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The Problem With Jet-Set, Superstar Chefs

Posted: Jan 30, 2007 12:13pm ET

I read David Myers’ blog on his wonderful experience at Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in Paris, and how the French chef is genius. And I agree with him wholeheartedly. The guy is genius. The problem is that his brilliance isn't always manifested on the plates that arrive at your table, especially in his other restaurants around the world.

I had one of the worst meals in recent memory and one of the best last December, and both were the product of Gagnaire—one in a restaurant in Hong Kong (the bad experience) and one in a restaurant in Tokyo (the good one).

I don’t want to go into the details, but the Hong Kong food verged on inedible. Most of the dishes were a strange combination of sweet desserts with savory main courses. For example, the roasted sweetbread with ginger in a melted cabbage and bitter cream sauce was as ghastly to eat as it sounds. The starter of celeriac and horseradish mousse in a red ice cream and jelly with prawn medallions still makes me cringe at the thought of it in my mouth.

The poor wines that went with these almost unholy concoctions were slaughtered. I felt sorry for the host of the meal, wine merchant Paolo Pong. His aged Burgundies, Seguin-Manuel back to 1918, didn’t have a chance. The dozen or so guests simply shook their heads in displeasure. The guy who flew in his business jet from Beijing looked rather upset, to say the least.

It was almost hard to believe that a few days later I was sitting in Gagnaire’s restaurant in Tokyo, and I had one of the best meals of the year. The food was precise yet complex. Everything went perfectly together. And it showcased the 1982 first-growths, particularly the Haut-Brion, as well as the Cheval-Blanc, perfectly.

That’s always the problem with these jet-set, genius chefs with outposts in far-flung locations ... If they are not in the kitchen and leave it to their disciples, it doesn’t always come out right, and the consumer still has to pay the lofty price.
Glenn S Lucash
January 30, 2007 3:03pm ET
I feel the same way about Tom Colichio. When he was cooking at Gramercy Tavern, it was unbeatable. Once he expanded his "empire" and started doing the judging on Top Chef, I feel, as do all of my friends, that his restaurants are mediocre at best. Same for Rocco and the BLT chain. Sky high prices and decent food at best. I had dinner this past Friday evening with another couple who are both in the wine and spirit business. He owns a major liquor store and she sells for a distributor. We ate at a local Italien restaurant in a strip mall. The food was outstanding and were we surprised to find a 1997 Solaia on the wine list for $ 150.00. The food tab equalled the wine bill, but we loved every mouthful of both. I would sooner return to this place than get "taken" again at an overhyped establishment like Del Posto!!!!
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  January 30, 2007 3:15pm ET
Whatever happened to the day when, if Andre Soltner could not be in the kitchen, Lutece closed for the night?
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  January 31, 2007 9:04am ET
My sentiments reflect those of Hoyt. When I think of the great chefs of the past, most of them simply had one restaurant, often in some distant location, where they performed their best work. Although we are not admitting to it, we are, in a sense, in the middle of another culinary reinvention much like we went through in the 70's and 80's. Although this one may be more subtle. I made the comment on David's blog that the concept of the tasting menu has lost its luster since you can practically get a tasting menu at your local Mc D's these days. Its all about one upping your competition and trying to duplicate the work of Adria. It may be time to revisit tradition. I think many of those in the culinary fields who attempt to break from the tradition haven't really fully understood tradition in the first place. As someone who cooks a lot myself, I often surprise my guests with what appears to be a new concept but is in reality classic French. Its just that they have never really seen most of it. Creativity is something that every chef needs. But we should evaluate it by comparing it to existing standards. Do we even have standards any longer? Much of today's food seems interesting, even academic, but doesn't satisfy down to your soul. Dan J.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  February 1, 2007 7:42am ET
So right, Hoyt. Money was not the primary concern of Andre and others of his class. Andre even made a point of coming in to the dining room to meet his diners and ask if everything was to their satisfaction, taking the time to stop at every table. Today celebrity means nothing if it does not mean money.
Erin Bakonyvari
Imaichi, Japan —  February 8, 2007 12:23am ET
Gentlemen, you are all exactly right about the celebrity chefs. Why single out the culinary arts, though, when you can make the same criticism of just about any other art form like, say, the art of wine-making? The world is flooded with wines bearing hallowed names ( Mondavi, Rothschild, Antinori etal)which are unrepentantly mediocre when compared to the great wines on which those names became famous. Unless someone stays "small" and true to their art, like Manfred Krankl whom James also writes about, this end result seems inevitable.

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