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When chefs bite back: ‘As soon as my restaurant review appeared, the threats started…’

William Sitwell restaurant critic
William Sitwell: 'Will I wake up and find a horse’s head on the pillow next to me?' Credit: Rii Schroer

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The first threats came at around 12.30am the night after the day my restaurant review column was published in the Telegraph Magazine, the Saturday before last.

It began with a number of missed calls from numbers I didn’t recognise. The following day, my voicemail duly offered up the first recorded message: “I’m going to be waiting for you. I’m going to come and find you,” it said. “Things are going to get really dirty. I mean it, I seriously mean it.”

The person calling me is Richard Wilkins, the chef of a restaurant called 104. It’s a tiny little place on Chepstow Road in Notting Hill.

In my review, I took issue with a number of things. 

There are the backs of chairs that swivel and make you think you’re about to tip over backwards; the mouthful of small pebbles I got in the mouth when guzzling a nice little trout tartare amuse bouche cone (in fact uncooked lentils, in which the cones were sitting); the woody Sardinian asparagus (imported when British ones were in full bloom) flavoured only with the lemon rind placed on top; the burnt skin of the sea bass; the undercooked wedges of French duck; a chocolate moelleux where I was hoping for something warm and oozing, but was so cold you couldn’t taste the chocolate… 

Notting Hill's 104 Restaurant: Telegraph critic William Sitwell wrote that, 'with a few tweaks, the chef can keep this lovely little place on the map' Credit: Jasper Fry

I suggested that the chef, whose name I didn’t know, made sure he tasted every dish, and tried sitting in his chairs. I concluded: “With a few tweaks he can keep this lovely little place on the map.”

Too often chefs either forget, or feel they don’t have the time, to dine in their own restaurants. My suggestion was that he do just that.

His suggestion in return – from the constant texts and calls from him since the review was published – was that I needed to be taught a lesson. “I’m going to call you every day,” he has also said in one particularly ominous call. And he’s threatened to come to one of the supper clubs that I run as part of my own little culinary empire. But he doesn’t want to see what the food I serve is like, or try out my chairs.

“Maybe I’ll turn up to one of your supper clubs and spoil it,” he said in a voicemail that he left, adding for a dash of menace: “Let’s see. It’s only going to get worse.”

Wilkins claims my review is part of some bizarre revenge plot orchestrated by a previous boss of his whom he worked for at the restaurant. She is a female chef who I know well, but I never discussed anything concerning 104 in the lead up to my visit to the restaurant or before the review was published. I’m afraid I didn’t even know his name when I dined at 104. I only learnt of it when he introduced himself on his messages. 

Now I’m fairly certain that in the tradition of seeking revenge, those conducting the aggression don’t normally leave voicemails. A schoolboy error you might think. Mr Wilkins also likes to dish out his threats in writing. “You won’t be able to avoid me for long,” he wrote in a text. “Get used to having me in the back of your mind wherever you go.”

So will I wake up and find a horse’s head on the pillow next to me? Or as he’s a chef, perhaps it will be a hand-dived isle of Orkney scallop, fresh peas, a Granny Smith apple and lovage – currently featuring on the 104 menu. 

Gordon Ramsay banned restaurant critic AA Gill from his premises Credit: 20thC.Fox/Everett / Rex Features

One never knows with some chefs, they can be a wayward bunch. The pressure of running a restaurant: staffing issues, business rates, health and safety compliance, supply costs and so much more can mean that a less than fulsome review from a critic can tip some over the edge. And I’m not a critic who plies his trade as a sport, feverishly looking for a terrible restaurant so I can pen a glorious takedown.

Most of the places I visit in the UK amaze me with their originality and commitment. The British food scene is currently a glorious place to be. In the last six months I have raved (and wept with joy) about a tiny pasta joint in Bristol (Pasta Ripiena), the wonderful food of South African chef James Erasmus at Harlequin in London’s Fulham, and the glorious feasting offered at the Woodsman in Stratford upon Avon.

I prefer to joyfully recommend rather than brutally trash. And my editors are also keen that when things do go wrong, I offer constructive advice. I don’t just flee the blazing wreckage. I know that chefs can be tender, sensitive souls. But like all good critics I pay my way – albeit at this newspaper’s expense – I don’t give good reviews in return for freebies, my reviews are honest. I’m there so you know you either don’t have to be, or most definitely should be.

But I’m not the first critic to attract the ire of a chef. The finest plier of this trade, the late AA Gill, was banned by Gordon Ramsay from setting foot in his restaurants. 

“I don’t respect him as a food critic and I don’t have to stand there and cook for him. I have made it quite clear that he is not welcome at my restaurant,” Ramsay wrote some 20 years ago.

The French chef, Claude Bosi, hit out at a blogger in 2012 who described a meal as “hit and miss”. Bosi vented his fury on Twitter, choosing a classic English term of abuse, rather than French, to describe James Isherwood. 

Bosi later said that he was angry at what he saw was a dishonest review, adding: “I have no problem or issue with criticism.” But other chefs also waded in to Bosi’s defence. The acclaimed Tom Kerridge tweeted: “Smash him in chef Bosi.” 

And the fiery Marco Pierre White has assiduously dished out fury to the Michelin Guide, not that he actually had a bad review from them. The guide, he has said, is out-of-date, inconsistent and too commercial. 

In the US, Mario Batali frequently slams food bloggers, and chef John Tesar banned critic Leslie Brenner from his Dallas restaurant after she had the temerity to award the chef only three out of five stars. “To paraphrase Mark Twain, I prefer not to battle with people who buy their ink by the gallon,” said Tesar. “But hear this: That woman is not welcome in any of my restaurants.”

But when AA Gill labelled a restaurant in Powys as “disgusting”, the head chef didn’t attack the critic, he took his fury out on one of his underlings, swinging a punch at him and pushing him down the restaurant’s front steps. 

So what should a chef do, when a critic is beastly? MasterChef winner and chef Tim Anderson says: “Don’t take anything too personally. If somebody wants to disagree with you or criticise you, just try to ignore it – which I know is really hard.”

The respected US Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts issues guidance for the chefs that it trains: “Critics aren’t interested in assaulting you personally. This is their job, and they don’t have it out for you or your restaurant. When the criticism is negative, don’t blow it off right away; this is a chance for you to really evaluate what you’re doing in the kitchen.”

Responding angrily to a critic, they add, “might feel good, but ultimately it will make you and your staff look unprofessional”.

Perhaps chef Wilkins might ponder on this, while he gears up to deliver on his promise that: “I’m going to call you tomorrow, and the next day and the next day and the next day…”

Read William Sitwell's latest restaurant review on telegraph.co.uk every Friday from 7am