Episode 5: Lizzie Loel

Lizzie Loel is a restaurant critic at Qweekend and freelance writer.

Penmanship podcast episode 5: Lizzie Loel, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015As a regular reader of Qweekend, I’ve been intrigued by Lizzie’s reviews in the last couple of years she’s been in the role. Her writing is sharp and evocative, but what has interested me most is that her ratings are on a scale of 20, and she rarely awards a score higher than 15. This has created the perception in my mind, and in the minds of others, that she’s a tough marker – a critic who’s hard to please.

We talk about this perception at some length in our conversation, which also touches on Lizzie’s upbringing on a sheep and cattle station in western Queensland; her experience as an apprentice chef in Brisbane and Paris; the difficulties associated with perfecting the art of making an Indian curry; how she developed her palate and food vocabulary; how she got into restaurant criticism,including her unique method of writing reviews without taking notes; and the type of reader she keeps in mind when reviewing restaurants for Qweekend.

This interview was recorded at Lizzie’s home in Paddington, Brisbane, on a Friday morning in June, at her dining room table. Her obsession with all things food was evident through the fresh ingredients on the table beside us, as well as the countless cookbooks and food magazines in her living room. You’ll even hear her cat making its presence known at a couple of points in our conversation.

Lizzie Loel lives to eat and eats to live.  As a chef-turned-restaurant critic she has seen all angles of the restaurant industry from the good, the bad and the utterly delectable. Widely travelled and with more than fifteen years’ experience as a restaurant critic, Lizzie knows a thing or two about eating out.  Her life prior to this was all about food as well: she ran the popular A Moveable Feast for six years and then went on to establish The Grape Catering Company, both of which won multiple awards over several years. During the ‘critic’ years, Lizzie moonlighted as a caterer-of-sorts, producing mountains of food daily for her constantly hungry three young sons and their ever-expanding entourage.  She stopped reviewing when the boys left school, jumping back into the industry but early in 2013 she returned to The Courier-Mail‘s reviewing for the prestigious Qweekend magazine.

Lizzie Loel on Twitter: @LizzieLoel

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2.20 What Lizzie had for breakfast
3.20 Lizzie is thinking about food 24/7: “There’s no such thing as a meal that isn’t thought about”
5.20 Lizzie aspired to be a chef while growing up. For her mother, cooking was a chore, but her aunty had a different take
6.30 Growing up on a sheep and cattle station in St George, western Queensland
7.35 Her best schoolfriend’s mother was Jan Power, a well-known food identity in Brisbane
8.20 Lizzie’s older sister, a doctor, has diagnosed her as “a compulsive garnisher”
7.20 Becoming a caterer rather than a restaurant chef after “timed, bulk cooking” for the shearers on the sheep and cattle station
8.10 She hated every school subject except home economics
9.45 The girls’ education triggered the move from St George to Brisbane
12.20 Becoming an apprentice chef at a Brisbane restaurant
13.20 Her apprenticeship was “quite terrifying, especially for tiny little women”
15.05 “I have such enormous respect for restaurant chefs, because it’s a tough, tough, tough gig”
17.10 Differences between Australian and French food cultures
19.20 “I used to describe [Australian] menus as ‘all things to all men’”
21.20 Lizzie was “madly in love” with Marco Pierre White when starting her career
24.20 The difficulties associated with perfecting the art of making an Indian curry; “it took years
25.20 Elizabeth David was Lizzie’s greatest food writing influence; “she was really a cook for other cooks”
27.20 Getting married at 23 and moving between Australia and France, then having three children at age 30
30.20 Her former husband was a lawyer; “he was good at eating, and had an unbelievable palate”
31.50 Lizzie’s hobby is to reverse-engineer a recipe by smell and taste, a habit which began at age 12 or 13
33.20 “There are a lot of people who just want food for fuel, and don’t really get the enjoyment out of drilling down”
34.05 How to develop a palate and food vocabulary by exposure
35.50 How Lizzie got into food writing; “I fell into it” by sitting next to Kylie Lang, then editor of Good Life and now editor of Qweekend, at a food awards night 20 years ago
37.40 Lizzie trusted her critical instincts from the very first review, but she didn’t trust her grammar and ability to convey it
38.50 First published in The Courier-Mail in 1997 or 1999; “I honestly can’t remember”
39.40 Lizzie has never made a note while sitting at the table, reviewing a restaurant; she instead prefers to marinate on it overnight
41.20 Dining companions help a food critic because “they’re who I’m writing for; they’re the representative”
43.05 Lizzie has always written her reviews for the average person, for whom dining out is a special occasion
44.05 “We used to have really pretentious service in Brisbane, and all over Australia”
45.00 Food is only 60% of the dining experience; the experience and ambiance is the other 40%
47.20 “You can’t really review someone’s restaurant and be their friend”
50.50 Lizzie started writing restaurant guides; 500 reviews of 100 words each
51.50 The most overused adjective in food writing, in Lizzie’s mind, is “delicious”
55.50 Leo Schofield was an Australian food critic who was successfully sued after writing a negative review in 1984
56.50 When food critics heavily criticise something, their work is reviewed by lawyers prior to publication
58.20 Discussing the perception that Lizzie is a hard marker in her restaurant reviews
59.50 “Last year I reviewed 50 times, and 46 of them were new restaurants”
64.05 Lizzie’s reviews in Qweekend are between 500 and 550 words, and she recommends which dishes should be photographed
65.05 “I really do listen to the waitstaff; not so much for their recommendation as their enthusiasm and level of knowledge”
66.20 When Lizzie visits a restaurant, she is recognised in person a lot less than she used to be
69.05 How food critics manage their weight while reviewing restaurants
70.50 Responding to feedback from restaurant owners after publication
73.10 Outside of Qweekend, Lizzie contributes news to Delicious magazine and Wine State, and writes other articles on occasion
74.05 What Lizzie will have for lunch

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