Lunching In Paris With An Haute Cuisine 'Food Spy'

For the series 'Cook Me,' journalist Elvire von Bardeleben shared a table with Marianne Lecerf and Côme de Chérisey from the French restaurant guide Gault & Millau.

Eating at Paris' La Condesa
Elvire von Bardeleben

PARIS — We were supposed to be meeting a certain Gilles, known in world of gastronomy as "the finest palate of France." But instead we find ourselves face-to-face with a young blonde woman. "Hello, I'm Marianne. Gilles has been stuck in bed for 10 days after drinking some organic cider that wasn't very fresh."

Marianna Lecerf is the head of international coordination at the French restaurant guide and rating company Gault & Millau. As she explains her career as a former critic who now trains the teams, her boss, Côme de Chérisey — the Gault & Millau president, owner and editor-in-chief — arrives. It is he who chose to lunch at La Condesa, a restaurant in Paris' 9th arrondissement owned by Indra Carrillo, a Mexican chef that Gault & Millau elected as "the young talent of 2018."

As usual, Côme de Chérisey orders the full menu (seven courses, at 78 euros) for the whole table, and begins to educate us on the philosophy of the guide that he bought out in 2016. This allows him to shoot off a few casual zingers: "We're a little club for challengers," he says. "We have a very humble approach, unlike our brothers, who take themselves a bit too seriously." Take that Michelin. And Le Fooding? "Very hipster," De Chérisey proclaims. "More interested in fashion than flavor."

A critic must have the general culture necessary to put dishes in their context.

Suddenly, we're served a tofu espuma with a roasted tomato sorbet swimming inside, and a pine nut crumble. "Wow!" we say as we taste it. "It's gourmet without being fatty," Marianne Lecerf comments. "The contrast between the ice cream and the espuma, the sweet and the savory, the power of the spice and the softness of the tofu is magnificent."

The following starter, beets, is less convincing to her. "It reminds me of something," she says. She unsheathes her telephone and flips through a few hundred photos of feasts taken at Guy Savoy, Jean-François Piège and Yannick Alléno in Paris, but also in Vienna, Romania, and Japan. Finally she comes across the cliché of a plate of beets from Mirazur in Menton, where she was last summer. The resemblance is striking.

"Mauro Colagreco, the chef, told me he was inspired by Alain Passar," she says. "There are dishes like this that aren't focused. A critic must have the general culture necessary to put them in their context. It's the chef's job to predict that! "

Mysterious dish at La Condesa — Photo: La Condesa Paris/Facebook

As we dig into the cuttlefish and zucchini taglioni, Lecerf explains how she disguised herself when she was a very young critic: She'd pretend to be a student, taking a large philosophy book to the restaurant that she'd "annotate" as she wrote her impressions of the meal. "But like any 20-year-old girl alone at a table, that drew attention. I would sometime bring my father, who was there in secret."

De Chérisey, for his part, says that being a critic is a bit like being a secret agent. "It's rewarding," he says. "But you can't tell all your friends." He's interrupted by arrival of the cod, enveloped in a banana leaf. Lecerf immediately notices the temperature, a bit too on-the-line. "He should have kept cooking it in the leaf," she says. "It's the chef's job to predict that!"

The same dish arrives at the table of the Americans next to us; as one removes the leaf that hides the fish, so to speak, he explains, delighted, "Here comes the bride!"

I'd compare gastronomy with an almost tantric experience.

When he serves us, the chef seems a bit intimidated. Is this because of the presence of the guide-book boss? "Certain chefs don't care at all about seeing me," De Chérisey explains. "Others panic and start doing whatever, like adding a lobster tail to the plate." For the critics who write for him, though, it's absolutely necessary that they remain anonymous, he adds. "If the server smells like sweat and has dirty nails, we want to know."

So is being a critic not as fabulous as it sounds? "I'd compare gastronomy with an almost tantric experience…a long meal makes pleasure last," De Chérisey​ erupts before calming down. "But hey, going from restaurant to restaurant in Arras or Evreux to find one that's worth it isn't very exciting. It's ultimately exhausting for the body to eat so much."

Lecerf says that when she's home, she fasts. "And I always have a pair of sneakers in my car trunk to exercise whenever I can," she adds while digging into a fresh pineapple, red pepper, and coconut espuma desert.

Being a critic is perhaps a vocation. Accompanying a critic, though. That, I can say, is just pure pleasure.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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