Commentary Magazine


Culinary Correctness

When Alain Ducasse, the world’s preeminent French chef, announced early this year that he would be opening an eponymous restaurant in New York’s Essex House, it was a cause for excitement among connoisseurs and curiosity seekers alike. By the time the 65-seat restaurant lit its stoves in late June, it had amassed a waiting list of 2,700 names—many of them customers of Ducasse’s restaurants in Europe—and was the most sought-after reservation in the history of New York. Nor, apparently, was anyone deterred by the prices, even though ADNY (as it is called) was to be the most expensive American restaurant ever, with appetizers as high as $50, entrées reaching $80, and tasting menus at $160 per person.

What you would receive for your money, as I saw for myself when I visited the restaurant on its second night of business, was a level of Gilded Age luxury never before available on these shores, at least not all in one place. Next to each female guest, a stool is placed upon which to rest her purse. A dedicated waiter presents six varieties of bottled water. You get a new napkin, handled with fork and spoon, whenever you leave and return to the table. Another, smaller napkin is distributed for dessert. To eat your squab, you choose from a selection of bamboo-handled, handmade knives. In the French style, tables are well illuminated to enable you to see the menu, the food, your friends, and, for better or worse, the check, which you sign by selecting from an array of Carrier, Mont Blanc, Gucci, and Caran d’Ache pens.

The table is yours for the evening, as is the case at most Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, so you always feel indulged rather than rushed. The wine list is not presented until after you have ordered. Coffees are proffered after dessert—that is, after the first dessert. You also get handmade chocolates and macaroons, followed by ice cream and sorbet served from a tableside gueridon. Then, a gigantic post-post-dessert cart comes around with a dizzying display of house-made candies, if you order verbena tea to wrap things up, a white-gloved waiter appears with a live verbena plant and a pair of scissors.

My first meal, à la carte, was a simple affair: Ducasse, the world’s most dynamic and successful chef, is known for understatement, and I focused on the signature dishes of his two European fine-dining restaurants, Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse in Paris. But within a few days I returned as the guest of a friend and we ordered a multicourse tasting menu. It consisted of an amuse bouche of sea scallops topped with Iranian caviar and then a progression of Santa Barbara prawns, Hudson Valley foie gras, Alaskan halibut, and Arizona artisanal beef, all with elaborate table-side presentation, followed by an insanely decadent dessert containing more varieties of chocolate than I could keep track of.

I looked forward to my third visit.

Then the reviews started coming in.

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First, the New York Times critic, William Grimes, in a “preview” of the restaurant after one visit, spoke deprecatingly of the high prices and the difficulty of securing a reservation. His praise for the food was faint, while with regard to everything else he maintained an attitude of detached amusement, withholding final judgment (he wrote) until he would have a chance to return more than once in the future.

Grimes’s decorum gave way, in the New York Post‘s Steve Cuozzo, to anger. Calling ADNY “the most arrogantly launched eatery in the history of the world,” Cuozzo wrote scathingly that “globe-girdling Alain Ducasse means to tap Manhattan’s cash gusher while it lasts, and ADNY is the mediocre, often comical result.” He dismissed the luxury appointments as “gimmickry,” the food as “middle-of-the-road classic.”

In Rebecca Ascher-Walsh’s review in Fortune, anger gave way to rage:

Dante, have we got news for you: there’s now a new circle of hell. At Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, you’ll see grownups spitting food into napkins, you’ll bite into bread so burned you’d think Freddy Krueger [the knife-fingered slasher in the horror movie A Nightmare on Elm Street] were running the kitchen, and you’ll experience the thrill of frogs legs and chicken wings fighting their way down your gullet like a kung-fu master.

Although the estimable Gael Greene of New York magazine stepped back a bit, in her own account of no fewer than five meals at ADNY she pronounced only one worthwhile, concluding triumphantly, in the name of her fellow New Yorkers, “we’re not so easily fooled.” This same theme was echoed in scores of other media outlets. Ducasse was lambasted for arrogance and French-style culinary imperialism; for exhibiting a corporate mentality, manifested above all in his frequent absences from ADNY itself; for the pretentiousness of his restaurant’s appointments; for those prices; and, finally, for ADNY’s unremarkable food. In a piece a month later summing up the worldwide negative press reaction, Marian Burros, the grand dame of the New York Times food staff, wrote:

The doors opened, and everything seemed to go wrong. The food world buzzed about the disappointing cooking and the absentee chef. Endless stories mocked the $500 tabs, the wine list with some bottles marked up 1,000 percent, and the goofy dining-room rituals like the presentation of a selection of knives with every squab and a choice of expensive pens for signing the check. The coverage went from bad to worse. . . .

To date, there has not been a single favorable review of ADNY in the mainstream culinary media.

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When the world’s top chef opens a restaurant in New York City only to be met by a critical chorus of Bronx cheers, something is clearly going on. Can the critics possibly be right?

Let us begin with the charge of arrogance. There is little debate that Alain Ducasse is, in fact, the world’s greatest chef, or that he is currently at the top of his form. To put it in a nutshell, he is the only chef of our generation to operate simultaneously two restaurants that have earned three Michelin stars, while another two of his establishments—he has eleven altogether—boast one star apiece, making him history’s only eight-star chef.

Ducasse’s story itself is straight from central casting. Born in 1956 to goose farmers in southwestern France, he began his first kitchen apprenticeship at the age of sixteen before being formally educated at the Bordeaux school of hotel and catering management and embarking on his climb to greatness under such masters as Michel Guérard, Gaston Lenôtre, Roger Verge, and Alain Chapel. By 1987, Ducasse had achieved the position of executive chef at the Hôtel de Paris in Monaco; in 1996, he opened Restaurant Alain Ducasse in Paris.

Today, Ducasse’s global empire includes, in addition to his fine-dining establishments, a chain of casual restaurants plus a cooking school, country inns, and a line of tableware and gourmet products. Given his success, nobody could fault him for displaying a high degree of self-confidence. But arrogance? Cultural imperialism? Ducasse has called New York “undoubtedly the most spectacular restaurant city due to its synthesis of international cultures”—no small compliment from a Michelin three-star chef. He is also passionate about American ingredients. If his desire to meld the best of French technique with the best of American ingredients constitutes arrogance, it is arrogance of a most peculiar sort.

By all accounts, Ducasse is one of the hardest-working chefs in history. He could easily rest on his laurels; with eight Michelin stars to his credit, it may be a century before anyone achieves a comparable level of eminence. He also had little to gain and much to lose by opening place in New York, a notorious pit for restaurateurs with grand designs. It was not arrogance but rather idealism, in the form of a lifelong commitment to the cause of fine dining—as well, of course, as the ambition to succeed—that led Ducasse into this venture.

It is true that, these days, Ducasse is more likely to be seen in a suit than in chef’s whites. It is also true that at ADNY, your chances of ever eating a bite of food prepared by Ducasse’s own hands are as slim as your chances of getting an 8 o’clock reservation on Friday night. But to imagine that things might be otherwise—at any major restaurant—is to evince a distressing degree of ignorance.

Chefs know how to cook, but they are not cooks—in New York, most cooks are Latin immigrants. Nor is a chef the kitchen overseer—that is what the sous-chef is for. Chefs are, rather, executives, their role akin to that of an old-style artist presiding over a school of apprentices. They conceptualize and outline the work, leaving the detail and toil to the crew. The real test of a chef’s greatness is not how well he cooks, but how well the kitchen runs when he is not around. The world’s best chef is the one who has rendered himself the most dispensable.

In this respect, the taunting of Ducasse for his absences from ADNY—“maybe,” cracked William Grimes, “he does not want to hear the screams of anguish when the checks arrive”—is utterly off the mark. Ducasse’s man in Manhattan, Didier Elena, who has been his colleague for twelve years, has superior qualifications to 99 percent of American chefs who own their own restaurants.

As for ADNY’s shameless luxuriousness—“I tripped over the damn things twice,” complained the Post‘s Steve Cuozzo about the purse stools, while Gael Greene scoffed at the selections of knives and pens as “vulgar” and USA Today derided the multihour length of a meal at ADNY as a “New York no-no”—the fact is that, though it can be precious at times, ADNY is positively unstuffy, and a meal there is great fun. It is only at copycat French restaurants in New York and London that the waiters seek to intimidate; at ADNY, as in the best restaurants in France, the staff is much less formal and much more engaging than caricature would suggest.

Contrary to the misreporting of the Times, moreover, there are not 55 waiters for 65 customers at Ducasse but 55 staff members altogether, including eighteen dining-room staff. It is also patently untrue, as the Associated Press bizarrely contended, that “Each time you sip water or wine, a hand reaches around and makes sure the glasses of all at the table are level.” My own experience, corroborated by that of other diners, is that ADNY’s appointments trigger sensations not of contempt but of delight. To be waited on hand and foot, to be freed simply to enjoy oneself, is the realization of a fantasy. Only someone with a serious axe to grind would call it an affront.

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Is ADNY worth the money—between $100 and $160 per person for food alone? That, I would say, depends on how much money you have, and what you are getting for it.

Luxury exists because people want it, cost what it will, even if that cost seems totally out of proportion to inherent value. Luckily, the necessities of life, at least in the U.S., do not carry such price tags; but for everything else, what is the crime in letting supply and demand set the market? True, there may be diminishing returns—often, the objective difference in quality between the best and the very good is minimal, while the price margin can be vast. But for those who both appreciate and can afford the best, there is no contest.

As it happens, given ADNY’s single sitting and five-day-a-week schedule (which allows the same kitchen brigade to be on duty at all times), it is not clear how Ducasse plans to make money even at these prices. The top New York restaurants currently charge $125 for their tasting menus; Ducasse charges $160, which is roughly what it costs to dine at the three-star level in France, even at today’s favorable exchange rate. For that extra $35, you get your table for the whole night and an unrivaled level of service and luxury.1

And you get the food, the objections to which are the most peculiar part of the whole story.

For every single dish, Ducasse has acquired absolutely the best ingredients available in America. New York magazine quoted one of his purveyors:

Alain wants the foie gras wrapped in parchment, delivered on ice, not vacuum-packed. The most expensive squabs, strangled. Organic chickens air-chilled with the feet on. I had to get special permission from the FDA. It’s costing him double the usual price. They [ADNY] are the most focused, the most demanding.

New York‘s point here may have been to mock, but the beneficiary of this fastidiousness is the diner. And the same extraordinary care extends not just to the ingredients but to every detail of preparation and presentation. Thus, the Arizona beef, better than that at Peter Luger, New York’s justly celebrated steak-house, is served with chanterelles, artichokes, and a stew of braised short ribs, sauced with a flawless jus, and offered with a pickle-and-mustard-flavored cold salad on the side. A tremendous halibut dish comes on three plates. The central plate holds (barely) an immense brick of poached halibut—the best I have had—sitting atop a spinach, watercress, and Champagne puree, while a second plate contains a sea-urchin royale topped with a dessert-like emulsion that positively explodes with flavor, and plate number three provides a briny counterpoint in the form of a mixed seaweed salad.

The list of wonderful dishes goes on and on: a firm, chilled Maine lobster tail thinly sliced lengthwise and crowned with a ginger salsa; foie gras served over apple confit and topped with raw apples sliced at the table; gorgeous sea scallops, just barely heated and topped with Iranian caviar. In every case, Ducasse’s way with the food is based on a tremendous facility with culinary history, ingredients, and equipment, while his recipes, juxtaposing flavor, texture, and temperature, and reflecting his rather cerebral understanding of what makes a successful meal, remind one in their intricacy of a Bach fugue. This may, indeed, be what prompted Gael Greene to complain that Ducasse’s approach is “too intellectual, too contrived,” and that his food “has no emotion.” But, just as when it is applied to the music of Bach, the complaint lacks all substance.

To be sure, the ADNY kitchen has produced a few duds. The succulent Santa Barbara prawns are overwhelmed by a thick citrus sauce—here, the counterpoint is out of whack—and wild albino salmon from Alaska is similarly overwhelmed by its garnish. There is also the occasional cooking error. But these minor flaws, to be expected in an infant restaurant—ADNY was only a few weeks old when most of the reviews came in—pale beside the triumphs. Already America’s finest restaurant, ADNY will likely soon be America’s best.

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What, then, explains the collective animus?

In the days when the late Craig Claiborne was at the Times, restaurant reviewers were culled from the ranks of trained culinary professionals and self-educated gourmets. Today, they are more likely to be journalists doing a job. As William Grimes candidly describes his own qualifications, “I’m an amateur eater who’s turned pro.”

To his credit, Grimes has generally acquitted himself well. But many of today’s reviewers are fundamentally incapable even of recognizing the phenomenon that ADNY represents, much less appreciating it With little sense of how to judge true French professional service, they have reacted to the restaurant’s occasional excesses with confused hostility; without a clear understanding of ingredients or basic technique, they have mistaken subtlety and understatement for mediocrity. The same drop in standards that, in culinary instruction, has taken us from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin to Bobby Flay and the Iron Chefs has infected the world of food criticism as well, where a commitment to professional excellence and devotion to the enterprise have given way to sensationalism and a sometimes truculent ignorance.

Or to politics. Although the process has taken a while, restaurant reviewing has at last caught up with critical fashions in art, music, and literature. The spirit of deconstruction is now everywhere in the air. Just as, in the nation’s English departments, comic books have been declared to be on a par with Shakespeare or Jane Austen, so, too, in the nation’s food press, the entire enterprise of fine dining is in the process of being leveled and “demystified,” the high pulled down, the low raised up. In recent pieces on New York’s two most Michelin-like restaurants, Lespinasse and Cello, Jonathan Gold, the new reviewer for Gourmet magazine, excoriated the former for, of all things, its jacket-and-tie requirement and the latter for being “too correct.” On another front, William Grimes and others have taken up the cause of iceberg lettuce, portraying it as a veritable blue-collar hero threatened by pretentious, aristocratic greens (i.e., the ones with flavor) like arugula.

From this point of view, it is hardly surprising that the critics should have been thrown into paroxysms of neopopulist indignation over the prices and appointments at ADNY, or that the Daily News‘s list of what else you can buy for $500 included “one-thousand-sixty-four White Castle hamburgers.” And as if this display of egalitarian fervor by some of society’s best-paid sybarites were not enough, added to it was a generous dollop of good old-fashioned Francophobia, with one paper expressing its mawkish concern for “easily led [American] minds, reduced to aspic by the whisper of Ducasse’s name.”

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Whether the critics succeed in putting ADNY out of business remains to be seen. If so, however, it will be a victory greatly to be lamented; as in the case of other such “successful” wars, the real losers will be the public, and the cause of excellence itself.

American restaurants have come a long way in a short time. In terms of food alone, the top places (Lespinasse, Le Bernardin, Daniel, Jean Georges, French Laundry, Charlie Trotter’s, and the like) have attained rough parity with French three-star restaurants. And now, with ADNY, the same can be said for the nonfood aspects of a meal (if not yet the cheeses).

A million negative reviews will not change this reality: ADNY has raised the bar for all other American restaurants, and every chef in New York knows that Alain Ducasse is now the one to beat. So, too, do all those “easily led minds” who have been wise enough to ignore the biases of an increasingly irrelevant class of critics, and lucky enough to get in. One can only hope that theirs will be the vote that prevails.

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Footnotes

1 Ducasse’s prices have also been exaggerated for effect. If the Times reviewer spent $1,500 on dinner for four, he must have ordered $600 worth of wine. My own dinner for four, with about $200 worth of wine, ran to $930 before the tip.

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