Forked Over

Michael Nagrant / 03.12.08

I’m pretty sure Alan Richman, the GQ food writer, would piss on a homeless man begging him for change. After all, in 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, he kicked a devastated New Orleans in its rocky mountain oysters and tore the city apart for its listless and uninspired cuisine.

Prior to that attack, I’d admired his prose. Though, in the back of my mind, I’d always felt he was kind of the Marilyn Manson of food critics, a satanic puppeteer fully aware of both sides of an issue, but intent upon picking the side that would incite the most hate and vitriol. It was precisely this skill that kept him relevant and regarded.

Whether he believed what he was writing or not, Richman was smart enough to back up his claims. More importantly, he was smart about attacking targets that could withstand his poison pen. He ripped apart the culinary world’s closest thing to a pope, Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. But Vong, who no doubt endured worse harangues and bodily assault from his mentors, could take it.

I suppose, so could New Orleans. The soul and grit that runs through that town makes it a city never so real, which is probably what rankled Richman who was nothing more than a literate quack, a skilled, but disingenuous debater. Still, going after the broken city was a low blow.

I’d gotten angry when I watched the Disney creation of Anton Ego, the protagonist food critic of Ratatouille. Ego was such an archetype, the snooty heartless dude in the iron tower waiting to slay his next chef. I thought most of us aren’t like that at all, but now, staring at Richman’s mustachioed head shot, his sinister eyebrows suggested real menace. Richman could have been the inspiration for Ego.

Richman draws my ire, not for his New Orleans bombast, but for his most recent attack on Anthony Bourdain in which he visits Les Halles, the brasserie where Bourdain used to cook. In the piece Richman rips both Bourdain and the brasserie. Choice quotes from Richman’s article include:

When I phoned the restaurant to ask his (Bourdain’s) role there, I was told he acts as a “consultant,” although it’s hard to know what a place that specializes in the hoariest of French dishes would need from an American who wasn’t much of a chef back in the days when he worked at being one.

What’s more appalling than the food or even the absurd title of Chef-at-Large is that the smirking Bourdain has somehow become the de facto public face of the restaurant industry. It’s as if Steven Seagal had been named president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Richman is probably responding to the fact that Bourdain bestowed a golden clog award, aka THE DOUCHEBAG for the best example of twisted, repressed, or compromised “I’d rather be making lemon bundt cake with My Cat, Mr. Mufflesworth” journalist who actually HATES food and hates the people who make food even more. (Full disclosure: we got a clog award for the writer or blogger that “gets it”, aka the Steingarten. Though we understand that Bourdain and Ruhlman lost my actual clog award in a drunken haze on South Beach.)

Sure Bourdain deserves a little payback and it would have been fun to watch the two trade volleys. But Richman leaves his chops at the door. He ends up tilting at KitchenAids and comes off as petulant, irrelevant, and misguided.

Richman attacks Bourdain for not being much of a chef, but going back to Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain never claimed he was a great chef, and he’s satirized himself repeatedly on this point.

Likewise, Bourdain spent 28 years (no matter how good or bad) in front of the hellfire swelter of ovens wrenching his back and getting hammered by the unforgiving concrete floors of the kitchen. Not only that, instead of getting soft on his television show, he decided to go back in the kitchen at 51, eight years after leaving the pass, to test his mettle through 350 covers for an episode. Bourdain could have taken the easy route and sucked down some raw seal blubber in Antarctica and garnered the same ratings, but he took it to heart when a reader questioned his qualifications to critique food, and risked humiliation to prove himself again.

What did Richman do during those 28 years or even the 12 hour double shift Bourdain pulled back at Les Halles that was so special? Did he risk heart attack while wolfing down cheese course after cheese course at Louis XV, or did he contract carpal tunnel handing out his credit card while ripping through hundreds of thousands of dollars sucking down Michelin 3 star meals on his cushy GQ expense account?

If, as Richman writes, Bourdain as the public face of the restaurant industry is like Steven Seagal being named president of the Screen Actors Guild, then the idea of Richman, who is clearly not a cook of any distinction, being qualified to be a face of anything related to food, is like Paris Hilton being elected to the Guild.

Richman’s criticisms of the Brasserie were relatively petty. He wasn’t happy with his “miniscule table” for example. Richman clearly wants to be a big star and treated like one. He wants to be bigger than Bourdain. Isn’t that what his resentful review is about? How else explain the fact that Richman purports to be a journalist, but his smirking head shot is plastered all over the web? True, Richman mostly does features, but he also does a lot of critical reviews. As such he should try to remain anonymous.

Frankly because he doesn’t remain anonymous, you wonder how he ever gets bad service anywhere. I find it highly doubtful that someone at Les Halle didn’t recognize him and fawn over his every move. I’m also suspicious that half of what Richman says in his skewering of Les Halles is true. He quibbles about being brought a wrong vintage of wine. He had the same quibble in his New Orleans piece. It seems to be a pattern, like he’s leaning on a time worn example that he whips out anytime he wants to ding a restaurant and has nothing else in the well.

What’s most disappointing is that though Bourdain is the object of his ire, Richman’s missive ends up targeting the everyman waiters and cooks at Les Halles. Bourdain’s not going to lose sleep or money over the invective. On the other hand, the earnest dudes humping it in the kitchen who aren’t getting paid much might lose their job if Richman’s jealousy-laden words convince some folks not to patronize Les Halles. Richman has the right to review whoever he wants and when he wants, but if he went in to Les Halles with a vendetta, and it would be hard to see how he didn’t, then it’s unethical for him to write about that restaurant when people’s livelihoods are at stake.