Chefs and restaurant critics have a curious, often-symbiotic relationship, like actors and drama critics. They know one another, may or may not like one another, often need one another. With more than 35 years of writing about chefs and restaurants, when we run into one, either in his/her restaurant or somewhere else, we’ll nod and smile and stop to chat. But Joe’s long-standing policy, covering more than a half-century in the business, is not to become close friends with people we write about, nor to write about the people whom we consider our close friends.
We sometimes wonder about performers (on stage, in kitchen, on ball field) and critics, and their relationships, and we got several clues recently after the New York Times’s chief restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, wrote a lengthy Christmas Eve piece about Tom Colicchio and his "Tom: Tuesday Dinner" evenings at his Craft restaurant. We first heard of Colicchio about a decade ago when he was the chef and a partner at Gramercy Tavern, Danny Meyer’s second New York restaurant after the Union Square Café. Bruni wrote of Colicchio’s work on an every-other week chef’s table at Craft. It apparently takes time and influence to be among the small group that sits and watches Colicchio prepare the expensive meal that the group then eats. Bruni also wrote about several other New York chefs (Waldy Malouf at Beacon, Ed Witt at Bloomingdale Road) who do the same sort of event.
We did one of these extravaganzas, in 1996, at Emeril Lagasse’s eponymous restaurant in New Orleans. Joe was there on a writing assignment for the NFL, and part of the piece was a mid-aftenoon interview with Lagasse and dinner at the chef’s table, actually a dining bar that overlooked the kitchen where Lagasse and his staff worked. It was a marvelous meal; anonymity, of course, was impossible, but we’ve never believed that anonymity was ever really possible, or necessary, any more than a theater critic goes to opening night in disguise so the cast won’t know that he or she is in the audience. Silliness.
And if Bruni eats chef-table meals and continues to claim anonymity, he’s either a superb actor or he and his companions go through one of the silly, don’t-ask, don’t-tell routines that we occasionally face.
Bruni liked the meal at Craft, but he was not thrilled, pointing out that "the overall arc of the meal – the rhythm of it – wasn’t exactly right."
A week later, the Dining Section of the Times carried a response from one of St. Louis’s top chefs, Bryan Carr of Pomme, in which Carr took issue with the story. He didn’t complain about the praise for Colicchio, but wondered if the Times and/or Bruni were not carried away with the idea of celebrity. After all, Carr pointed out, he and chefs everywhere cook dinner in their restaurants almost every night. It’s their job, and the fact they are doing it is not worthy of a big news story.
We think Carr is a terrific chef, and he’s a pretty good letter writer, too. Star chefs (Colicchio is big on television, too) are becoming more star than chef, using a title of executive chef to loll on their executive merits and not face the stove. The restaurant became popular and successful because the chef was there cooking every night, and when the chef is off on television or at book-signings, the customer is not getting what he/she is paying for, the work of the No. 1 superior chef.
Restaurateurs know that, too. In our town, one of the reasons that Tony’s has been so popular for so long (more than a half-century now) is because with exceptions you can count on your fingers, there has been a Bommarito in the house every night.
When we visit a restaurant, we try to ascertain whether the chef and/or owner is on hand. If he is not, we feel slighted. And no matter how good the meal is, we wonder how much better it might have been if the No. 1 person had been on duty.