Scanning the line-up of panellists for this year's Terroir Symposium, held recently in downtown Toronto, Irish-raised Londoner Joe Warwick's photo and bio stood out among the roster of famous chefs, well-known restaurant critics and culinary academics.
With his long, wavy hair, quirky Twitter handle, @Galleyslavery and the unusual title "restaurant writer," ("I write about other things connected with restaurants, not just reviews") he sounded like a bit of maverick. And when, microphone in hand, I met up with him for an interview amid the event's lively crowd, he didn't disappoint.
On a panel with three others called "Foreign Chefs, Local Restaurants: The Big Debate," Warwick soon elicited a laugh from the audience by apologizing on behalf of all Brits for Gordon Ramsay.
Unlike his co-panellists, he wasn't upset by the topic du jour: celebrity chefs setting up shop in a foreign city to rave reviews in that locale.
Think New York chef David Chang of Momofuku fame recently garnering over-the-top laudits from this city's critics for his Toronto eatery, to the dismay of some. Warwick cited the arrival, to much acclaim, of NYC's brasserie Balthazar in London's west end -- with which he has no problem. And nor do I. May the best chefs win.
I was also intrigued with the fat little book he edited called "Where Chefs Eat" and its nifty subtitle "A Guide From the Real Experts!" -- a collection of more than 2,500 places, from high-end restaurants to hot dog stands, compiled by more than 450 chefs from around the world. And that's how we began our chat.
My comment that I enjoy eating out with chefs because they usually know more than me about what went into preparing a dish got this response: "I think chefs are tapped into their local restaurant scene in a way that the average person isn't. They know places that are opening. They know what's good. They know the time to go."
Warwick notes that chefs are especially knowledgeable about late-night spots because of their unusual hours. He also thinks we may be surprised at their choices. "People might assume if you cook in a very expensive restaurant doing highfalutin food, that's what you want to eat. But that's not the case. I think chefs crave simplicity when they eat out, for the most part at casual places and fun places... "
Hence the book's advice on where to get a perfect burger at four in the morning and pointers for finding the ultimate herring wagon. Warwick has only eaten at 15 to 20 per cent of the eateries listed and is especially keen to try a novel "wet burger" sold in Istanbul: "They get the burger in the bun and then they poach it in chile oil."
Shortly after this interview, I travelled to London to visit my 90-year-old mum and checked out a tip Warwick had given me. We had already agreed that the famed lamb chops at Indian restaurant Tayyabs were well worth the trip to Whitechapel -- once a Jewish neighbourhood and now mostly inhabited by South Asians. He calls the place "an institution" that's "heavily recommended" in his book.
But I had never been to Sweetings: a vintage fish eatery in the banking district that serves only lunch and is one of his favourite spots. Wow, what a lovely meal in a warm and welcoming ambience. Fried haddock with chips were perfect. So was the old-fashioned steamed suet pudding studded with dried fruit and served with creamy custard called Spotted Dick. Judging by this recommendation, Warwick knows his stuff.
He's in good company, it seems, as famous foodies Anthony Bourdain and Fergus Henderson are also Sweetings fans.
Sadly, I didn't have time to visit Hereford Road: a newish restaurant in Notting Hill specializing in offal with a menu built around British seasonal ingredients that's his current favourite.
I ask Warwick what he looks for when eating out. "It's about a lot of things but it's not just about the food," he says. "You've got to feel welcome, you've got to feel comfortable and, whether it's the right chair for your behind or the waiter smiling at you, it's all of those things and then, of course, ideally you want exceptional food." He adds: "I think sometimes you can forgive unexceptional food if all those other things are right."
He's a fan of British ingredients. "The game I think in the U.K. is the best in the world. Our fish is fantastic." He seconds my penchant for British puddings: "Yes, sticky toffee pudding, bread and butter pudding -- those kind of rib-sticking desserts are fantastic." But quickly adds, "I usually have to have a nap after one of those. They're designed for Sunday lunch, I think."
There's been a lot of talk lately about the demise of the restaurant critic because of online sites like yelp, urban spoon and trip advisor. Warwick's response to this: "As a journalist, I would like to say that it comes back to content at some stage." He wonders who is writing these reviews and what they know. "I'm a big believer in reception theory," he continues, "What you take to an experience is what you get away from it and, if you don't know what you're talking about, you don't know what you're talking about."
He's a fan of Fay Maschler, long-time reviewer for the London Evening Standard, and Marina O'Loughlin who critiques restaurants for the Guardian.
He's not against bloggers who review restaurants but claims it's important to find someone you trust. "I think it's like anything else. It's getting to know someone's taste and seeing if you share it."
His is a dicey business. "A restaurant meal is not a record; it's not a book. It changes depending on the day," he explains. "I've gone to places that have had terrible reviews from people I trust and had good meals -- and vice versa."
Due to budget constraints, Warwick usually only eats at a place he's reviewing once. He doesn't wear a wig to be incognito but does make reservations using another name.
He concedes that it's important to have "a social media presence" these days and "to be your own brand."
However, in the end: "It's going to come down to content and not just everyone giving their opinion." That, he concludes is: "Too much noise."
Listen to my chat with Joe Warwick here.