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March 30, 2010

Could This Be the Most Feared Food Critic in the World?

Le Figaro's François Simon relishes dishing out judgments that have the gastronomic elite boiling.

The great chefs don't like me," François Simon says over lunch one day, "and I don't want to be close to them either; friendship interferes with reviewing." We're sitting in a pseudotrendy Paris bistro called Harold— a silly place, in Simon's words—awaiting our order: suprême de volaille with purée for Simon, sesame tuna for me. He claims this medium-range restaurant represents his daily staple, and I find it a good place to watch him work. As food critic of the French daily Le Figaro for more than two decades, Simon has dispensed acerbic, witty writings in his Wednesday reviews and Saturday columns with a pen dipped in old-fashioned vinegar. It's an occupation that has crowned him France's most-feared food writer—and I was about to witness why.

"I start judging the minute I come in," he explains. "I pay attention to the details and color schemes, notice whether the cigarette smell is too strong, look at the bread in the basket." On our table the white buns have a stiff imprint that indicates industrial provenance. Not good, Simon tells me. He splits his bread in two and stuffs his nose inside, confirming his initial hunch. He observes the waitress, who flashes an encouraging smile as she hands over the menus.

"There is a direct line running from an unpleasant waitress to your digestive process," Simon continues. "There are exceptions, of course, but if your server is happy, it most likely means she or he has good relations with the boss. This extends, one hopes, to the rest of the atmosphere, to the rapport between the chef and the owner, to the produce choices of the kitchen."

Before our dishes arrive, Simon manages to spill his water on my lap. After apologizing, he actually admits he enjoys incidents like this. "Once a reviewer makes his presence known," he explains, "accidents never seem to happen and there is nothing by which to judge the place."

Our waitress rushes over to help. "The right move," Simon points out. He then begins to educate me on all the subtleties that contribute to a great meal besides the food and wine: the conversation of others seated nearby (charming or polluting), the choice of music playing in the background (deathly or uplifting). As another writer observed, Simon doesn't pay attention to just the meal, he thinks about what a restaurant should be.

In the country that invented the concept of the superstar chef—where cuisiniers appear regularly on television and have their likeness slapped on the labels of their own catered-food brands—Simon is viewed as more than irreverent. He is the enfant terrible of French culinary criticism. "A three-star crucifixion," he wrote after a meal at hallowed chef Guy Savoy's namesake restaurant. "A fake peasant [who is] a tad megalomaniac," he says of food-media darling Marc Veyrat, known for his floppy black hat and perfect twenty-twenty score in the Gault-Millau guide. Even a meal prepared by Pierre Gagnaire, whom Simon lauds for "taking extraordinary risks" and having "head-spinning talent," leaves him finding fault: Simon asserts that he walked out of Gagnaire's restaurant with a heavy stomach, feeling "like a distracted whale beached on some tepid seashore."

In person, though, Simon is not half as formidable as his critic persona would lead one to believe. With his tousled hair, hazel eyes, freckles, and wiry frame, he looks much younger than his fiftysomething years. He speaks softly, his hands tucked under his thighs. When he tries to slip into restaurants unnoticed, his trim physique and discretion prove helpful, along with alias credit cards and the occasional wig or fake moustache. The most famous chefs know him by now, but Simon feels the tricks are still worth it in new or lesser-known eateries.

"On any given night, in any restaurant kitchen, there are maybe seventeen excellent langoustines, twelve decent ones, and the rest less so," he explains. "If I'm recognized, I'll of course get the best ones."

To his detractors, Simon's masked-avenger image—boosted by his weekly show on the hip cable channel Paris Première, in which he visits an establishment with a hidden minicamera and proceeds to dissect the dishes—is compelling him to be purposely contrary. In one of his Figaro reviews, he advised going to a Chinese soup parlor instead of Alain Passard's prestigious L'Arpège, and he regularly takes potshots at the likes of Alain Ducasse, with whom he coauthored a book. "The bills at [Ducasse's] Plaza Athénée restaurant," Simon once wrote, "made Le Figaro's accountant's tooth enamel pop out."

In the United States, this kind of attitude is expected from serious reviewers. During her reign at The New York Times, critic Mimi Sheraton was famous for her many disguises, and most writers at other large newspapers and magazines get expense accounts to ensure they will never owe restaurateurs any favors. Not so in France.

"Simon's work is comparable to that of certain American journalists who have kept the independence so indispensable to food criticism," says pastry chef extraordinaire Pierre Hermé. "It's very rare to find that here."

To hear Simon tell it, the world of French haute cuisine is an old boys' network of friends extending patronage, with many critics receiving unofficial bribes for their glowing praise. Simon's writings have sometimes hinted at freemasonry, said to be particularly active among French chefs, and listening to him one might get the impression that la gastronomie has made him slightly paranoid.

"There are all these traps laid out for you to enter the grand house of food," Simon says. "But I'm outside of that house and I think that's where a critic should be." According to Michel Guérard, the three-star chef at Les Prés d'Eugénie and a devoted reader of Simon's columns, "he has the idiosyncrasy of being a food-world hermit. He never mixes with anyone; he always acts alone. He is unbuyable."

In 2003 Le Jardin des Sens chef Jacques Pourcel (then head of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Cuisine) and other cuisiniers accused Simon of causing Bernard Loiseau's death. Before the Côte d'Or chef died—he committed suicide after battling depression—Simon had written that Loiseau almost lost one of his three Michelin stars but could breathe a sigh of relief because he had managed, for that year at least, to keep it. Simon's foes seized the opportunity to blame him for the suicide. "Twice he has written that Loiseau was in danger of losing his third star," wrote Pourcel in a letter to the media. "What right does that dog have to amble into our establishments with a hidden camera?"

The incident, which Simon compares to "being run over by a truck," is now behind him and the frenzy has died down. Nevertheless, finding chefs to comment on the critic proved harder than baking a decent soufflé. Many declined to be interviewed. Savoy's caustic answer was "Who?" And when I made a call to the head of a prestigious Paris institution, all I got was a weary sigh from the man, who told me I hadn't picked the easiest subject. Then he hung up.

Though they are few, Simon does have colleagues who respect his integrity. Cooking icon Paul Bocuse, a regular reader of Simon's Saturday columns, believes the writings are "a very personal barometer" of what, how, and where to eat. Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, a friendly acquaintance of Simon, says, "François is kind of a devil's advocate, but I don't think he does it as a way of attracting attention. In a crowded field, he stands back, analyzes, and comments."

At our bistro, the main courses arrive and Simon confesses he suffered through a two-star gastronomic marathon the night before and is feeling full, later admitting he avoids going to the "greats" too often. He determines that our entrées are "standing up in their plates," an expression he coined meaning the dishes were prepared with attention to detail—"never a gratuitous fact." Indeed, we decide the meals are okay, especially since we're at a busy eatery, not Gagnaire. The moelleux au chocolat, on the other hand, is in an advanced stage of collapse before it reaches the table. Sure enough, it's pasty and uninteresting.

I find Simon surprisingly generous with his critique of the place. In my opinion, the bistro is rather unremarkable, not the sort of place you'd picture Simon enjoying very much. Yet, he says, "it all looks serious," which in his language translates to a positive review and clearly shows he has an open mind.

"There is such a thing as pretty mediocrity," Simon tells me, not referring specifically to this restaurant. "Sometimes the food isn't great and the wine is mediocre, but the atmosphere is authentic and it's difficult not to be charmed by it." A point worth putting in writing.


"Do stars still matter to the true gourmand?" asks François Simon

More interesting than the controversy surrounding the severity of his judgment is François Simon's take on the state of French cuisine. For years now he has harped on the idea that the country's true gourmands have moved away from dining at three-star restaurants to enjoying the food and atmosphere at simple bistros. Recent developments in Paris are beginning to prove him right.

The most exciting places in the city right now—and those hardest to book a reservation—are Yves Camdeborde's casual Le Comptoir du Relais, where prix fixe dinners for $50 are drawing raves, and Gaya par Pierre Gagnaire. Located in the Seventh Arrondissement, Gaya is devoted to fish and represents a more modest but very creative offshoot of Gagnaire's original namesake restaurant. Last fall the talk of the town was the eponymous restaurant Senderens, established on Place de la Madeleine, the site of Alain Senderens's former grand three-star Lucas Carton. It serves the excellent, intriguing dishes the chef is known for, but in a laid-back environment.

"At the grand restaurants," Simon explains, "the chefs are stressed out; you can see it in their plates. One can really do without such loftiness."

Simon faults the traditional guides' ratings system—such as the Michelin stars and the GaultMillau grades—for establishing a constraining pecking order and ultimately stifling creativity. He cites Guy Savoy as a case in point: His desire for three-star perfection can be felt the minute you walk through the doors of his eponymous restaurant; it's all too polished.

As a result, Simon spends a lot of time sniffing out little-known addresses in Paris as well as in the outer provinces. He even solicits readers' tips and feedback, printing his direct phone line at the bottom of his columns. Last year he wrote of going to Sens, Burgundy, because an unrelenting Air France steward had left a stream of endless messages about his favorite restaurant (a gem, as it turned out).

"There is a real gourmand life in France outside of the established order," Simon says. "People aren't stupid. They aren't fooled by la gastronomie."

In a recent column he struck an encouraging note. Trying to predict the future, Simon wrote of new female food icons coming onto the scene, of chefs who will cook at their restaurants instead of jetting around the world, and "who knows, maybe brasseries will make a formidable comeback." All this within the next four years.


Simon says: to dine or not to dine

Simon's favorite restaurant in the world is Fulvio Pierangelini's Gambero Rosso, in San Vincenzo, Tuscany (39-0565/701-021), on which he even based a novel, Toscane(s).

Among the "hundreds" that come afterward on his list, he enjoys the Parisian classic Chez Georges (1 Rue du Mail; 33-1/42-60-07-11) for its pavé with crispy frites.

He also raves about Yannick Alléno's two-star restaurant at Le Meurice (228 Rue de Rivoli; 33-1/44-58-10-55), a relative newcomer in the haute category, and praises the young creative team at two-star L'Astrance (4 Rue Beethoven; 33-1/40-50-84-40).

Off the beaten path, he recommends two bistros on Rue Paul Bert, Le Temps au Temps ($ No. 13; 33-1/43-79-63-40) and Bistrot Paul Bert ($ No. 18; 33-1/43-72-24-01), for their modest prices, welcoming ambience, and exceptional wine lists.

Of the many places Simon feels you can do without, two classics are worth mentioning: Paris's revered La Tour d'Argent, where he believes the acclaimed duck entrée is precooked, and the Saint-Germain bistro Allard, where he says the chicken is lousy and cut à la "chain-saw massacre." Simon also pans the highly praised Hiramatsu, which he considers "a comic illusion," as well as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Market—the waiters, Simon maintains, were offended when he ordered tap water.

ELISABETH FRANCK-DUMAS last wrote about Biarritz, France, and the French ritual of thalassotherapie for the January/February issue.

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