’s writing. He has enormous energy and wit, though I suspect he occasionally has no idea what he’s talking about. And I’m a big fan of Tracey McLeod. But the best one ever was Craig Brown – I wish I could find some of his old reviews. Oh, and I bow before the subtle insights of the redoubtable @daveknockles.
What do you think of London’s food blogging scene?
Love it. There’s some great stuff out there and a wonderful pioneering spirit. Some bloggers are every bit as good as the ‘professionals’. Some you want to shake and shake until they understand the meaning of the word EDIT.
[Maternal voice] I also sometimes worry that there are all these young people out there concentrating far too hard on their dinner and not nearly enough on getting laid.
What food items repulse you?
Balut. And celery.
What is your favourite season?
Love them all. Though I’m particularly keen on the game, truffles and comfort foods of autumn.
What culture inspires you?
Spain, although I was a latecomer to it. My first visit to San Sebastian made me dizzy with greed and excitement. I love the fact that what you get in Asturias is wildly different to what you eat in Andalucia. If I only had to visit one country for the rest of my days, it would be Spain. But I’d quite like to sneak Vietnam in there too.
Can you cook?
I can cook but I don’t. My husband is the cook in our family. Left to my own devices, I do a first class toast and Marmite.
Tea or coffee?
I can happily live without either, although I do force down a liquorice and milk thistle detox tea every morning. And I like the very occasional inky espresso with a square of viciously black chocolate. Otherwise, Grey Goose vodkatini, fiercely dry with a twist, please.
Coca Cola or Pepsi?
Roughly once a year, a Diet Coke is the most delicious thing on the face of the entire planet.
This year, that one time was last Sunday lunchtime in Bocca di Lupo. Rest of the time, blah.
If you had a super power, what would it be?
I would be able to stuff my face on greasy carbs without putting on an ounce.
What are you most grateful for?
That somebody pays me to do my favourite things in the whole world. Makes it a little difficult to instil a work ethic in my children, however: they think they’re going to be able to make a living by playing computer games.
Which young chef do you tip for greatness?
Depends on what you mean by greatness. If you mean Michelin (a bunch who are losing kudos on a daily basis) then Tristan Welch at Launceston Place. He’s properly good, and does all the Michelin-frotting stuff.
If you mean millions, I think Tom Norrington Davies is looking very tasty. Would Thomasina Miers call herself a chef? She’ll continue to do really well financially too. If greatness means happiness from maverick creativity and ploughing your own furrow, then it’s got to be Nuno Mendes; also, his Loft chum Ben Greeno (ex Noma) is looking for a restaurant which should be hugely exciting. I like Marcus McGuinness, currently Claude Bosi’s head chef at Hibiscus. Anyone who can come up with a menu featuring meadowsweet, sheep’s milk jam and Soreen is definitely one to watch.
Are Londoners becoming ever more savvy diners, or are they simply bowled over by style over substance?
Hmm. The proliferation of the ‘school of St John’ lot – Hereford Rd, Great Queen St etc – and the Giaconda Dining Rooms/Arbutus-style of pared-down excellence makes me think we’ve wised up at last. But then you find that people still pile into the Supperclubs (not supperclubs) and Asia de Cubas and Vanillas and whatever Cipriani is called nowadays and you think Londoners get what they deserve.
I do have the odd style over substance moment myself. [cough] Dean St Townhouse [cough]
What is the most ridiculous restaurant concept you’ve seen?
Toss up between Blue Belt on Old St (now De Santis) – French food served kaiten-sushi style on a conveyor belt: barkingly bad. And Japanese Italian fusion restaurant Shumi (now Sakenohana) a concept so palpably shite you’d never get tired kicking it. But look at Saf – as a committed carnivore, I laughed like a drain. But then I enjoyed it and it continues to do really well. The longer I’m in this business, the more I realise I know nothing.
When did you last complain in a restaurant?
Couple of weeks ago in a new place in the hinterlands of Holland Park; they were so inept I ended up walking out without even ordering. They simply did not give a fuck. It’s the kind of place that makes me despair.
Has a dish ever angered you?
Quite a lot of what I ate at El Bulli last November enraged me for completely forgetting to be in any way delicious; particular gibbering fury was reserved for a bitter, slimy ‘artichoke’ made of rose petals and a matcha tea thingy that tasted like licking batteries. I think Adria has closed at just the right time – he has pushed food as far as it can go before it becomes almost entirely inedible.
How long does it take you to pen a review?
Bloody ages. I’m aware that it’s people’s lives and work I’m talking about so I’m terrified of getting anything wrong.
Is print dying?
I don’t believe for a nanosecond that print is dying. What it’s doing is mutating. Nobody – despite the clamour of pundits – has the remotest idea of what’s going to happen next. And I mean nobody. Which is why there’s the mad scrabble for alternatives. It’s just sheer panic. I think it’s all hugely interesting and I’m watching it with vast soap-opera-ish interest.
What advice can you offer a wannabe professional food writer?
I wouldn’t have the remotest idea: I fell into it purely by greedy accident. Sorry. Observing some of the new breed, I’d infer that quite a lot of sucking up works wonders. Or having a famous parent. Or being a former model.
Did you have a mentor?
No. Although it was Elaine Paterson, former Features Ed of Time Out and first Arts Ed of Metro who gave me my break. She was scary, man. But she really taught me the benefits of having a strict, intelligent editor.
What would you have been in another life?
A poule de luxe...
Marina responded to my questions using the font Garamond. 
Follow her on Twitter: @MarinaMetro