Sam Kashner delves into the mysterious world of Michelin stars in the new issue of Vanity Fair, talking to top chefs about what it takes to gain—and keep—the restaurant world’s highest honor. Although restaurant critics are often recognized, Michelin inspectors remain virtually unknown. Kashner spoke on the phone with one inspector (even he wasn’t allowed to know her name), who described her life on the road, eating at least 200 restaurant meals a year.
When you start as a Michelin inspector, your first weeks of training are abroad, she says. “You go to the mother ship in France. Depending on your language skills, maybe you go to another European country and train with an inspector there.” There’s no prescribed path to becoming a food inspector, “though inspectors are all lifers in one way or another,” she explained, and they usually come from families devoted to food and the table. “One inspector was a chef at a very well-known, three-star restaurant, another came from a hotel…. I think you’re either built for this or you’re not,” she added. “You have to really be an independent personality. You have to be somewhat solitary but also work as part of a team. You have to be comfortable dining alone. Most of the time, I think, inspectors all live in a perpetual state of paranoia. That’s the job: the C.I.A. but with better food.”
Juli Soler, the Spanish restaurateur who helped turn El Bulli into the most influential restaurant of its time, died on July 6 at age 66. “Without Juli, El Bulli wouldn’t have existed,” its famous chef, Ferran Adrià, told the Spanish newspaper El País. The restaurant closed in 2011. Michael Paterniti’s 2001 Esquire story captures what it was like to eat there:
In Ferran Adrià’s restaurant, nothing is for certain once his food crosses the Maginot Line of your mouth. He feeds you things you never thought existed, let alone things you’d think to eat: a gelatin with rare mollusks trapped inside (it was so odd, the cool, sweet jelly parting for salty pieces of the sea, that it tasted primordial and transcendent at once), tagliatelle carbonara (chicken consommé solidified and cut into thin, coppery, pastalike strands that, once glimmering on the tongue, dissolved back into consommé that poured down the throat), cuttlefish ravioli (the cuttlefish sliced with a microtome, then injected with coconut milk, another sweet explosion that seemed to wrap the fish in a new sea), rosemary lamb (we were told to raise sprigs of rosemary to our noses as we munched on the lamb, both of us now with rosemary mustaches, the smell of rosemary becoming the lamb as if the two were the same) … and it went on like this.
I will tell you: We were happy. We were served an eighty-year-old vinegar pooled in an apple gelatin with ginger, and vinegar has never tasted so gentle, so perfectly between sweet and sour, with a trace of gin, so unlike vinegar that it redefined vinegar. I would drink that vinegar every day, if I could, to start every day with a little pucker and smile. There was dessert, too … a first dessert and a second dessert and then more snacks. At the end, when we went to him, Ferran waved us off, saying, “Today you eat, tomorrow we’ll think.”
After a seven-year-long stint as a restaurant critic at the Charleston City PaperRobert F. Moss is bidding the profession—or at least the beat—adieu. But before pushing away from the table for the last time, Moss has penned an essay about the difficulties of eating dinner for a living. In the excerpt below, he discusses how the writing itself can grow tedious:
Writing formal reviews is difficult. And by “reviews,” I mean it in the plural form. Composing a passable review or two is challenging enough, since it takes practice to get the hang of the form. But what’s even harder is churning out one after another, month in and month out.
There are only so many ways to describe food. You become hyper-aware of your own clichés. If you’ve gotten tired of reading “lovely,” “tinged,” and “delightful” in my reviews over the past seven years, all I can say is that you should have seen the first drafts.
Then there’s how you structure a review. It’s easy to lapse into such a rote pattern that you almost fall asleep while you’re writing.
Want to pen a textbook B-grade review? Here’s the template. Start with a capsule history of the business (“A new hook-to-table seafood restaurant that opened in May in the strip mall location once home to McGrubby’s Greek Deli.”). Next, march lockstep through the food offering. (Spoiler alert: we’ll start with the appetizers, then move on to entrees, and — surprise! — finish with the desserts.). Toss in a brief description of the interior (exposed brick and brown wood, of course), then wrap it all up with a paragraph that passes final judgement on the place.
If you do it right, the gist of that final paragraph will be that “it’s the kind of place you’ll like if you like that kind of place” and “time will tell whether local diners will embrace it,” which is reviewer code for “it doesn’t totally suck, but I give it three months tops.”
“I didn’t expect us to be so well received,” admits [Noma’s chef and co-owner René Redzepi]. “I didn’t expect us to be able to surprise the Japanese, and also guests that have been with us in Copenhagen. It’s wonderful being in a place where they cherish the sublime. They want to do everything in the best possible way, with the best possible tools, looking the best they can. Japanese society is like that, from the man sweeping the street upwards, so it’s easier to be here and to cook like this. At home it’s always about justification. ‘Why are you doing fine dining? Why aren’t you just serving a bowl of something simple?’ There’s always this corrosive cynicism. The Japanese have some of the most sophisticated palates that you can come across and they’re such kind people to cook for because they’re so appreciative of hard work. It’s been a joy.”
The Noma team has worked with 14 different Japanese artisan manufacturers on creating tableware – plates, bowls, serving vessels and utensils – especially for the run; it is being put up for sale online when they leave Tokyo. “I don’t want to tell you exactly how much we’ve spent,” says Redzepi, “but it’s cost us more than the 77 air tickets we’ve bought.”
He could have made his life easier by being less ambitious, but that’s not what Noma does. Instead, they’ve taken their strictly seasonal and regional agenda and applied it to the islands of Japan instead of the Nordic region. “I made seven trips here in the past year. I’ve been everywhere in Japan,” he explains. “We’ve done the same thing that we did when we opened Noma, a discovery journey followed by lots of reading of traditional ways, then remixing things the way we do. What strikes you about Japan when you travel around is the sheer diversity. You can go from near arctic to subtropical – it’s like going from northern Norway down to Barcelona.”