“Million Dollar Critic,” which is now wrapping up filming in Charleston, is a television show. But host Giles Coren, The Times of London’s restaurant critic since 1993, says the BBC America series is supposed to celebrate print journalism (a declaration that’s sure to win him the viewing loyalty of the few dozen or so full-time newspaper restaurant critics left in the U.S.)
“The idea is it puts reviewing back at the heart of the story,” Coren says of the series, which will air its Charleston episode in September.
In each show, Coren will dine at five restaurants, one of which he’ll choose to review; the conceit is Coren’s endorsement is worth $1 million dollars. The money shot is of the restaurant owners eagerly opening their hometown paper to discover whether their meal merited a write-up.
“In many ways, it’s about journalism,” Coren says. “I have this dream of these kids watching because it’s a mouthy critic, then going out and seeing someone on a bike tossing a newspaper” – and presumably chasing after it.
Coren allows his version of food journalism may seem strange to an American audience, which he maintains is accustomed to “an old maid sitting in the corner with a glass of water and a tasting menu.”
By contrast, Coren has deliberately cultivated a raunchy, reckless persona, a strategy he describes using words which aren’t commonly printed in any American newspaper section. Still, he pins his reputation partly on his newspaper’s paywall, which has skewed Google searches away from his work and toward his “filthy” Twitter feed; a rollicking 2013 Esquire story chronicling the fallout from his perpetual drunkenness and coverage of an abusive 1000-word e-mail he sent his editors after they trimmed an “a” from his review.
Yet Coren’s written reviews aren’t much more restrained: An early column excoriated a “wall-eyed gargoyle of a waitress whose breath alone took three years off my life in the short time it took her to say the word ‘soup’.”
“America takes its food criticism very seriously,” Coren says. “(American critics) get straight to the food. They tell you the history of the restaurant, they tell you about the furniture. I start right in the middle. I form a trenchant opinion and defend it like a polecat. America is much more uptight.”
Although Coren couldn’t name a critic as an example – he offered up Ruth Reichl, who he didn’t realize left the New York Times in 1999 – he suspects the type is a product of anxious fact-checkers and hawkish attorneys.
“You can’t get away with much in the way of irony,” he says, recalling when the New York Times contacted him about a reviewing job. “They said, ‘of course, you wouldn’t be able to write the way you write now’.”
For entertainment’s sake, Coren’s reviewing style will be tweaked for broadcast. He’ll occasionally burst into a kitchen to poke around the pantry, and he won’t pretend he’s dining anonymously. “This isn’t reality,” he says. Also in the “isn’t reality” category: The on-camera issue of the Post and Courier featuring Coren’s review. His review will actually be published by the Huffington Post to coincide with the episode’s debut.
Since arriving in Charleston, Coren has eaten at restaurants including The Obstinate Daughter, Alluette’s Café, Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen and Poogan’s Porch. His crew’s advances were rejected by Xiao Bao Biscuit (“too cool for television,” Coren theorizes) and The Ordinary (“The Ordinary was not keen because they thought I might take
a the piss.”)
“I don’t know if they’re ready for me here,” he says, sounding very much like someone who hopes they’re not.