This is an excerpt from Chapter I: Frommer’s Follies of Getting Naked for Money. As the chapter title suggests, most of the books I edited at Prentice Hall-Travel (PHT) were Frommer’s guides. But in my second year as an editor at PHT, 1987, I was given a series to work on that was new to the United States: Gault Millau guides that covered American cities.
It wasn’t until I was charged with shepherding the newly acquired Gault Millau guides to press that I was introduced to the art of food writing—and the craft of fact-checking.
Henri Gault and Christian Millau, journalists who met in the 1950s, collaborated on their first guide to Paris restaurants in 1962. Joined by the more business-oriented Andre Gayot in 1969, they began publishing European restaurant directories that rivaled Michelin in prestige and savvy but that were far more irreverent. They were also more inclusive in their definition of dining excellence. Credited with coining the term “nouvelle cuisine,” Gault Millau celebrated this lighter, more casual style of cooking, and touted the pleasure of tables beyond those in France and Italy–including Asia and the U.S.
In 1986, the French publisher contracted with Prentice Hall Travel to produce original guides to four American cities, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, using local researchers and writers to cover hotels, shops, and sights along with restaurants, which were the guides’ main draw. Although the books were coordinated for Gault Millau by a Los Angeles-based freelancer, Colleen Dunn Bates, much of the editing was done in New York–as it turned out, by me.
In her mid-20s and fresh faced, Colleen was the quintessential California girl, unpretentious and laid back, though she took the work very seriously. Colleen not only sketched out the weekly French connection scorecard, which shifted as Gayot family dynamics did, but she also helped familiarize me with the vocabulary of fine dining in the kindest possible way.
Even though I was several years older than Colleen and a native New Yorker, I wasn’t nearly as sophisticated about restaurants as Colleen was. I’d never been able to afford to eat at nice places and I hated to cook. But what I lacked in discernment, I made up for in enthusiasm. Dining out was not only a passion for me; it was a form of rebellion.
My parents, who fled the Holocaust from Vienna during World War II, didn’t strictly follow all the Jewish dietary rules—we didn’t have two sets of dishes, for example—but they didn’t eat pork or shellfish and didn’t mix milk and meat in a single meal. This was par for the course for most of the Brooklyn Jews I grew up with.
But there was a way our family differed from many others I knew: We never went out to eat.
I’m sure there were financial reasons. But I don’t think we were much—if at all–poorer than the families of friends who “went out for Chinese” once a week, even though they kept kosher at home. (This works on the same principle as “Whatever you eat while you are standing at the kitchen counter doesn’t have any calories.”)
The reason we never went out to eat was more tribal: You never knew what they put in the food. By “they” I don’t mean goyim. We didn’t go out for kosher deli either. I always got the sense that eating outside of our home was dangerous.
Everything changed in the sixth grade, when I met Julie Schwartz. Julie was not only pretty and well dressed, but she was exotic. For one thing, she was a twin. For another, she had a mother unlike the mothers of all my other friends. Mrs. Schwartz was stylish, a Jewish Audrey Hepburn (okay, maybe not so thin; let’s say Liz Taylor). Even more shocking, she was a divorcee in an era when women were expected to hold their marriages together, no matter what.
I was flattered that Julie wanted to be my friend. And when she invited me out to lunch at the Italian restaurant owned by her mother’s boyfriend—her mother had a boyfriend! he wasn’t Jewish!—there was no way I was going to turn down that invitation.
My mother, reluctantly, gave me permission to go, even though she had never met the dubious-because-divorced Mrs. Schwartz who was leading me into the frightening foreign land of Food Prepared by Strangers.
I was both excited and terrified when I found myself in what must have been a standard Brooklyn Italian restaurant, staring at a menu that could have been in Mandarin for all I could decipher of it. I had no idea what to order.
Mrs. Schwartz must have seen my discomfort—she was kind as well as sophisticated—so she offered to order for me. I gratefully accepted.
Then I heard her say to the waiter, “Veal parmigiana.”
I didn’t know much about Italian food, but I knew two things: Veal is meat and parmigiana is cheese. And I wasn’t supposed to be eating them together.
I was in a panic, questions flooding in. Was it going to taste horrible? Would I be able to finish the dish without throwing up and embarrassing myself? Or was I going to be sick later that afternoon, and have to confess what I had eaten to my mother so could she administer a cure? Would I then have to listen to endless “I told you sos” about the dangers of eating out?
You already know how this ends. The veal parmigiana was delicious. In fact, everything I ate was far tastier than any of the bland fare produced by my mother, who was strictly a duty cook. And, although I came home from lunch feeling full, I was far from sick.
My parents had deceived me.
And so, as soon as I could afford to go out with my friends, I indulged in all manner of forbidden foods: stealth cheeseburgers, on-the-the-sly shrimp cocktails, covert Cobb salads with bacon…. After I began to travel abroad and moved out of my parents’ home—my escape route was to get married at age 21—my tastes became more eclectic, and more openly traif. Still, my graduate school and entry-level publishing budgets didn’t permit dipping into anything that could be termed cuisine, either nouvelle or haute.
Enter the Gault Millau guides.
If my veal parmigiana epiphany first sparked my culinary interests, the Gault Millau guides fanned the flames. They also expanded my literary horizons. I don’t think I studied a single work of nonfiction in all my years of graduate school, not even so-called creative nonfiction–a fancy term for nonfiction that plays fast and loose with the facts. And I’d certainly never thought of food as a topic worthy of serious consideration. But the books I was editing were not only entertaining; they also drew upon a deep well of knowledge about all things culinary, from the history of individual dishes to the chefs’ former venues. I rarely long for the good old days, but in an era when sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor encourage everyone to be a dining critic, I miss the authority of smart, well-informed opinions.
And by well informed I also mean verifiably factual.
Because of a libel suit that had been brought against the company in late 1981 by the owner of Mr. Chow, an Upper East Side restaurant in Manhattan, Gault Millau was fastidious about the content of its reviews.
Among other things, the writer had claimed that Mr. Chow’s Peking duck pancakes were ”the size of a saucer and the thickness of a finger” and that ”sweet and sour pork contained more dough (badly cooked) than meat.” These and others dishes, he said, bore ”only the slightest relationship to the essential spirit of Chinese cuisine.” Owner Michael Chow turned to a Federal district court to seek compensatory and punitive damages, contending that ”the statements were published willfully and maliciously intending to defame and to injure and destroy” his business and reputation.
It was a landmark case. In a ruling that sent chills through reviewers of all stripe—not to mention defenders of the First Amendment, who argued that clearly exaggerated, overblown statements were traditionally considered privileged speech—Mr. Chow won a $20,005 libel judgment against Gault Millau in 1983. This jury verdict was overturned in 1985, when the judges unanimously ruled that “expressions of opinion are constitutionally protected,” but no one at Gault Millau wanted to go through the stress and expense of another court case. Writers and editors at PHT were given a long, detailed style sheet that stipulated what could or could not appear in a review.
As Colleen Bates recalls, “Gault Millau did not back down on being the funny and critical, but we did have rules. Basically it’s fine to give impressions and mocking metaphors, but the facts had to be scrupulously correct.” It was okay, for example, to say that a restaurant “smells like a school of fish died here last week,” but not to assert “the restaurant serves week-old fish.” Colleen adds, “We fact-checked everything, and I became a VERY heavy-handed editor…It was actually great training.”
Edward Guiliano, the dining writer for the New York book, knew the local restaurant scene. Darkly handsome and stylish, he went everywhere that was anywhere, a consequence of being married to Mireille Guiliano, spokeswoman for Champagne Veuve Clicquot; she later became President and CEO of Clicquot Inc. and wrote the best-selling Frenchwomen Don’t Get Fat. Edward loved to talk about all the trendy spots he frequented, and especially about how his home away from home was Le Cirque—still one of New York’s premier dining rooms and at the peak of its popularity then. It was the top-rated restaurant in the New York book, the only one to get a score of 19 out of 20 and four out of four toques (chef hats), in the rather odd double rating system that Gault Millau used.
I liked Edward, in spite of his pretensions and his tendency to treat me like the help; he was smart and funny, and I learned a lot about fine dining in New York from him (and my frequent consultations with LaRousse’s culinary encyclopedia for the unfamiliar terms he liked to throw around). And when, after much delay, the New York book was finally sent to press, Edward suggested we go any place I liked to celebrate. I chose Le Cirque.
In addition to wanting to eat in the highest-ranked restaurant in New York, I admit that also I wanted to see if Edward was really as cozy with Le Cirque owner Sirio Maccioni, chef Daniel Boulud, and all the other culinaratti as he claimed to be.
Edward seemed surprised at my request–I think he expected me to suggest something a bit more modest—but he agreed with good grace. And when we got to Le Cirque, everyone did indeed know Edward.
But I don’t think that’s why I was treated as well as I was. One of the reasons that Le Cirque garnered all the accolades it did was its wonderful service. No matter that I wouldn’t have recognized a fish knife had it swam across a finger bowl and hooked a Spanish anchovy; I was tended to, not condescended to, by the staff. The ability to make the most unsophisticated customer feel treasured became the standard for all my future evaluations of fine dining room service, even–especially–in big cities like New York, and even in these more casual times.
I don’t recall what I ate but I know food was wonderful too, beautifully presented and perfectly prepared. All in all, I had a wonderful evening, the best introduction to the world of fine dining I could have hoped for.
But for sheer surprise and delight, my dinner at Le Cirque couldn’t hold a candle to that first forbidden plate of veal parmigiana at a red-sauce Brooklyn Italian restaurant.
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