Being An Anonymous Restaurant Critic Is Like Being in the CIA

<i>The Guardian's</i> Marina O'Loughlin is one of the last of a dying breed: anonymous restaurant critics. We spoke to her about the challenges of protecting your identity when you've had a few, avoiding industry events, and, um, sticking herbs up her...

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May 6 2014, 2:11pm

Photo via Wikicommons

In the UK, most of our restaurant critics have snazzy headshots printed alongside their reviews, with one exception: The Guardian's Marina O'Loughlin. Marina is one of the last anonymous restaurant critics out there in the world and is, I think, the best; a combination of I-really-know-my-shit-but-am-only-going-to-flaunt-it-where-necessary food knowledge and pin-sharp phrasing that ensures the good reviews are as entertaining as the bad.

The idea of being a high-profile yet anonymous restaurant critic seems a tricky path to walk, though. How do you navigate your day-to-day life without being rumbled? We had an email chat about avoiding industry events, bank cards in different names and, uh, sticking herbs up her bum.

Munchies: Hi Marina! On a day-to-day basis, how many times would you say you have to tell a thin lie to protect your identity? Marina O'Loughlin: Days of nothing, with brief bouts of intensive lying like a speeding politician.

Do your family and friends all know what you do? They all do. And it's fair to say they're not that bothered. They'd be far more impressed if I were useful and could swing them hard-to-book restaurant tables or introduce them to Heston Blumenthal.

Do you never go to any industry events then? No. Never. Well, at least not since my very early days in the gig. By and large, they make watching paint dry look like a Roman orgy.

Yes, with a cloud of sour wine and garlic breath floating above everyone. Have you ever met anyone from the industry—chefs, PRs, editors, etc— knowing full well who they are and had to create another identity for yourself on the spot? Yes! Argh! The embarrassment. It's usually when I'm with other friends from the industry. The persona I usually adopt is Vaguely Remedial Pal from the Provinces. Normally I get away with it, but I met a famous restaurateur recently and was introduced as "my friend Agnes." I'd had a lot to drink at this point. A lot. We were left alone together. Booze and mortification got the better of me. I turned to him and said, "*****, it's Marina." He said, "I know."

Amazing. Have you ever met any of your editors? I've only met my immediate editors. I've never met the legendary Alan Rusbridger but then he's so impossibly lofty he probably doesn't know I exist. I've only ever been in The Guardian offices twice in my life.

Do you have a rotation of names you book under in restaurants? I boast a variety of aliases which I forget on a regular basis, causing me no end of administrative nightmares.

Do you have a special bank card to pay bills with? One without your full name—if it even is your real one? Are you actually a jolly little man from the suburbs? I do have a bank card in another name. And yes, I am actually a man/25-year-old hot Asian/raddled former raver/70-year-old batty dowager. Delete as applicable.

I like to imagine you as a raddled former raver. Do you ever worry people will eavesdrop your conversations and put two and two together? Totally. It's why I avoid sushi bars, even ones I love like Sushi Tetsu. My husband is incapable of going out for dinner with me without bellowing "Marina" at the top of his voice.

Why do the friends you do have in the biz keep their mouths shut about who you are, do you think? Well, in the case of people like Stephen Harris at The Sportsman, I've been going there for a million years. He's a genius and doesn't give a stuff for all the nonsense associated with the industry. I think—hope—he values knowing me more than he'd enjoy the buzz of a great outing. Ditto Nuno Mendes. I know most of the other critics too, apart from the legendary Auntie Adrian Gill, who also probably doesn't know I exist.

Have there ever been any close shaves to being rumbled? Yes. It's all my own fault. If I will say dumbass things to servers like, "I didn't know Vacherin was in season," then I can expect to be peered at pretty beadily by the chef.

What key descriptors of you out there have you been made privy to? There are a few pointers out there. Some of them are truer than others, like my striking resemblance to Nancy dell'Olio. So far, I've managed to avoid anything appearing on those headshot sheets given to new restaurants by PRs.

You're quite active on social media. Surely for the anonymous critic Twitter is a curse? It is. But also it's a lifeline for someone who has been isolated either behind a screen or a menu for so many years. It's an amazing source of info, gossip and conversation about my favourite subject. So I'm prepared to take the risk. If that makes me sound like a terrible Billy-no-mates, that's because maybe I am.

Has anyone ever come over and actually said, "Are you Marina O'Loughlin?" Yes! They came over to the restaurant table I was sitting at with a pal. But the curious thing was, they asked the pal, not me. That was a real head-scratcher.

Do you have any stalkers, or, shall we say, fervent online fans? A cloak of anonymity in the public domain can do funny things to people... Weird things, but nothing too untoward. There are a couple of people who favourite everything I utter on Twitter, even responses to other people. Which is odd, but not threatening. Quite a lot of people ask me out. I had one guy who hit me with several barrel-loads of abuse, before asking, "are you single?" Well, it's one way of approaching.

Swoon. What are the best and worst aspects of being incognito? The best thing is that I don't have to endure that terrible song and dance in restaurants where the chef comes out and you have to pretend to love each other. For me, there are no downsides. I like lurking out of the spotlight. Although it would be nice to have access to the kind of loot that a TV profile affords.

Right. Surely no one can make a career as a restaurant critic alone these days? Have you ever been approached by TV companies? Book agents? I have a hobby of going out for lunch with handsome, charming literary agents (waves at Tim B), but I've managed to fight off the actual book writing and will continue to do so until all my other employers have spat me out. The TV pitches I've seen so far are so lame they make Come Dine With Me look like The Wire. But it would be idiotic to make predictions. Never say never and all that.

Are you actually, as you said in another interview, a lazy sociopath? Absolutely.

Finally, if you were to de-cloak at some point, how would you do it? An obnoxious selfie with food stuck in your teeth and smeared across your face? Probably naked on a massive silver platter with an apple in my mouth and some aromatic herbs up my bum.

Wonderful.