I read the latest Michelin scandal (a Benelux countries restaurant was awarded a "bib gourmand" before it had even opened) exposing what everyone knows anyway. Backscratching and glad-handing will get you a hell of a lot farther than than anything else. The myth of the dedicated, solitary craftsman cooking purely out of love and respect for the ingredients is just that. Because no one ever hears about those people. They're too busy cooking to work the PR angle.
Before you get the idea I'm trying to posit the idea that I embody the craftsman you don't know about, back up. I spent yesterday morning cooking for the press, including the LA Times food editor, a semi-local wine radio personality (for whom we scrambled and pulled strings to get a comped room at a local B & B), two cookbook authors and the PR arm of a county promotional organization. I will spend most of today in the same company, with the addition of a celebrity chef/author and a columnist from the SF Chronicle.
Am I hungry for notoriety ? In a sense, yes. I wouldn't be blogging if I didn't want my voice to be heard. I dress essentially in costume, or as Liberace would put it, " go ahead, look. I'm not dressed this way to not be noticed." I'm active in community events and promotional efforts and try to put on events at the restaurant which are different from others, like our dinner with the circus to celebrate our anniversary.
When I was younger I suppose this stance was a natural outgrowth of my hippie upbringing. Being raised on the fringe made me embrace and accentuate the aspects of my character which were at odds with "normal" society. As I grew older it became a point of pride to show that a punk rocker could have manners and escort old ladies across the street. Now, I'm trying to turn the stance to a different form of marketing. That is, one which makes me a living.
The Michelin scandal is more blatant in the publications here, which are obviously ad-driven and seemingly directed by PR firms. I started this blog to be able to give voice to things I couldn't say publicly in my small town, like how many of the restaurants that get a good amount of press here are mediocre at best. Not necessarily in a mud-slinging sense but in a incredulous sense.
Case in point. Some months ago I went to Quince in SF. Yes, the one Gourmet, and every other food & wine publication getting heaps of accolades. Service was terrible. I dined alone, the waiter removed the chair and setting from the empty place and I sat. And sat. And sat. Finally another waiter came over and asked if I wanted something to drink. I told him I was ready to order, he ran over and had a hurried conversation with the original waiter who had removed the setting and chair (I had assumed he was a busser). The original waiter returned, apologized and said he had assumed I was waiting for someone. Then why the hell had he removed the extra setting and chair 15 plus minutes before ? The food came and was OK. Not bad, but if that's what getting touted nationally, then many of the cooks I know should be household names. Waiter checks in with me and another table, using the exact same rote language, and paying no attention to the response. Check arrives (after of course sitting forever and making the annoying "holding the notebook and signing"sign to signal I'd like to be on my way) and it's for a party of five. This gets resolved and I leave feeling ripped off. Because I believed the press.
Granted, any place can have a bad night. I certainly have them. But you can tell when something is the norm. And this was the case at Quince. It's an average SF restaurant that hired the right firm.
Not to say don't trust the press. Guidebooks and reviews have their place. We've used Patricia Unterman's Food Lover's Guide to SF as a fairly reliable source. But only after a few experiences and realizing we (in general) trust her palate.
Fortunately, we have great word of mouth. Most new visitors to our place we talk with say they polled a number of local people and we were the unanimous choice. Guess all that glad-handing is working.