Did you know every restaurant reviewed in The Age’s Good Food section is personally and anonymously visited by one of the team’s critics, and everything consumed is paid for by the publication? That might sound obvious, but in the current media landscape, to hear of a publication investing over $250,000 (!) a year in restaurant bills alone is truly remarkable.
As the child of small business hospitality owners, Gemima does not take her job as a restaurant critic lightly. She knows a review can make or break a business, and brings this empathetic understanding to every restaurant she critiques.
The most important verb in the get-your-dream-job lexicon is…
Perseverance. I feel very uncertain about a lot of things in life, and I’ve had terrible imposter syndrome almost the entire time I’ve done this job, because it’s a position of authority. So, persevering through it, and through a lot of doubt, has been key.
When I grew up I wanted to be…
I grew up in central NSW, about 50 kilometres from Bathurst, where my family runs a holiday business. It’s kind of like Kellerman’s from Dirty Dancing – lots of organised activities for families – but with the Australian bush and horses. I was cooking in the kitchen from when I was 10, and by the time I was 15 my Mum could leave to run errands and I would be completely running the kitchen.
When I was around 11 years old, someone came up to do a review of my parents’ restaurant and I thought then, ‘I’m good at English, and I like food, maybe I could be a food reviewer?’ but I never thought about it again. I went onto study multimedia and law, then worked in television production for a bit, before moving into food writing.
I landed this job by…
I started at The Age in 2014, but before that I was the food and drink editor at Time Out Melbourne. I had a friend who worked for Time Out in Sydney, so she got me involved with doing small reviews in Melbourne, before they officially launched here. I then eventually became one of their two first staff members. I got headhunted by The Age while at Time Out.
A typical day for me involves…
Each week I do the main review for the Good Food section (formerly known as Epicure), and I write all the news pieces. During The Good Food Guide season (also known as ‘eating season’!) we go on the road and visit places all around Australia. During this time, I’ll do an additional 30 to 40 reviews.
There’s a team of 50 critics who write all the reviews for the guide. Every single restaurant of the 500 that end up in the guide, plus the ones we go and review that don’t make it in, gets re-reviewed every single year. It costs well over $250,000 to do just in restaurant bills.
This year I did a good chunk of South Australia, as well as Margaret River. I did 16 restaurants and they were all degustations. Because they were all tasting menus, I ate 168 dishes in 11 days.
During ‘off season’ I’m eating out two to three times a week, and in the ‘on season’ (February to August) I can be travelling and eating out every single day.
In a day I’m doing a review, I get up at 6.30am to try and exercise, get coffee, and go on the internet. I generally work in the office during the day, at The Age’s office next to Southern Cross station. I might come in a tiny bit later than 9am, because I basically won’t get home until 9pm or after, so it’s a really long day. It’s a full day at work, with eating out on top of it. It’s really great work, but it has to be your life.
Occasionally I’ll work from home if I’m just doing writing, because it’s less distracting. I’ll spend those days calling people up, and chasing up leads by whatever means necessary. I’ll be doing phone interviews, booking pictures to go with reviews, and having meetings. Somewhere in between I’ll write some copy, stare blankly at a wall, write some more copy, walk outside, come back inside, hate myself, maybe cry… that’s just me though. I don’t think I’ve got through many reviews without at some point getting so frustrated and going, ‘I don’t know how to do this as a job.’ It’s like I’ve never written a restaurant review before – every single time.
The most rewarding part of my job is…
When I get to discover something that no one’s come across yet, especially when it is a new and young operator who’s doing really well. So, being able to be the first person to give them that recognition and tell that story. It’s not always like that, so it’s nice when it is.
It’s a job where you’re working creatively, but you’re also watching other people doing their form of art, and that’s always inspiring.
On the other hand, the most challenging aspect is…
Living your life in the public. Even though this job is supposed to be anonymous (I will book at restaurants under false names, with a fake email and use friend’s phone numbers) – my photo is still in the paper, and I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, so people are on the lookout. My photo is inside the kitchen at lots of new places along with all the other main critics.
I’ve had to say some not entirely glowing things about restaurants in my time – I don’t take pleasure in it. I think some people don’t like taking criticism from women in particular, and I’ve had campaigns to get me fired. It’s fair when you are in a job that is criticising other people that you then attract that, but I don’t feel that comfortable going out anymore. It’s not that relaxing, and that’s challenging, because I love going out.
The culture of my workplace is…
There’s a community of understanding, because on one hand, this is the absolute best job in the world, but on the other, there are some real challenges to it. Not being able to control what goes in your mouth for most of your life, and the associated health stuff that comes with that, combined with doing creative writing half the time, is hard. But, you can never, ever, say that to anyone who’s not a food writer! No one will ever feel sorry for you, but other food writers get it.
We’re a close team. We’ll sometimes travel together, and we’ll have to bunker down doing all these restaurant reviews in a random town, while staying in the same hotel room.
The best piece of work advice I’ve ever received is…
‘It’s not about you.’ I think it’s really easy to get caught up in your head, and really worried about what people think, but everyone else is focused on their thing. Everyone is actually thinking about themselves, and not what you’re doing, as much as you think they might are.
In the next five years, I’d like to…
I have not had an answer to this for the past 10 years, but I’ve just worked it out in the last week. I really want to do long-form, produced podcasts, while still doing this. I’d like to go really deep on food topics, but things relatable to everyone, like the history of our fast food giants in Australia.
What restaurants are on your radar right now?
Places that are less new but are my favourite are Tipo 00, and a lot of wine bars with female chefs. They just cook in a different way – they genuinely do. There’s a lot more dishes that are driven by the ingredients. I feel like there’s less ego in it.
Do you have any advice to aspiring food writers?
Be quite straightforward and not overly flowery with your language. Keep it short, tight and properly descriptive, and draw parallels between things when people might have a reference point.
We always have a list of banned words each year that is sent out to reviewers, because there was a time that every reviewer was saying ‘the chocolate pudding is sinful’. The chocolate pudding is not sentient!
Is it hard critiquing businesses among Australia’s relatively small hospitality industry?
There are no friendships. There’s a lot of publications that do pieces about openings and that kind of thing, where the restaurant will tell you what they’re trying to achieve – that’s the aspirational view. But when it comes to an actual restaurant critique, you have to go in and analyse how well they’re living up to the bar that they’ve set for themselves. I lose a lot of sleep knowing I’ve got to give a bad review.
I don’t like being harsh on businesses, because in most cases, people are trying. I think people often don’t give enough credit to just how hard it actually is to run a restaurant successfully – it’s so many moving parts – and people just expect that everything is good as a baseline and it’s really not. It’s a lot of work.
How would you hope those in the hospitality industry would describe you?
I would hope they think I’m respectful and fair, because I do respect this industry and the work that people do. I put everything into trying to soften the blows, and make them constructive.