Ron Mackenna has been The Herald’s Restaurant Critic for so long not even he can remember when he started. Here he answers some quick questions on what it’s all about
Luck and who you know. A random phone call from The Herald Features Editor back in the day asking me if I would submit a dummy column as there was a vacancy. Five people were trying out. Do I get paid for the dummy, I asked? Sigh, was the answer.
Typity-typity-type. Amazeballs. I get the job. No, I have no idea either but back then I had switched from news reporting to newspaper columns and this was, at first, one of three or four I did. Pretty much my whole career up til then had been hard-nosed news reporter. I didn’t think it was entirely cool to now be a fat food critic – as my friends called me.
I only realised food could actually be a thing when my old mum, who had not once, ever, mentioned my decade plus of news reporting, said: “Oh, that food column’s a good job, son. Don’t take any holidays. They’ll easily find someone else”. And I never have.
What qualifications do you need?
The obvious things; a mouth, some taste buds, an opinion, lots of opinions. An inability to fully appreciate that yours is not the only opinion helps, oh, and you probably need to be able to write like a metronome every single week, on time, to length. Apparently it’s better if it’s not the same old guff every time. Yeah, right. It’s also good to avoid getting sued. Editors don’t like that.
Is that all?
An appreciation of what is good and a recognition of what is mediocre – mediocrity is on the rise. My parents helped. Italian mum who cooked and baked spectacularly; a huntin’ and fishin and cookin’ dad. They struggled with small businesses which helps when understanding how difficult it must be for those trying to survive in the brutally unforgiving restaurant trade.
Is it obligatory to have a nonna if you are a food writer?
Apparently, yes. My Italian grandmother is a real one though.
Anything else to know?
Glamour level usually zero. A different restaurant. Every. Single. Week. Of your life. Sometimes two. Sometimes the food is, er, challenging. Others it has to be vegan.
Do restaurants recognise you?
Nah. That fat guy in the photo above the column is not actually me. I am taller, younger, slimmer and in a certain light naturally blonde. Only a tiny fraction of restaurants have owners, or people who even care about restaurant reviewers, out front. Usually it’s young people being paid very little and worrying mainly over how much of their tips their bosses will grab this week.
Have you ever worked in the restaurant industry
Yes, in hotels and bars, apart from my parents small businesses. It was often like Fawlty Towers, but not nearly as funny.
What’s the biggest change you have seen?
It’s extremely rare now to get bad service, probably due to the widespread fear of online reviews. The food is not necessarily any better but there’s lots more of it.
Do you get paid for doing it?
Yes. Which is surprising as my boss keeps saying I should be paying him.
What would you say to aspiring young critics?
Everyone’s a critic now. Welcome aboard.