Bad Food, Great Review

Alan Richman, restaurant critic and chronicler of food culture, is author of Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater. It’s an anthology of pieces he wrote as food critic for GQ, where he manages brilliant social observations while still describing the couscous.

What’s going on these days in restaurants?

There was a wonderful time in America, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when some new thing was always being discovered. Each tended to be pretty simple. “Let’s discover tapas.” “Let’s discover raw food.” Or, “Wood-grilling—let’s see if we can taste the difference between mesquite and oak.” Everything was a simple and clearly defined idea. And whether you liked them or not, each of those ideas if done right could be brilliant.

But we’ve run out of those. What’s left to discover? Exotic regional food? I don’t know that people want the cuisine of North Dakota. Now the trend is that every chef invents his own food—which is one of the problems with food today. It’s overcomplicated, far too diffuse.

Celebrity chefs are part of what’s new, too. You write about the one thing all celebrity chefs have in common: They’re not in their restaurants.

Even at the highest end, you have chain restaurants developing. But with high-end food, the chef has to be there or has to have done one of two things: to have so beautifully trained his staff that they all want to be him, or to have them so scared to death that they’re afraid to make mistakes. If he’s not there or if he hasn’t created that perfect machine, it never works. It starts to slip.

What is high-end food?

Almost always we’re talking about French technique. With all due respect to the Chinese, almost all brilliant cooking starts there. A great grilled steak is a great thing indeed, but it’s not brilliant food.

I would argue that the greatest American food is barbecue. And the people who sit in front of those barbecue pits in Texas or in Kansas City are great chefs. That may be the only example of great chefs who are not French trained.

What makes a great chef?

We start with a foundation of technique. After that, one of the things that’s required is exquisite taste. One of my arguments about so many chefs is not that they don’t know how to cook but that they don’t know what great food tastes like. If you go into a little bistro and there’s something on the plate that doesn’t taste right, it may not be that the chef can’t cook. It may be that he hasn’t tasted this particular dish prepared correctly.

And number three is talent. That’s pretty hard to quantify.

Who has great talent?

Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin [in New York]. I don’t know if he cooks fish better than anybody else in the world, but his talent with fish—his knowledge and understanding of what you can do with fish, the flavors you can pair—is better than that of anybody I know in the world. Does he cook better than Eberhard Mueller [who preceded him]? I don’t know. Jacques Pépin could tell you; I can’t. But I can recognize greatness.

You write about the wonderful experience of eating “food with clarity.” What do you mean?

Let’s say we have a piece of fish, a piece of Mediterranean bass, in front of us. Does it have the richness, the freshness we associate with fish from the Mediterranean? Is it cooked just enough; is it cooked properly?

When everything comes into balance, you feel like you’re tasting the essence of this fish and not being overwhelmed by anything other than its flavor. That’s what I mean by food with clarity—when an individual piece of food tastes as good as it can taste.

Chez Panisse is on many people’s top 10 list, and Chef Alice Waters’ attention to high-quality and seasonal ingredients seems to embody clarity. Why aren’t you a fan?

The food is so serious there. It’s not a pretentious place, but it’s so self-important. I think this is the only time I’m able to separate pretension from self-importance. Eating there, I didn’t feel I could enjoy myself. It’s become too much about being pristine and not enough about being tasty. They don’t always go hand in hand. There has to be a certain exuberance to food, too. Clear doesn’t have to be dull.

But let me say this: In a world where there’s so much bad food even at the high level, I’d much rather eat at a restaurant that at least is taking care. I appreciate the care she puts into the food and the thoughtfulness. I didn’t love it, but 10 years from now if the restaurant still exists, I may be down on my hands and knees thanking her.

Give us an example of exuberant food.

One of my favorite dishes is the braised short ribs at Restaurant Daniel in New York. It’s so overly rich that you start to perspire and feel a little faint when you’re eating it. You feel like he’s condensed a quart of Bordeaux into every rib. I like that. It makes me happy.

I had a mille-feuille [pastry] at Le Cirque 2000. It had too much butter, and I loved it. It was crunchy and it was creamy: so many custards and whipped cream and butter. I’d rather have too much than too little.

Do you think food can be great just for what it is? Is there such a thing as a great greasy-spoon french fry, something different from a great french fry?

If something is great, it’s great. It’s never relative. I don’t think you set a lesser standard for a joint. If you have a great hamburger, there’s no reason to suggest it’s worse than that short rib. It has to be just as exciting. A perfect kosher hot dog with a natural-casing skin, cooked on a grill where it gets crunchy on the outside and maybe slightly blackened—that’s as good a piece of food as exists. There’s nothing better than that.

I’m never going to say a food is great “for what it is.” The only example might be that I recently wrote that Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburger for 99 cents is pretty good. Even though the bacon isn’t crisp enough, that’s a good piece of food for 99 cents. I’d never say it was great, but you can certainly say it’s good.

When you’re traveling, how do you decide where you’re going to eat? Do you use guidebooks?

I do a lot of preparation. I call people. Guidebooks do a terrible job on food. I remember when I first started traveling I used a “Frommer’s”: http://www.frommers.com/ guidebook. When it came to hotels, they were always right. But if you ate any piece of food they ever recommended, you’d run away gagging. Patricia Wells’ _Food Lover’s Guide to Paris is the only great food guidebook I’ve ever read.

You’re now dean of food journalism at the French Culinary Institute in New York. What will you teach?

There are three stages to food writing. There is the planning, which takes an enormous amount of time to do well—so many phone calls, so many people to talk to, so many reservations. There is the writing, which is hard. You have to create your own story; there’s no automatic story, no natural outline. The third part is the traveling and the eating. And that’s really easy. There’s a lot that’s hard about preparing, about writing, but covering food and travel is about as good a job as you can have.

What’s wrong with food writing today?

I want to see an end to freebies, which is the great tragedy of food and travel writing. It’s got to stop. 
It has to end immediately. It all has to be done anonymously whenever possible.

I want to represent the reader. I make my reservations under a fake name, I show up unannounced, I sit in the corner at the bad table they give me, I eat my food, and I write about it.

And with food magazines?

We’re starting to lose something by stories getting so short. I fully understand you can no longer write 10,000 words. Those days are over, and they probably should be. But as magazines more and more are turning to the 2,000-word story at the maximum, you lose the sense of adventure and expansiveness. A great story can sweep you away. A great short story can amuse you, but it can’t sweep you away. Stories are getting too short.

Photograph by Rudy Archuleto/Redux