November Editor’s Note — The dilemma of a food review

In one of our Tapau Please podcast episodes, Wani, my producer, and also Deputy Editor for this publication tasked me with research on food facts that the general public isn’t aware. I chose milk and bitter gourd—milk because of Singaporean’s sudden obsession with the oat varietal, and bitter gourd because it’s the one vegetable I can say with all honesty that I hate.

It is during research that I discovered that everybody’s experience with bitterness is wildly different and is dependent on genetics. Yes. How you experience bitterness is determined by this simple yet intriguing concept of evolution.

I bring this up because the entire premise of hinges on you, our readers, trusting our varied taste buds, which accounts for a large portion of our opinion in the reviews we publish. It is a fact we are keenly aware which is why our editorial team is a motley crew of six writers, all with wildly different levels and expectations of taste and flavours.

It brings respectable objectivity that cannot be achieved by the opinion of one individual.

Such great powers naturally come with even greater responsibility. We beam with pride when you share our articles on your Facebook page and even when you head over to the comment section to say that our opinions are wrong.

The difficult task of objectivity

We take all that in our stride because we know that when it comes to food, there’s simply no absolute. Even in our writing, my writers try to steer away from too extreme an opinion, choosing instead to focus on being as objectively fair as they possibly can.

Living in the time we’re in now makes this task of objectivity even harder. During the golden age of food during the years 2017 to 2019, spending money on sub-par meals can be easily written off as bad luck. But with an economy on a decline, we know that every dollar spent matters and that there’s simply no room to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards expenditure.

This economy has also put a new type of strain on our F&B industry, one that wasn’t at all prepared for the severity of a nation forced to stay home. It’s an even more dire situation for restaurants set up on the backs of a thriving tourism sector, now left in the cold with borders everywhere sealed shut.

The dilemma of an opinion

I take pains to spell out what could be seen as obvious because my writers and I find ourselves conflicted.

On the one hand, we want to be supportive of the local F&B industry and advocate strongly for local food. Sure, we write restaurant reviews, but we also wax lyrical about where to find the best oyster cake, chicken rice, or trendy Muslim-friendly food.

On the other hand, we also want our readers to spend their hard-earned money at a place that’s worth the expense. The worst thing we could ever do is mislead you into thinking that a restaurant has merits when all it’s doing is to bank on the fact that consumers are very forgiving given the stressful climate. There are, after all, a lot a restaurant can get away with under the guise of a ‘bad day’.

The quick, but disingenuous solution

The easier way, of course, would be to only review places that we liked and feature menu items that are praiseworthy. For a while, that’s something some food writers I know do. They deign to publish a negative review, choosing instead to personally let the chef know that things are not up to par and that they’ll be back again.

There are several pitfalls to this supposedly elegant solution. One, I don’t think that any F&B establishment is faultless, neither is there a place that’s so unredeemable, diners should avoid it like the plague.

Mentioning only the things we liked would be disingenuous and hardly representative of the establishment in its entirety. But neither should we paint any one place with a negative brush stroke just because of one lacklustre menu option. The menu is, after all, oftentimes aspirational, at best.

Two, I worry the assumption that any places we don’t cover are automatically regarded as sub-par when the reality is that we’re a team of six and it’s quite simply impossible to cover every single dining spot in Singapore. It’s for lack of time, not for lack of care.

Final thoughts

Still, we try. As one of Singapore’s most-read food publications, the responsibility is a heavy one to bear. There’s a risk of losing credibility if everything we publish is glowing, but at the same time, we are always cognizant of the fact that in the world of publishing, words matter and words have weight.

It’s a precarious balance we’re always juggling—between objectivity and opinion. We don’t claim to be perfect, and it’s always work in progress. Eventually, the defining factor comes down to what you, the reader, needs and wants.

My writers and I write in service of the gastronome and as a paean to food-dense Singapore. For as long as we are relevant, we will strive to maintain our editorial voice and integrity in showing you the best places to eat at as well as the many hidden gems you’ve shared with us, all waiting to be discovered.

Thank you for always being a fan. Here’s to a great November ahead and may Phase 3 be with us soon.