Adam Gopnik on food writing, 2005

Emphasis mine

[Bernard] Loiseau suffered throughout his life from a too-late-identified bipolar disorder, a syndrome that ought to be known by its old French name, folie circulaire. It’s a syndrome that can strike truck drivers and Zen monks as easily as cooks, so any general principles should be taken with caution. Still, Loiseau, if not typical, is in many ways exemplary of the chef’s dilemma.

He was a member of perhaps the last generation of artists who were true to an ideal and a practice that had begun in the nineteenth century. He learned to cook as an intern in the kitchen of the Frères Troisgros, near Lyon, where he mastered the terrifying discipline by chopping onions and filleting fish for twelve hours a day; he even learned to kill frogs by slapping their heads casually against the kitchen table. The Troisgros kitchen opened every door in those days, and in the early seventies Loiseau, with almost no other apprenticeship, made a name for himself, doing simple country cooking at a glorified bistro just outside Paris. He was financed by a shrewd promoter named Claude Verger, who saw that elemental food could be popular and still presented to the critics as something new: a variant of the new cooking, or nouvelle cuisine.

That it was simple and not genuinely new does not mean that it was without value; no one had been cooking that way with passion or conviction for a while. Calling plain cooking high cooking was in itself a radical act. Loiseau became a star, and, with money advanced by Verger, he bought La Côte d’Or, a famous old restaurant in the Burgundy town of Saulieu. In the dense, deep-eating days of gratins and casseroles, the place had held three stars in the Michelin Red Guide; by sheer effort, Loiseau built it back up, and the reader cheers with him when he finally gets his three stars, in 1991.

The trouble was that there was no reason to go to Saulieu except to eat, and this made Loiseau particularly, even uniquely, vulnerable to the Guide and its system of stars and inspectors. The Guide no longer had an easy or organic relation to French cooking. The Red Guide grew up with the automobile, and with the idea of the long journey away from Paris that required several stops for lunches and dinners. By the nineteen-eighties, though, the new autoroutes and the high-speed trains (and the planes, racing over) had reduced the need for road stops. The Michelin inspectors, gloomy middle-aged men eating alone, used to be indistinguishable from the other gloomy middle-aged men eating alone, and their stars were a kind of summary of the opinions of all those tired travelling professionals. Now all that’s left of this once self-evident system is the inspectors, dining alone and passing out stars. People do not drive by the restaurant and stop to eat; they drive to the restaurant and stop for a three-star meal. To be a destination is a difficult trade: it is nice to run a place where the food, in the famous phrase, is worth a journey, hard to keep it going when the only reason anyone makes the journey is to eat the food.

Loiseau was terrified of losing his stars, particularly when François Simon, of Le Figaro, hinted that La Côte d’Or was on its way down. The chef may have been paranoid in this, but he was hardly alone. All artists in all fields despise all critics all the time. (They may like the individual critic, but they despise his conviction that he has a right to criticize.) Still, there are levels of loathing, as there are circles in Hell. Writers at least recognize that the critic is a writer, and shares a table, if not an agent. Magicians, on the extreme edge, despair of those outside their circle ever knowing the difference between a trick that anyone can buy for six dollars and sleight of hand that only two people have learned in six years. Chefs are close to magicians in their certainty that their critics cannot tell the difference between something that takes time, thought, and talent and something that dazzles only by surprise, perversity, and snob appeal. But, even more than magicians, chefs depend on the good opinion of those whose opinions they cannot think are worth having—and the nature of Loiseau’s cooking left him open to the exhaustion of critics.

Chelminski points out that food critics are even more inclined than other kinds to fatigue. Most food critics are sick of eating rich, expensive food and will do almost anything to have something new; a perfectly prepared veal chop (one of Loiseau’s elemental specialties) first gets a smile, and then a yawn. But Loiseau, his biographer admits, was at an edge of simplicity so extreme that it hinted at innocence. (Chelminski suggests that Loiseau’s training was short on fundamentals; he was notorious among his staff for being unable to make even basic sauces.) Famous for the purity of his approach, Loiseau deglazed his pans with water instead of wine or even stock. It was admirably minimal, but it also tended to be oddly ascetic and depressing; the elemental and the elegant are sisters, but not twins. Loiseau had no hesitation about publishing a recipe for John Dory served with a purée made of boiled celery. (It seems so simple that one is convinced that it must be mysteriously great; I have made it, and it tastes like fish with boiled celery purée.)