Reality Really Bites

The quality of the culinary news this week amounts to a rhyme scheme in a children's poem (or a Sheryl Crow song): sad, mad, and just plain bad. And not just because Mr. Rogers passed away after a bout with cancer.

For starters there's been a death in the gastronomic neighborhood. Famed French chef Bernard Loiseau, he of the three Michelin-starred Cote d'Or and a trio of Tante restaurants in Paris (among other ventures), reportedly killed himself with a hunting rifle. His friends, the likes of equally shining firmaments Paul Bocuse and Jacques Lameloise, are blaming the GaultMillau critics -- who recently downgraded Cote d'Or a couple of points -- for causing his death. They also point the spatula at the Michelin guide, which was predicted to be reducing the 52-year-old Loiseau by one six-point shooter within the week.

Indeed the pair of haute cuisine innovators have gone on record in various newspapers, noting that Loiseau had confided his unhappiness to them. Bocuse told the BBC that "GaultMillau killed him. When you are leader of the pack and all of a sudden they cut you down, it's hard to understand, it hit him hard." And in Le Parisien, Lameloise said, "The critics play with us. They mark us up, they mark us down. I think that's what made him crack ... [Loiseau] said, 'If I lose a star, I'll kill myself.'"

In no way do I want to belittle Loiseau's death, or downplay his loss. His personal and professional families are grieving. Local cookbook author and teacher Carole Kotkin can recount meetings with and dinners cooked by Loiseau with reverence, as can other members of the regional culinary community. In fact Kotkin reminded me (during lunch with her and the Bernardus winemakers at the Blue Door) that about two years ago I had actually eaten a meal that Loiseau had prepared with Delano consulting chef Claude Troisgros, whose own famous chef family was mentor to Loiseau.

But isn't it typical: When something goes wrong, blame the critics. True, the GaultMillau and Michelin opinions are very powerful, exerting huge influence over the dining public, not just in France but all over the world. Yes, restaurant reviews can, in any market from local to global, positively or negatively affect an eatery's business -- if only on a temporary basis. That's par for the course. Certainly lousy reviews can smack down anything from a so-called blockbuster movie to an independent flick to the extent that it doesn't make back its costs, or gain its actors additional work. No matter what genre, bad is bad.

But Cote d'Or wasn't bad. From all accounts, it was very, very good. It might have been suffering a bit, however, from a chef-owner whose extreme depression had little, if anything, to do with critics who tell the truth as they see it. Loiseau's suicide was the result of much more than a circumstantial sadness. It had to do with a pathologic mental illness that wouldn't even allow Loiseau to consider the fate of his wife or his three children -- ages twelve, eleven, and six -- or the fact that the Michelin announcement had yet to be released. Reps for Michelin are now saying that Cote d'Or has retained its three stars, and would have even had Loiseau not shot himself. Whether or not that statement is a postmortem kindness will be impossible, and not very thoughtful, of anyone to reconsider.

I will acknowledge that the business of criticism is not always kind or constructive. But the end point here, of course, is that freedom of speech wins out at the cost, our forefathers would have told you, of all else. Unless you happen to be in a state that has passed legislation about, of all things, the usage of cell phones in restaurants.

That's right. Apparently dialing or answering a mobile phone in the public -- and let's-not-forget nonsmoking -- spaces is going to become illegal in several parts of the Northeast, including New York, where quite honestly the senators and House reps have bigger worries than the electronic jingle of a piece of machinery no one can hear anyway because the crowd is four-deep at the bar and the taxi horns are blaring away outside. Fines, arrests, community service, jail time -- whatever the penalty, the issue is so completely ridiculous we predict a segment on Saturday Night Live entitled "Look Who's Talking at the Two-Top."

Or perhaps it will be an episode of "Reality Bites: The Restaurant." New York, Variety says, is going this summer to be the setting for a reality TV series depicting the opening of a restaurant. The eatery is being specially built as we speak -- or as we manage to close our mouths, which are probably hanging so wide open at the moment we could stuff them with apples. New York celeb chef Rocco DiSpirito has been tapped as the talent, and customers themselves will eventually dictate the subplots of the episodes, which will center on the trials and tribulations of maintaining what will amount to a Manhattan moment. Total, they say, the series will be about six hours, one per week.

No doubt that's the prequel to the sequel, but I'm going to save producers the trouble of setting "Reality Bites -- The Next Course" here in Miami. How? By scripting the six New York episodes, of course. They're fairly predictable:

Episode 1, "Location, Location, Location ... and Location": The restaurateurs scout locations and eventually choose one. But a stubborn landlord refuses to give on contractual points, so they go on looking. The second location falls through because of a bad bank deal. The third is no good because someone flushed baby alligators down the toilet and into the sewage system. The fourth, they proclaim, on the site of what was formerly about a hundred other failed, high-end bistros, is perfect, especially after the three-million-dollar renovation they put it through.

Episode 2, "It's All in the Details": The chef writes the menu in a language few can actually understand, the restaurateur weeds through 400 applications for about 30 staff positions, the investors do a walk-through while talking on cell phones before they become illegal, the PR folks send out premature press releases, and the cops stop by for their payoffs so that liquor violations will be permanently overlooked.

Episode 3, "Training Day": Half the staff forgets to show up for a dry run. The other half is hung over.

Episode 4, "Big Opening Night": The most famous episode-to-be, also known as the Velvet Rope, which gets wrapped around a food critic's throat by an irate waiter, who was fired from another position after being implicated in a bad review. Subplots focus on the partygoers, who wonder, "Isn't this supposed to be a restaurant opening? Where the hell's the food? And has anybody taken note of the entrances and exits?"

Episode 5, "Critics Come A-Calling": Unbeknownst to the critics, the tables are miked so the kitchen can identify potential reviewers. And because they do know they're possibly being filmed, the critics are supposed to disguise themselves somehow. But some of them conveniently "forget" in order to get their mugs on TV. The result is a massive, citywide exposé. One critic is even caught on tape, accepting a case of wine in the alley in exchange for a good write-up. Oh, the scandal!

Episode 6, "The Revelation": Apparently the whole series was a ruse in order to get the nation's most evil restaurant critics fired before they cracked any more eggshell egos. The French government sponsored the entire undertaking, which explains the subliminal propaganda -- "Paris Rules," "We Refuse Responsibility for the French Fry," and "Buy More Expensive Burgundy" -- you can only see when you play the tapes in slow motion.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick