From the archives: My dinner with AA Gill

When the world’s most famous – and famously critical – restaurant reviewer came to town, Metro took him to dinner.

He appeared in the hotel lobby wearing a tight brown corduroy jeans jacket and a pair of even tighter mustard-coloured pants. The effect was to accentuate the swell of the shoulders and pecs, the bulging crotch. He was grinning like a schoolboy talking animatedly about his wonderful new possum socks.

Gill, larger than life, the world’s most famous restaurant critic, a self-professed dandy all got up in silly clothes. It’s quite possible, judging by the fit of those pants, that the possum socks on his feet were not the only pair he had about his person.

Why those clothes? Gill, who was here for the Writers and Readers Festival, had said yes to dinner and was bringing with him another of the visiting writers Fatima Bhutto, but the airline had lost their luggage.

Which provided the perfect opportunity for him to satisfy himself about how ridiculous this country is. Already, having got off the plane while it was raining, he’d decided Auckland was just like Leeds in 1972. Or was it Hull. Now, he told us, having been taken shopping in Newmarket, he has settled on 1954.

Why, they went into one shop full of women’s underwear and “could not find a single item you might expect to see in the bedroom. I mean, no woman is going to get her kit off if she knows she’s got to reveal any of that stuff underneath.”

A couple of minutes with AA Gill, in private as in public, and he gives himself to you. The preposterous wit, often as not inviting his audience – dinner companions are audience – not just to laugh but to snigger along.

The breezy lack of concern he might ever be wrong, even when he must know he is: caught between the joke and the truth, Gill goes for the joke every time. Is it really credible that Michelin-starred restaurants serve dishes that taste like pet food, as he has suggested? Could Newmarket really have a whole shop of underwear with nothing sexy in it? It was Smith & Caughey for those who would judge for themselves.

And not entirely by-the-by, he wants you to know he is a man happy to spend his afternoon riffling through racks of bras and g-strings on behalf of a female acquaintance half his age.

Although, of course – the evidence was clinging to his person – he is not a good shopper. Newmarket is dire in so many ways, but sizewise Gill is a pretty normal middle-aged man. Could he really not find any pair of pants to fit? Can it be true that the only styles they were selling that day was the colour of cack?

There were five of us for dinner: three from Metro and the two visiting writers. We went to Clooney.

Gill looked at the sign on the building. “Really? That’s the name?” He started to laugh but stopped himself and shared a complicated little smirky thing with Bhutto. Quite possibly it had something to do with the gossip about an affair between Bhutto and George Clooney.

The manager, Tony Stewart met us all at the top of the steps. When I’d called him a couple of hours previously I told him I was bringing Gill.

“Oh, thank you, Simon,” he had said “I’m his biggest fan.”

I also warned him Gill is an alcoholic. Hasn’t touched a drink in 30 years.

“Thank you for telling me that,” said Stewart. “I didn’t know.”

Leaving aside the question of how Gill’s “biggest fan” could not have known he doesn’t drink, I was surprised Stewart proclaimed himself a fan at all. Gill destroys restaurants for a living and it’s hard to think that anyone in the business would feel good about having him on their premises. Gordon Ramsay, famously, chucked him out: having decided, one assumes, that the bad publicity he would get for doing that was preferable to the damage Gill would have done with a bad review.

We chose Clooney because it’s smart, upmarket, has a chef devoted to showcasing good New Zealand foods and has a distinct character. We wanted Gill to feel he was in a place he hadn’t been before. It’s a comment about character, not quality to say that most of the other top restaurants in town are very like any number of good restaurants in other cities.

We settled into a booth and Stewart leaned over, looked Gill in the eye and asked: would he like a cocktail?

When Metro judged visited Clooney for our restaurant of the year awards just a month or two earlier, one of them asked for a non-alcoholic cocktail and the barman concocted something off-menu. It was superb. I know that, and Stewart may have known it too. But that’s not what he offered. He just said “cocktail.”

Gill looked straight back at him, held his face in extreme neutral, and said no thanks.

They brought out the amuse bouche, and elegant strip of something and Stewart and his head waiter, Adam Popovic, proceeded to pour an alcoholic sauce over each portion. Gill sat and watched them move around the table, getting close to his plate. I knew what he was doing: when you’re a critic you let the experience happen the way it would for any diner, and then you write about it. You don’t intercede or tell them what to do, unless they ask. It distorts the experience.

Stewart leaned over and was about to pour the alcoholic sauce over Gill’s amuse. I stopped him. I wanted my guest to eat. Gill thanked me; Stuart apologised.

Maybe the alcohol had been burnt off. Who knows. It flavoured the food and that was a flavor Gill did not want. Two days later, on stage with a full house at Aotea Centre, he explained his alcoholism. “I started one morning when I was 16, with a drink in my hand,” he said, “and I didn’t put it down until I was 30.”

That was when he decided to invent a new version of himself. He dried out, got a thing for fancy clothes and fell in love with good food. “You have to love it in order to be a good critic.” That’s why he’s s merciless in his reviews. “You have to really care when it is done badly.” For AA Gill, disappointing food is an insult that must be righted.

My entrée arrived – a beautifully presented but very small serving of ostrich carpaccio – and he started at it for some time. Committing some withering comment to memory, I suspect, though it’s possible jetlag had momentarily clouted his concentration. I told him the ostrich was delicious, which it was, but he declined to taste it.

His own entrée was a generous serving of quail, which he proclaimed to like very much. Yes, we confirmed, it was farmed. He surely didn’t imagine… He ate it all.

Gill held the table all night. He was polite, charming and entertainingly opinionated, and he told stories, which were the same stories you can read in his columns and books, but nobody minded: when you’ve got good material you make the most of it.

He is an oralist – he loves to talk – and the writing is merely a way to make money from what he loves to say. This is quite literally true: Gill is dyslexic and doesn’t do the writing himself. He dictates his columns down the phone to a copy editor in a manner not otherwise seen in newsrooms since the days of Evelyn Waugh.

And when he eats, he does it with concentration, staring at the plate as he chomps down his thoughts.

He decided to order the venison, but first asked what variety of deer it was. Popovic seemed surprised at the question and said he would find out. Isn’t most venison in our restaurants red deer? Gill told us in his experience there were two questions for sorting out the knowledge of waitstaff: “What kind of deer is it?” (which the good ones will know) and “What sex is the tuna?” (which no one can ever answer).

It was indeed red deer, and Gill ordered it. Someone else ordered tuna, although no one asked the sex. The venison was a new dish on the menu, and executive chef Des Harris has told me it’s very popular. He’s clearly proud of it. Gill ate maybe two mouthfuls and put down the cutlery. He declined to comment. Nobody came to see if everything was all right.

He is an epicurean, as he told his Aotea Centre audience. Me, if I’m hungry and I don’t actively dislike the food, I’ll probably eat it. I’m an ordinary mortal. But epicureans eat only what they really like. If it isn’t good enough, they leave it alone. Among people who eat all the time for a living, this is quite common, and any good restaurant with a professional eater in the house will be watching for it.

When they come to remove the plates, Popovic looked at Gill’s barely touched venison and asked him cheerily if he enjoyed it. “Very nice,” said Gill.

The talk turned to Osama Bin Laden, who had been killed just a few days earlier. “We didn’t know that,” said Fatima Bhutto. Gill had a go at her, and she admitted she did believe he was “very probably” dead “but I don’t want to says he has only just been killed.” What, he may have been dead for years? “Yes, I believe so.”

Gill explained to us that she was a sucker for every conspiracy theory going.

“You know what I find so telling,” he said. “You look at the video of him sitting in that crappy room with the TV and the remote, and he’s like trailer trash. He was living the worst version of the very culture he despised.”

After the mains they brought out a palate cleanser. It was covered in “champagne foam”. Gill just left his sitting there.

I asked him how he felt about this. He said “I don’t mind anymore.”

No? Wasn’t serving him champagne foam a bit like feeding risotto to a vegetarian and expecting them not to complain about the chicken stock? “Well, yes it is,” he agreed.

Gill says he often gets critisised for not drinking, especially in France, but he’s happy to rely on his regular dining partner “the Blonde”, who does drink. “I ask them, are they saying a Muslim cannot be a restaurant critic? They pause, and then they say, ‘Yes.’”

They came for our dessert orders and announced there were two servings left of the special, a chocolate soufflé. “They’re here,” said Gill enthusiastically, ordering both for the table. I added the famous Clooney lemon meringue pie, which comes deconstructed into separate bits on the plate and has divided every food critic in town into “love it” and “hate it” camps.

The soufflés arrived, very pale, and were served with due palaver: Stewart and Popovic pulled a test tube filled with chocolate sauce from the centre of each and poured the same sauce back into the hole. This trick was the height of fashion in Paris in the late 90s.

Gill watched, spoon in hand. He was hungry. He took a mouthful, made sucking noises, glanced at Bhutto, looked away, set down his spoon. He was still hungry but his dinner was over.

We all tried. They were so bland, it was tempting to think the kitchen has forgotten to add the chocolate.

My pie arrived with its sticky smear of meringue here, blobs and globs of lemon and pastry there, but when you got bits of them all on your spoon and put it in your mouth, it tasted sublime.

It tasted, as another critic has noted in these pages, like the very best memory of lemon meringue pie. I told Gill so, and offered him the plate. He tried it and agreed it was good. “but,” he said “ when it tastes like that, why muck about with it?”

Was he against the fine dining deconstruction of food, then? Not as such, he said. He had eaten in the restaurants of Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal and both had made him weep. "I got so I had to take a moment.”

But the chefs working further down the food chain, that’s a different story. “All that effort and the best you can hope for it that it will taste like it should anyway? Why do they bother?” His plates of faintly sampled food told a clear enough story about his view of the meal, but this was the only moment he came close to putting it into words.

As it happens, it was the chef’s night off, and they didn’t call him in. I admire that: at Clooney they believe their kitchen systems are robust enough to manage without him, as they should, and they were confident enough to put that to the test.

But being admirable gets you only so far. Des Harris sat at home while the most influential guest the restaurant may even have was served food he wither didn’t like or couldn’t eat, and nothing was done to fix it, and he went away hungry.

At that Aotea Centre event, in response to a question on the floor, Gill said he had “eaten out here two or three times. Every time it had been superb. Unfaultable. Such sophistication.” No one could have missed the irony.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that Clooney is a good restaurant. It has easily the coolest dining room in town; a passionate, clever and very hard-working chef; a great wine list.

So what happened that night? When the world’s most famously critical reviewer comes to eat, in the company of three of the city’s own food writers, it’s fair to assume the restaurant is going to bring out it’s A game. But they didn’t seem to know how to start.

This wasn’t a case of possums stuck in the headlights – though that would hardly be an excuse. I called in a few days later and discovered no one had even told chef Harris that Gill had barely touched his food.

Nor was it a restaurant that had decided not to café – to display that grand Kiwi insouciance shown by Euro a few weeks earlier when they turned Katy Perry away because they were already full. Something admirable in that, even if it does make you gasp. At Clooney it was different. Tony Stewart palpably cared what Gill thought; he and his team just didn’t seem to know how to manage the evening.

That suggests a deeper problem, a systematic failure that includes service, communication with the kitchen, decision making when problems arise, briefing and de-briefing – all the things that a top enterprise should do routinely.

Clooney has such cool décor, it should be almost impossible to get into. But it’s not, and that should tell them something.

With the biggest hospitality event ever seen in this city just a couple of months away, they are one of several restaurants with a decision to make on what they want to be.

AA Gill looked around, saw the bare tables, the casually dressed customers, the slack service and pronounced it a kind of bistro. Ouch. Stewart likes to think they do fine dining, and in style of food and quality of wine list he’s right.

But Gill’s instinct could be smarter. What if they lost the exquisitely fiddly dishes and put in a tapas menu, lowered the prices, maybe put in a band and even a little dance floor? Funk it up and make it super-cool? That would work.

If they do stick with the fine dining they need good linen and a whole lot more attention to every little detail. They could do that too, and become the city’s most sophisticated dining experience.

Whatever they choose, they need to wake up. Treating a famous food writer badly is just stupid. As for offering alcoholic food to an alcoholic, it’s hard to think of a more cynical way of showing you don’t care about your customers. Actually there is something worse: doing it again. 

This article was first published in the July 2011 issue of Metro.

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