A Few Questions With Our Favorite Food Writer Clinton PalancaMarch 31, 2015
Food writers and bloggers in the Philippines are incredibly abundant these days, but amidst the muck and the mire, there’s one that we as a team love reading. Even before venturing into food writing, Clinton Palanca’s work, whether fiction or non-fiction, has been lauded as entirely singular, and has won him awards left and right. Today, you can spot him regularly on his column on The Inquirer, which serves up delicious wit, well-informed opinions, in some of the most honest restaurant reviews in Manila. He’s been known to break a few restaurateur’s hearts, but with good reason; his frankness is always justified and never without merit. His view on today’s restaurants is one of Pepper’s many sources of inspiration when it comes to our ethics and humble attempts to run an honest blog, so we’ve asked Palanca a few questions to see just exactly how his brain works.
1. People often think of you as the first, or at least, most honest food critic in the Philippines. Do you consider yourself to be a food critic or a food writer? What’s the difference anyway?
I’d like to think of myself as a food writer. Being a food critic, or someone who writes about restaurants, is only one aspect of writing about food. These days there’s so much information to absorb in so many fields that anyone writing about food has to read a lot to keep up, and then do more research when working on an article. I actually think that there are more honest reviewers than dishonest ones, but the few unethical ones end up giving the industry a bad name. It goes without saying that you should pay for your meal and try your best, within reason, not to let the restaurant know that they’re being reviewed.
2. Is finding new ways to describe food ever a challenge?
There are a number of cliches that food writers often rely on, and it’s always tempting to fall back on a subtly reworked way of saying something is delicious. One good exercise is to go and read other kinds of reviews: of books, current theatre or movies, even hi-fi equipment or cars. It gets your mind out of the rut of just writing about a meal and into the frame of mind of assessing a piece of material culture or experience.
3. What do you think qualifies one to become a food writer/critic? Do you need to have worked as a chef?
This is a tough one. Having trained as a chef, and having owned a restaurant in the past does help, in that you have an idea of how a dish served to you was probably put together, as well as a degree of empathy for the establishment. But much more important is simply to have eaten lots of meals in many different places, so the more experience you’ve had, the better. The more you can contextualize the meal, and understand what the chef is (probably) trying to do, the better. It’s crucial to be able to go from simply saying ‘I didn’t like this’ to ‘This isn’t good’; and then be able to explain why. And you have to be willing to do the research; when I started out in the 1990s I had to bring back so many books from specialty bookstores abroad; these days a lot of it can be found online.
4. When reviewing a restaurant, is there anything in particular that you look for?
My own personal inclination is for honest food, by which I don’t necessarily mean simple. I think that any customer, not just food writers, can tell when a restaurant is wearing its heart on its sleeve and isn’t just in it for the money. Nor do I think that restaurants should operate at loss just to please people, but there should be passion in what they do, and this always is reflected in the food.
5. How do you decide what to order?
I always ask the waiter to guide me through the menu, and more often than not I go with their recommendations. The exception is when they’re obviously steering me to the most expensive items on the menu. Given the choice between what is considered a ‘bestseller’ and what the chef recommends, I’ll always go with the latter.
6. Have you ever gotten angry feedback from a restaurant owner?
Not yet, but perhaps it goes straight to the editorial offices! I’m also immensely lucky to have an editor, Thelma San Juan, who has been extremely supportive of what I write (as well as being very good at making sure that I make sense, which I don’t always do). Many restaurateurs have multiple business interests, and can threaten to pull advertising or be vindictive in some petty way. A paper’s integrity isn’t just tested in the front pages; in this sense I’m glad to have the support I do.
7. If you had any advice for restaurateurs, what would it be?
Be present at the restaurant. It’s amazing how many people think that it’s a set-and-forget kind of things and that it’ll just run itself. The most successful restaurants are the ones at which the owner is somehow present (though not hovering, because that’s annoying, too), or the chef is firmly in the kitchen and cooking. It’s a job and one has to put in the hours.
8. What is your take on the dozens of food blogs that seem to be everywhere in Manila? Are there any that you read often, or bloggers whose opinion you respect?
I follow most of the major food blogs, as well as those of my friends. A lot of them have become friends because we attend the same press events. I get tips on new restaurants from them, either privately or by reading their posts. Some of the best food writing is coming out online. The more voices in the conversation, the better. Of course I’ve heard that there are some bloggers who are unscrupulous and even extortionist, but the fault lies in the person, not in the medium. There is a lot of corruption in print journalism as well. Similarly, there’s a lot of lazy blogging, but it’s their choice how to write their blogs and they usually lose traffic soon. People can tell if the writer or photographer has put in the work.