PARIS — We were supposed to be meeting a certain Gilles, known in world of gastronomy as "the finest palate of France." But instead we find ourselves face-to-face with a young blonde woman. "Hello, I'm Marianne. Gilles has been stuck in bed for 10 days after drinking some organic cider that wasn't very fresh."
Marianna Lecerf is the head of international coordination at the French restaurant guide and rating company Gault & Millau. As she explains her career as a former critic who now trains the teams, her boss, Côme de Chérisey — the Gault & Millau president, owner and editor-in-chief — arrives. It is he who chose to lunch at La Condesa, a restaurant in Paris' 9th arrondissement owned by Indra Carrillo, a Mexican chef that Gault & Millau elected as "the young talent of 2018."
As usual, Côme de Chérisey orders the full menu (seven courses, at 78 euros) for the whole table, and begins to educate us on the philosophy of the guide that he bought out in 2016. This allows him to shoot off a few casual zingers: "We're a little club for challengers," he says. "We have a very humble approach, unlike our brothers, who take themselves a bit too seriously." Take that Michelin. And Le Fooding? "Very hipster," De Chérisey proclaims. "More interested in fashion than flavor."
A critic must have the general culture necessary to put dishes in their context.
Suddenly, we're served a tofu espuma with a roasted tomato sorbet swimming inside, and a pine nut crumble. "Wow!" we say as we taste it. "It's gourmet without being fatty," Marianne Lecerf comments. "The contrast between the ice cream and the espuma, the sweet and the savory, the power of the spice and the softness of the tofu is magnificent."
The following starter, beets, is less convincing to her. "It reminds me of something," she says. She unsheathes her telephone and flips through a few hundred photos of feasts taken at Guy Savoy, Jean-François Piège and Yannick Alléno in Paris, but also in Vienna, Romania, and Japan. Finally she comes across the cliché of a plate of beets from Mirazur in Menton, where she was last summer. The resemblance is striking.
"Mauro Colagreco, the chef, told me he was inspired by Alain Passar," she says. "There are dishes like this that aren't focused. A critic must have the general culture necessary to put them in their context. It’s the chef’s job to predict that! "
Mysterious dish at La Condesa — Photo: La Condesa Paris/Facebook
As we dig into the cuttlefish and zucchini taglioni, Lecerf explains how she disguised herself when she was a very young critic: She'd pretend to be a student, taking a large philosophy book to the restaurant that she'd "annotate" as she wrote her impressions of the meal. "But like any 20-year-old girl alone at a table, that drew attention. I would sometime bring my father, who was there in secret."
De Chérisey, for his part, says that being a critic is a bit like being a secret agent. "It's rewarding," he says. "But you can't tell all your friends." He's interrupted by arrival of the cod, enveloped in a banana leaf. Lecerf immediately notices the temperature, a bit too on-the-line. "He should have kept cooking it in the leaf," she says. "It's the chef's job to predict that!"
The same dish arrives at the table of the Americans next to us; as one removes the leaf that hides the fish, so to speak, he explains, delighted, "Here comes the bride!"
I'd compare gastronomy with an almost tantric experience.
When he serves us, the chef seems a bit intimidated. Is this because of the presence of the guide-book boss? "Certain chefs don't care at all about seeing me," De Chérisey explains. "Others panic and start doing whatever, like adding a lobster tail to the plate." For the critics who write for him, though, it's absolutely necessary that they remain anonymous, he adds. "If the server smells like sweat and has dirty nails, we want to know."
So is being a critic not as fabulous as it sounds? "I'd compare gastronomy with an almost tantric experience…a long meal makes pleasure last," De Chérisey erupts before calming down. "But hey, going from restaurant to restaurant in Arras or Evreux to find one that's worth it isn't very exciting. It's ultimately exhausting for the body to eat so much."
Lecerf says that when she's home, she fasts. "And I always have a pair of sneakers in my car trunk to exercise whenever I can," she adds while digging into a fresh pineapple, red pepper, and coconut espuma desert.
Being a critic is perhaps a vocation. Accompanying a critic, though. That, I can say, is just pure pleasure.
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