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Candide v. Critic: When Restaurants Bite Back

Chef and staff sound off after bad review

Chef John Winter Russell, with Valérie Bélisle to his right (not pictured, Emily Campeau)
Chef John Winter Russell, with Valérie Bélisle to his right (not pictured, Emily Campeau)
Randall Brodeur

A restaurant opens at the end of November on a small side street, in the former rectory of a heritage church. By late April, the restaurant’s strict emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients has polarized food writers at the city's four major newspapers; two scathing reviews come on the heels of two raves. Should the restaurant respond? For Montreal’s Candide, the Little Burgundy restaurant from chef John Winter Russell, the answer was clear. Spirits were high after Le Devoir critic Jean-Philippe Tastet declared the restaurant one of the best new tables in the city, two weeks after Candide opened. A month later, Le Journal de Montréal critic Thierry Daraize gave the restaurant a rare four and a half stars on five (the one criticism: not enough desserts on the menu). In early February, Lesley Chesterman weighed in. The veteran Gazette critic implied that Winter Russell’s food was dour, cheerless, and encouraged the chef to take himself less seriously. "[S]everal critics have praised this chef’s cooking to the hilt, but I guess I just didn’t get it." Neither did Marie-Claude Lortie. The food critic for La Presse lobbed similar criticisms at Candide two weeks ago. "Sadly, I won’t return," Lortie’s review concluded.

Sommelier Emily Campeau took to Facebook to defend the restaurant, and denounce the critic’s methods. The open letter used the term "matante Huguette" (loosely translated, an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud) to refer to Lortie's companions (the comment was later withdrawn), and proclaimed that the table couldn't have cared less about eating at the restaurant — "votre table (...) s'en câlissait au plus haut point de manger chez Candide." Campeau's post has since been shared over 300 times, and elicited a flood of comments, primarily in support, from fellow industry people. On April 20, Winter Russell published his own lengthy response to Lortie’s review, and that was widely shared as well. "As many of you may know, the last review that Candide received was written in a fashion to deter people from coming to the restaurant," the chef’s open letter began.

The rebuttals were sufficiently harsh — Campeau’s in particular — to prompt a response from Lortie. The critic, who seldom engages her own critics, took exception to Campeau’s portrayal of her tablemates, and published an indignant open letter, directed at the sommelier. "As a habit, I don’t normally answer back. But I refuse to accept, and I denounce, your attack of the women I shared my table with, who do not deserve your denunciation. They have nothing to do with what I thought, or wrote about the restaurant." When asked to elaborate Lortie affirmed that her review spoke for itself, but also remarked that she was dismayed by the fact that so many industry people enthusiastically endorsed Campeau's open letter.

This week Eater talked with Winter Russell, Campeau, and Candide manager Valérie Bélisle about the restaurant’s responses to its negative reviews.

Four reviews in five months. Two raves, two not so much. What was it about Marie-Claude Lortie’s review that compelled you to respond?
Emily: I felt like after one visit to write such an intensely harsh review about everything we’ve been doing for the past five months was not justified, and in my very humble opinion not very professional.

How about you John?
John: To be totally honest, I could’ve written the exact same letter after Lesley Chesterman’s review. I don’t think I did because processing the first bad review was a lot harder. I think we got through and said ‘Okay, there’s one more critic to come, we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, we’re still very young.’ A bad review is, in my book, like the critic saying the restaurant shouldn’t be open anymore. It’s not just about what you read in the paper, it’s about that review then goes on to Google and when someone hears about your restaurant and they search it, the first thing that comes up is that bad review. Bad reviews literally take out all the good press you’ve had up until that point. Almost.

The best example is maybe not Marie-Claude Lortie’s review, but Lesley Chesterman’s review. We had a little write-up in Condé Nast Traveler that came out the week before Chesterman’s review, and we had four or five out-of-town reservations that cancelled the night her review came out. So the difference is large.

"Bad reviews literally take out all the good press you’ve had up until that point."

Emily: Marie-Claude Lortie literally said ‘Am I going to go back? No, never.' And you’re saying this in the most read newspaper in Quebec.

Valérie: Even in Outaouais, my mother heard about it. La Presse has a massive reach.

Emily: She reaches a lot of people. She literally said to the entire province, ‘Do not go to this restaurant.’

Photo courtesy | Candide

Emily Campeau | Photo credit: Candide

You both received a lot of support from your peers after publishing your open letters, which probably wasn’t much of a surprise: the industry tends to support itself in good times and bad. What did you hope to accomplish?
John: The idea was to counteract what that article could do. To say, this is what we do at this restaurant. This is what we’re about. I, and the rest of the team, can convince you that we do good enough work, and that you will have a good enough time, even a great enough time, that you'll want to come back. But for that to happen you have to come in a first time. That’s where bad reviews are very, very damaging. Especially to new restaurants. We’ve been open for less than five months. For restaurant critics to come in once and basically say, ‘Never go’, is kind of like shooting us in the head before we even get started.

How relevant is concept — the local, seasonal focus in this case — if the critic did not ultimately like the food? If Marie-Claude Lortie had provided more context, would that have made a difference to any of you? Does it matter?
Valérie: I think John’s response to Lortie's review was really about letting people know what we do. I personally don’t think she gave that message. Because we are doing something. It’s a philosophy. It’s a lifestyle.

Emily: And seasonality is not just seasonal. There are producers with seasons that last a week. It’s not just ‘Oh it’s summer in June so tomatoes are there.’ No, tomatoes are not there. They are there in a month and a half. There’s no compromise here with this concept.

"There’s no compromise here with this concept."

Valérie: And the menu changed already, since Lortie was here. A lot of the elements have changed. So if she’s evaluating service, wine, ambiance, and food, and most of it is good, except maybe the food, well, if she came back the next day, she would’ve had a different experience on the food level. If the customer doesn’t know that, reading the newspaper, it doesn’t give out the right message.

John: It’s interesting because we’ve had people who’ve come in since Lortie’s review, and try some of the same dishes — because not everything’s changed — and literally will eat a course that she really didn’t like, and go ‘Is this the same plate? What did she not like about it?’ Thierry Daraize and Lesley Chesterman came in a week apart from each other and ate the same menu, plate for plate. And it was so dichotomous, the reviews. So where are we supposed to put ourselves, in that idea? If there’s no real critical sense to it ...

But there is, no? The food didn’t resonate, for whatever reason. Consider too that La Presse may not have the budget for its critic to eat out more than once at a single restaurant. It would be ideal, but few critics can afford to do that anymore.
John: Yes, but she came with three other people, two of whom had won a charity auction to eat with Marie-Claude Lortie [and her colleague at La Presse, columnist Nathalie Petrowski]. When you walk into a restaurant, mindset and context is important. If you’re reviewing a restaurant and you’re eating with people you’ve just met for the first time, and those people are nervous and anxious, and they realize you’re doing a review, what does that do to the dining experience? It gets into this kind of gray zone where it’s like, is this objective anymore?

"It gets into this kind of gray zone where it’s like, is this objective anymore?"

You raise the issue of Lortie’s tablemates. Emily, you addressed this in your open letter, and she took exception. Why was that relevant to you?
Emily: My letter was written out of frustration because I felt like it was not doing us justice to come in with people who won a [bid] to eat at the restaurant with her, and told us upon walking in. The first thing that these ladies told us was that they won a contest to eat with Marie-Claude Lortie.

Lortie is not anonymous, but that obviously shattered the illusion of anonymity from the start.
Emily: Right. But my critique was about the reviewing process that’s happening in Montreal. It has nothing to do with the behaviour of those ladies. What’s really frustrating is how it happened. They came here with two people that won a contest to eat with a journalist — that’s our only chance to be in that newspaper. She’s not going to come a second time. That’s our only chance, and you’re not 100% focussed. You’re not 100% focussed because these ladies were happy to be with her, were very nervous, and were taking a lot of space, and there was no space for me and Val to walk to the table and just do our thing, and guide them through the meal, and the wines. And what I said in my letter is that we didn’t have the chance to play our cards. If it would have been any other night, we know what to do in that case. We know to leave the table alone, and let them talk to themselves, because they don’t want us to interfere. That’s perfect. That’s not a problem. But it’s Marie-Claude Lortie, we have to interfere. It wasn’t a behavioural thing.

Randall Brodeur/Eater Montreal

Inside Candide | Photo credit: Randall Brodeur

You felt like you weren’t able to position yourselves to give your best because of the environment?
Emily: Yes. And in my opinion it was not very professional on her part.

Valérie: Or objective.

John: And I think it’s very evident in her review because, for the most part, I can be completely transparent, we are not perfect all the time, but we are very fucking good most of the time. I think what it comes back to is [the review was] not a proper representation of what we do. At all.

"I just think it was not the right circumstance [for a review]."

Emily: My letter was a lot more personal than John’s so it might’ve come off as something that was condescending or snobbish, but that’s not it. I just think it was not the right circumstance [for a review], and it was not professional of her to review us this way. This is what I denounce. And I don’t understand that you can write such a harsh review of a restaurant by going once. Especially if it’s your job. I understand budgetary restrictions, but seriously, you’re going to write something that bad, and you’re going to go just once? Isn’t reviewing a restaurant about measuring the consistency and creativity — especially of a place like this?

John: We’re just starting. We’re literally just beginning. We haven’t had any food that has been hit by the sun just yet. [This cuisine] is based around going through a cycle, and we opened later than I would’ve liked. Give me a chance to get all my pieces on the board before you pass judgment.

Emily: We’ve been open four and a half months now, and all of the critics have been in. Where are they going to be when we actually need to get reviewed, when we’re really up and running, and really good? We’re already really good, but we’re going to be so much better.

It’s been over a week since you responded to Marie-Claude Lortie’s review. Were you gratified by the reactions your letters provoked? Did you achieve what you set out to accomplish?
John: Well, I’m serious and practical. We weren’t empty last week. We had a good end to the weekend. It wasn’t anything special, but it was decent. There was nothing hidden in what I wrote. I felt like the chance we had to show what we have to offer was taken away. We had a lot of people that came in because of what we wrote, and that was the idea. The idea was to offset the review, not to take it lying down and say ‘Okay, we’re going to be empty for the next two or three weeks.’

Valérie: Because that’s what would’ve happened.

Emily That’s literally what would’ve happened.

"The idea was to offset the review, not to take it lying down."

Do you think so?
Valérie: Oh yeah. And then our job becomes difficult. We don’t have walk-ins.

John: Up until the Chesterman review, we had not had a relatively bad week. We weren’t rocking and rolling, but we had people interested, and coming in. Half-full Wednesdays, three-quarters full Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays that always got to capacity, Sundays that were up and down because people forgot that we were open Sundays. Then the Chesterman review came out and that Saturday we were half-full.

Did Chesterman or Lortie make any valid points?
John: Well you go back, and you go over it in your head, and it’s like ‘The rice was burnt’ [from the La Presse review]. And you question yourself, and go, ‘Was the rice burnt?’ And no, it wasn’t.

Emily: Because I was snacking on it all night [laughter].

Cerf, fenouil sauvage, seigle / Venison, wild fennel, rye

A photo posted by John Winter Russell (@restaurant_candide) on

John: That’s the other thing about reviews. Every single review I have ever gotten, ever, has had misinformation. Either an ingredient, my last name was misspelled, people misrepresented what they actually ate, the composition of the plate. Every single review. It’s not an exaggeration. And I’ve never once received a factcheck. Sometimes it feels like critics are intentionally misleading readers. The best example might be the Chesterman review, where she said we weren’t especially friendly to vegetarians. [When asked to comment, Chesterman stated that because Candide served a set menu with meat, fish, or seafood in every course but dessert, it was not vegetarian friendly. To meet the Gazette's criteria, it would have to provide a different menu for vegetarians, or specify that a vegetarian option is available.]

"Sometimes it feels like critics are intentionally misleading readers."

Last question. You’re all at the short ends of, hopefully, long careers in the industry, and you’ll run into these critics again at some point, if not at Candide, then perhaps somewhere else. How do you feel about that, given all that’s transpired?
John: I’m happy to have a conversation any time. I’m a very passive, understanding person. The point is not that we don’t like [Marie-Claude Lortie] because she wrote a bad thing. She wrote something that will affect our livelihoods without understanding what we are doing.

Emily: And in an unprofessional context.

John: And in my opinion, in a borderline unethical way, without really opening up and giving it a chance. That’s what this was about. I saw what happened after Lesley Chesterman’s review, and I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen again.’

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Candide

551 Rue Saint-Martin, Le Sud-Ouest, QC H3J 2L6 (514) 447-2717 Visit Website

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