SL Meets… Grace Dent

Grace Dent is an author, radio presenter, columnist and restaurant critic for the Guardian – although she might be best known to many for her regular appearances on MasterChef. Now, as she gears up to launch Channel 4 show ‘The Best of Britain by the Sea’ with Ainsley Harriot, we sat down with her to talk about her career, what it’s like to be a food critic and the hottest tables to book right now.
By heather Steele /

I never wanted to work in food. But I knew I did want to come to London. The train track went past the end of my terraced street, and I knew it was 277 miles to London in a straight line. I didn't come from an academic or career-driven household, and I didn't go to schools that pushed me to dream big. 

I always say I was brought up by pop culture. I think my earliest glimpses of the television were watching Top of the Pops and seeing bands like The Human League and people who worked in media. Paula Yates was a big influence, as was Janet Street Porter and Eve Pollard. I was always watching women who lived in London and had careers that didn't tie them down. I never thought, “I want to be the editor of a newspaper” or “I would really like to be a television presenter”. I used to look at women like Janet and see that it was possible to keep pivoting and do all these different, glamorous, worthwhile things. 

I first got into food when I arrived in London in 1996. My first job was as editorial assistant at Marie Claire. I wanted to write and be a columnist and I loved the life that came with magazines. I’m from up north, and even with the best will in the world, being a working-class northerner in the 80s and 90s, your view of food was limited. I lived on a lot of supermarket food, carbohydrates and processed foods, which are still a great downfall of mine today. Arriving in London was like living in colour. I was suddenly eating food from all over the world and then – probably most importantly – I started going to restaurants. When you work in media, there are so many launch parties and chances to be taken out for a lunch. Suddenly, I was eating food by Marco Pierre White at Mirabelle or at Atlantic Bar & Grill or Momo. These were places I would never have had access to otherwise.

Being a RESTAURANT CRITIC is one of those jobs PEOPLE THINK ARE HEAVEN – it's a bit like complaining about being a Victoria's Secret model or Princess Margaret.

That’s when I decided I wanted to write about food. The novelty of posh restaurants wears off very quickly when you start to get the bill and sometimes it's £165 and the staff haven't been very nice, and the food wasn't any better than you could have cooked at home. That caused the first stirrings in 1998 or 1999, because I realised I'm very good with words and at telling a story. I knew that if somebody said to me, “What's Momo or another incredibly hot Mayfair restaurant like?” And I’d say, “Pull up a chair.” I’d go off on a little rant and get to the end and think, “If only I could have printed that.” It really began to crucify me, as I became a Londoner, seeing people from all over Britain come here and get ripped off because they'd been told in a glossy magazine that a particular restaurant was the place to be. “You have to be at Pharmacy – beg, borrow, steal and go.” But I'd been to Pharmacy and I didn't think the food was very good, and I desperately wanted to write about it. 

It took another ten years to get my own column. For a long time there was no diversity in restaurant criticism. I was a working-class woman, comprehensive-school educated, I hadn’t been to Oxford and didn't know anybody in the food world – none of my parents were chefs, I didn't have a husband who was a chef, and I didn't have a way in. But I was building up more and more information and knowledge about food, and eating out a lot. 

Lily Allen saved me. ES Magazine was doing a guest-edited issue with Lily. I didn't know her – other than to wave across the room at her at a party – but she was a fan of my writing and she told them she wanted me to write something for the issue. They asked me what I’d like to do, and I chose the scourge of hipster cafés in east London. I wrote about when your local greasy spoon that’s open from 6am ’til 5pm seven days a week gets replaced by somewhere that’s only open four afternoons a week, hosts slam poetry then closes for 32 days at Christmas. Of course, I upset quite a lot of people when it was published. Then, an email came from ES, saying its restaurant critic had just handed in their notice and would I be interested in covering for a couple of weeks? I remember trying to play it cool, but as soon as I hit ‘yes’ on my keyboard, I thought, “I'm never giving this job back.” 

I got the job permanently because I proved I could do it. Suddenly, Grace & Flavour became a thing. I don't think anybody in the food scene was very happy about it – or maybe they were happy through gritted teeth – thinking, “Who the hell is this woman?” I really learned to be a restaurant critic there. It’s one of those jobs people think is heaven – it's a bit like complaining about being a Victoria's Secret model or Princess Margaret. But it was a baptism of fire. I think if most people had to feed a 52-features-a-year restaurant column they would find it incredibly stressful. Not just because of the writing – that’s fine, I wake up at 5am and put up a blank sheet on my computer and I say what I think. The hard bit is having to walk into restaurants – when they know who you are and why you're there – sit down and eat food in an incredibly tense atmosphere. Knowing the full ramifications of what you're saying, especially when you personally know the chefs, PR, staff and front of house… it really does weigh on you. 

Sessions Art Club
Sessions Art Club

Some people love to point out, “Who listens to you anyway? You've never run a restaurant.” Part of me thinks that's fair enough. Then there’s a huge number of people who walk up to me and say, “I keep every article you write” or “I trust you for the work party, my mum's birthday and my anniversary”, and you realise it matters. Chefs and restaurants often tell me I changed everything – which is sometimes lovely to hear and sometimes frightening. There’s one restaurant I went to in Borough Market. It had these stupid half banquettes to encourage people to lean backwards. It was impossible to eat my tapas. I wrote all this up in my review. When I saw the owner about three months later, he told me they’d read my review on the Friday and by the Monday they’d ripped them all out. 

The restaurant I’ve been raving about for the last six months is BiBi on North Audley Street. I was really thrilled the other week when the team got a GQ Restaurant Award. I think BiBi is really ground breaking. It’s Indian influenced but at the same time, its heart and soul is ancient Indian food, while still being modern and playful with excellent service. 

I always namecheck Gymkhana – to the point where I can't get in at all. It's a real favourite to send people to because I think you could take anyone there. You could go with somebody who wanted the finest, most experimental meal and they would be pleasantly thrilled by the venison naan. But you could also take your dad and he would recognise it as traditional, British-tinged Indian food.

If you can get into Café Cecilia, do it. The downside for me is you can't get in and they don't really need my publicity! I think the Guinness bread ice-cream and rabbit tagliatelle are amazing. The owner Max Rocha is a bit of a genius.

Another recent hit for me was Cédric Grolet at the Berkeley. If you’ve got a spare £100, go and sit up at the counter. The people he has working for him are all young, passionate and desperately good-looking pastry obsessives. I learned so much when I was there.

Sessions Arts Club is A SCENE. It WHISKS ME BACK to the first times I ever went to a private members club in the 90s and you would walk in on a Thursday night and you could very easily LOSE THREE DAYS of your life.

I also love The Plimsoll. It's hard to get in though it’s nothing to look at. Those boys have taken on an old boozer in Finsbury Park and changed literally nothing – it's like walking into the Queen Vic. They do straightforward things like a very good Dexter burger, but then the most innovative things with clams and mussels and bone marrow. It’s just very, very good – even if it's just a bowl of crisps with some home-churned cod's roe. It’s one of the greatest places to eat in London, but it's not for everybody. You could take a few people there and they’d go, “Why the hell are we sitting in this pub and why have I only got a table for an hour and a half?” But I absolutely love it.

Sessions Arts Club is a scene. It whisks me back to the first times I ever went to a private members club in the 90s and you would walk in on a Thursday night and you could very easily lose three days of your life. I walked in and thought the design was incredible, as were the staff. I think Florence Knight’s food is just incredible. I ate some kind of raw fish with fig oil and I remember thinking, “That is one of the most unique things I've eaten in London.” 

On a night off, you will find me in Tonkotsu. I love its ramen and gyoza. One of the difficulties of the job is that you go to amazing places, then you haven't got time to ever go back because you're always having to feed the column. To fill 52 columns, I must go to around 150 restaurants a year all over the country. And the majority are not ‘wow’. But those I've mentioned are. 

I really love Leeds. On the weekend, I love going to Kirkgate Market – it's a real mix of the old butchers and fishmongers and haberdashers that have been there for like 45 years and new food trucks. I think Leeds is probably a smaller, better London. You can go to The Ivy if you want, or you go and get some amazing noodles. I love Leeds people. There are loads of creatives, great chefs, new openings, places to buy clothes – the women are all mega glamorous, too.

Gymkhana
Cedric Grolet at the Berkeley

I'm constantly on the lookout for dresses. I'm incessantly on the internet trying to find high-street stuff because it's so expensive and I'm always on Instagram screen-grabbing stuff from tiny independents like Woo Woo Boutique – it’s never about a specific designer, it's about ‘The Dress’. My guilty pleasure is eBay. I'm also continuously buying clip-on earrings. 

My favourite guest on Comfort Eating is probably Russell Tovey. I opened the front door, and he was standing halfway down the path in a Stone Island jacket and shorts looking like the fittest thing ever. We didn't really know each other, but he opened his arms, gave me a hug, walked in, sat down and just committed. He told stories so filthy we had to get permission from different authorities to put them out. It was emotional, and we had a little cry and we laughed – it was just a great interview. Having Stephen Fry to your house is a nerve-wracking experience but he was incredibly down to earth. 

Interviewing singer Self Esteem was the first time I properly cried. On the whole, I'm not crier and I'm always pretty professional. Then she turns up and she’s so amazing and we talked about life, love and heartbreak. Then I went to read out some of her lyrics, got halfway through and just started crying. I think that was one of my favourite interviews because she really broke me down. We’re halfway through recording season three at the moment, season four is coming after that and we're doing Comfort Eating Live, taking it out on the road.

The Best of Britain by the Sea is really a chance to go and look at the more unexplored areas. I love the seaside. And I love big, blustery beaches and walking with the dog, eating fish and chips. This show is a chance for me and Ainsley Harriot to go to places like Aberdeenshire, Carmarthenshire and parts of Norfolk – places that may not be entirely obvious at first. We did something grand in each place, like going to a posh hotel and having afternoon tea or we’d go to a black-tie function or visit a local Michelin-starred restaurant. But then we would also do something really lowkey like stay in a caravan and get a lobster from a local fisherman and make it in the caravan.

My favourite guest on Comfort Eating might be Russell Tovey. He told STORIES SO FILTHY we had to GET PERMISSION from different authorities TO PUT THEM OUT.

Ainsley taught me how to cook. I mean, I could cook pretty well, but I was on the road for six weeks with a professionally trained chef who is an excellent cook, so I picked up a lot. Because he did Ready Steady Cook for so many years, he could often make something out of nothing. In the caravan, he could look at the few items provided and work out how to do an entire food shoot.

Me and Ainsley together is a riot. It’s a really fun show. It’s poignant because when we filmed it, I was going through the grief of losing my mum recently. We had a six-week intense holiday, me and Ainsley, just going around remote beaches, with 6am calls to stand on isolated coves. It was emotional. It brought up a lot about going on holiday with our families and our childhoods and the people we missed, the people we loved and lost. I’m proud of it. Yes, there’s a lot of travelogue on TV, but I do think this is a funny, unique look at what makes Britain great.

I still love MasterChef. Appearing on the show will never stop being a thrill, because I have watched it since I was young. I used to sit with my dad on the couch and laugh whenever they brought restaurant critics out, who’d say stuff like, “This is the worst foie gras in the world!” For me, MasterChef is like going round the back of the television set and climbing inside. When Gregg Wallace shouts, “Today, we’ve got a fearsome face in the world of food criticism – it’s Miss Grace Dent!” and I walk through that door, it's like walking into my childhood. It's incredible, fun and I get on really well with Gregg and John Torode – they've always been really good to me and it’s a good atmosphere. But it’s long, endless days for them. 

Being without my parents is a whole new chapter of my life. You don't realise how much everything you do is to impress your parents until they're not around anymore. Everything I ever did was so I could pick up the phone and go “Mam, I'm going to be on Dictionary Corner on Countdown” or “Dad, I’m going to be on MasterChef.” And now I get asked to do things, and I look for my phone to tell my mum, then remember. So I need to have new reasons to have goals – but it's bloody hard.

 

The Best of Britain by the Sea launches on More4 at 9pm tonight. Order Grace’s memoir Hungry here and listen to Comfort Eating with Grace Dent here.

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