DOES your skin crawl with envy when your friends post images of fancy meals? They could be eating out for free with an elite mystery shopping company.
Invisible Guest is the hospitality industry’s best kept secret, a culinary espionage service employed by some of Australia’s top restaurateurs.
Undercover foodies are dispatched to high-end eateries in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth to indulge their tastebuds, free of charge.
Each visit has a budget that covers a “typical dining experience” at the venue, whether it be a business lunch, family dinner or a romantic eight-course degustation with matching wines — worth anything from a few hundred bucks to $1000.
Founder Ian McKerracher said his restaurateur clients came to him because they were frustrated with “notoriously unreliable” review websites.
“We have about 40 clients that we deal with on a fairly regular basis,” he said.
“They want to find out what customers really think … They use our reports to identify areas for improvement and implement changes.”
Among the best known is Melbourne culinary king Andrew McConnell, whose stable of venues includes Cumulus Inc, Supernormal, Cutler & Co and Luxembourg (formerly Golden Fields).
But those expecting to gorge themselves for minimum effort, beware: assessors are expected to fill out a “highly detailed” report on their dining experience, broken down into more than 150 “touch points”, covering service, ambience and quality of the food and wine.
It’s not a great avenue for impressing a first date; the task of critiquing every element of a dining can be all-consuming.
“I always feel sorry for anyone who goes for dinner with me,” McKerracher said.
“It can be quite disconcerting. Your companion, you should be staring into their eyes.”
Tactics employed by assessors include typing notes into their mobile phones, or escaping to the bathroom to scribble or dictate their observations.
“I used to just pretend I was doing a crossword, if I was dining by myself,” McKerracher said.
“It takes some doing.”
And assessors must behave like typical customers — meaning they need to be sophisticated enough to make a discerning appraisal of a fine dining experience.
A sample report sent to news.com.au deconstructed the quality and value for money of the dishes consumed, with points deducted for a snapper main that, while “delicious”, was “smaller than I expected for $42”.
“The temperature of our savoury courses was excellent, but our brûlée was slightly cold down the bottom as if it hadn’t been warmed through properly,” the assessor wrote.
Sashimi was described as “a beautiful, light start to the meal … The crunch of the seaweed with the crispy radish, creamy miso and delicate fish danced in the mouth.”
The signature dish of lobster thermidor was served with a sauce that “contrasted with the buttery lobster, which was super fresh”.
McKerracher said he had a waiting list of foodies who wanted to join up, and his client’s high standards meant he had to reject most applications, which are vetted through a lengthy application form and sample review.
Those who made it through were a varied bunch, from retirees to high-flying lawyers and doctors, to tradies and paramedics with a passion for fine dining.
The one thing they had in common, he said, was a flair for writing.
“You need to make sure people understand what they’re eating,” McKerracher said.
“If someone describes a meal as ‘tasty’, they are probably not going to be suitable. You want someone who’s going to communicate how they feel and experience things, as if they were describing it to a blind person.”
It seems there really is no such thing as a free lunch.