It’s with a heavy heart that I must report the ‘Queen of Culinary Criticism’ has left the building for the last time. I’m struggling to continue in her absence, despite my formidable reputation. It was she who provided the zest that made my weekly article so entertaining. My final despatch is both a farewell to you and a dedication to my dear wife. Very few food enthusiasts knew of Pamela, but fans of my column may recall mentions of ‘my lovely companion’ or ‘dearest Mrs Guillemot.’
Reginald Guillemot was once a name feared throughout the kitchens of the metropolis and founded on a standing I’d worked hard to cultivate. However, if I’m honest, I earned my name because of a day when I was under the weather. I had a miserable head cold and enlisted my wife’s sensibilities to help me negotiate the evening.
I had no choice. It was the grand opening, critics’ review night, and an unavoidable engagement. Pamela agreed to attend, and I knew her point of view would be invaluable, given my blocked nose and sore throat. It’s no surprise to say, we had a wonderful time and enjoyed writing our article, which was praised for its acerbic humour, cheeky irreverence and unpretentious delivery.
After that night, we never looked back. Pamela became my permanent companion at every jumped-up steakhouse, brass-necked hostelry and wannabe burger-joint in town. We became the dreaded Guillemot duo and nobody, however famous in the food world, escaped our scrutiny. Fawning staff gathered our coats and obsequious owners behaved as if we were royalty, for fear of closure and financial ruination.
We never let fame impede business, and Pamela remained stoic and unimpressed by our celebrity. On one occasion, I recall witnessing a maître d'asking a couple to vacate their table for us. He’d created an embarrassing spectacle and reduced the young woman to tears. Pamela reacted by insisting they remain and treated them to champagne. The couple regained their composure and Pamela demanded the maître d'waive the bill on their departure. Of course, the fellow said, bowing to her. He surmised Pamela would accept no less and feared summoning her wrath. Anything was better than a humiliating review in my food column, followed by the termination of his contract and disaster for the owners.
There are those critics whose preference is for places where they’re treated like gods and goddesses, but flattering as that sounds, it was never my raison d'être. Having worked in the kitchens, I’m not a fan of snappy service. I know that foments stuffing pre-cooked and vacuum-packed ingredients into industrial strength microwaves to achieve minimum waiting times.I’m reassured by a slower approach accompanied by hors d’oeuvres with the owner and a homely atmosphere. It’s horses for courses on the night. I’d like to feel I’ve enough empathy to go with the flow, but only up to a point. Doe-eyed waiters and a relaxed atmosphere never compensate for lousy service and awful food. I learned to spot the difference and extend my talons when necessary. However, I admit my soft spot is for the family-run indies you encounter in Venice’s obscure side streets. Its hidden venues with buzzing dining rooms are more satisfying than the bling-and-glitz dine-and-dash restaurants, with their imposed ninety-minute limit on seating times. Give me a canal side shack with sensational dishes any day of the week, rather than a commercial conveyor belt, where décor is a priority and cooking is an afterthought.
A picture on a plate is an attractive selling point, however I like to examine the ingredients below the surface. So you can imagine my amused reaction when I discovered how industry regarded us both. The kitchen gossips had decided I was a young fogey in my brass-buttoned-blazer, old school tie and balding pate, and I’d hired Pamela as eye-candy to pander to my every whim. It’s ironic that if they’d ignored the smoky eyes, berry red lipstick and bangs, they’d have discovered my svelte companion was my secret weapon.
I’ve lost count of how many presumptuous managers mistook her for a fashion accessory. They’d disregard me and patronise Pamela only to fall foul of her beady eye and sharp mouth more associated with our avian namesake. We were the Guillemots by name and Guillemots by nature, to be sure.
In quiet retaliation for their effrontery, Pamela would excuse herself between courses and saunter off to inspect the kitchens. She’d whisk an extended forefinger over work surfaces and upper shelves, and noted refrigerators with poor seals and list any dripping faucets. Woe betied all present if she detected any grime; she’d eviscerate the nearest kitchen hand, cut and dice the closest sous chefs and grill any maitre d' who’d dare utter an excuse. To be fair, Pamela wasn’t unreasonable. She always gave them a chance at redemption; we’d discuss the major faults and allow them the duration of the main course to improve matters.
My wife became the harshest critic in town. She’d shred a restaurant’s reputation faster than a duck-‘n’-rice chef can remove breast meat from a waterfowl’s roasted carcass. A twitch of her nose or curl of her upper lip could wither any intrepid restaurateur at ten paces. I’ve witnessed robust proprietors reduced to quivering aspic as she’s skewered their offerings with her fork and raised an incredulous eyebrow. Breathless and invertebrate, they’d wring their sweaty palms, prostrate themselves in contrition, and pray for her clemency.
A scratch of an ear and a sideways glance at my notebook would send shock waves throughout their premises. Pamela was a rumbling tsunami appearing on the horizon; unavoidable, unstoppable, and merciless in her capacity for destruction.
On one occasion, I recall Pamela rejecting our fois-gras appetiser after she detected an aroma like stale sports socks. The staff in attendance reacted with pre-drilled efficiency and took immediate evasive action. Faster than I could say, ‘there’s a silverfish in my syllabub,’ they dimmed the lights, closed the curtains and ejected any remaining guests enjoying a valedictory digestif.
In retrospect, I was a conduit for siphoning Pamela’s acid droplets and refined her barbed vitriol into a palatable confection to amuse you, dear reader. Our restaurant reviews lethally combined biting wit and amusing satire, hoping to entertain you with our latest shenanigans. We were your roving tigers disguised as wide-eyed tabbies and, like Macavity, the mystery cat; suddenly we weren’t there.
The Covid vaccination program hadn’t started when masked paramedics transported us to the West-Mid’s Intensive Care Unit. I survived the ordeal, but Pamela succumbed to the virus’ merciless grip. She departed with the pathetic whimper of a collapsing soufflé, expelling its last breath. Pamela’s death tore my poor aching heart asunder. I was bereft and work was the last thing on my mind.
I’ve survived the worst but suffer from its after effects.
Now every item on the menu tastes like cardboard.
I can only hope to recover, but it won’t be the same.
I yearn for Pamela as the days inch past. Beyond every hearty bill of fare, it was her lively company that made our mealtimes so memorable. Pamela provided the fiery and piquant pepper to my sweet and sour salt. We were a perfect blend of condiments that complemented every course we shared. But funnily enough, what made our life together so rewarding was the fact that neither of us could cook.
There are those critics who love haute cuisine and rarefied delicacies. However, as much as I appreciate the skills involved, we’d often returned home craving something simple. We’d discard our costumes, and she’d rustle up scrambled eggs on toast or a cheese and bacon omelette. That was the best she could manage; Pamela couldn’t cook to save her life. Neither could I.
Dear readers, I have another confession. Pamela’s homespun concoction was often the highlight of our night out. I looked forward to that dish more than anything else. Afterwards, we’d nestle together in bed with our laptop and write the latest review.
I’d amuse her by waxing on about nibbling entrée’s, she’d giggle and respond with carnal overtures and we’d chuckle our way through moist pudding similes. We both completed each other’s sentences as we recalled our observations and loved ending the night by collapsing in a satisfied heap. It was a unique partnership, never to be repeated in my lifetime. I miss you more than life itself, Mrs Guillemot, but God help the angelic host who offers you tepid chow in foodie heaven.