The connoisseurs' club
These Mumbai-based food reviewers aren't chasing reader approval, chefs' approval or even free meals. They have no agenda, which means when they recommend something, it's definitely worth your dime
A few years ago, when Zomato was still finding its feet, a handful of food reviewers were finding their voice. They had no experience in the culinary field, but they liked to eat. Slowly they discovered, they also liked to write. One of them, Dr Yatin Gadgil, a consultant in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, says, "What Zomato did pretty well at that time was that it created a nice enough platform, which incentivised people to write well and honestly. I realised that there weren't a million different reviews. Some [people] would write two to three lines; some would write really badly; and, there was a bunch of four to seven people who wrote really well."
Over time, they came to be known as Zomato Connoisseurs, with their own ratings such as 8, 9, 10 and so on, much like an Uber rating. So, the higher the rating, the more you can trust their word. A few of these were Palki Hatangadi, general manager at Tommy Hilfiger; Arpita Menon, EVP at a television channel; Karan Karayi, marketing manager at a media firm; Shravanika Govindarajan, a chartered accountant and manager with Pantaloons; an unnamed expat from Bandra who goes by the moniker of AA Connoisseur; and Dr Gadgil. "They are the kind of people, if they have experienced something and are writing about it, you know it's a genuine thing," says Menon. Of the thousands of reviewers on the platform, they stood out because of their way with words. They were the wheat, separated from the chaff.
Yatin Gadgil's personal favourite cuisines are modern Mediterranean and Japanese /Pic by Pradeep Dhivar; Location courtesy Terttulia
Connoisseur Rating 12 Yatin Gadgil
Last place I loved
"I'm looking for a wow [factor]. I'm literally looking for the kind of food — this is slightly hyperbolic — that would make the hair on the nape of my neck stand. Some of the latest places I've loved: Bastian and Slink & Bardot."
Searing love of food
A quick glance at their CVs will tell you they're not among the food bloggers who survive on freebies and restaurant invites. They've studied at prestigious institutes, such as IIM-B (Menon) and Johns Hopkins University (Gadgil), and risen to the top of the corporate ladder. They can foot their own bills. "The people who are super high on the Zomato rankings, the 12s and the 13s, [do] get a lot of free offers," admits Hatangadi.
On Instagram, Palki Hatangadi is followed by the likes of Riyaaz Amlani and chefs Vicky Ratnani and Ritu Dalmia
Connoisseur Rating 12 Palki Hatangadi
Last place I loved
"This place, in Kalyan, called Adipoli. It is Malayali food in a beautiful setting. The chef has studied in Sydney, and he's brought his mum's and grandmum's recipes, chutneys and podis [to the table]. It was unbelievable."
"A lot of PR agencies reach out to me, but I don't go. I feel that [if I go] as a customer, I'll be more truthful." Gadgil parrots, "If you go on Zomato invites, they expect you to write good stuff. That's not something I'm very comfortable with. My [credibility] comes from honest reviews. So, if you intend to monetise, then you have to [play] nice. I can't pull that off. People almost believe that writing about food is what I make money from, whereas the answer is I make zero rupees from doing that. Someone like Vir Sanghvi makes money from writing about food; I make zero rupees from it. I do it just as a matter of interest and passion."
Their interest in food is all-consuming, almost unhealthily so. They all dine out two to three times a week; Gagdil has to be Indigo Deli's favourite customer by now. "It's like naya movie aaya, naya restaurant aaya hai, I have to go," says Hatangadi. "If it's a new restaurant, and if it's pricier, I may not even go with my family; I go with my food friends." Menon, who owns 1,000 cookbooks, has taken her obsession one step further by starting a food blog (quantemplate.in), in order to "put a food lens on everything."
Love me, love me not
While it's true that Zomato brought all these people together, they have warmed up to other platforms, such as Blogger and Instagram, today. "About three to four years ago, I would have been more [active] on Zo than on Facebook," says Hatangadi. "Now, there's no love or actual connoisseurism involved." Their dissatisfaction stems from the Connoisseur rating system. Gadgil explains, "If I understand this right, you have a certain number of points per review, and a certain number of points for a picture that you upload.
In addition to reviewing on Zomato, Arpita Menon runs a food blog to understand "people and cultures through their food"
Connoisseur Rating 13 Arpita Menon
Last place I loved
"POH, before our chef moved away. [Chef Vikramjit Roy moved to White Hat Hospitality three months ago.] We were blown away by the food. The food is not the same [now]."
Unfortunately, that's a system that's very easy to game, and that's what's happening these days. It's not qualitative; it's quantitative. And therein is the reason why many people have walked away. [Other people] would upload 50 pictures per review and try to get six or eight points per picture. Or, they would find a rekdi or a stall, just to file a review." Menon laments, "It's become a competition. When I started reviewing, it was about trying new places, new dishes, it was a proper community of like-minded individuals."
While they haven't disappeared completely from the site, they have reduced their presence. "Now the reviews come either when it's really, really good or really, really bad," says Hatangadi. "The in-between ones I don't post anymore." Gadgil says, "Usually, I would review most restaurants, but now I tend to review what I find personally exciting. On Instagram, I only post something that's wowed me." Their original reason continues to bind them to the website.
Gadgil says, "The kind of feedback from people who read the reviews is what made it worthwhile to put in all the time. Because it takes a freaking lot of time to write a well-structured, edited review. [For instance] I want to write about this restaurant that everyone is raving about, but I personally had a middling experience: twice. So, that's taking some time to frame."
Hatangadi says, "Every place [restaurant] has their intentions right. Someone is starting a business from scratch, and you go there and you trash that place. You do feel sorry for them, especially when you have a face to it. But, sometimes you need to do it and tell people that it's not good. For me, it's more about helping people out who are spending a good amount of money, so that they don't make a bad decision."
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