Maxime and me: 2 peas in a pod, with exceptions
So I was in my therapist’s waiting room looking for a new magazine among the pile of old Scientific Americans and Smithsonians when I came across the Nov. 23, 2009 ish of The New Yorker. Not exactly new, but I hadn’t seen it before. Thumbed through it and saw, on page 44, “Lunch With M.,” a story about a reviewer for the New York City edition of the Michelin restaurant guide (and if you have to ask what that is, your idea of a great meal is Red Lobster).
I’d got about halfway through when Doc poked his head in the waiting room and said “Hi.” I was tempted to finish the article instead of having my head shrunk, but instead, I took the magazine and told Doc I was stealing it. He didn’t seem to mind, bless his larcenous soul.
So here’s the thing. The parallels between a Michelin Guide reviewer, or inspector, as they’re called, and me, as a wine reviewer, are eerie. The Michelin inspector profiled in the article is a woman whom the writer refers to only as “Maxime” (the M. of the headline). It’s not her real name, because Michelin inspectors are never publicly identified. In fact, they have been scrupulously, almost paranoically shielded from visibility for many decades, in the way of restaurant reviewers everywhere. Here in San Francisco, I’ve seen Michael Bauer, the Chronicle’s restaurant critic, admonish audiences for taking his picture and jeopardizing his independence. So that’s a little different from me — no anonymity here; everybody knows my mug.
With this penchant for secrecy, why did the Michelin people make Maxime available to a reporter from The New Yorker? Because the American editions of the Guide (there’s also a San Francisco edition) haven’t been selling well, and have not achieved the clout of local critics from the Chronicle, L.A. papers and the New York Times; and so the Michelin people launched this “effort to promote…a better understanding of the guides’ means and methods.” Well, if that doesn’t sound like transparency, I don’t know what does. “A better understanding of…means and methods” is exactly what I’ve been forced to explain in this blog due to unceasing demands for same from readers (and I am not complaining, just observing). It’s nice to see Michelin being confronted with the same transparency as I’ve been.
What does Maxime look for in the food she reviews? “You’re looking for something that really tests a number of quality ingredients and then something that’s a little complex…”, she says, noting that “We would never order something like a salad. We rarely order soup.” That’s different from what I do. I review everything from California — not just complex wines but wines that are the “salads” and “soups” of supermarket shelves; hopefully, those can be Best Buys, but Michelin does not include value in its reviews, only quality. But there is another similarity when the New Yorker writer says Maxime “is required to eat everything on her plate…a regimen that calls to mind the force-feeding of the ducks that supply [Jean-Georges] Vongerichten with his velvety foie gras…”. Yes, quack quack, there are days when I too feel force fed, only with wine.
A further similarity: the Michelin Guide has come under attack from its competitors. The Zagat people, interviewed for the article, complained about Michelin’s elitism. “We’ve never believed that there were experts that should tell you what to do,” Nina Zagat huffed.
Hello! Can we talk? How many times have bloggers said that ivory-tower critics should not purport to tell everybody what to drink? That’s what the bloggers call “the democratization of wine reviewing.” So this is a big parallel between Maxime and me.
The similarities pile up. A former Michelin inspector published a tell-all book revealing “the inspector’s life as one of loneliness and underpaid drudgery…dining alone and under intense pressure to file reports.” This, too, is the woeful tale of the wine critic — this one, anyway. Believe me, it’s not all glamor — far from it.
The most interesting part of the article comes when Maxime makes the distinction between her personal preferences and objective quality. “It’s not really a ‘like’ and a ‘not like,’” she observes. “It’s an analysis. You’re eating it and you’re looking for the quality of the products…You’re looking at ‘Was every single element prepared exactly perfectly, technically correct?’” Readers of this blog will recall the many conversations here concerning objectivity vs. subjectivity. Maxime believes in objectivity: she feels she really can differentiate between her personal taste and the existential reality of a properly prepared food, with math-like certainty. And I feel like I too can tell a “technically correct” wine from a bad one.
One can argue, of course, that the line between “analysis” and “liking” is so blurry as to be indistinguishable; and, since there’s no way to prove or disprove that, there will always be two camps: one that accepts the notion of objective judgment, and one that doesn’t. So it is with wine criticism.
And then, a final similarity between Maxime and me: dining at restaurant Jean-Georges, she tries an Artic char, on a bed of watercress remoulade, accompanied by a julienne of apple, and tells the writer, excitedly, “It’s perfectly cooked. I mean, it’s textbook.” It is, in other words, a 100-point fish.