Dish 2.0: Bon appétit and ratings be damned

Opening up the conversation on anything and everything related to food, drink and dining

French restaurateur Marc Veyrat of the acclaimed La Maison des Bois restaurant in Savoie, France, mounted legal action last week against the influential Michelin guide. The guide, which ranks restaurants around the world and arguably carries more weight than any other professional rating system, recently downgraded Veyrat’s restaurant from the ultimate status of three Michelin stars to a lesser (but still extraordinarily difficult to achieve) two-star rating.

Veyrat argued that the demotion was an affront to good taste and common sense, and was wholly the fault of an inept reviewer who misattributed a yellow hue in a dish to cheddar cheese rather than the saffron that was actually responsible for it.

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The seemingly trifling discrepancy pointed to the use of a non-regional ingredient at La Maison (the Savoie region is renowned for exceptional cheese), a taboo practice according to the standards of contemporary locavore critics. In interviews on the matter, Veyrat described the tears of his team members upon learning of the demotion and went so far as to request that his restaurant be removed altogether from the guide, citing Michelin’s systemic reviewer incompetence.

Similarly, Chef Sebastien Bras, who operates a restaurant empire that includes Le Suquet in the south of France, which has held three Michelin stars for more than 10 years, has asked for his business to be removed from the Michelin guide, explaining that the extreme stress associated with the designation is simply too much to bear.

In 2003, beloved, famed chef Bernard Loiseau of Restaurant La Cote D’Or in Burgundy committed suicide, leaving a devastated family behind. While no one will ever know definitively the reasons for Loiseau’s actions, it is widely believed that rumblings of an imminent Michelin guide demotion contributed significantly to his deteriorated mental state. The suicide of Swiss chef Benoit Violier in 2016 was compared to that of Loiseau. Those close to Violier, who ran a three Michelin-starred restaurant near Lausanne, suggested that the pressures associated with operating such a highly ranked business eventually took the ultimate toll on the young chef.

Meanwhile, Denmark’s Rene Redzepi, one of the of most accomplished, respected, and celebrated chefs on the planet, failed once again in 2019 to secure a third Michelin star for his wildly acclaimed NOMA restaurant in Copenhagen, despite the restaurant topping the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants list four times. Speculation that Redzepi’s continual reinvention of the NOMA experience and his commitment to a highly subjective interpretation of modern dining shows disdain for some of Michelin’s more traditional evaluation standards and is responsible for NOMA’s apparently insurmountable two-star stasis.

Closer to home, many of you may recall that Vancouver-bred chef Rob Feenie ran the game-changing Lumiere Restaurant for years, securing Western Canada’s first and only Relais et Chateaux designation, granted by an exclusive membership-only consortium celebrating rare and flawless hospitality experiences. Lumiere was the subject of a veritable tsunami of media attention through the late ’90s and early oughts but eventually succumbed to imploding business relationships that precluded its continued operation. Chef Feenie took a very public step away from the world of independent, high profile dining, accepting a corporate chef position with the North Shore-spawned Cactus Club group, where he now bears the lofty designation of Food Concept Architect.

In truth, my empathy for the tragically departed notwithstanding, I have not been able to pen these words without the occasional involuntary eye roll. The notion of putting so much stock in the subjective opinion of a reviewer is risible. And while I still feel a special fondness for the acerbic wit of the great AA Gill, former reviewer of many things for The Sunday Times, I frankly have come to despise the pompous prose stylings of so many righteous “critics” who contribute little more to the culinary conversation than self-congratulatory, wannabe erudite word play.

In my time as a contributing columnist for The North Shore News I have, on several occasions, made the distinction between reviewers and critics, noting that the former report on the experience at hand with a view to summarizing a venue’s success in being what it set out to be, while the latter use the dining experience as a forum for nitpicking commentary on how even the best meal could have been better.

Consequently, The Dish column never assigned a rating to the restaurants it considered nor did it permit contributions that indulged the writer’s odd bouts of ill temper. Indeed, a few of my novice submissions in which I allowed myself to draft some sardonic but ultimately unproductive critical prose, were summarily rejected and sent back to me for revision. Fair play; I’m grateful for the mature guidance of my editors in these matters and I do not regret the quashing of a few misguided pieces.

And so it is that, after significantly more than two decades of strictly restaurant reviews, The Dish column is about to embark on a new era, one in which the topic of food provides a steady horizon against which a broader conversation may unfold. Starting this week, The Dish will expand its commentary to include anything and everything related to food, drink and dining, and how the three meld to shape or reflect our culture and community. When a hot new joint opens, I will still try it out and report back, but readers may now expect an expanded roster of topics intended to inform, entertain, and challenge.

To those who expressed kind wishes when life circumstances led me to believe that my continued contributions to the paper were impossible, I offer you many sincere thanks. For me, the greatest reward of this column has always been engagement with the community on a topic I love. To those who asked if they could have my job following my imminent departure, I happily tell you that you need to wait a while longer until your hat will be acknowledged on the floor of this ring, but urge you to keep chipping away at it until the timing is right. And for those who, with dark vitriol and impressive strings of profanity, bid me good riddance, I also offer thanks; without disagreement and feedback the important fruits of the dialectical tradition (stance + counter-stance = new stance) would rot on the vine.

I look forward to exploring new topics in this forum and welcome any and all suggestions for future columns (calm down, PR folks, I mean within reason). Meanwhile, bon appétit and ratings be damned.

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