Spot the difference: the food pics supplied to The Observer by Le Cinq in Paris, as against mine.

In this week’s review of the Michelin three star Le Cinq in Paris I describe a 70€ dish of gratinated onions as being ‘mostly black, like nightmares’. Have a look at this picture of the onion dish, which ran with the review. It was supplied by the restaurant.

The gratinated onion dish, Le Cinq, Paris. Image provided by the restaurant.


Weird, isn’t it. That’s not black, or at least not entirely. It’s golden, like amber, and rather beautiful. Now have a look at this picture which I shot during the dinner on an iPhone 7, using their available light.

The gratinated onions dish at Le Cinq, Paris, shot on my iPhone 7 without flash


That looks more like the thing I was describing, doesn’t it.

Here’s the thing. When I review a restaurant I book under a pseudonym. They do not know I’m coming until I’m there and sometimes still don’t clock me. I leave, I write my review, and then we send in a photographer to shoot pictures of all the things I ate. Why don’t I just shoot them on my phone at the time? For two reasons. Firstly it would draw attention to what I’m doing there and secondly, while an iPhone 7 camera is good, it’s not good enough for the needs of a quality  newspaper and nor am I. We get a professional to do the job. Occasionally the food the photographer shoots looks slightly different to that which I’m writing about, but it’s never been a major difference. (Step inside these parentheses a moment. It’s worth adding that the Observer’s photographer has no idea whether the review they are illustrating is positive or negative and therefore they have no agenda. Many years ago I used to file my whole review to the picture desk, who would punt it on to the photographers. It transpired that the photographers were being hassled by the restaurant when they turned up to shoot as to what the review was like. The photographers didn’t like this and said they’d prefer not to know so they genuinely couldn’t answer. Now I just send a list of dishes.)

This week, though, really is completely different to that which I ate. Why is that? Because the great Le Cinq refused to let us shoot their food.

Apparently, it was too expensive for them to make these dishes just to be photographed. Instead they offered to send us their own PR shots. We felt we had no choice but to accept this offer. As the review has a number of critical things to say we did not wish to give them the opportunity to suggest that we had set out to show them literally and figuratively in a negative light. But hey, I have this website and it seemed a good place to point up the differences.

For sake of clarity I am in no way suggesting that le Cinq did this to deceive anyone, or to gainsay my review the contents of which they had no prior knowledge of until its publication. (I pity the person who has to translate it.) But I do think the difference between the way they portray their dishes and the one I ate is interesting.

And in case you think I just did a very bad job, here’s my companion’s pic of the same dish, also shot on an iPhone 7.

A second shot of Le Cinq onions, also shot on an iPhone 7.


While we’re here, have a few more pictures.

The 95€ lamb dish.


The chocolate cigars with weird flap of ‘skin’.


Cheese cake with ground down, frozen parsley.


Laminated pastry – a kouign amann – with one bite taken out of it to show willing. As you can see the edges were burnt.


Finally in case anyone is wondering, the Observer has not suddenly had a massive increase in its budgets. Which is to say, the paper did not pick up the entire 600€ bill.

I was due to be in Paris and had not eaten in one of the city’s full on Gastro-Palaces for almost ten years. I was curious. The suggestion of Le Cinq came from my friend in Paris who had eaten there a few years ago, under a different chef. She paid her own bill. I paid half of mine and the Observer picked up the rest (which is roughly at the top end of what he paper would cover on one of my usual reviews).


As you’re here why not have a look at my live shows page. I perform live – both stand up comedy and jazz – all over the country.



73 comments on “Spot the difference: the food pics supplied to The Observer by Le Cinq in Paris, as against mine.

  1. HWS on

    This doesn’t suprise me in any way. I live in France but rarely go to restaurants for fear of having the same experience ( not that I could ever afford to go Le Cinq!), but I still manage to have a great food experience in France. Firstly there are the markets where you can source pretty much anything you need to cook at home and a lot of the produce is local and very fresh. Then there are decent butchers that supply great meat and are really helpful with cooking tips if you ask them (my local butcher also gives me bones to make stock for free), also fishmongers and cheese shops, and local grocers that often have fruit and veg that aren’t at all pricey if you’ve forgotten something in your main shop. Add to that bakeries, wine shops, and ‘traiteurs’ you don’t really need restaurants if you want to have a great meal (of course someone has to the cooking – but that’s fun when it goes right).
    Then again you can get some amazing meals in the most unpromising of places – a widow who runs a small bar near us cooked up a great meal for me and partner when we just rolled up for lunch on the off chance one day. Maybe places like Le Cinq are actually money laundering joints – hence the hefty prices but the half empty restaurant! Who knows. Also I have to add that it is possible to eat in the same restaurant and have to completely different experiences. Once I went to celebrate my birthday my wife and another couple (he was English and spoke with the heaviest of accents but also managed to charm the waiters (no easy feat) and we had a great meal topped off by the most incredible soufflé cooked to order. Then we went back with another friend and had one of the most insipid meals I have ever had -about this time I decided not to go to expensive restaurants in France anymore – unless someone else was paying!

    • RER on

      Your first paragraph, about all the small shops… the butcher, the baker, the fishmonger, the grocer…etc..etc… I wholeheartedly agree! It’s one of the things I love about France; EVERYTHING for an amazing meal can be bought from local small businesses. I thank you for this, and curse you as well, since it makes me miss France even more! jajajajajaja!

  2. Philip Yorke on

    Gosh. That looks like my attempt at cooking, and attempts to make whatever I burn look appealing by dressing it up in camouflage.
    All fur coat and no knickers is I think the best description I can use of the food. Thanks mum for the phrase!

  3. Flash Bristow on

    I’m glad you explained who paid – not that it is any of my business, but hopefully it will now shut up the btl critics who want to bitch about you swanning about on expenses – when you’re not.

    Fwiw, if I’d paid a quarter of that €600 bill I’d be rightly pissed off. I’m sorry you have to suffer for your art. I hope the next place you review gave you a much more enjoyable experience.

  4. Grahamwho on

    Interesting insight on both the food and the expense policy. That onion thing looks like a masterchef disaster!

  5. Dolores on

    Jay, you can’t possibly expect the pro-shots taken in a strictly controlled studio environment, under god knows how many lights, flashes, light diffusers and extra editing later on, would be anything similar to what you have taken with your phone under the dim restaurant lights?

    • Emma Taylor on

      You’d expect them to be vaguely similar though. Jay’s pic appears to be of a medieval disease. If he tasted it he is far braver than I. It looks like a festering sore.

    • AOlson on

      Uh, lighting only does so much. Those dishes are clearly inferior to the provided photos. Regardless, the restaurant could have avoided this by allowing them to take their own professional photos.

    • Jordan Pickering on

      I must disagree with you there. South Africa has many world-class restaurants, and so I have had the privilege of dining at a couple of places that my more internationally experienced friends tell me would rival the reputation of Le Cinq were they located in Paris or New York (the most expensive of which was the Test Kitchen, whose 7-course tasting menu has got considerably more expensive lately, but still costs only slightly more [~£92] than the Le Cinq lamb). I can guarantee that none of the dishes would have looked that bad were they photographed by my £100 Sony phone-camera, let alone an iPhone 7. Those dishes have trouble with composition and contrast that lighting quality would not change significantly enough. And there’s blood coming from the pigeon (see the Guardian article), for goodness sake.

    • Terry Taylor on

      The point of a three star restaurant is that each dish should have exactly the same composition. The photos show this has not happened here. There is sauce where sauce should not be. It is clear that someone Blobs are not in the same place and are not the same size. Someone
      was being very slack in the kitchen. Whoever was at the pass should sack themselves.
      My sister had oversight of the Georges V in the Forte days and still has friends there. I think she would cry if she saw what they were cooking.
      As far as too expensive to photograph is a joke. Any 3 star restaurant will create and discard many dishes which are not perfect. The ingredients do not appear to be vastly expensive. The food is all prepped before service . Even if the head chef was not present one would expect a sous chef of the standard of Maitre Ouvrier de France . Shame on the Four Seasons

    • visior64 on

      Of course he can : iPhones do have a flash.

      It seems to me that the newbie apprentice did the job that day, don’t you think ?

    • Rowland on

      Why not? Why should restaurants be able to edit their food to make it look different to what you are actually eating. It started with fashion models and look how much fuss that created. Imagine that scenario applied to things that we actually put inside our bodies.

    • Martin on

      The same, no. Similar, certainly. The makeup and contents of the dish should still be the same and the actual served dish look woefully unappitizing.

    • Marna Nightingale on

      I don’t imagine that he does, being a hardened pro and all.

      But there is no possible combination of lighting, camera quality, etc, that could convince anyone that the food the restaurant photographed is the food the restaurant served to Jay and his companion, and establishing that is the only point of Jay showing us his own pics, as far as I can see.

    • Alison Belt on

      No, but you can expect to be able to tell that they are the same thing. You also have the word of the person who looked at the actual food.

  6. Andrea on

    Well just goes to show doesn’t matter if it’s McDonald’s or Top End Restaurant reality doesn’t always live up to the advertised pictures.

  7. Melz on

    I’m guessing that it was chefs night off and whoever was on the pass has probably Mbeen given marching orders already! three stars my arse

  8. Ellie on

    Dolores – ok, the food may look a little different in press shots but what about taste? Jays food tasted awful from one of the best rated chefs/restaurants in the world. Now why should he have to put up with that? If a good chef can’t reproduce the same dish to the same high standard cover after cover, day in, day out then he’s in the wrong job.

  9. GaijinCyn on

    I would have been livid had I been served that crap. I love the fact that the alcohol was the most reasonably priced aspect of the meal – and probably the most enjoyed!

  10. John Skull on

    Well done, Jay. Talk about the Emperor’s New clothes! For anyone else reading this comment, go find Jay’s book, “The Man Who Ate The World”, for a real insight into the world of restaurants. It is educational, entertaining and very, very funny. Disclaimer: I don’t know Jay personally, but would love to have dinner with him…..but not at my place!!!

  11. Stephan on

    I am French enthusiast cook and once an English chef told me: “in France you have some of the best restaurants but you also got the worse” that statement for me cannot be further the the truth.
    I myself much prefer non pretentious places like some bouchon lyonnais or other regional local restaurants this is where you tend to finds the real French food.

  12. llan on

    we are touring France soon and we would like a few pointer to great food in out-of places, we would like to eat real french food, with out the fancy price tag

  13. Heather on

    Well actually, Dolores, you can expect reasonable quality images with an iPhone camera as lighting, cropping and colour edits are available. I take them all the time. As for that onion thing. Nothing would have fixed that up, not even a solid dose of Photoshop. It looked like an evil creature of the deep. I expected a small, snarling alien to burst forth from its slimy centre.

  14. Carol Spencer on

    Does Michelin have any credibility assigning three stars to ugly inedible looking plates of poorly prepared food? The descriptions of the uninspired dishes were a lot more original and inspired as well as fun to read.

  15. Grummo on

    Good man Jay. What a review and what an expose of a rich person’s play place. All those nieces too! I wonder what theye did to earn such a treat from uncle…… Money used to keep the hoi polloi out,. Just keep focusing on value for money, quality eateries where us plebs can get a goood meal and have some fun.

  16. Stevie P on

    If you’re a photographer like me, you know you need to adjust the white point for the iPhone images due to the low-light environment. Once you do that, the images immediately become a lot brighter and more vibrant. As such, I think it’s very silly to compare the pictures without having even adjusted them on a level an amateur could do so in Photoshop or Lightroom – it smacks of incompetence of the writer and makes me question the accuracy of how well it all tasted as well.

  17. Luc de Medts on

    Why should someone go to such a restaurant? To get robbed? When we are in France we dine at l’Auberge Fleurie in Abbeville.
    Price for a menu is 14,50 Euro. Including a choice of 10 starters, 10 main dishes, 4 cheeses and a dozen of desserts. You have 1/2 liter of red or rosé-wine per person (or a glass of beer, sprankling water, lemonade,…) and the “carafe” of water is free of course. Also is the bread. It’s a “cuisine bourgeoise” with home-made dishes.
    Let’s stop spoiling good money when not strictly necessary!…
    Luc form Belgium

  18. Douglas Fear on

    Certainly a warning against taking price or stars or whatever too seriously. Also an interesting and helpful explanation of how the reviews are undertaken. I think the restaurant’s line about the food being too expensive to cook again just for photos rather tells us where they think they are. Wonder for how long?

    Many thanks, in any case, to Jay Rayner!

  19. Alex on

    Even though i will not argue with the experience of this reviewer as far as taste is concerned and for this amount of money it better be very tasty, i will argue that the photo he took with his Iphone could NEVER resemble what a professional photographer can do with raw files from a professional level camera. What you get in reality compared to photo’s made for Menu’s and/or publishing never look the same as what you get. This is true even for or should i say especially fast food restaurants like Mc Donalds. The big difference here is Flash. Even though the small light on your smartphone is a handy tool for finding your way in the dark, it has no business being used as a flash and i doubt it was even used in this case, not to attract any attention. When you are photographing food and you are any good as a photographer, you’ll have SEVERAL light modifiers ( or flashes if you will) which you set up in different angles to light up the subject as nicely as possible. This is merely the beginning, because afterwards you will edit the raw files, which in this case resulted in HDR ( high dynamic range ) images. Looks the part, but it’s not what you’ll easily get with an iphone or any smartphone.
    So if you wanted to state that we’re living in a fake world and all publishing is made to look better than the real thing, then yeah this is very true.

  20. Paula Verhaeghe on

    I do not agree. The pics i take with a smart phone of my home made (culinary) dishes, with normal lights, no light diffusers etc. look about 1000 times more attractive.
    The onion dish and the chocolat mousse dish look disgusting.

  21. yourt on

    Jeee….. even the one stars can present a dish that looks almost like the ‘pictured’ one. That dark squash wouldn’t reach my own kitchen table, that’s for sure! And an iPhone can shoot some decent pics of a dish when needed, even with ambient light.

  22. Alfredo Sánchez on

    Geez, a local bakery in Cuautitlán Izcalli, north of Mexico City, have a much better locking and dare I say, better flavor than that “kouign amann”, for just about 0.25 €. Taste it with a hot and delicious café de olla (basically coffee with cinnamon and brown sugar) with milk and you will have the perfect evening meal. Holy Cow, now I want it.

  23. Ivan on

    Slightly burnt edges on a Kouign Amann are expected. Not necessarily a sign that it was left too long in the oven. Otherwise, I cannot but sympathise with you. There are so many good and reasonably priced restaurants in France, let’s stay away from these pretentious places.

  24. bernard on

    I read your paper on Sunday and remember thinking to myself: that’s going to go down well in France (I am French). I was not able to get all of your jokes bu those I did get left me hilarious. Needless to say, your paper has now been noticed by the press in France. As for the restaurant, I’ve not eaten in a 3 star in 20 years, so I’ll have to rely on your view. I did eat in 3 stars restaurants a long time ago and remember the experience as heavenly each time. What a pity these arrogant nogoodniks let you down and let my country’s admirable cuisine down as well.

  25. Chris on

    Clearly, the Chef couldnt have been in his kitchen that night. He would never ever let these kind of things called dishes out of his kitchen. This is absolutly not à three stars dish. Even in a small restaurant any dishes look far much better… The Chef was not in the kitchen…shame on him !

  26. Roy on

    There are many points in Mr. Rayner’s review which I disagree with, but let me just focus on the onion dish. I had this dish last year and I thought it was brilliant. It definitely wasn’t burnt not bitter but playful with the sweetness of onions expressed in varying guises. It most definitely did not look like the black disaster as portrayed here. Here’s the photo I took for reference . Obviously, I had the benefit of daylight at lunch time. I sincerely wonder if the dish was as objectively bad as the reviewer made it out to be or was it an opportunist swipe given that the photos looked so unappetizing and it fit the narrative that Mr. Rayner is trying to promote.


    Your review reminded me of a luncheon at Le Cinq Chef Le Squer’s previous restaurant, Ledoyen, which also kept three Michelin stars for years, and was not worth it, by far. Serious food critics know that Le Squer is overrated. Next time you come to Paris, ask for knowledgeable advice to avoid disappointment. You did not write much about the wines…

  28. Sylvia Campbell on

    I hate to say this – but I was not so much bothered by the food that you had to review, but by their frankly disgusting policy of not giving ´“women` a menu with prices. What a bunch of misogynistic dinosaurs! One of the reasons I have not desired to become a multi-millionaire is because of the assholes I´´d feel compelled to hang out with. That place has them, and those who cater to them, in spades!

  29. Parisbreakfast on

    The ‘pro’ shots are enhanced by a photo stylist onboard, who clearly decided the black oil slicks were not appetizing. How you ever got beyond a single bite, if that of these unappealing dishes is beyond me. These are the ugliest plates I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of plates after 7 years shooting at the James Beard Foundation.

  30. Jos on

    Sorry to learn the comments on the 3* Michelin restaurant Le Cinq. The judge, Jay Rayner comes from a county that have Fish and chips or Haggis from Scotland, as signature dishes for the great British culinary experience. This makes it hard to compare, a world apart, comparing a Lada with a Ferrari. If judged one would wish for an other 3* restaurateur to perform the tests. Not someone that is able to boil eggs. Face the facts, if Gordon Ramsey was not given the opportunity by the Roux brothers sending him to France to learn cooking, it would be unlikely that he would ever reached the supreme level as Michelin qualified cook, which he now is. If driven over its likely by a car full of shit. Advisable for Le Cinq is to ask advise from Jamie Oliver, the greatest cook ever in GB ( 4* Michelin I believe) to help them out.

    • Daniel on

      This kind of sneering complacency and inability to accept criticism may explain why the Parisian restaurant scene has lost its sheen in recent decades.

  31. gr on

    Feel free to book under your real name, at least, when you come to France as no one knows you and absolutely no credibility within the restaurant industry

    May I recommend your work in a kitchen for a few year before commenting ?

  32. AnonymousRex on

    Hah I would be pissed to spend $100 on that crap. I would have been murdering people at the restaurant if I paid $600 for it.

  33. Constance on

    Oh dear God, I am so sorry I read this. My Mother and I have reservations there for dinner…. I am seriously considering cancelling.
    Unfortunately since we do not live in Paris and have relied on the 3 Michelin stars rating to guide us, I don’t know where else we should consider!

  34. Ralfybaby on

    A very late response but man that was funny! “Nieces,” “like a cat’s arse …” and “fuck you” colour … very good!


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