Friday, November 20, 2009

Is My Elvis Pizza Up To Michelin Standards?

Yesterday, I reported on my successful debut as a force to be reckoned with in the dog-eat-dog world of haute cuisine. As you recall, last weekend I entered my world famous Elvis Pizza in a local cooking contest. No one ordered me to leave. There were no reported cases of food poisoning.

Last evening, by sheer coincidence, I came across an article, Lunch with M, by John Colapinto in this week's New Yorker. The article was about the secret world of the anonymous inspectors who review restaurants for the legendary Michelin Guide. The author pulled a major journalistic coup by having lunch in an upscale Manhattan restaurant, Jean-Georges, with one of the inspectors, "Maxime" or "M". The prose is simply delicious:

She was tending toward the Arctic char for her main course but couldn’t decide about her second course. The waiter reappeared and asked if he could answer any questions.

“Can you tell me about the crab toast?” she asked.

“It’s Peekytoe crab, a chiffonade of tarragon as well as chives topped with white sesame seeds, toasted in the oven, finished with a miso mustard, and a pear salad on the side,” he said.

“It’s new?” she said.

“About a week on the menu.”

She asked the waiter to give her a minute and then leaned in to me. Inspectors love it when they ask a question and can tell that a waiter has made up an answer, she explained, adding, “That never happens here.”

I can so relate. In my cooking contest, one of the judges asked why I chose to use shredded cabbage as a side to my Elvis Pizza, and I immediately responded that the cabbage is traditional in pulled pork sandwiches. Am I ready for the big time or what?

The Michelin Guide started off in 1900 as a marketing ploy to encourage consumers to drive to restaurants in the French countryside, thereby increasing the sale of the company's new-fangled pneumatic tires. The Guide soon evolved into THE restaurant authority, with its famous three-star rating system. Just drawing one star is a huge honor. French chefs make it a life ambition to become a three-star chef.

Several years ago, in my email Newsletter I re-reported a story that was a front page scandal in France, concerning Bernard Loiseau, chef and owner of La Côte d’Or in Burgundy, who had once told a fellow chef he would kill himself if he ever lost one of his stars. According to the New Yorker account, based on Rudolph Chelminski's 2005 book “The Perfectionist”:

The food writer François Simon published a story in Le Figaro hinting that Loiseau was on thin ice with Michelin. Loiseau, who had suffered periodic depression for years, sank into despair. In early February, 2003, he was notified by Michelin that he would keep his third star. Still, Simon wrote another piece, in which he suggested that Loiseau and his third star were “living on borrowed time.” Two and a half weeks later, after a day at work in the kitchen, Loiseau killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head. He was fifty-two.

Michelin's entree into North America began with the 2005 launch of its New York Guide. The Guide was roundly criticized for being Francophobic, with no allowance for American tastes and sensibilities. That is changing, with the recruitment of American-born inspectors. Still, not just any American will do. A bit of M's background, according to the New Yorker:

“'I ate falafel at Mamoun’s and bagels and lox from Russ & Daughters before I’d even heard of a peanut-butter sandwich,' she said." A life in the food business plus intensive training by Michelin followed. The New Yorker describes her in action:

Her Arctic char arrived, on a bed of watercress rémoulade, and accompanied by a julienne of apple. She took a bite. “It’s perfectly cooked,” she said, excitedly. “I mean, it’s textbook.”

Were this an inspection visit, M would spend two to three hours filling out a report that would list "every ingredient in everything she ate, and the specifics of every preparation," then rate these according to such criteria as "quality of the products, mastery in the cooking, technical accuracy, balance of flavors, and creativity of the chef."

Then all the ambiance factors: “The salt, the glasses, everything about the experience you had from the second you made the phone call to book the reservation, to when you walked in the door, when the hostess greeted you—or didn’t greet you—to whatever little goodies you have at the end of the meal.”

So, the unique taste experience of my Elvis Pizza is not enough. It's also about the precise positioning of the shredded cabbage on the plate, the placement of the bottle of beer on the table, the meticulous attention to the way I tuck in my tee shirt and angle my Boston Red Sox cap on my head ...

Details, details. I have miles to go before I sleep.

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