Ruth Bourdain is a fictional mash-up of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain.
My husband and I are going to New York City for four days on vacation, and he's all gaga about going to Eataly. I'm loath to patronize any kind of celebrity food venture: I got burned really bad at a Tyler Florence joint in San Francisco recently. But maybe I'm being reverse snobby. What's your opinion on celebrity food ventures, and do you think Eataly's worth a visit in particular?
I feel your pain. I've been burned really bad too. Specifically, by a flame that leapt right off of one of Guy Fieri's horrible shirts onto my hair. Luckily, the burns to my neck healed completely thanks in large part to a custom skin graft I received from an Ibérico pig.
But, getting back to your question, when it comes to these celebrity chef establishments, you really need to adjust your expectations. First of all, don't think that you're going to actually see a celebrity chef in the flesh at one of these joints; this is an extremely rare occurrence. Most celebrity chefs haven't seen a professional kitchen in years, and most of them don't even know how to fucking cook anymore. Did you know that Wolfgang Puck hasn't seen the outside of a QVC studio for more than a decade? And, even if you do wet your pants when you think you've seen your favorite chef, chances are it's really just an impersonator. Emeril Lagasse, for example, is infamous for using doubles at his restaurants. He's the Saddam Hussein of the restaurant industry.
You also need to steer absolutely clear of douchey gastro-gimmickry. Michael Chiarello's NapaStyle is one thing—if you are into kinky sex toys made out of wine barrel staves—but Ferran Adrià's El Bulli Bar and Sports Grill seems like a brand extension that has just gone too fucking far. And the merchandising is what really kills me. Listen up, Rick Bayless: Does the world really need an epazote-scented blue corn yoga mat? I think not.
It doesn't have to be all bad, however. The one celebrity chef who always does branding right is Thomas Keller. His Bouchon Bakery & Spa in Calistoga, California, is fucking phenomenal. I love his Butter Poaching Treatment: a total immersion in pure, organic butter churned from the milk of grass-fed cows and heated to the melting point by the warmth of natural springs. It's so fucking unctuous. Ask for the happy ending with "extra finesse."
So, yes, go ahead and visit Eataly for the amazing selection of imported Italian artisanal foods, the cheese selection, and the cured meats, but don't expect to see the real Mario, and stay the fuck away from souvenirs like Mario's "signature" gelato sundae served in a pair of commemorative orange Crocs or the "official" Batali ponytail holder made out of Sardinian sheep intestines.
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