The Book Club

Where’s the Beef?

My dear Amanda,

Look who’s calling whom unsympathetic! You stand to me in the relation of pot to kettle. I hear they’re still wiping pieces of my old friend Emeril Lagasse off the kitchen floor, thanks to your devastating piece about him in the Times.

Plus, I was sympathetic. I was rooting for Bourdain and his wife, Nancy, hopeful that things would work out for them. Having avoided reading any reviews before opening Kitchen Confidential, and not having followed the employment history at Les Halles, I did not know how the story came out. I have yet to find a chef in this city who has worked with him. We all knew that Bourdain had become a best-selling author; by the time we reached the last few chapters of the book, we also learned about his success as a chef and as a man who can appreciate the finest food with the best of them, who feels secure enough to call Alain Ducasse a god and praise Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and others as his culinary betters. Even my writer’s Shadenfreude did not get in the way of my joy in watching him triumph.

I do agree with everything else you wrote. I have a story like yours: About nine years ago, soon after I had left off being a lawyer and become a full-time food writer, I spent a week in the kitchen at Le Bernardin in New York City. Early one morning, as I reached for a sweet at the pastry station, I badly burned my hand on the edge of the pan. Everybody was solicitous, including the chef, Gilbert Le Coze (for my money, the man who taught America how to cook fish). But after I had been appropriately bandaged, Le Coze turned to me and said, “Now you never need to burn yourself again.” Le Coze was no pantywaist. All his family were fishermen in Brittany.  

Your meal at Les Halles–shouldn’t we pause here, dear Amanda, and put people’s minds at ease, especially those living in regions of the country most distant from Paris, by answering their nascent question and assuring them that Les Halles is, and always has been, pronounced “lay ahl.”

Your frightening meal at Les Halles cannot be blamed on Bourdain. He has been chef there fewer than two years. But my lunch today can be. I suppose it was OK, but surely not worth two stars, maybe not even one. Bourdain had looked in earlier in the morning but then was off on his book tour, our adorable blond waitress disclosed in her endearing French accent. (The huge, careening waiters are gone!) The boudin noir was nicely spiced, but the caramelized apples were made of rubber. The mashed potatoes were excellent, with a wonderful potato flavor. (Bourdain could have included a cautionary rule about this as well. If you’re planning to order mashed potatoes, arrive as I did at the beginning of service because potatoes progressively lose their native flavor as they are held over simmering water until somebody orders them.)

The plate of charcuterie was disappointing, real heavy on the ham; we might have eaten more of the rillettes and the pâté if the bread had not been unspeakable. The macaroni gratin was dry and sticky; it would have benefited from the inclusion of some bechamel, a classic ingredient that mixes with the cheese and penetrates into the hollow of the tubes of macaroni, later to squish out pleasurably as we chew on them. (Did you ever read my seminal article in Vogue on the excruciatingly long history of macaroni gratin in France? Even Alain Ducasse serves a version at his new restaurant on Central Park South.)

The gratinéed onion soup, a bistro/brasserie litmus test, was just fine, though the Gruyère should have had a stronger taste and the broth might have tasted beefier and less onion-sweet. The French fries, which Bourdain brags about in the book, were tough, not crispy, and surely inferior to the golden little treasures they serve downtown at Balthazar and Pastis, each of which has as high a volume as Bourdain has ever handled. And the steak, the entrecôte, cut from the rib: grilled exactly as we requested, tender enough, but with no discernable beef taste, a sign that this was not USDA prime, or not aged enough, or both.

I did not request a doggie bag. I think I will not return to Les Halles. Have I mentioned that our French waitress was as cute as a bug?

In the I-know-it’s-a-cheap-shot-but department: How many times does Bourdain sanctimoniously tell us how he always gets up at 5 minutes to 6 every morning and never misses a day. You’ve quoted from the book, where he says that a good line cook “never shows up late, never calls in sick, and works through pain and injury.” I guess he left out book tours. Would lunch today have been better if he had been there? The ingredients, the charcuterie, and the bread would not have improved. The mashed potatoes could not have been better. Only the French fries and the caramelized apples might have benefited from the touch of an expert.

On the other hand, with the tough life he’s led, or says he’s led, for 28 years, maybe he’s entitled to leave the kitchen and celebrate his new success.

Speaking of bread–and I think this burns me up the most–Bourdain won me over as soon as he began to rhapsodize in his book about his passion for good bread in general, and, more specifically, the bread at Les Halles, baked by the incredibly unreliable but divinely inspired “Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown.” Adam is a “disgrace as an employee, as a citizen, as a human being–this undocumented, untrained, uneducated and unwashed mental case …” But he bakes the best bread and pizza crust Bourdain has ever eaten. Nowadays the bread at Les Halles comes from Pan Bagnat, a sister operation on 55th Street, and it is, as I may have mentioned, as bad as you can buy, especially the baguette–white as a ghost, tasteless, odorless, and possessing a closed yet fluffy texture. Bourdain must know this. How can he face himself in the mirror every morning? Maybe he sees Brad Pitt looking back at him.

Amanda, you haven’t mentioned whether the book made you laugh. It certainly did me.

After the New Yorker article was published, I came across Bourdain’s attempt at self-defense in Food Arts magazine. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.

Until then,

P.S.: Amanda! You haven’t mentioned Bourdain’s astonishing level of sexism. Until Les Halles, every woman in the book except wife Nancy is either a masculine, foul-mouthed, alcoholic line cook or a waitress who is there to be “poked” between meals. What kind of a feminist are you?