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Edward Behr's The Art of Eating

Chris Hennes

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The Art of Eating is probably the most peculiar periodic I subscribe to. For those not familiar with it—calling it a "magazine" seems to sell it short, but calling it a "journal" may be giving it too much credit. The topics range far and wide in the world of food, tending towards the idiosyncratic; the writing is usually good, or at least better than the standard food-glossy fair, but occasionally slips into the dry prose more typical of an academic. It is not, in fact, "glossy" in the literal sense, which I think is a nice design choice. And it remains the only thing I subscribe to that I always read cover to cover (eventually). I generally save the issues when they arrive to bring with me on planes, when I am guaranteed a relatively uninterrupted stretch of time to read them. I've only been a subscriber for a few years, but I think this one's a keeper.

Any other subscribers (or former subscribers) out there? Is it a "coffee table" subscription, do you leaf through them, do you dwell on his every word?

Chris Hennes
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I've been reading every word of every issue for about 13 years, since the time when Ed Behr wrote the whole thing and it was basically a newsletter ("food letter" as they say) up through now when he runs it much more like a magazine with a stable of contributors reporting to an editor-in-chief. When I started reading it I was still practicing law and just getting started writing about food. Later there were mentions of me in the Art of Eating, and I felt like I'd arrived.

In 1998, a few years before the eGullet era, Ed Behr sat for a long interview with me. Perhaps I'll reproduce it here.

An Interview with Ed Behr, Author of The Art of Eating

June 19, 1998

by Steven A. Shaw

"Forgive me," said my first-ever e-mail message from Ed Behr, written in response to my review of Balthazar (in the review I said Balthazar was a poor imitation of La Coupole, a brasserie in Paris), "but you misunderstand La Coupole. Balthazar is not based on its type as you saw it but on the genuine type that preceded the debased corporate version devised by the Groupe Flo."

That about sums up the iconoclastic, meticulous and--forgive me--curmudgeonly attitude of Ed Behr, possibly the most food-obsessed individual in America and certainly one of the world's most knowledgeable and talented food writers. From his home in the northeastern Vermont hamlet of Peacham (which makes my nearby college town of Burlington, Vermont--population 50,000--look like a thriving metropolis), Ed Behr writes a quarterly newsletter called The Art of Eating. I hesitate even to call it a newsletter because each densely packed, single-spaced, advertisement-free, 20-page issue contains more information than any five issues of Gourmet. The first issue I saw was devoted entirely to the current state of French cuisine and it took me every minute of a two-hour train ride to skim the thing. I am still not done reading it--I will be lucky to assimilate all the information before the next issue arrives three months from now.

As luck would have it, I was able to trick Ed Behr into giving me this interview by convincing him that he might find it interesting and, even more implausibly, that it might increase exposure for his newsletter (I am a paying subscriber and, if you are interested in a subscription, please visit The Art of Eating on the Web at www.artofeating.com). In reality, though, it was a purely selfish request--I just wanted an excuse to pick his brain.

Quick Index

The Interview

The Fate of the Brasserie

Steven Shaw: Mr. Behr, since you brought it up, give us the lowdown on La Coupole, Balthazar and the whole Paris brasserie situation. Are there any real Paris brasseries left? And what, in technical terms, is a brasserie anyway?

Ed Behr: If I'm going to be my difficult, curmudgeonly self, I guess I have to say there are no real brasseries left. At least, there are none producing food of the quality that they used to produce. What you can say about La Coupole is that it is serving this heavily international, post-nouvelle kind of food that is not particularly the kind of food you would have had in a brasserie years ago. There are certain things, of course, that are there. The ritual cheese course endures and they do a great job with raw shellfish, but the food, to me, is not distinctly that of a brasserie at all. I would also lump cafes and bistros in with brasseries. There are traditional differences, for example, a brasserie is technically a place that serves beer, but they have all blurred in their roles. The question, really, is why are they disappearing? And I think the answer is, in large part, that the French public does not want them anymore.

Steven Shaw: Is New York's Balthazar, in your opinion, a faithful reproduction of a real Paris brasserie?

Ed Behr: Visually, it is. You look at Balthazar and you can see what it is trying to emulate. It is, indeed, a little funkier than La Coupole. As for the food, I haven't tried it. I've walked in and out of Balthazar and only bought some bread. It was fine, above-average for France.

The State of French and American Haute Cuisine

Steven Shaw: With respect to French haute cuisine, as interpreted by the various Michelin one-, two- and three-star restaurants, on my last trip to France I got the feeling that I was in a culinary Disneyland. I saw only a few French people at the top restaurants. The majority seemed to be American and Asian tourists. Can this exhibition-like state of affairs be healthy for the future of French haute cuisine?

Ed Behr: There has to be some kind of a dialog between the chef and the customers. This used to be a dialog between rich French people and the chefs of haute cuisine and, now, the dialog is between the chefs and rich foreigners. I would add German tourists to your list, as well as people from a few other countries where people have money to travel. I don't think, to answer your question, that the declining numbers of French people in French restaurants can be healthy. The substantial majority of people in the two- and three-star restaurants are not French and I don't see how these restaurants can remain as French as they were. Very few customers even know what real French food tasted like (I'm just old enough to remember a little), so they see no reason to reward chefs for producing that kind of food. Even if you have three stars, you aren't going to get many customers who really want or know French food.

Steven Shaw: Is there really such a thing as French cuisine anymore and, if there is, what distinguishes it from so-called New-American cuisine? It seems to me that the top restaurants in France and America, whether they call themselves French or American, are serving remarkably similar food, none of which is classic French. Does it still make sense to maintain this distinction?

Ed Behr: I think there is still a little bit of a distinction. I think there is a bit of a French sensibility that is, on the part of the chef, characterized by a little bit more conservatism, more restraint, more respect for the past, more interest overall in harmony, more care for the way things go together. The flavors are less extreme. Then, of course, there is the cheese course, and the kinds of wines that tend to be on the wine lists which are, I think, a bit lighter (to risk using a word that is usually negative) but at the same time not less complex, perhaps even more complex, with finishes as long if not longer.

The United States vs. France, or, Gramercy Tavern vs. Taillevent

Steven Shaw: A lot of the differences you observed seem not to be differences in cuisine but, rather, differences in restaurant style. You have the overarching harmony issues, the multi-course menus, the cheese courses, the wines. I would like to explore some of the differences between French and American restaurants further. For example, how would you contrast an "American" restaurant like Gramercy Tavern and a "French" restaurant like Taillevent.

Ed Behr: I was in New York in January, and I ate at a lot of places in a short period of time. The best service was always in the places that were the most French, like Jean Georges and Daniel. The service was not nearly as good in some of the places where the food was American. That is stylistic. The service in the restaurants of France, as compared to here, is more subtle, less ingratiating (except, of course, in the case of a few restaurants here in America where most of the dining room staff is French). So those are all surface things. But, for instance, take the example of Gramercy Tavern. It is a very good example of a restaurant that a lot of American people seem to really like, at least if you trust Zagat on that issue (and I think we should). What is it that they like? Yes, there is some aspect of the atmosphere, the decor. But there is also something about the food. The chef there, Tom Colicchio, used to do more subtle things at Mondrian and now he is, I think, executing the concept of Danny Meyer. It's a good concept, but it's not a risk-taking concept. I've met Tom Colicchio (he's a subscriber), I saw him at the restaurant and so I was not anonymous. I had seven courses and each course displayed a similar sensibility. Pretty much every ingredient listed on the menu showed up in every dish in a very identifiable way. It was very good food, but it was also very ingratiating food. It was not especially subtle or understated. It was all very clear there on the plate. After the dish left, you were not left there thinking, "Well, gee, what was going on there? What was that ingredient, that little hint of something, that flavor, where did it come from?" It was obvious. I do not mean it was not good, just that it was not subtle. To use the other half of your example, Taillevent, it may not be the opposite, but it is far more subtle, more conservative (it is among the more conservative French restaurants) and the dishes are very considered from an intellectual standpoint, were probably considered a long time ago. There may be the occasional dish that takes you by surprise, but most of the dishes are familiar and reassuring. It is what you expect, yet the flavors are not so obvious. There is a sense of rightness, of things being what they ought to be, whereas, at Gramercy Tavern, it is more a sense of trying to please.

Steven Shaw: Although I do believe, having dined at Gramercy Tavern several times over a period of years, that the food is getting more sophisticated and that, maybe, the chef has been holding back in the hopes of being able to provide a certain level of cuisine to everybody in that gigantic restaurant.

Ed Behr: Yes, it is a huge project and he is probably doing extremely well at what he has been hired to do.

Steven Shaw: If your theory is correct then let's hope that, with the ownership distracted by two new restaurant openings this summer, the chef will have more control over the destiny of Gramercy Tavern's cuisine.

Ed Behr: Yes! Risks are generally stressful, especially for owners.

Steven Shaw: Not to harp too much on Gramercy Tavern, but you mentioned the differences between French and American service. Danny Meyer's restaurants (Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe) are perhaps the foremost and best examples of the new style of American service. What were your observations on the service at Gramercy Tavern?

Ed Behr: I don't want to focus too much on one restaurant, so I'll generalize. The service in a good American restaurant is very attentive. But in France it is much more subtle. What is good now in France (when everything works) is this: Service is no longer hoity-toity, no longer condescending, no longer stuffy. The staffs are young now. These are not the career waiters of old. They have all retired. The waiters in France are more natural. You are not as aware of them. Things arrive when they should. Whereas what takes place in an American restaurant is that you get somebody more casual presenting him or herself kind of like an equal. It is a chatty style, and I don't think you should feel the need to chat with your waiter unless you are exchanging important information about the menu. It's the easy naturalness of the French waiters that we lack. The ability to arrive without being sought. That's what's so hard to find. American service is much more intrusive.

Steven Shaw: I see it perhaps as a difference in the attitude of the average American customer towards the average American restaurant waiter. You have a situation in America where, first, the average waiter at a top restaurant is making more money than the average customer and where, second, the average waiter knows much more about cuisine than the average customer. A lot of Americans are intimidated by French formal service and I guess it gets back to your idea of a dialog. Perhaps this is the kind of service that Americans want.

Ed Behr: Well, I must admit I hang out with a pretty unusual foodie-type crowd. And, of course, people should be made happy. They should be given what they want. Part of my problem may be that I'm looking for something that most Americans may not be looking for, particularly since I have dined out in Europe more than in America. So maybe that's why I should not be reviewing restaurants!

Steven Shaw: So, with the restaurants in France getting worse and the restaurants in America getting better, do you think that someday America will overtake France? If so, would you view this as a victory or as a loss?

Ed Behr: I think that it is happening and I think those paths will cross. I believe it will happen soon, and I think it is sad. I think it's not going to affect the places at the top. It's sad because the only interesting stuff happening in France is happening at the top. Everything below that tends to be disappointing. There are very few exciting one-star restaurants. By exciting I don't mean "fashionable." I mean something that is just executed beautifully. Modest dishes presented by somebody who is classically trained and knows just what he is doing and is not trying to impress but, rather, just trying to get the best ingredients he can find and to get things out to the tables exactly the way they should be. You may find a one-star restaurant somewhere that is doing something great but, invariably, at such places you will find an old chef about to retire. That's what scares me. That's what is really sad.

The Role of the Chef

Steven Shaw: Another thing I observed in France is that the chefs are present in the dining room. At almost every restaurant we tried, the chef visited every table in the dining room during the course of the meal. In America, I have found that, on most days, such treatment is inexplicably reserved for special customers.

Ed Behr: It used to be that every plate at least passed before the eyes of the chef. Of course, now, with someone like Ducasse that does not happen. If you look at Ducasse, the evidence is that all the training is done in the weeks and months before the actual meal service and that there is not much you can do to change what is going to happen by the time the meal service arrives. But I think that the restaurants with more individual character tend to have chefs who are more interested in staying in the kitchen rather than in the dining room. Basically, I do not see a big difference one way or the other.

Steven Shaw: I almost get the feeling that American chefs are hiding from their customers and French chefs are coming out to be celebrated.

Ed Behr: Yes, well, they are imitating the people who were so successful when they were young, starting with Paul Bocuse and the great chefs of that era. Chefs in America aren't so much aware of that. They don't imitate anyone in particular. They tend to stay in the kitchen.

Steven Shaw: Having met several of the world's greatest chefs, do you think the personality of a chef is reflected in his or her cuisine?

Ed Behr: I think it has to be. It is hard sometimes to pinpoint it but I think that, especially at the upper levels, people's talents are guided by their personalities. Some chefs are more cerebral and their food reflects more analysis and questioning, "How should this be, how should that be?" Some chefs are more effusive and they put all sorts of things that excite them on the plate. They are not going to have analyzed it too much, and you can tell that by what's on your plate. And there are people who are more conservative by nature, who do very careful cooking, who are never sloppy, who care a lot about presentation, and they taste a lot in the kitchen. The same thing, I think, is true of wine. The wine reflects the personality of the winemaker.

Steven Shaw: Do you have in mind a couple of particularly stark examples of chefs whose cuisine reflects their personalities?

Ed Behr: Pierre Gagnaire (whose restaurant is called Pierre Gagnaire) is the current example of a really effusive character. He tries to be exciting every night by the quantity of dishes and the novelty of dishes and the novelty of the preparation. Alain Passard (of Arpege) is a more intellectual kind of guy, and he is one of these people who does relatively minimalist things as a result of a lot of thought, a lot of concentration and a lot of analysis that allows him to take away, to subtract as much as he can to emphasize the excellence of the ingredients. You could say that Gagnaire represents one kind of risk-taking and Passard represents another.

Steven Shaw: What, really, does it mean to be a chef. I mean, I say "David Bouley is a great chef," but, in fact, he has probably never cooked a bite of food I have eaten. Yet we persist in talking about chefs as though they have something to do with cooking our food. Does it make sense to maintain this fiction?

Ed Behr: But it was never true that most top chefs cooked during the actual meal. Cooking was always a blue collar metier, a craft. It was not a profession. So back awhile in France, and even in the U.S., people were not interested in the chef and they were not interested in who was cooking or not. They were just interested in the end result. Now that we know chefs as personalities and we know what their names are (and also what they look like), we begin to wonder whether they are cooking or not.

Steven Shaw: So do you think it is healthy for chefs to be celebrities?

Ed Behr: I think it has perhaps gone too far.

The Art of Eating and Other Food Literature

Steven Shaw: Tell us about your newsletter, The Art of Eating. It is a fairly unusual project. What inspired you to single-handedly write this thing?

Ed Behr: I was naive. I didn't know what I was getting into. I didn't know how much work it was going to be. I didn't realize that marketing was going to be such a big deal, the biggest deal after writing and research (and eating, which is part of research). And since it is unusual, it takes a lot of effort. There is surely a market for thousands more readers than I have but it is difficult to separate those people from the 250 million or more out there. So naivete is the short answer. But also, I was interested. I was more interested than I knew I was and that's why I kept on with it. It's not just food. It's all these other things related to food that interest me. Nature, farming, and things that are done with the hands, like cooking. I'm very interested in those types of crafts. And I like writing. So it touches on a lot of things I like and am interested in. And that's why I kept on but, especially at the beginning, after every issue I would ask myself, well, should I go and do another one? Do I quit now? Somehow, I was never able to get myself to quit. So here I am.

Steven Shaw: Your newsletter obviously functions on a much higher level, really an expert level, than the average food magazine or book. How do you feel about all the other food literature that is out there, both on and off the Web?

Ed Behr: First, print, which I know more about. I hear from friends who do freelancing (which I do very little of) that the feedback they get from editors of food magazines is very discouraging. Editors of food magazines believe that people do not want to read very much, that nobody is reading past the third paragraph and that what people really want for the most part is recipes. That, of course, is why there are so many recipes in the food magazines and, thus, writers are made to concentrate on recipes and recipe testing rather than on research that would enable them to tell the readers something more about food than they already knew. Surely it is a troubling issue. It shows in up in restaurants because people don't know very much about what they're eating now. They're not able to discriminate very much. I think it's a huge problem. I think that there is a lot of very superficial stuff out there. There may be fewer errors of fact than there used to be, fewer myths being recycled, but if you want to learn about food it's not very easy to learn about it.

Steven Shaw: Certainly, the photographs are nice.

Ed Behr: The photographs are great! Excuse me, I'm forgetting all about the photographs. The photographs are wonderful, and that is what food magazines excel at. I am not saying that all the food shots are beautiful. Many are actually kind of redundant. But the restaurant shots, the shots of the beautiful countryside, the shots of the last old peasant making whatever it is, they do convey a lot. The magazines that concentrate on photography, they often do teach something.

Steven Shaw: Do you blame ignorant editors or an apathetic public for this state of affairs?

Ed Behr: Both. I think a lot of editors do not know much about food (they probably are not hired because they know a lot about food) and I think people are reading less. People are too busy to read. When people think about how they are going to learn something, I'm not sure that they think about reading as much as they used to. They think that they can learn about food from watching a cooking show on TV. Maybe you can learn a thing or two on a few of the better cooking shows, but certainly not most of them. Certainly not on the Food Network. The quality of all kinds of stuff in print has gone radically downhill. Writers are not writing as carefully. Editors, and especially copy editors, don't seem to exist on the levels that they used to. If you look at books that were coming out thirty, forty, fifty years ago, the level of craft in terms of writing and editing is incomparably higher than most of what is coming out today. It's just too easy to publish these days. It's so easy to produce words by way of a computer and by way of printing. It's now so cheap to print that people do not think so much about it. It used to be that it cost a lot to print. It certainly took more labor. Thus, people took more time over it. I think this is potentially a huge problem in all kinds of ways because what is being produced is not very careful and often less reliable than it used to be.

Steven Shaw: Well, the cheapest way to produce a lot of words and deliver them to a lot of people is via the Internet.

Ed Behr: Which is why the Internet is, surely, the least reliable source. Who is correcting people on the Internet? Who is going to hold the writer accountable for generating a lot of junk? Nobody. In print, at least, there are still some letters to the editor and there are still some people who are annoyed when things are false.

Steven Shaw: So what are your observations about food information on the Web?

Ed Behr: I've been so discouraged that I hardly ever look for anything online. First of all, it's too slow and, second, the quality of what is out there is so low that it's very discouraging. I use it only for very narrow, very specific things. I look for used books online--that is very fast. I looked up the name of a French butter producer on the Internet because I needed the correct spelling and, by God, that producer had a Web page. But it is too slow. It's slow to read off a screen. I'm not even talking about the time it takes to make contact and to download. So if you really want to save time, you have to print out and read, of course. Everybody knows that. It is not a medium that lends itself to very much, except as an intermediary between the words and the printed page. It is just something that enables you to print out something in not particularly attractive form. A screen just does not lend itself very well to reading. It's just good for snippets, short stuff. Also, the big problem is that nobody is being paid to do anything good. There is no impetus to put anything good up there unless you are somebody like you or, in my case, I may have a much smaller amount of decent content but I am trying to attract subscribers so I have a commercial reason to do it. Nobody has figured out, yet, a commercial reason to offer a lot of good content for some combination of reasons: There is no way to charge. It does not lend itself to careful writing. It is not easy to read off the screen.

Steven Shaw: How do you see your role in the food literature world? How do you want people to see you?

Ed Behr: This is something I think about a lot, and I'm not sure I have the right answer. I have a small number of readers but, presumably, a disproportionate amount of influence because most of those readers are high quality and a lot of them are professionals, important professionals. I worry all the time that I give too much information. I constantly try to give less information, or at least to give the information in such a form that people don't notice it. To make it so well organized and to present it so nicely that people just don't realize that the information is there. But my role is mainly to support good food. And what I think good food is tends to be more conservative, more traditional, more based on good ingredients, just more careful and thoughtful, more concerned with harmony and more like the way things used to be until sometime after 1970. So I'm trying to support the things that I like. I think that's my theme. I don't enjoy being somebody apart. You used the word curmudgeon, and that word has occasionally been used elsewhere. I just hate to think of myself as a curmudgeon. And to be non-mainstream doesn't mean that you have to be a curmudgeon. I guess I just think I'm right, and not somebody just criticizing things for the sake of criticism or being contrary for the sake of being contrary. I try hard not to do that. I may not succeed, but I try.

Steven Shaw: Well, people reading this should know that you are in fact a much nicer and funnier guy in conversation than in print.

Traditional Food vs. Modern Food

Steven Shaw: Your point about traditional food is interesting. I feel the opposite. I hate traditional food. Of course, I'm not French but, from the standpoint of an American, it seems to me that, here, we have lost nothing--that American food used to be really terrible and that now it is really good.

Ed Behr: Well, as a gross oversimplification, I completely agree. My parents, for some reason, took us out to restaurants more than most children were taken out to restaurants. And I remember thinking, boy, the food is just not healthy. It was fatty, the vegetables were overcooked, the meat was often overcooked, the sauces were gloppy. The point was really just to be waited upon. Primarily, for my mother to be waited upon. That situation has totally changed. Things are now fresh and they taste it. They are carefully prepared. It is a pleasure and you certainly don't worry about your health when you eat out now. At least I don't. So in America we haven't really lost very much, I don't think. There was some more regional cooking, almost in my view entirely confined to the East Coast. The food of New England, for example, which was very plain. And the food of the South which, of course, was not plain and was much more interesting than New England. And then if you want to get into Cajun, that's something else. That's being lost. But that's not nearly so tragic as what's being lost all the time in France and, especially, Italy, which we haven't talked about. I was talking to a winemaker once a couple of years ago in Northern Italy. One of the more respected winemakers. And he spoke of a cultural blackout. Even though he spoke almost entirely in Italian, he used the English word, "blackout." He mentioned that, specifically, cultural traditions are not being passed on. That means of course that traditions will die unless steps are taken. In France, the government is trying to take these steps and there are some individuals who are recording these things, celebrating these things. And there are some restaurants doing this. But I was talking to a chef in Tuscany, and he was saying that his Tuscan customers don't even know the traditional Tuscan dishes. They only want to eat the four or five dishes that are famous in Tuscany. The same ones that are fed to tourists are now fed to natives. But it used to be that, throughout Tuscany, in each region there were many dishes, and they varied from part to part and from village to village. And they were the product of refinement from generation to generation. Not to say that all the dishes were good or that some dishes were not the result of incredible poverty so they had to make do with whatever meager ingredients were available. But the best dishes, overall, they could not be better--with the one small exception that they could have less fat (if only because, today, we don't work as hard and because of current, neurotic ideas about health). But those dishes were great. They were unsurpassable. And they are being lost all the time because nobody cooks them at home and they are made very rarely in restaurants. I was talking before about the tragedy of French national cuisine in the one- and two-star restaurants. But below that, there is a regional tragedy. I don't think we will be able to recapture these lost regional dishes because the palate is not being passed on. People don't know from experience, as they used to, what those dishes tasted like and, sometimes, the raw materials are no longer produced. People want the best price so they are not growing the same vegetables that they used to. It will never be the same.

Steven Shaw: There are a lot of people who would take the position that old-style French and even some classic Italian preparations are heavy, fatty and covered in sauce meant to conceal inferior ingredients.

Ed Behr: I think that applies to some food and, certainly, it applies more to French food than to Italian food. I think it very rarely applies in Italy. But the best French food was not ever like that. I mean, it may be that they did oversauce those fish because they really were not very fresh. But the taste you have for fat, I see it as coming from what you are used to and how much you need. You know, Eskimos have a high-fat diet that most people would find repulsive but, apparently, if you were to go out and work that hard in a cold climate then you would want that amount of fat, too. So I think people who are at a distance from that kind of food in time and knowledge tend to try to stereotype it as being gloppy, fatty and oversauced. I don't think that is accurate. I think that people who had money were always interested in good food and always poured money into it. They always wanted to eat well, and they knew how to go about it. I think it's nonsense that, all of a sudden, in 1970, there was a revelation, just as ingredients began to go all to hell, and it began to cost too much to pay people to cook well, that all of a sudden the food got better. That doesn't make any sense to me at all.

The Trouble with Fusion

Steven Shaw: There is also the issue of the availability of food products. These days, you can get anything, any place, at almost any time of year. Do you think that is a good thing or a bad thing?

Ed Behr: Both. It's fun to have exotic ingredients--tropical fruits and so on. It is stimulating. It provides variety and variety is always interesting. That's the whole idea of the structure of a meal: Eating one thing followed by another. The calculated stimulus of variety. The problem, however, is twofold: First, the quality of things that come from very far away is not the same as in their native place. I've never had a mango in the tropics, but I'm told by people who have that there's no comparison. I know somebody who grew up in Hawaii and the pineapple I get in the supermarket, she would never touch. She wouldn't even consider it. The issue of quality isn't just an issue of freshness. It's also an issue of familiarity. You cannot choose well something that you are unfamiliar with. You don't know what the criteria are. You've never had a good one so how can you tell if one is good? Which one to buy? When to buy it? Second, there is the factor that I call disorientation. Unless you are terrifically talented, and by that I mean one of the top couple of dozen chefs in Europe and America, you are disoriented by these choices. You don't know what to make when you've got lemon grass, fresh strawberries and raspberries all year around, kiwis which do not really taste like anything, and so an and so forth. Unless you are incredibly talented and you apply yourself to learn, you cannot put these things together. It is just chaos which, I think, characterizes a lot of current food. Provocative chaos. Not provocative in a good way. Just crude juxtapositions of strong flavors.

Steven Shaw: So I take it you are not a huge fan of so-called "fusion" cuisine.

Ed Behr: I'm not. In theory, it can be done well and, in fact, it is being done well by a few people. I have had some good things. But basically I think it's destructive. More often than not, rather than things being fused, they are as separate as they could be because the chef doesn't know how to make them come together.

Steven Shaw: Where have you had some good examples of fusion cuisine?

Ed Behr: It is, in one sense, the tendency in many of the top restaurants in Paris and New York. I saw it done well, most recently, at Union Pacific and at Jean Georges in New York. I am not sure I agreed with all the dishes, though. One place in New York where it did not work at all was Cena. In Paris, every little chef on a mid-level is throwing cumin into something and it often does not work. But Gagnaire and Passard are making it work.

Steven Shaw: Union Pacific is an interesting example because it is, in a sense, a second-generation fusion restaurant. Rocco DiSpirito trained with Gray Kunz of Lespinasse, who is often cited as the father of this genre. And you might not necessarily say that Rocco DiSpirito is one of the top dozen chefs in the country, but he is certainly very talented.

Ed Behr: Some of the stuff was less good, but at least he got the idea, and a lot of people do not. I don't know what they're thinking. I don't know where they have eaten. It's like that moment when raspberry vinegar appeared on everything. I don't get it.

The Role of the Critic

Steven Shaw: Which brings me to the role of the restaurant critic. I'll start with a very general question: What purpose do restaurant critics serve?

Ed Behr: Well, they serve a hugely important purpose which is that they help people decide which restaurant to eat at. You don't want to take a shot in the dark when you are deciding on a restaurant. It's not as bad with a bottle of wine. At least with a bottle of wine you can choose to not drink it. It may be expensive but you don't have to drink it. But with a restaurant you will probably be there for one to three hours or more. And it can be more expensive than most bottles of wine, so it is terrifically important. I can see exactly why chefs hate critics. Most good chefs, I'm sure, know more than most of the reasonably good critics. It's a great subject because it gets everybody passionate. The chefs get prickly, the critics get even more prickly. But when I wrote about this a few years I spoke to a bunch of people and all the chefs said that, even when they got really mad and they thought the critic was really wrong, they always learned something. So it's this double role. Not only is the potential diner finding out something about where he would like to eat. The chef is also getting feedback. And I think that chefs don't get a lot of feedback otherwise. I think they're just talking back and forth to themselves and maybe to some of the other cooks in the kitchen. I mean, you go out in the dining room and what is somebody going to say to the chef? Is the customer supposed to say, "Yeah, everything was really good but this spinach dish really stank?" Of course not. You're not going to get any real feedback by wandering around the dining room. So I think it really does help to have critics. A perceptive critic, moreover, will go beyond the dishes and talk about what the chef is really getting at. Does the chef have a point of view? Is there some particular aim here? What kind of food does he cook? A good critic will discuss whether he succeeds at his goal and give some idea of the goal's worth. I think the chef needs feedback on that level as well as on the level of the individual dishes.

Steven Shaw: In discussions about restaurant criticism, the issue of anonymity tends to come up a lot. The average person seems to have a gut reaction that says, "It is very important for a critic to be anonymous." What do you think? Does it make sense for critics to be purchasing wigs, using assumed names and sneaking around in general?

Ed Behr: Well, in theory, I think critics should be anonymous. I think, if you have to go for the wig, maybe it's too late. It is certainly not good for the dignity of critics to be wearing wigs and having the story get out all the time. I heard from the inside, and I believe it's true, that when Ruth Reichl showed up for her famous last visit in reviewing Le Cirque 2000, they knew it was her when she was walking up the steps to the restaurant. Of course, she went on to write in the review that she was unrecognized. But the word from a friend on the inside was that they knew right away. So I think that when you have to go to that kind of trouble to disguise yourself then it really does not work. But I do think it is important to be anonymous if you can get away with it. Maybe critics should rotate. Maybe they should send Ruth Reichl to Paris and then, say, Seattle for a little while and then bring her back and, by then, maybe people will have forgotten what she looks like. I think it's a built-in problem. Bryan Miller told me that he got really, really well known after about two years. Everybody knew his face. So maybe two years is a run.

Steven Shaw: There is some question as to what purpose the anonymity serves. Certainly, with respect to evaluating service, anonymity can be very important. But is there really that much that a restaurant can do to the food to trick a good critic?

Ed Behr: I wonder if being known doesn't make the service worse because suddenly people are terribly self-conscious. Unless you have some great old veteran super-professional career waiter who you can send out to deal with this, I can see how it would make things worse. Service can become hovering and forced and, in the worst cases, disastrous. But I think anonymity does help a lot in judging the food. There are plenty of restaurants, maybe even most restaurants, where if the critic comes in and they know it in the kitchen then there is nothing they can do. They are limited in that they cannot possibly produce any better food. They either do not have the ingredients on hand, or the skill, or whatever. What they do is what they do. I think that's true at most restaurants. But I think that many restaurants have aimed their food downward, primarily for economic reasons, and they are perfectly capable of producing better dishes. Mimi Sheraton loves to list the bizarre experiences she had when she was recognized. Extra shrimp in the shrimp cocktail, et cetera. They do all kinds of things. They take care. They make sure the meat or fish is not overcooked. They make sure it is salted properly, that the seasoning is right. In fact, one of the things Bryan Miller told me is that he had mentioned in one too many reviews that food had been undersalted. All of a sudden, when he was recognized in restaurants his food was always oversalted. So I think it can make a huge difference. I think anonymity is ideal. When I travel, I do not review restaurants. I recommend them to people. I go once. I try to correlate my visit with people locally and with reviews in print to make sure I am not going too far astray. I just say that you can get a good meal of this type at such-and-such a place. And usually, nobody has ever heard of me. I just go and I get a check and I'm a regular customer. But sometimes I am known. And then they do things and it is great! It's an experience everybody should have who can pull it off. They will send you out not just the four courses you ordered but also four other things that may or may not be on the menu. The chef will decide in what order to send things out because, presumably, she knows best. The chef will do things that are different from and indeed better than what everybody else is getting. Chefs can do that for critics. And why not? From the chef's point of view, it's a way to show your stuff. Even if you stick to the menu--that is, not giving away that the person has been recognized--I think that a true chef, somebody who has been properly trained, can always do stuff to impress the critics.

Steven Shaw: Let me digress for a moment to dwell further on the concept of a "preferred guest," and by that I mean not only food critics but also repeat customers. Preferential treatment for these people is a fact of life that angers many people. Some people refuse to go back to a certain restaurant because they see that other people receive extra courses and special treatment. It doesn't matter to them that their treatment was fine.

Ed Behr: Why should this anger people? The preferred customer who becomes a preferred customer by virtue of eating at a restaurant a lot has paid for this privilege. Why shouldn't this person get more for having spent more? I don't think that a restaurant should be a wooden thing where everybody follows the same path. All things aren't necessarily on the menu. The chef and the other cooks in the kitchen are presumably well trained, and if an omelet is not on the menu then a special customer should be able to order one. If he is a vegetarian and there is nothing vegetarian on the menu they can do something imaginative that will suit him. If he says, hey, that menu sounds really good but I would like some classic dish today with, maybe, a hollandaise on it, they should be able to whip it up out of the ingredients that any restaurant would normally have on hand. I have no problem with that.

Steven Shaw: Yet unequal treatment drives some people crazy. I have had people say to me that it is "downright un-American."

Ed Behr: What could be more American than the fact that money talks? What could be more American than getting what you pay for? Certainly, everybody should be made to feel well taken care of. I mean, the reason you go to a pricey restaurant is to feel taken care of. But that's not to say that some people should not get more for their money on a particular night because they are a regular customer and therefore they have put more into the exchequer. I think they should get better treatment. But I also think that if somebody says, hey, that's a special dish going by that's not on the menu, then he should be able to ask for it--and be charged for it. But maybe the regular customer is getting it for free that night. It seems to me to be a pretty clear economic relationship. Everybody should be made to feel comfortable, not excluded, but if you give away free stuff then that is your prerogative as a restaurant owner, especially if you think that's what is going to earn you more money in the long run. Why not give away some free meals or some free dishes?

Steven Shaw: Do you think a review should reflect only the experience of a first-time visitor or do you think there is also some value in hearing about the experience of a preferred customer?

Ed Behr: I think that a review should mainly reflect the experience of a first-time visitor but, if it's a restaurant such as Le Cirque 2000, then of course the review should talk about this phenomenon of the repeat customer, the celebrity customer.

Steven Shaw: What do you think are the relative merits of survey-type restaurant guides, such as Zagat, versus review-by-committee guides, such as Michelin, versus full-length reviews, such as the ones in the leading newspapers and food magazines?

Ed Behr: I think it's never as much fun to read the capsule reviews--and it is never fun at all to read the Michelin guide. But I sometimes prefer a short review to a long one. I don't need a long list of particular experiences of particular dishes. I don't need a long narrative in paragraph form. I just need to know some key dishes to order, if that's important, or a few things that excel about the restaurant. Or I need to know what kind of food the restaurant does in general. Is it fashionable, is it new, is it a particular cuisine? Is it traditional cuisine and, if so, how well is it executed? I need to know what the wine list is like. Expensive? Well-chosen? What areas of the world are emphasized? So I tend to go for the short reviews.

Steven Shaw: You're just as bad as all those people who don't like to read a lot!

Ed Behr: Well, okay, I do read the long reviews, too. I have to drive ten miles to get a New York Times but I usually get it on Wednesday and Friday and I always read the reviews. But I'm in Vermont. I'm reading the reviews as the culinary version of an armchair traveler. I'm reading those reviews for entertainment. But still, when I am really making a choice of where to eat, I want something short. I prefer, even, to talk to several people who know what they're talking about in the hopes that two of them agree. The Michelin guide is not very useful in that way. It only tells you what might be good enough and then you have to factor in what you think might be Michelin-type prejudices. But what I usually do is combine several guides and ask somebody if I can.

Steven Shaw: What do you think about the Zagat survey?

Ed Behr: It has all the defects of democracy. It's a poll. It's like an average. It's too smoothed out. They're voting and, in a way, that's good. I think that, when you take a poll, people are perhaps more often right than wrong. But I would only use Zagat as one of several guides. I would prefer to hear a little more in-depth from someone with one point of view. Preferably someone I trust, but not necessarily, as long as there is a predictable point of view. You can read a critic positively or negatively. You can say, as some people do, that you know you will dislike any wine that Robert Parker likes. That's still valuable information. It gives you a sense of how you are going to react to a restaurant. Zagat just doesn't give you that.

Steven Shaw: How do you feel about the conventional wisdom that "there's no debating matters of taste."

Ed Behr: I don't agree. I tend to think that people make too much of this business that "in matters of taste there's no dispute." There are more absolutes than people acknowledge. If everything is a matter of individual taste, then what are your standards? What's the point? How do you know that a restaurant is good? Just because you liked it? If you were going to open a restaurant, would you say to yourself, "In matters of taste, there's no dispute?" It makes very little sense to me.

A Few Personal Questions

Steven Shaw: We have been talking a lot about haute cuisine, gourmet ingredients and classic techniques. What do you think of simple foods like hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza?

Ed Behr: I like good hot dogs. I like them a lot. I certainly like a good hamburger, although that leads to the question of the declining quality of beef in this country. They have made it non-fatty and the cattle are slaughtered too young. They really have ruined the beef that used to be quite good even in the supermarket. But even a hamburger from the supermarket can still be enjoyable. Even bad hot dogs with lots of bad stuff in them can be likeable. It's just fat, salt and the casing, and I kind of like that. I like pizza, but I did an unfortunate thing which was to really educate myself about good pizza in Naples, which is where pizza comes from. So I used to be able to go to any old pizza joint and be fairly content, but now I can't. So I've become fairly picky about pizza.

Steven Shaw: Do you like any kinds of junk food or fast food, such as McDonald's?

Ed Behr: I grew up in a family where we really didn't go to fast-food places, and I didn't rebel by seeking them out. So I don't have a lot of experience of fast food. I think a fast-food hamburger with a pickle is not the worst thing in the world, but I have no secret vices of, say, candy bars. I remember once being on a bus full of food writers where somebody broke out a bag full of Mars bars and everybody just devoured them. They devoured them with outspoken pleasure. I was amazed because, when I've tried candy bars like that, they've had a very simple taste. To me, they taste one-dimensional.

Steven Shaw: What did you have for lunch today?

Ed Behr: I had really sharp, not-too-bad Vermont cheddar melted onto some of my own homemade bread.

Steven Shaw: Mr. Behr, thanks so much for your time. I'll finish this interview up by giving you the opportunity to say something nice about my Web site.

Ed Behr: Your Web site clearly is not in the category of Web sites that we have been talking about. It is clear. It has no commercial axe to grind. It's a pleasure to use, unlike so many. This is exactly what the Internet is perfect for--getting out a point of view that otherwise might not be disseminated. And you are one of the few people who is actually doing it.

Steven Shaw: Well, that's the nicest thing you could have said.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I subscribed to the publication for several years and, for the most part, enjoyed it very much because of Mr. Behr's skills as a writer and his commitment to the overall excellence of the endeavor. Later, probably around 2007, I thought I detected a decline in the quality of pieces contributed by other writers and, the following year, I wrote to Mr. Behr by email about my concerns. Proving he is a person with superior writing skills(and excellent tact), he responded in such a way that neither questioned my judgment nor cast any aspersions on the authors of the pieces I had critiqued in my email to him. As a result of his thoughtful response, I fully expected to continue my subscription at the next renewal date.

Four things changed my mind. First, the next issue never arrived at all. It may well have been a problem with the mail but I'll never know. Second, though the following issue did arrive, some of the text was missing from one of the articles due to editing neglect or printer's error. Third, another of the articles written by someone other than Mr. Behr was, I felt, not up to par(some of the dry prose mentioned by Chris, perhaps). Fourth, the cost of the publication was high. When I enjoyed everything from cover to cover, $12 per issue was reasonable, but when issues don't arrive at all or are missing text and when some of the writing is not enjoyable, the cost becomes too high. With great reluctance, I decided to let my subscription lapse. I miss it.

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  • 3 weeks later...

AoE is by far the best food magazine that I have ever read.

And the most expensive - bad enough for you Americans but a lot worse for us overseas subscribers.

I read just about every word although I sometimes flag when the subject matter delves into the utterly obscure.

Congratulations to EB on keeping it going without having to resort to taking adverts.

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Am interested in sucscribing or buying the book. But has anyone got an online sample of an article before I proceed?

“Do you not find that bacon, sausage, egg, chips, black pudding, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried bread and a cup of tea; is a meal in itself really?” Hovis Presley.

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  • 1 year later...

Also being a Brit, am wondering where I could buy just one issue in London, to trial it so to speak?

And on another point, how does Ed's magazine compare to Gastronomica? I'm subscribed to the latter and adore it. However, paying some £100 a year for two subscriptions may be just a bit indulgent. Which to choose?

The Gastronomical Me

Russo-Soviet food, voluptuous stories, fat and offal – from a Russian snuggled in the Big Old Smoke.

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Gastronomica and AofE are quite different, although both are "serious" food publications. AofE is very focused on quality of food, on how and where to find good food and a great deal about the people producing that good thing. Nothing is tangential to that. Ed Behr said in the interview that his goal is to support good food and traditional producers and that is clear in the magazine.

Gastonomica is much more diffuse, with a broader interest. All centering around food, of course, but not as focused.

I do have to take issue with the brief discussion about American food in the interview, however. While I'd agree that there are many improvements in what's available at the supermarket and the cooking in restaurants, the quality of home cooking I'd say has gone down. Women used to cook a lot and as a consequence many of them were pretty good cooks. Try to imagine a Clementine Paddleford today going around the country collecting local recipes as she did in the 50s -- her collection, while not "sophisticated", has some good solid eating in it. I fear the modern Clem would find pretty poor pickings.

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