Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Celebrity Chefs, Starf*cking, Name-Chasing and Other Unnatural Phenomena

I hate celebrity chefs.  More accurately, I hate celebrity chef-dom, and all the symptoms and pathologies which mark this insidious contagion.  Where do I start?  How about the industry shindigs where folks break their arms patting themselves on the back?  Or cynical marketing based on the individual's fame rather than the culinary merit which won that fame in the first place (a certain "integrated resort" and its so-called "celebrity restaurants" come to mind).  Four-hand dinners?  More like one-hand dinners, they are such a wank.  And so on...

But as a consumer advocate, the one thing I hate most is what it represents, and the fundamentally empty promise it makes to diners.  The promise is that you get the experience associated with the person / brand, which is completely and utterly wrong.  Different ingredients are available in each country, as are wines, staff both in the kitchen and the front-of-house come from an entirely different country, with a whole different (often inferior) training and background.  In some cases, the brand has become so diverse and diluted, we aren't even sure anymore what it stands for, beyond some vague assurance that "Mr Ramsay wouldn't put his name to it if it was bad".

Even assuming you visit while the "celebrity chef" is doing a stint, he is held back by these same limitations, which is generally why I don't bother anymore with visiting chef promotions.  It is not far short of a legalised fraud, to which our witless bloggerati and what is left of the pay-to-view lifestyle media play willing accomplice.

What inspired this post was learning, over my morning bowl of cornflakes, that Ma Cuisine, that dear, family-run eatery in Beaune centre-ville, was opening a branch in Singapore.  Ma Cuisine!  Singapore!  In a shophouse in Craig Road, no less!

To those of you unfamiliar with Ma Cuisine, it is an unassuming little 30-seater restaurant specialising in classic regional dishes.  I have been there, most recently twice in one week during my 2011 visit to Burgundy.  Its food is good, authentic and satisfying, the kind of rich, homely cooking which soaks up the alcohol after a day tasting in the wine villages, or soothes your aching bones and muscles after long hours of toil in the vineyards and the cellar.  And no disrespect towards the admirable cook and co-owner Fabienne Escoffier, it is not the kind of food that will rock your world, or cause you to consider writing in to Michelin asking why it has not yet been graced with a star.

So why did I go back for a second visit?  I love the vibe, a mix of wine-nerd tourists and winemakers.  I love the gigantic wine list, presided over by Fabienne's husband Pierre.  I love the warm welcome the family extends to visitors, and the thoroughly old-fashioned, humblebrag-gy way the rustic tartes and crèmes brûlées are laid out on a corner table for sugar-junkies like me to gape at, a constant evening-long reminder to save some room for dessert.  It is, without any exaggeration on my part, a place most dear to the heart of many Burgundy winelovers, gastronomes and locals.

Do they have any reasonable prospect of replicating that winning formula here?  Nope.  Why?  First of all, the wines.  On our first visit, Emily and I visited with our travelling companion and long-time friend Mizz Lizz, who is a bit wine-crazy.  After a 24-minute perusal of the wine list (I timed it), her finger alighted gently on a 1967 Volnay from the negociant Remoissenet, a relative bargain at 130 euros.  On our second visit, back with Mizz Lizz and as a big thank you to the friendly winemaker who hosted us throughout the week, we opted for a 2006 Armand Rousseau Chambertin, at the relatively bargain basement price of 300 euros (it retails now for $1,500).  

Now any Singaporean restaurant that sells a perfectly aged 1967 Volnay for 130 euros, or Rousseau Chambertin for anywhere near 300 euros, is going to shut its doors down pretty damn quick because they frankly would not have any idea what they are doing.  Kiasu Singaporeans would pick the gems out of the wine list faster and more cleanly than Lord Elgin nicked his Marbles.  And after their limited supply of old and rare wine has been exhausted, it would be back to Cloudy Bay (or more likely, Louis Jadot at the inflated local importer's mark-up).

And there's my point.  A huge part of Ma Cuisine's charm is working through the wine list and trying to find what is old and rare, what is good, what is cheap, preferably all three at once.  In this market, with its rapacious and acquisitive wine culture, that will be a virtual impossibility.  The restaurant will, purely as a defensive / stock preservation measure, need to price its rare, aged wines in line with market, which immediately makes it a rich man's play, and contrary to the cheerfully egalitarian spirit that made Ma Cuisine tick in the first place.

Second, the welcome.  Now I can only presume that after a short spell at Saint Pierre, Pierre and Fabienne's son Mathieu is going to be running the kitchen, which is a very positive start.  But short of Pierre and/or Fabienne coming out to say bonsoir, a prized element will not be present.  Far more likely, you will get a "foreign talent" going through the motions, with no passion for the job, no feeling for the restaurant and what it represents, just looking forward to his or her pay packet at the end of the fortnight.  I really hope this isn't the case, but will they be prepared to bulk out the payroll for quality, assuming they can even find someone who fits the brief?

Third, the vibe.  Duh.  There simply aren't enough wine-loving American tourists and Burgundian winemakers in Singapore to properly replicate the atmosphere.  OK, I jest.  But just fill the place with local wine nerds (with the usual sexist, borderline misogynistic tropes of "if this wine was a woman, it would be...",) and see what you get.  Thanks but no thanks.

Now I don't want this to sound like a diatribe against Ma Cuisine, because it isn't meant to be.  I have a genuinely fond recollection of my experiences there and I sincerely wish the Escoffiers the very best.  But for me, Ma Cuisine is a product of its circumstances: its location, its history, the local climate, the region and its culture.  It is incredibly successful because of that.  Ma Cuisine, like other unique dining experiences (Paul Bocuse comes to mind), should be a stop on a culinary pilgrimage, not a leisurely ten-minute stroll from Outram Park MRT.  We should not need, or want, anything like it here.

I discussed this with a friend, who suggested that "it's for the less fortunate who can't afford such pilgrimages".  OK, fair enough, but you need to accept that it isn't going to be anything remotely approaching the real thing.  If Escoffier fils wants to stay open and make money, it can't be.  All you will get is the name, not the real experience you would get in Beaune, which is of course what I started bitching about at the start of this post.

It is this need for branding, the promise of brand values, and the inevitability of broken promises, which always disappoints diners.  The fact that a highly competent cook like Mathieu Escoffier feels he needs this brand support says a lot about the current marketing-driven dining scene.  It is what makes me appreciate all the more the eccentric dreamers like Ivan Brehm, who frankly don't give a shit what you and I think, but who manage to continue creating incredibly original and delicious food.  Incidentally, I will be visiting Brehm's Nouri in a few weeks (paying, of course) and will report in due course.

Now there are many other offenders who guilty of the same crimes.  I don't want to name names, because this post would otherwise descend into an endless morass of public shaming and oppobrium.  But this is the curse of our competitive dining scene, in which new players, chasing the limited and elusive dining dollar, are introducing derivative concepts completely ignorant of the context which made these concepts successful in the first place.

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