Wednesday, 13 February 2013

In Defence of Ernst Van Zyl

Last week several food bloggers took to the comment pages of Manchester Confidential to defend the cooking of Ernst Van Zyl, head chef at Etrop Grange, in response to Mark Garner's disparaging review of the 'Chef's Menu'. It is a testament to Ernst's ambition and disposition, more so maybe than the quality of his cooking, that he received so many supportive comments.

Herein lies the crux of my argument. Gordo writes: 'Constructive criticism is good'. This is true - I've eaten at Etrop and I was not unanimously complimentary about the food. There is certainly room for improvement and I believe Ernst knows this better than anyone. However, I don't believe the review fits into the canon of constructive criticism. How can you write: 'the disaster that came before'; 'smelled of fart'; 'it actually disturbed us'; and term it 'constructive'.

I can't refute that the meal did go 'spectacularly wrong' or that a broccoli jelly 'smelled of fart' (which it very well might have). I know many who've had excellent experiences at Etrop but I'm more than willing to accept that the current menu has some major flaws. What I'm not willing to accept is the heavy-handed manner in which the criticism was delivered. I’m admittedly a neophyte in the food-writing game but one review and one meal should not be the basis for damaging a chef's reputation so. If Gordo has 'high hopes' for Ernst cooking then you'd have to read between the lines with an electron microscope to find them. 

What bothers me more about the review is that Ernst is one of the few chefs trying to do something innovative in Manchester, a city that has seemingly devolved into buffets, burger joints, and brasseries. I'm not remotely suggesting this precludes him from criticism but anything positive about the meal was brushed over: in the mallard dish (7/10) 'the ingredients worked well'; the desserts were 'fine' despite the lemon tart scoring 8/10. The whole preamble about The Fat Duck was there to illustrate how far, in Gordo's opinion, Ernst has fallen from that particular tree. The whole piece was so far balanced towards the low points that it will discourage so many from ever trying Ernst's cooking.

So, my question to Mark Garner is this: How is Ernst ever going to ‘get it’ if one of the most influential food critics in Manchester recommends that everyone 'stick to the steak and chips'? That would render all Ernst's efforts useless. Surely, more 'constructive' advice would be to recommend trying the 'Chef's Menu' - for how indeed is Ernst going to improve on and adjust his cooking style if the customers don't exist to give him feedback?

I understand that Mark Garner and Manchester Confidential do not want to endorse a meal, especially one with a high price-tag, that might end up disappointing a large section of their readers. However, sometimes I wonder if the motives are less than altruistic.‘Gordo will return in the next three months. He sincerely hopes Ernst takes the criticism in the right way.’ Read: ‘Gordo sincerely hopes Ernst starts cooking exactly the kind of food Gordo wants to eat or Gordo will write another scathing review'. 

The most irksome comment was not in the review itself but from a user called Big Ears who, to paraphrase, wrote that we don’t want or need Ernst's type of cooking in Manchester. It is the most galling thing when someone proclaims to speak for Mancunians in this matter - there are those, myself included, who certainly do want this kind of thing! 

Without encouragement the fine-dining scene in Manchester will never grow and we'll always have to go further afield to find a meal that will challenge our expectations or a chef who will inspire us with his creativity. 

Thus I implore you to visit Etrop Grange and try Ernst's more adventurous dishes; and I hope Mark Garner will take this piece not as a personal attack but in the spirit of 'constructive' criticism.