When I was a young up and comer in the kitchens of Manhattan, the one person whose opinion mattered more than anyone else to me was Mimi Sheraton, then the restaurant critic for the New York Times. There was no food network, blogs, or yelp. There was only Mimi. She awarded the stars, no one else. If she awarded you a star, or two, it was because you earned it and proved your worth under her very demanding criteria. She was not impressed by fame or flashy decor. To earn her praise you had to be a serious professional schooled in the traditional techniques and you had to do something new with those skills.
If she panned your restaurant you folded up shop and switched careers. That was that. We respected that. We admired, and feared her because she was so educated in what she did. She earned degrees in journalism at NYU, and studied cooking and cuisine all over the world. She is a gourmand, an anthropologist, and above all a writer who can describe why something is good, or why something has failed. Ms Sheraton set the standards that I still observe in my restaurant, and that I still demand from my staff.
Soon after Sheraton left her post Bryan Miller, himself an experienced chef, took over as the New York Times Restaurant Critic and went on to have the longest tenure at that post. He enforced the star system rigorously and understood its importance. I was working for Francesco Antonucci at Alo Alo when Miller gave him three stars. That morning hundreds of people lined up at the door to taste what had been canonized. They did not come to challenge, or to critique, or to yelp, and blog. The critic had already spoken and now they came to enjoy. Antonucci tried to play it cool. But I could tell, he had the look of a man who was in the same fraternity as Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. The feeling of an unimpeachable success. Not even a chefs insecurity could dissolve the validity of his talent that was proven by THREE FUCKING STARS from the New York Times.
Here in Los Angeles we have the best food writers in the world, one of whom has received their validation. But we also live in a world of Yelp, a place where every person feels their restaurant review is important, despite their lack of education, in the culinary arts, or writing, We now have people like Candace R. who writes of us on yelp: ”
Honestly, Ba is trying just a little too hard. Don’t put a fancy restaurant in Highland Park. Quit trying to think you cram such a small place into a restaurant and make it worth it. I will not be returning unfortunately.” In her defense the Ba wine list is notorious for inspiring regrettable phone calls and e-mails. In my defense Candace gave The Cheesecake Factory five stars. But the truth is, this kind of negativity really hurts, emotionally and financially. We insist that cooking be left to the professionals, so it is not a stretch to suggest that writing too should be as well. We have been serving for over six months now and I think we are getting good at it. We anxiously await our first review, and good or bad we will accept it. We hope that you base your judgement of us on the words of a highly educated and experienced professional food writer, not the words of Candace R.