“It was straight after I returned and it was in a magazine that I don’t usually read,” explains Carter. “But I just found myself at a magazine stand and happened to pick it up.”
Serendipitous maybe, but deserv-ed. As the professional and well-spoken Carter casts her mind back to where her interest in food orig-inated, it seems it was too early on to pinpoint. “I grew up in a family that would dine out only at places highlighted in a good food guide so I was always interested. Ever since I was 12 I would read cookery books — it was my form of relaxation and still is.”
Her CV is rich with big names, as working with Egon Ronay launched her on to editing Out to Eat (the budget Good Food Guide), then editing the AA Restaurant Guide and freelancing for a wealth of publications from Les Routiers to Square Meal, before receiving the call
from former The Good Food Guide (TGFG) editor Tom Jaine in November 2006.
So Carter really knows what she is talking about, in contrast to the bloggers of today. Everyone is a critic and with the proliferation of the internet everyone can have their say. Carter’s view is that bloggers do not have any real licence to either criticise or praise. “I regard them as I do reader recommendations,” she says.
“I see how many places a person has recommended and whether they have a broad eating base and so on — you can spot the ones that are likely to be on the mark. I do read blogs and they can be useful when checking out a restaurant ahead of a visit, because inspecting costs a fortune. I also think they can be useful as a balance against TripAdvisor as there is no way to tell which posts are real on that site.
“But I do feel bloggers tend to be very London-centric and if they want to be serious critics they need to get out of London and visit other places. They have their place, but they aren’t restaurant critics — they are really just customers and I think it is very wrong that PRs court them.”
The guide remains one of the few around that operators cannot pay their way into. Apart from “representing the consumer voice” as a result, inspectors are forbidden from eating out too often, as it can affect the accuracy of their reports. Carter herself dines out no more than four times a week so that every time she sets out she is excited to experience her destination and, hopefully, feels hungry. “Any more than that and you lose the will to live,” she jokes.
As a well-known figure she cannot make reservations under her own name and has a string of aliases to that effect. But it isn’t foolproof and she has often been in situations when, on arrival, she can’t remember her assumed name, arousing staff suspicion. On successful undercover missions she has been thwarted at the last moment when paying with her own card, at which time she has seen staff running off to the kitchen waving the evidence.
Carter’s fellow inspectors go through a rigorous process to weed out those unfit for balanced reviews and only the top inspectors will be sent to the top venues. Two restaurants earned 10 out of 10 in the 2013 guide — a feat unseen for 14 years. Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, were the hailed pair.
“It gets harder every year,” says Carter. “Standards are always improving. We could see that Simon stood out on the BBC’s Great British Menu programme this year, so we were expecting great things and debated long and hard.”
The Pub of the Year 2013 award went to the Plough Inn, Longparish, Hampshire, run by ex-Maze chef James Durrant and it opened only five months ago.
The inspector went back another four times as it was so good. It is unusual for a pub to receive such an accolade so early on, but as Carter says the guide rewards excellence either for longevity or bravery.
Rogan, in fact, has earned himself a place in Carter’s heart as one of her favourite chefs of the current time, along with Nathan Outlaw, who has impressed her with his fish dishes.
Steve Harris rates as her favourite pub chef and the Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, is virtually her local. “I’ve had his pork scratchings only once and I still dream of them,” she laughs.
As for her preference for pub or restaurant dining, it depends completely on location and occasion. “When I joined in 2006 I wanted to move the whole attitude of the guide away from top-end dining towards the all-inclusive venues that cater for everyone, whether on a budget or not. When I look back at the first book there was no affordable eating at all and now we include delis, cafés and even a little place in Manchester that specialises in tea and cake. That is what good food is about — it’s not about spending a fortune.”
As far as she is concerned, a pub can put anything on the menu as long as it is done well and with love. The only thing she objects to — apart from tripe — is “menu fatigue” when she is faced with the same dishes on menus again and again.
Whereas most people use holidays away to indulge themselves in fancy restaurants, Carter sees them as a break away from eating.
Having an American husband, and family in Florida, she enjoys going there because “there is nowhere good to eat”, so she is relieved of any pressure.
It is no wonder then that she needs time to relax. As well as travelling and watching films she enjoys cooking and is particularly proud of a lamb moussaka she made recently. “It is so satisfying to cook,” smiles Carter. “I like simple cooking. I don’t attempt really complicated recipes in chefs’ cookery books because I can’t face the washing-up.
She adds: “I don’t understand why my Yorkshire puddings don’t work, though — as far as I’m concerned I do everything right. They taste nice, but they are very solid — I just haven’t mastered them.”
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