Being a food critic is often a thankless and tedious undertaking and sometimes, I just couldn’t be bothered doing my job. There have been nights when all I wanted to do was sit in front of my TV in my pajamas with a pizza and not an artisanal or authentic pizza, either! I’m talking, Pizza Hut or Domino's or any ‘stuck to the cardboard’, delivered by Uber Eats, cold by the time it gets to me, pizza!
Obviously, I would never tell anyone this as it would destroy my career and finding another job didn’t intrigue me. I had always been a good cook since I was a child, and my mother encouraged me to develop my ability. I remember one particular conversation when she said,
“Vien! Your Soupe à l'oignon (Onion Soup) est magnifique! Are you sure that you’re a twelve-year-old girl?!”
I giggled and responded,
“I’m glad that you like it, mum but you did most of the cooking!”
It was just the two of us as my father passed away when I was three years old, and I didn’t have any siblings. My mother worked as a sous chef at Macleay Street Bistro in Potts Point, near Sydney and had dreams of owning her own brasserie or bistro one day. In the sixties, she and my father immigrated to Australia from Laon - a little town in the north of France.
I had grown up in Darlinghurst near Sydney, which was a little seedy and not very kid friendly to put it nicely, but my mother always made sure that I was safe. I first started my education at Darlinghurst Public school, followed by Sydney Girls High school and was an above average student. Apart from my cooking classes, which I consistently aced. In my final years of school, I decided that I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a chef.
It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination and I worked hard to make my dream a reality. Studying at the cooking school during the day and working at the Macleay Street Bistro with my mum at night. Mainly helping out with washing plates, busing tables and serving but once and a while, I would have the opportunity to help my mum with food preparation - getting a thrill out of julienning carrots while fantasizing about being the chef in my own kitchen.
I’m brought back to the present while sitting in a newly opened restaurant in Glebe, when my server returned with my drink order. It was a tiny place, originally a two-story residential terrace and I was a little apprehensive to come and critique the menu, as I had a run in with the chef about six months before. The sense of apprehension came from the fact that I had lambasted him in my column, which had apparently led to him being fired but seriously, most people would have noticed the unpleasant, granular texture on the tongue while eating lobster tail that had been frozen then thawed out!
“Here is your cosmopolitan madam and for you madam, you’re your pinot grigio.”
The server then proceeded to pour the wine into my companion’s glass and did so reasonably well. Helen and I had been friends for many years, and she enjoyed following me on my quest to weed out the riffraff of the culinary world. We then proceeded to place our order which included the seafood tower…
“Please tell me again, Vien. Why didn’t ‘you’ become a chef?”
Asked Helen and I thought about the road that led me here before taking a sip of my cocktail.
“I’ve never had a head for business and the risk of failure always frightened me, then one day, I spoke to a food critic, and they told me about their career. I excelled in English back in my high school days, and I decided to take a sabbatical from cooking to try something new. As it turned out, it was the best thing that I’ve ever done but sometimes, I get so bored!”
I laughed for a few moments before I proceeded.
“I’m able to snap myself out of it when I discover something new and fresh, then I’m reborn but it doesn’t mean that I've stopped cooking! I just do it for myself and friends now.”
I hadn’t noticed at the time but Pietro the chef, had stuck his head around the kitchen entrance and spotted me. He knew what I looked like, as my column had a photo of me and before he knew what he was doing, he retreated back into the kitchen to retrieve a freshly sharpened knife.
Our appetizers arrived, and we had just sampled the salmon sashimi, when we heard a crash of plates and loud talking in the kitchen. Once we had finished, the servers approached each table and in hushed tones, explained that the restaurant was now closed and that our meals were complimentary. It was actually the owner, Francoise who had approached our table and explained,
“Good evening. You’re Vien Arnage the food critic, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Yes, I am. What seems to be happening?”
I asked. It seemed that Francoise battled with a number of emotions from grief to anger to concern and his face reflected each change of mood.
“There… has been an accident in the kitchen and we have to close the restaurant.”
“I hope it’s not too serious!”
I said in response and once again, it seemed that Francoise bit his tongue to stop himself saying what he had initially thought.
“It’s something that we don’t wish to discuss but I’m very sorry for the inconvenience.”
Francoise then moved onto the next table while Helen and I got to our feet and left the restaurant, just as the ambulance arrived. We both hung around the front, to see if we could learn a little more, as it may be something that I wanted to add in my column. I was just about to give up and leave when I briefly spotted a stretcher being carried out by two paramedics, but the patient couldn’t be seen as they were completely covered.
The next day, I completed my brief but interesting column about my meal at the ‘Il Tevere’ restaurant and presented it to my boss. George had a strange look on his face as he invited me into his office, but I hadn’t noticed that I was the focus of some of some of my colleague’s attention.
“Vien… We won’t be putting your column in this week’s edition. In fact, we’re going to drop the column for the foreseeable future.”
I just stood there in total shock and after a few moments, I was able to mutter,
“Are you firing me?”
“No… Well, sort of. You’ll be retrenched as a result of the column being dropped and to tell you the truth, I don’t think that you'd want to be anywhere around here or continue your job as a food critic after today.”
Responded George, as delicately as he could. He then explained that Pietro the chef at the at the restaurant that I attended last night, learned that I was there. He had apparently suffered terribly both professionally and emotionally after my prior critique and only just reached the point where his depression and anxiety were under control. Seeing me had pushed him into an abyss which resulted in him taking his own life.
George then informed me that some of my colleagues wanted to speak to me about the matter and I obliged. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just started down a slippery slope and became the target of all manner of press and social media trolls. The ‘A Current Affair’ television show did a whole thing about me, and I became the most hated person in Australia. Which was fitting as I ‘really’ hated myself.
I hoped that as times passed, that things would settle down, but it didn’t and the constant verbal abuse and social media attacks that I received, along with the way I felt about myself, really affected my life. I was out of work, no one would hire me and even Helen couldn’t bring herself to visit. So, I sought solace from depression and anxiety inside a bottle, resulting in a visit to the emergency room of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for a few hours. I was able to get some help from a psychologist and a nutritionist, as I seemed to have stopped eating, ironically.
After my second trip to the emergency department, I was admitted to St Vincent’s Mental Health hospital in Darlinghurst. It was strange that I ended up in the same suburb from where I began and would often look out the window to view the familiar surroundings, which seemed so serine and joyous. As opposed to the tumultuous emotions that I felt.
Little by little, I began crawling out of my black hole, to the point where I was able to volunteer with simple tasks. The next thing I knew, I was helping in the kitchen making jelly for all the patients and they even allowed me to serve it. It was a big step for me, as I hadn’t wanted to step foot into a kitchen for a long time but while serving lime jelly to my fellow patients, one came up to me and stated,
“There’s not much taste…”
Ah, the irony. It took a while, but I found a job as a kitchen hand and then proceeded to rebuild my life. My mum was great and really provided the support and moral compass I needed. There were, however, things I did differently. To start with, when I was asked for my opinion, I would do so in a supportive and constructive way, and I never did it via social media. Not just about food, but about anything.
I also tried to be as kind as I could be, as even those that may act rude or inconsiderate, may be facing a battle that no one else can see.
I now enjoyed cooking again. To have the ability to be creative and seek the joy of people that loved what I had cooked for them. To feed their body and soul but once and a while, I’d pick up a newspaper and read a food blog but instead of pitying the restaurant, I would pity the columnist. Hoping that they could find positive, constructive ways to provide their critiques and not find themselves where I ended up.
In the end, I like to think that you are what you eat… you are what you do… you are what you love.