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Eat Your Words

With user-generated restaurant review sites becoming more popular by the day, amateur bloggers are a force to be reckoned with in food-crazy Hong Kong. But with no accountability or quality control, Sarah Fung wonders whether they really deserve the power we assign to them.

By Sarah Fung | May 10, 2012

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  • Eat Your Words

Everyone loves to eat—and that couldn’t be truer in a dining-obsessed city like Hong Kong. There’s no better feeling than tracking down the city’s best roasted pork and rice, or venturing out to a forgotten corner of Sham Shui Po for the richest, sweetest egg tart you’ve ever had. But has the act of documenting one’s meal become more important than eating it?

When you eat with a foodie, each course is photographed until it’s stone-cold. Every last morsel, from the amuse bouche to the complimentary bread basket, is turned over, sniffed at and analyzed to death. The joy that comes with dining out—sloshing the wine, sinking your teeth into a rare steak, sharing dessert and lingering over coffee—is reduced, simmered down to the methodical acts of tasting, photographing and note-taking. Eating in a restaurant is no longer a joy, a way to unwind or to celebrate special occasions, but a task to be undertaken with po-faced seriousness and a generous pinch of self-importance.

You see, dining these days is less about tucking in and more about showing off. Food bloggers love to accumulate followers, brag about wangling a table at the hottest new restaurant—and perhaps most worryingly, slam said restaurants, well, just because they can.

Professional food writers in the public domain have a responsibility to be fair; the public trusts them to have some degree of knowledge about and impartiality toward the subjects they are covering. Plus, with your name out there, you’re answerable to your editors, the industry and your readers. To be a food blogger, however, all you need is an appetite and an opinion—and you’re accountable to no one. Get on OpenRice, crank up a Tumblr, and suddenly, any blowhard with a camera phone has a voice—and a potentially powerful one at that.

It’s not that we’re against user-generated content or amateur reviews. In fact, a customer’s testimonial is often much more useful than a professional opinion, which comes with its own set of problems, such as a conflict of interest when it comes to advertisers, or the risk of special treatment if well-known writers are recognized by staff. But with the safety blanket of online anonymity, food bloggers can quickly turn into food trolls, and that is inevitably going to damage a dining scene that’s already being smothered by high rents and big restaurant groups.

Blogging Off

People who love food will naturally want to share their experiences with their fellow foodies, and the establishment of a healthy online food community is no doubt something to be celebrated. But in the past few years, as blogging software becomes more accessible and people become more social media-savvy, food bloggers’ motives have become less about sharing and more about acquisition—be that lunches, notoriety or attention. “[Food blogging] has turned a little commercial, and people see it as a way of making themselves stand out in the marketplace,” says Geoffrey Wu, former communications director of IHM Group (which owns Linguini Fini and Posto Pubblico, among others). “There are multiple platforms whereby you can seriously build a following and build your name up. Hence, in return, there are a lot of rewards, such as invitations to meals, Christmas hampers—many, many things. It’s the commercial value that has sort of blinded these people and turned them away from what blogging was really meant to be.”

The worst of these bloggers, according to Wu, are the ones that will trash a restaurant simply to get attention. “They [food bloggers] just want to cause trouble or create negativity so that people will pay attention to them—PR people will pay a lot of attention to fix their experience,” he says. It’s not surprising that restaurant representatives will work hard to mitigate the damage caused by a damning review. With the proliferation of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Weibo and Instagram, bloggers can gain an astonishingly wide audience. “You see a lot of people… they will literally translate their unhappiness into every single channel possible so that the whole world will know about their unhappy experience. And this I think is not right,” adds Wu.

While any kind of buzz is good for fledgling bloggers looking to build their personal brands, too much attention can be a nightmare for restaurants. Chef Jeremy Biasiol of the Michelin-starred Mirror restaurant in Wan Chai recounts how online attention led to his restaurant being booked solid just two days after it opened. Though it may sound like a dream come true to have a packed restaurant straight out of the gate, Biasiol recalls that it only led to headaches: “When we opened the restaurant in September 2010 it was quite messy. My staff were all students before joining the restaurant. They had no experience and no training. We opened on September 17, and by the 19th we were fully booked for three months.” As foodies clamored for a table, the criticism started pouring in, too. “These blogs didn’t give us a shot to prepare—you have to be perfect from day one. It never works like that. There are always mistakes at the beginning,” he says. Wu agrees. A former food blogger himself, Wu stopped when he realized he didn’t like the direction the world of food blogging was taking. “[It] makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable now… these people [bloggers] will go in, and the restaurant has been open for two days, and they’ll tear it apart. It’s not ethically correct. Restaurateurs pour in a lot of money, a lot of effort, time and love into opening a restaurant, and these people just go in and rip it to shreds, which is very unfair,” says Wu.

The most frustrating thing for restaurateurs though, is when bloggers simply don’t know what they are talking about. Biasiol and his peers have an endless supply of anecdotes that prove that the old adage “the customer is always right” isn’t exactly true. “Some people make comments on dishes, but you can see that they don’t know how to eat. The comments make no sense and they don’t help me improve—one reviewer said that there was too much truffle and too much egg in my black truffle scrambled eggs. How is it supposed to taste?” says Biasiol.

Don’t Hate the Foodies

Despite these criticisms, it can’t be denied that food bloggers and amateur reviewers have revolutionized the way we eat, offering fresh insights on a restaurant from a customer’s perspective. Richard Vines, the London-based chief food critic at Bloomberg, sees this as a growing trend. “I think it's a good thing that food lovers can communicate with each other: sharing their experiences and passing on tips about new places to try and those to avoid,” he says. “I trained on newspapers and historically readers have just been consumers of professional writing. Now, everyone has a voice, and that's what we are hearing.”

Although poor-quality reviews are inevitable, overall, food bloggers have helped to enrich the dining scene. Adds Vines: “The knowledge of bloggers and the quality of their writing covers a wide range. While some know little and can't write, others are well-informed and communicate well. I think people get to know whom they respect and whom they don't. There's room for everyone, though it does trouble me when I read a rant against a restaurant from someone who just doesn't get it.” Well-known food blogger KC Gourmet hopes that as more people become interested in blogging, the quality of the reviews will get better. But in the meantime, he suggests that the key to getting the most out of food blogs and food review sites is to read each review with a critical eye. “Nowadays people are more sophisticated and they can differentiate between these comments. [Some of] the comments are really biased, but this is unavoidable in the social media age,” he says.

Opinions on OpenRice

By far Hong Kong’s biggest food review website, OpenRice is a forum on which anyone can share their dining experiences. Founded in 1999, it attracts more than 3 million unique visitors per month, which translates to more than 83 million page views. It has an astonishing database of almost 40,000 restaurants and more than half a million reviews. Its aim—to democratize the dining experience and give every food enthusiast in Hong Kong a chance to offer their unvarnished opinion—is a straightforward one. But sadly, as with any site that relies on user-generated content, OpenRice attracts more than its fair share of time-wasters, axe-grinders and fools.

The sheer quantity of shoddy reviews led Jonathan Maloney, a writer and photographer, to set up Diu Lei OpenRicer, a Tumblr that pokes fun at the worst offenders. “OpenRice is a sound concept in theory and was fine at the beginning, when the only people who would take the time and effort to write about their meals were passionate and knowledgeable about their food. The last few years have seen this explosion of 'foodies'—for lack of a better term—and with it this massive online literary diarrhea. OpenRice is now the most useless resource for finding out how good a restaurant might be in Hong Kong,” says Maloney. “I was surprised no one else had done something like this before; there's so much good source material,” he adds.

This sentiment is echoed by Wu and Biasiol. Both F&B industry insiders have noticed a decline in the quality of the reviews on OpenRice, and in turn, both have noted that diners and restaurateurs alike are now paying less attention to what’s being written there. Says Wu: “If you look at 2008, a lot of people had a higher belief in this website. But I have noticed that a lot of friends, fellow restaurateurs and marketers around Hong Kong have commented that their likelihood of trusting this site has declined year by year.” Biasiol wonders why the moderators don’t crack down on useless reviews. “Someone is supposed to control the comments. When the comments have nothing to do with food they shouldn’t be on the site. Yes, a restaurant is the atmosphere, the food, the booking, but there should be a better way than to waste your time writing a review of the reservation [process]. If you’re upset, you get on the phone with the restaurant owner—that’s fine. But you don’t have to put it in a public place,” he says. An OpenRice representative defends these reviews, and explains how the site allows readers to filter comments that are unrelated to food: "Apart from encouraging our members to share their views on dishes, they are also encouraged to comment on the environment, service, hygiene and value for money. All these factors contribute to a person’s dining experience and therefore should be included. However, if the review bears no relation to food, it will be published in the form of a 'Non-Review.' OpenRice users can choose to read 'Non-Reviews' and 'Reviews' through our filter system, allowing easy navigation through the site."

As a food blogger, KC Gourmet has been posting regularly on OpenRice since it first launched and has penned more than 6,400 reviews for the site. In 2009, he decided to distance himself from OpenRice and set up his own food blog (gourmetkc.blogspot.com) to separate his writing from the amateur reviews. “I am doing this [food blogging] full time now and it is my challenge to differentiate myself from these amateur food critics,” he says. KC also explains why OpenRice moderators allow so many poor reviews to be published: it’s the sheer quantity of the reviews that matters, not the quality. “They [OpenRice] keep burying good people. They don’t want quality. They don’t want anyone to stand out,” he says. ”That’s why I keep telling people to move away from OpenRice if they are serious about writing.” He goes on to explain that OpenRice sells its advertising based on the volume of users, not the quality of its content. “Every time they sell events or proposals to a restaurant, what they can lay on the table is hit rates, the number of food comments, the number of critics—not who’s writing.”

KC Gourmet also notes that OpenRice is being used increasingly as a promotional tool by restaurant PRs to help boost up their restaurant’s rankings. “When they [restaurant PRs] want more food comments, they will give free meals to openricers [the term for OpenRice’s bloggers], who will in turn post food comments. It’s a massive promotional tool,” he says. KC explains that it’s not the details of the reviews that matter to the PRs, but rather the number of “happy” or “sad” faces that are awarded to a restaurant, as many users simply go by the quantity of positive reviews alone without delving into the nitty-gritty of a detailed write-up. But surely, if OpenRice’s strength lies in its ability to offer impartial restaurant reviews, then allowing PR representatives to manipulate ratings by offering free meals undermines the website’s very purpose? OpenRice counters: "Over the past few years, more restaurants have organized tasting events to gain suggestions from different customers. Such customers will then share their dining experience on OpenRice. Food tasting events will inevitably be different from a 'normal' meal out, therefore when writing a review, reviewers have the option to choose the 'occasion' [meaning category, to ensure transparency]... Regardless of the number, the reviews will be from an individual’s point of view."

The key, says OpenRice's representative, is to use your judgment when looking at individual reviews. "Our members are from all spectrums of Hong Kong—regardless of age and occupation... these reviews are written from an ordinary Hong Kong individual’s point of view on different restaurants." He adds: "There is no right or wrong when it comes to sharing one’s food experience."

Shut Up and Eat

With all these foodies snapping photos and supplying endless critiques via their various social media channels, do chefs ever wish that their customers would just shut up and eat? “Sometimes I joke to my staff that if I take the cameras off these customers, they will stop coming! They always wait until the moment the dish is on the table to take dozens of pictures—and afterwards they will complain to me because the food is cold! If one of these customers complained to me that the food was cold, I would probably say to them, instead of taking pictures, eat your food when it comes to the table,” jokes Biasiol. “I’m used to it now, and sometimes I make the dishes hotter so that they have five minutes to take pictures.” Maloney, on the other hand, is more harshly critical of the city’s obsessive food documentarians: “Our generation is spoiled, over-protected, over-encouraged and over-fed. I've lost track of how many times over the last four, five years I've seen Hong Kong couples sit opposite each other in an expensive restaurant while one plays a game on an iPhone and the other whips out a $30,000 DSLR and starts shooting the salt shakers.” So as a chef, what would Biasiol rather have his customers do? He says: “They should just go to restaurants and enjoy… Just enjoy life, you know? There are enough critics around the world; we don’t need to have more.”

The Best of the Worst

An unedited selection of Hong Kong’s lamest reviews, as featured on Diu Lei OpenRicer.

- his milkshake was runny.

- we also got a side of waffles. they were ok.

- and everyone around us were drunk.
“Unhappy” review of Flying Pan by eyekandi

(re: Spicy Chicken): The waiter told me that it’s juz a BIT spicy but it’s not true! It’s quite spicy to me. The sauce is gd but the chicken is not really gd coz I dont feel like eating a chicken.
“Okay” review of Khyber Pass by My Melody* :D

The biscuit that come with the coffee was an annoyance, to say the least. I was trying to break it in half when moaning about the poor quality of the coffee, and before I knew it, I’ve showered myself in crumbs of the biscuit.
“Unhappy” review of Wooloomooloo Steakhouse by 大蝗蟲

I only got the Happy Meal because of the cute cat with dilating pupils to be re-painted.
“Recommended” review of McDonald’s by supersupergirl1141

The unisex toilet was out of paper (and the floor covered in wee). Fortunately there were some paper towels so I wasn’t caught short but I did end up with an itchy bum.
“Unhappy” review of 208 Duecento Otto by bianfuxia

The next course was the weakest link in the entire menu: baked pumpkin with French mushrooms and beef gravy. I must admit that I am not a pumpkin person and so I could be biased.
“Unhappy” review of Spoon by Adolphe

Find more reviews on diuleiopenricer.tumblr.com

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