WRITER AND FRANCE’S BEST-KNOWN FOOD
AUTHOR, FRANÇOIS SIMON, A FORMER JOURNALIST AT LE FIGARO AND LE MONDE, CONTRIBUTES
TO MANY OTHER PUBLICATIONS, INCLUDING
THE FINANCIAL TIMES.
Yes, New York is unique, powerful, and untamable, but it’s still dominated by appearances and, like the world of fashion, submits to the tyranny of ostentation.
Of course, New York food will always have its criminal side, the one that makes us roar in echo to that “huzzah” food that we tear into with our mandibles, sinking our gums and teeth in deep. That’s what we expect from New York, just as we seek soothing in Kyoto, paradox in Berlin, felicity in Rome. And New York will never say no. We expect Katz’s Delicatessen (since 1888) on the Lower East Side to be voluble all day, hollering on the edge of obscenity with its pastrami mega-sandwiches, the rat-a-tat-tat of orders and the roar of the patrons. Two blocks down the street, there’s more of the same at Russ & Daughters, with its ripped and botoxed porn food. That bagel with smoked tuna, cream cheese, and fish roe infused with wasabi is chutzpah on a plate, but oh, so good.
Like everywhere else in this world, their choreography as ever virtually symmetrical with the steps of fashion, influencers are creating one of the biggest migrations of the present day — that of the images filtered onto Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, pending the coming extension into the metaverse.
It’s all about clickbait, clocking up the likes: the world of gastronomy—fine dining, if you like—has understood that nowadays being “good” is only half the battle; you have to be beautiful. Take steak tartare (for starters). What could be more off-putting than this apoplectic patty with its reddish complexion, its tangled striations, the indecent rawness of the meat? It could get your storefront slashed with graffiti, yourself sprayed with ox blood, cast down into infamy. But if you sprinkle this bold round mound with borage and elderflowers and chervil petals, you can expect people to start talking about your restaurant. With a few carefully posted photos, you slip onto the fast track, onto a new scale, break out of your biotope. Why, the very next morning, you may find yourself under siege by a docile army of followers all wanting their borage and tartare. Gone are the days when the chef would be cursing the whole world from down in his lower basement, befogged by steam, coal dust, neon, and persistent fish smells.
In those days, it was the maîtres d’hôtel who scooped all the pretty women, the tips, and the canoodling. Until, tired of this injustice, the generations of Fernand Point (1897-1955) and Paul Bocuse (1926-2018) sounded the revolt, grabbed the power, and even rode their cars onto the sidewalk to crush those big-bellied wooden chef figures holding out the menu. And in their vengeful vociferations, there was another thing they remembered: to mock waiters by reducing them to the absurd role of “plate carriers.” They appeared in the press displaying the same trophies as the bourgeoisie of the day (double garages, German car, vacations in Mauritius). Today’s chefs are not so far from this, except that they don’t want to be stuck with the dentists but cruising with the bad boys of rap and soccer: amphetamines and uppers, brash cars, and peroxide hair — but this time, for themselves.
As in fashion, what keeps today’s dining on the boil is not excellence but popularity. When Jean Imbert (Plaza Athénée) poses with Beyoncé, Jay-Z, or Pharrell Williams, he knocks the needle off the scale, whereas chefs like Michel Guérard (Les Prés d’Eugénie) and Pierre Gagnaire watch the boy racers rocket past yet are never downhearted. For them, beauty is a more inward matter, going deep inside, just as certain couture houses continue with the haute chic of belted coats. In New York as in Paris, London, and Dubai, spectacular entertainment-driven restaurants are rampant. In this world, chef Nusret Gökçe, aka Salt Bae (“beloved of salt”), caresses his meats to Turkish rap. Now based on 53rd Street, he tirelessly rehearses his hypnotic act: raising his wrist up high, letting a handful of salt dribble down his arm.
All around town, and for multiple reasons, from hotel restaurants like The Mark Restaurant (by Jean-Georges Vongerichten) all the way to the Michelin-starred (Eleven Madison Park) or valorous competitors like Le Coucou (DanielRose), they are biting the inside of their cheeks as they dream of similar fame. But New York wasn’t born yesterday. She knows her public, which is forever coming back to its fair ground dizziness. The dizziness of excessive cities. The cities we crave.
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