The shock discovery that Abigail Donnelly awarded the Eat Out Boschendal Style Award to her client Makaron Restaurant at Majeka House in Stellenbosch is still being talked about, and it appears that Mrs Donnelly did not obtain permission to do consulting work from her bosses at New Media Publishing.  The conflict of interest in this award must have caused the publishing company, the Eat Out staff, and Mrs Donnelly severe embarrassment, and it has severely dented the credibility of the Eat Out restaurant awards, which determine chef reputations and shape restaurant incomes for the year ahead.

There has been a deafening silence from New Media Publishing generally and from Abigail Donnelly specifically since we wrote about her Majeka House involvement, and no one in the industry has dared comment publicly, for fear of being victimised (this happens, a chef telling me that he provided feedback some years ago, and never made the Top 20 list again!).  Until the Eat Out Awards ceremony on 20 November I had nothing but the highest regard for Mrs Donnelly and her integrity, and even defended it when I heard mutters about Mrs Donnelly being the sole Eat Out Restaurant Awards judge this year.  We thought she could pull it off without controversy, but it appears we were wrong.

The Makaron Restaurant consulting non-disclosure by Mrs Donnelly is completely unacceptable, and therefore I contacted the Managing Director of New Media Publishing, but the e-mail to Bridget McCarney was returned, stating that she is on a sabbatical for a few months.  I was advised to send the e-mail to the two directors Irna van Zyl and John Psillos, and it was Ms van Zyl who quickly and honestly answered, having sought Mrs Donnelly’s input too.  We publish the communication between ourselves and Ms Van Zyl below, and one can read Mrs Donnelly’s anger in her reply.  My last and the ultimate question which Ms van Zyl did not answer was if Mrs Donnelly had sought permission to do the consulting work, this being the New Media Publishing policy.  The non-response is a deafening admission that this did not happen:

From: Whale Cottage Portfolio

To: bmccarney@newmediapub.co.za

Sent: Wednesday, December 07, 2011 1:40 PM

Subject: EAT OUT

Dear Bridget

I want to ask you what the policy is about your staff, and Abigail Donnelly specifically, consulting for restaurants? I am very perturbed about Abigail’s position as sole Eat Out judge, and the conflict of interest that has arisen with Makaron Restaurant having made the Boschendal Style Award shortlist, as well as it winning this category.  I have also picked up that its owner won the Review of the Week on the Eat Out newsletter last week.  Can we expect Makaron to be the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant next year? Can we please receive a declaration of all the restaurants to which Abigail consults?

From: Irna van Zyl

To: Whale Cottage Portfolio

Cc: Anelde Greeff ; Abigail Donnelly ; John Psillos ; Bridget McCarney

Sent: Wednesday, December 07, 2011 4:29 PM

Subject: Re: EAT OUT

Dear Chris

I’ve discussed your concerns with Abigail Donnelly in her capacity as Editor of Eat Out and Anelde Greeff, Content Director of Eat Out. As you have probably gathered Bridget, our MD, is on a mini-sabbatical but I will endeavor  to reply to your questions as well as I can.

Here are the facts:

Abigail did a once-off consultation with Makaron before the restaurant was opened and made it clear to the owners at that time that because of her involvement the restaurant would not be eligible for any of the Eat Out Awards that involved food. At the time the chef that she was consulting to left the restaurant without implementing Abigail’s menu. The Style awards was not judged on the food. It was judged, as Abigail explained at the Eat Out Awards, on the setting, the detail in the wallpaper, the underfloor lighting of the bathrooms, the beautiful chairs, handmade crockery and the overall beautiful look of the restaurant, to which she had no input as a consultant.  In terms of the Review of the Week Anelde Greeff explains that in order to be representative countrywide they choose a review from a specific area each week as the “winner”. It is their policy that the “winning” review should be one with a positive slant. It is unfortunate that the review was the one written by the owner but completely coincidental. The choice of Review of the Week has nothing to do with Abigail, who is not involved in the website in an editing capacity.  Just one last comment: the Top 20 shortlist of restaurants is decided on after careful consultation and consideration of the input of all Eat Out’s 20 countrywide reviewers, reader opinions throughout the year and other opinions from foodies. At Eat Out we were just following the example set by Lannice Snyman years ago as the founder of the restaurant guide, who acted as the only judge of the awards for several years before Sam Woulidge became the editor and a panel was appointed to assist her.  I hope this clarify things for you.

From: Whale Cottage Portfolio <whalecot@iafrica.com>
Date: Wed, 7 Dec 2011 17:09:56 +0200
To: Irna van Zyl <irna.vanzyl@newmediapub.co.za>
Subject: Re: EAT OUT

Dear Irna

I appreciate your speedy and detailed reply. My information is that Abigail

*    designed the current menu at Makaron, which has been inherited by the new chef, who told me this directly

*   called a supplier just a few days before the Eat Out Awards on 20 November, requesting a specific type of product from the supplier for Makaron Restaurant.

In general, if you go to Makaron, you will not see what has been written about it to justify it winning the Style Award.  Most of the description relates to the M Lounge (their bar), which is across the passage, and is not part of Makaron restaurant, with a different name and a vastly different decor style.  The accolade is completely over-written, in my opinion, and one senses that it was written by Abigail, gushing to please a client. I have always held Abigail in high esteem, but I think that it is absolutely not acceptable that she consults to any restaurant in any capacity at all whilst she is editor of Eat Out and the sole judge of the Award winners.   She, Eat Out, New Media Publishing, as well as Majeka House have lost credibility through this. You have not answered as which other restaurants she consults to.

From: Irna van Zyl

To: Whale Cottage Portfolio

Cc: John Psillos ; Anelde Greeff ; Abigail Donnelly ; Bridget McCarney ; Claire Buchanan

Sent: Thursday, December 08, 2011 11:43 AM

Subject: Re: EAT OUT

Dear Chris

Herewith Abigail’s comments as requested by me. I think it’s quite clear from her replies that Makron (sic) did now implement her original menu and is changing it. She also does not consult to other restaurants. Thanks for your feedback, we always welcome it. Best regards

Irna

Hi

I am not sure where she gets her facts. I called Angus from Spier when the ex chef was still at Makaron requesting beef cheeks well before the Eat Out Awards. The new chef has taken it off the menu and replaced with oxtail and I mentioned yesterday is already putting her own menu together. If I showed favouritism then I would have judged them but the owners knew this when I consulted. They are also aware that I am unable to judge them next year until Tanya has her own menu. I have never written anything about the style award for Makaron only the comment I wrote was for the magazine which was about the chairs, crockery and the feeling of the restaurant. I am not consulting for any other restaurants. There is absolutely no favouritism I awarded a restaurant with the best style.

Thanks
Abigail

From: Whale Cottage Portfolio <whalecot@iafrica.com>
Date: Thu, 8 Dec 2011 14:06:21 +0200
To: vanzyl <irna.vanzyl@newmediapub.co.za>
Subject: Re: EAT OUT

Dear Irna

One question remains: What is the policy of New Media Publishing about its staff consulting – e.g. Abigail/Makaron, Etienne Hanekom/Makaron? Thank you

From: Irna van Zyl

To: Whale Cottage Portfolio

Sent: Thursday, December 08, 2011 7:31 PM

Subject: Re: EAT OUT

Dear Chris

The policy is quite simple: staff members have to ask permission to take on any freelance work and it then is in the discretion of their manager to grant the permission or not. Etienne Hanekom is on a freelance contract and the same rule does not apply to freelancers. But it is something that you have highlighted now and we will look at this carefully in future.

From: Whale Cottage Portfolio

To: Irna van Zyl

Sent: Thursday, December 08, 2011 7:34 PM

Subject: Re: EAT OUT

Thank you Irna.  Apologies for belabouring the point – did Abigail have permission to consult to Majeka House?

No reply was received to the last e-mail, sent a week ago!  Two weeks ago I was astounded to see in the Eat Out newsletter that Majeka House owner Karen de Quecker won the Eat Out Restaurant Review of the Week for her review of Pane e Vino, a lightweight four-line feedback about how much she enjoys eating there, a restaurant which belongs to her friends the Dalla Cias, and so the conflict of interest continues!

Mrs Donnelly has been under severe observation from chefs and restaurants this year, after she announced her decision to let go her judging committee, and to become the sole Eat Out judge.  I have heard how early or late she came to judge candidate Top 20 restaurants, how much and what she ate, and the glowing praises she heaped on each chef.  Many chefs were disappointed when the Eat Out Top 20 Restaurant shortlist was announced.  I am sure that the industry would join me in insisting that Mrs Donnelly cleans up her act, to become squeaky clean, and to not create any conflict of interest by consulting to restaurants!

POSTSCRIPT 18/7: It is heartening to see that the Eat Out Boschendal Restaurant Style Award judging will be done by VISI magazine’s editors, the magazines being sister publications at New Media Publishing.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage