Purple Magazine
— Purple #31 The Paris issue

françois simon

luckily
a new cuisine
has arrived

text by FRANÇOIS SIMON

Haute cuisine is a world that twists your head off, jolts you awake in the middle of the night. A lurking threat haunts a large majority of chefs: the loss of a Michelin star. Earning it in the first place is fine, almost child’s play if you know the ways and customs of the gray-suited inspectors. Really, you just need to get the algorithms and the data right, master the art of cooking squab, hire a bilingual maître d’, tweeze some kiwis, and put a spell on the critics. And, of course, locate all excessively discreet solitary patrons, secure their table perimeter like a SWAT team surrounding a madman, and select your finest langoustines. Then, pretend not to have spotted the guidebook cop.

Michelin’s praise song is predictable because Michelin is a kind of cult, with all its mystic silence and old-fashioned obsessions. If you watch the award ceremony (a must-see event — it’s in February) you immediately pick up on Michelin’s totalitarian tendencies in the rituals of this impeccably dressed coterie of stovepipe hats and half-closed eyelids. Look closely: whereas cooking is not uncommonly practiced by women, here it’s all men. At last year’s ceremony, the only women in attendance were there either to stand in high heels or serve as assistants. That’s the way it is. Because the world of haute cuisine (like that of dance or football) is about earning your keep, working hard, pushing your limits. Simply imagine a kitchen in the middle of a service… The quest for a Michelin star has made this a pitiless and brutal world. Though the newer generations have recognized the necessity of softening things up a little in this mess, gastronomical kitchens are still packed to the gills with testosterone. A Michelin star — that’s the obsession that drives you mad if the fish à la nacre is a bit cloudy. And don’t forget the impatient banks, the unpaid suppliers, the waiting clients, the watching guidebook critics, the leading competitors, the complaining neighbors. Now you understand why a chef is like a battered zombie, weeping hot tears as his family life goes to pieces and his damned star hangs over his head like a water droplet above a tortured prisoner. The Michelin Guide orchestrates all of this with a sadism worthy of François Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970). People still remember that striking scene in which the hairy little rascal comes face-to-face with the learned doctor who teaches him a lesson about injustice. “Two plus two?” asks the instructor. “Four,” answers the child (played by Jean-Pierre Cargol, the nephew of Manitas de Plata). And bam, a whack on the young lad’s nose.

Michelin regularly does this sort of thing, suddenly stripping magnificent chefs of their amply deserved, fabulously Michelined star (Bruno Cirino at the Hostellerie Jérôme, in La Turbie, comes to mind, as well as Gérard Besson in Paris). This wreaks havoc on the lives of these heroes of the salamander grill, who now have to deal with nasty comments from competitors, kiss-ass condolences from colleagues, and nothing at all from former patrons, who have already taken a flying leap at a new restaurant.

Michelin made this profession stand tall by giving cooks a sublime trinket to reach for — a star. But it also stripped the culinary world of much of its poetry by harshly curbing the new generation of bistronomy, which only received its first cursed star about 20 years after the fact. This valley of sweat and tears composes a still-virtuous world where chefs freeze their hands off while shelling 200 pounds of scallops, finely slicing salsify, and de-braining sparrows. Such work smacks of sacrificial punishment — the sadistic pleasure of spending hours peeling potatoes, eviscerating wild game, tenderizing marshmallow — a sacrifice offered up to a guidebook superego that, fortunately, is slightly on the decline these days. Luckily, a new cuisine has arrived, bringing more indulgence, more camaraderie, and more kindness, and leaving the great chefs alone with their damask-cotton conformism and the authoritarianism of their tasting menus. Hard work, talent, pain, and suffering belong as well to this strange world. One last question haunts these dream jobs and the constant one-upmanship of their efforts: why make prima donnas cry?

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Purple #31 The Paris issue

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