Letter of the Month – So You Want to be a Food Writer…

Anton Ego and Jesse Eisenberg: some notes on the presumed objectivity of critics | MZS | Roger Ebert

Ed. note: Every week we get e-mails, DMs, texts, etc. asking for our favorite (fill in the blank) __________, steakhouse, sushi, dim sum parlor, high falutin’ French, you name it. We’re always happy to send advice along, but none of those make us think the way Jessica recently did:

Dear Mr. Curtas,

For the last 10 years I have followed your works. Dreaming of the indulgent, and exquisite food you have been blessed to eat. Now, at just shy of 30 years old; I have finally decided on a career change. From being the youngest person in the state of Indiana to get my cosmetology license. To then being a stay at home mother. I have finally decided,  after decades of loving food, cooking and eating. I want to write about, and share my food experiences, like yourself.
 After doing research on how to start, it seems quite daunting.
At this point you must be wondering why I am even bothering you. I would like to ask your advice. What is a good way to start out in the field? Should I go straight to social media? Should I be blogging? Should I make Tic Tok and YouTube videos? Do I need a shtick  (like I only eat at certain types of places)? Any advice you are willing to bestow upon me, would be more then welcomed!
Sincerely,
Jessica
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Dear Jessica,
I’m going to give you two answers – one short (sort of) and probably along the lines you are looking for, and the other, another in a long line of my logorrheic lamentations on my alimentary ascriptions.
Answer #1:
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The first thing I would coach you to do is look around and then look inward. What are you really passionate about? Is it cooking? Eating out? Do you love something about your family’s food history that you’ve always wanted to share with others? Do you have family recipes you are proud of? Are you an avid baker? Does the thought of hunting down a great food truck quicken your pulse? Or do you dream of gourmet meals in dressed up settings?
This is a long way of saying yes, to get followers and be successful at this (however you define success) you will need a point of view and a shtick….but that shtick should always be an extension of who you are.
Then, I would look around where I live and check out who is covering the food scene. Check local magazines. Google local food bloggers. Check out TikTok and Instagram and see who is posting a lot in your area. And podcasting. Hell, even check out “elite Yelpers” and find out what they’re talking about.
Like any worthwhile endeavor, you have to start small. The greatest chef began making bread at his grandmother’s knee. The Hall of Fame ballplayer was once in Little League. Search for a niche in an area you love and see what unique voice you could bring to the subject.
Define what is special about your love of food and approach it from that angle. Use others for inspiration but try to find what makes your love of food unique to you and then figure out the best way to share it with others.
As for social media, I’m all for it, even if, for writers like me, its explosion has been more akin to what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. TikTok is for youngsters (sort of) and those with the time (and skill) to produce short videos. Nothing against gloppy cheese pulls and humongous tacos, but there’s a gazillion TikTokkers and YouTubers out with whom you will be competing. Distinguishing yourself is going to be mighty hard. But if videos are your thing (and for those under 40, they seem to be), have at it. The learning curve isn’t that steep, but you have to do whatever you do consistently. The food landscape is littered with people who wanted to blog, or podcast, or post about food on some site, and then flamed out after a few months. The only way to build a following is to be a constant presence on whatever venue you choose, and hope that word of mouth increases your visibility.
Instagram is simpler, and becoming easier (either for still photos or videos), with the added bonus of now being more realistic and less concerned with professionally-polished content. As a recent article in Eater put it:
“The things that I see in photos now are really more of that photo dump style,” says Maggie. “It’s less of the perfectly curated marble studio and more interest in my actual kitchen that I actually cooked in.”
All of which bodes well for klutzy amateur food photogs like us, who simply want to get people excited about the foods we love.
To summarize: Find a shtick you love and shtick with it. Pick your platform and go nuts. But always be yourself.
If you truly want to write about food, the climb is much steeper and the audience much smaller, as you can read below…
Answer #2:
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(Let’s discuss our days as a galloping gourmet)
Before I begin doling out the infallible, inspiring, and unerringly erudite advice for which I am known, let me begin by noting that the landscape has changed dramatically since I began my career in food, no more so than in the past decade. The following is a much longer overview of my food writing trajectory (over ground which has been plowed before), to give you a little history on the subject of food writing, and perhaps some guidance.
I do not know how well you write or how much you intend to do it. I used to say that to be a good food writer you had to cook a lot, eat a lot, travel a lot and read a lot. The past ten years have relentlessly, systematically dismantled each of those (supposed) pillars of knowledge. Now, all you have to do now is know how to manage a social media account, none of which have anything to do with the written word. Cooking knowledge, eating adventures, and traveling experiences have also taken a hit, since with the swipe of a finger, a person can sound like they know all about Hong Kong dim sum parlors, or the best pastrami in New York.
Back in the Late Cretaceous period, you had to put in the work. Now, all you have to do is…
Fake It Till You Make It Emily GIF - Fake It Till You Make It Emily Emily In Paris - Discover & Share GIFs
(No passport? No problem.)
….which seems to be the motto of your generation (sorry).
Writing is rapidly becoming a lost art, right down there with toad doctors and drysalters, Though it may be an endangered species, for forty years of my life, the written word was the only way to communicate about food. In cooking, home cooks used to have to decipher impenetrable prose to learn a recipe from a printed page. This was how people were taught for over a century. Now, you can learn everything from mille feuille (puff pastry) to how to butcher a whole pig from a YouTube video.
Writing is hard. A real pain in the ass. (The classic saying is: writers hate writing but love having written.) Writing is its own reward, but you have to be driven to do it, and do it all the time. You can no more be an occasional writer (about food or anything else) anymore than you can be a good part-time violinist.
If you want to write about food, it helps immensely to be a good writer first. One can learn to write well, but as with music and sports, it helps to have a facility for it, and to start young. I knew I could write about food before I ever started doing it. I knew it in the way a good athlete knows from the beginning that they can play their sport. But as with golf (my favorite sport), even if you’re good, you have to keep at it, and even with constant practice, it can be frustrating.
Reading and writing are exponentially harder than talking and listening, which is why there are 2.4 million podcasts out there, and also why so much food media has taken to visual and spoken word platforms. Posting videos beats the pants off of slaving away for hours at a keyboard trying to think of entertaining ways to describe a dish or a meal. This is not to say producing YouTube content or podcasting is easy, but it ain’t as hard as churning out a thousand entertaining words about a restaurant.
Precious few people now want to read about food anymore than people want to write about it. The internet has created a race to the bottom, with both media and customers feeding off each other (PUN. INTENDED!) by demanding less and less in the form of thoughtful content — the triumph of unbridled narcissism over gastronomic rumination.

Well That Didnt Go Well Julia Child GIF - Well That Didnt Go Well Julia Child Julia GIFs(Mr. Curtas’s less-than egg-cellent TV career hit a snag when they discovered he had a face made for radio)

In the beginning, there was nothing insidious about social media platforms. They were convenient and free and immediately brought millions into the world of good food, nutrition, and better eating. In the space of this century they made more knowledgeable consumers out of an entire generation. I called this the Age of the Blogs (2002-2012) and what others have called the “good internet” or the Golden Age of the Internet — when people sought out websites and in-depth information about everything from pizza to politics.

Once Facebook took off though (around 2010), followed in short order by Instagram (in 2014 ) most blogs got plowed under by the sheer mass of two sites where everyone could get their news, info, pictures, and friends without ever having to leave a web page (cf. search engine optimization).

The rise of social media further combined to (almost) obliterate the mainstream food media where I made my reputation. Ten years ago, you could find me all over old school venues and some social media. Now it is just the opposite. I made my name by writing — first with radio commentaries (about food and restaurants), and later in print periodicals, which led to this website, TV appearances and eventually to my book (shameless plug alert!): EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants…
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The big national food magazines now exist only as a memory. Most local periodicals have either thrown in the towel, or gone completely to the free internet (with content that appeals to those with the attention span of a housefly). Food TV (what is left of it) has been reduced to ridiculous competition cooking shows. What has been buried under this avalanche of information are pearls of  wisdom. (MIX! THAT! METAPHOR!) Expertise is no longer valued. Now people want short, sweet and sexy — easy-to-digest info better at grabbing attention than making you think.
It is into this world you will step, Jessica:.
Tomato food pizza GIF on GIFER - by Feloril
Thus is the food media world now paradoxically saturated with content and starving for substance. Most media is either pay-to-play (advertorials disguised as journalism), or the kind of “influencer” nonsense (pretty pictures and gooey videos) designed to advertise to Yelpers.  Getting paid to write anymore is a pipe dream. The few of us who still get freelance gigs are doing it for peanuts. The number of food writers in America who actually draw a salary they can live on would probably fit around my dining room table. The days of Anton Ego are long gone.
So, whatever you do, dear Jessica, do it for yourself and no one else. The best a young person can hope to do in this climate is to develop an audience through social media, and then cultivate some kind of content-creating gig that will pay enough to subsidize your culinary appetites. But keep in mind, you will never be good at what you do, if you are only doing it for the clicks, or the $$$, or  the free food.
Final Thoughts:
Best Anton Ego GIFs | Gfycat
In his excellent essay on the essence of criticism, H. D. Miller writes:
Anton Ego has a pure soul. He is someone who cares only and exclusively about art (in this case cookery). He knows what is good and suffers enormously from what is bad. This is close to what I mean by “critical sense”, that the critic knows, deeply knows, the difference between what is good and what is not and is emotionally affected by it.
The job of a good critic is to educate, not simply appeal to the lowest common denominator. You must be in love with what you are writing about, and you should want to relentlessly share you passion with others. Without that level of emotional commitment, you will most certainly fail. With it, you will always find the devotion to keep going, no matter how large or small your audience.
I have always written for me, or someone like me. Every word — going back to my first radio scripts of 1994 — has been aimed at an avid home cook with an insatiable love of restaurants, travel, food and drink. I write for someone who gets as excited by a good cheeseburger as they do about a life-changing gourmet meal. Most of all, I have written for that person who wants to eat the best food, in the most authentic places, wherever they find themselves. Who wants to know why this taco is better than that taco, or why some famous chef isn’t worth your time or money, while some unknown cook, slaving to make the rent, is worth a trip — sometimes across town, sometimes across an ocean.
This is the best advice I can give you: think about who you are and what you love. Write, blog, podcast or produce something in whatever format for the person you are, and for an imaginary person just like you, who gets as excited as you do about whatever it is you are talking about. Do that and you will find an audience who appreciates you for all the right reasons, no matter what its size.
Best and bon appétit,
John Curtas
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Free Man In Paris

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I was a free man in Paris

I felt unfettered and alive

There was nobody calling me up for favors

And no one’s future to decide Joni Mitchell

American writers have been rhapsodizing about Paris since Ben Franklin’s powdered wig was peeking down some bustier. There’s not much I can add — literary-wise — to the musings of everyone from Henry James to Ernest Hemingway, but I can share a few pointers on what to see and where to eat, along with some musings of my own about what makes the City of Light so compelling, one-hundred years after Ernest & Friends fell in love with it.

The culture of Paris insinuates itself into your soul if you let it. Americans love to talk of snooty Frenchmen and various un-pleasantries, but those are the carpings of the intentionally uncomfortable — the sorts who arrive in any foreign environment looking for something to bitch about.

All you have to do to enjoy yourself in Gay Paree is give in to the Parisian vibe (by turns energetic one minute, and insouciant the next). Leave your American expectations at home, relax, stroll around a bit, and say “bonjour!” and “s’il vous plait” about thirty times a day. Do that and they are almost as nice as Italians.

As I was somewhere over the Atlantic, coming back from ten days walking the streets and haunting cafes from Montparnasse to Montmartre, it occurred to me that this might be my writing future: travelogues for those who might wish to follow in my footsteps in the coming months/years. My covering the Las Vegas food scene has reached its natural end; there are no more mountains for me to climb here, and frankly, it’s more fun these days to see the world rather than wander around (again and again) in my own backyard.

(If you’re dying to hear my mellifluous tones pontificate on where best to exercise your palate in Sin City, tune in Fridays to What’s Right with Sam & Ash — where we whoop it up about food while recapping my eating week.)

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Unshackled by the bonds of servitude to Sin City, I am thus free to eat the world, where, quite frankly, the food, wine, and scenery are better (and often cheaper). Consider this a combination of food diary and love letter to my favorite city in the world, where the sights and smells never fail to astonish me, and where eating and drinking well is as easy as rolling out of bed.

But before you can embrace all the picturesque wonderfulness, you first have to get there, and sad to say, that will be more annoying than anything you encounter once you arrive.

News flash: Flying remains a pain in the ass.

Air France is a shell of its former self. A country’s airline — be it SwissAir, Lufthansa or whatever — used to tickle you with anticipation (“As soon as you board, you feel like you’re almost in the country,” I used to tell my kids.) Now you’re on an airbus in more ways than one. They throw some cardboard food at you a couple of times and wheel a shitty beverage cart up the isle twice (first, an hour into your eight-hour transatlantic haul; then again six hours later), and that’s it.

No cans of soda, no mixers, nothing but water, crappy coffee, tepid tea and supermarket wine. Pro tip: load up on snacks and beverages at the airport. What’s become an insult to passengers has been a boon to SmartWater and SlimJims. None of this applies if you fly business- or first-class, which we never do, preferring to save our $$$s for the food and wine which lie ahead.

Enough negativity, let’s get to the fun stuff.

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Traveling is living intensified. – Rick Steves

Paris the “Being John Curtas” way means you literally lose yourself there; park your worst instincts back home and drink it all in, every waking moment. I become more sanguine, taciturn even (about everything but the ubiquitous dog shit).

Every time I see Paris’s low profile and history-drenched boulevards, I feel like I’m an awestruck ten-year old seeing a big city for the first time. Rick Steves’ quote is no more true than on the streets of Paris, where your senses are excited on every block, and awesome architecture defines every corner.

The French invented blasé (the word and the mood), but no matter how many times I’m in the city (this last trip was my tenth), that’s the one feeling I never have. I’m too busy picking my jaw off the pavement…when I’m not using it.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. – Ernest Hemingway

Image(When I’m in Paris, I’m on a seafood diet: when I see food I eat it.)

The Food. The wine. The seafood! (sea above) The size of the brasseries and the sheer number of cafés means you’ll never go hungry, no matter what the hour.

It’s really one of the most impressive things about Paris: the mind-blowing number of places to feed and refresh yourself. They’ve always been in abundance, but the patisseries/boulangeries (technically not the same thing, but often combined) seem to have doubled in number over the past decade.

The Style: men in snappy coats and women being worn by heroic scarves.  No t-shirts or cargo shorts, please. Someone asked me what the French don’t like about Americans and the answer is simple and understandable: the way we dress.

Finally: awesome architecture and history envelops its iconic restaurants. The sheer beauty of them should not surprise (the French invented the modern restaurant, after all), but the stunning interiors (and how well they’ve aged) are still enough to take your breath away:

Image(Le Grand Colbert)

If you can’t enjoy yourself walking around Paris, you need to have your pulse checked.

My advice to anyone traveling to France or Italy is to always find a café to call your own, preferably close to your hotel. Stopping by every morning will start to make you feel like a local, and by your third visit, even the frostiest waiter will start to smile when he sees you.

 Walking, smelling, sitting, sipping cafe au lait. “Encore, s’il vous plait” we say.(“please bring another”)…and your favorite waiter will let you sit there all day, diddling your phone, reading a book, or planning where next to eat  — which is the surest way to make you feel like a Frenchman.

Amazingly though, we actually lose a few pounds on every visit. Five-to-ten miles of walking each day will do that, no matter how many baguettes or soufflés you inhale. Sage advice: use your mornings to plan your pre- and post-dejeuner walks.

If The Food Gal® is lucky, I occasionally agree to a little shopping, just to buy some marital harmony. (Poor thing has always operated under the illusion there is something to do in Paris other than eat and drink.)

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Breakfast, you ask? Fuggidabadit. In France, breakfast (aka “petit dejeuner”) is good for only one thing: thinking about lunch. Some coffee and a croissant is all you’ll need to fuel you for the first few hours of the day. From then on, it’s Katy bar the door/calories here we come, as temptations await on every block.

THE RESTAURANTS

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Straight off the plane, still groggy from jetting the ocean, we staggered into L’Ami Louis (above) perhaps the toughest bistro ticket in Paris. It was worth the wait, which for me had been twenty-five years — a quarter century of hearing about its allure to ex-pats, celebs, and galloping gourmands, followed by a revisionist decade of how gauche and “not worth it” it was. It is the one bistro critics love to hate. Especially British critics, as you’ll see below.

Founded in 1924, they only things that have changed in ninety-seven years are the prices and the dress of the patrons. Some have called its interior “museum-like”, others, like the late, great, splenetic A. A. Gill described it as a “painted, shiny distressed brown dung…set with labially pink cloths which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository.”

All nasty Brit-lit gymnastics aside, what you find when you enter is a classic, narrow, well-worn bistro that feels as comfortable as a pair of well-worn Wellingtons. Where Gill found “paunchy, combative, surly men” waiting tables, all we saw were affable-if-brusque, seen-it-all pros.

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Gill (who died in 2016, and whose hemorrhoids must’ve been acting up in ’11 when he wrote those words) also savaged the food. As much as we were a fan of his knives-out style, we found ourselves silently pleading with his ghost throughout our two-hour lunch. Au contraire, mon frere, we muttered continually. From an ethereally silky slab of foie gras to our deviled veal kidneys to the famous roast chicken (above), this was Parisian bistro cooking at its most elemental and satisfying. True, the recipes probably haven’t changed since Bogart was wooing Bergman, but that’s part of the charm. 

Where Gill found the foie to be “oleaginous and gross”, our bites were of the smoothest, purest duck liver. A mountain of shoestring fries came with our oversized bird, and better ones we had trouble remembering. Ditto the escargot, brimming with butter and electric green parsley — shot through with garlic in all the best ways.

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No fault could be found with the wine list either (pricey for a bistro, but not off-putting), or  a baba au rhum the size of a human head.

“Brits love to bag on the Frogs,” is what we thought as we were paying the bill and thanking the staff. The prices (for solids and liquids), are high but not enough to put you on our heels, especially if you’re used to Las Vegas. (Our lunch came to about 400 euros/couple, with about half being wine.) 

Gill concluded his hatchet job by calling L’Ami Louis the “worst restaurant in the world.” It may not be the best, old-fashioned bistro in Paris, but it’s a long way from deserving such opprobrium. I’d call it a must-stop for our next visit, for that terrine de foie gras alone:
 
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As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans. – Ernest Hemingway

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Le Dôme remains le ultimate seafood brasserie in a neighborhood swimming with them. All gleaming glass and brass, it has become a de rigueur to stop for oysters whenever we get to town. Montparnasse is chock full of good restaurants, many of which, like Le Select (1925), La Rotonde (1911) and La Cloiserie des Lilas (1847), are haunted by the ghosts of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Henry Miller.

These cafes formed the social hub of Roaring Twenties Paris, and, amazingly, continue to hold their own today, one-hundred years after they became American-famous.

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Like many of its equally famous neighbors, Le Dôme is huge, so don’t think twice about dropping in on a whim for a douziane plates and a glass of Sancerre.

Classics like Breton lobster and Dover sole (above), are prepared so perfectly they remind you why these dishes became renowned in the first place, and if you want to hunker down for a full meal, LD dazzles with best of them. The freshness of its cooked seafood is legendary, even in a town known for legendary fresh fish and shellfish.

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For dessert: don’t miss the mille-feuille Napoleon (sliced from a pastry the size of a rugby football) — which elicits ohhs and aahs for both its appearance and taste.

A note about the supposed insufferable French: this was our third visit to Le Dôme in the past four years, but we are hardly “known” to the management. On each visit, whether as a walk-in solo or with reservations and guests, we have always received a friendly welcome from the solicitous staff — who couldn’t be more helpful in either guiding us to the best oysters of the day, or which wine to pair with them. You get out of restaurants what you put into them, and if you walk into Le Dôme with happy heart, it will only make you happier.

A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life. —Thomas Jefferson

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From Montparnasse one day, we trekked up the hill to Montmartre the next, to visit Le Coq et Fils (formerly Le Coq Rico) — Antoine Westermann’s paean to poultry.

Climbing up to Sacré Coeur and exploring the nooks and crannies of cobblestoned streets of this “village inside a city” puts you in a mood to take down an entire yardbird accompanied by a variety of other Westermann signatures like poultry broth “shots” (perhaps the most intense chicken soup ever made), duck rillettes, and egg mayonnaise “Westermann’s Way” (a gorgeous puck of the best egg salad ever tasted):

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But the undeniable stars of the show are the whole birds, and we opted for a four pound Bresse specimen of unsurpassed flavor:

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Image(Poulet de Bresse-my-soul)

From the crispness of the skin to the fineness of the grain to the richness of the flesh, these are flocks which put to shame the universal putdown of “tasting like chicken.” Of course the olive oil-drenched pommes puree and straight-from-the-fat frites don’t hurt your enjoyment of this beautiful bird, either.

The birds are sized and sold according to how many you want to feed (e.g. a guinea hen and smaller birds are sized for two). The wine list was modest in scope but interesting and reasonable, and the service couldn’t have been better.

For dessert we took down an Ile Flottante (“floating island”) — a lighter version of this classic — with a softball-sized meringue so airy it seemed to be floating above the creme Anglaise beneath it.

I have been in Paris for almost a week and I have not heard anyone say calories, or cholesterol, or even arterial plaque. The French do not season their food with regret. Mary-Lou Weisman

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Watching your calories is the last thing you want to do at L’Ami Jean — the au courant favorite of Parisian foodies  — a bistro which resists mightily the Brooklynization of casual Parisian dining

As with L’Ami Louis, its slightly older cousin across the Seine, you enter something of a time warp when you cross the threshold into a crowded, narrow room — whose general appearance hasn’t changed since Maurice Chevalier was breaking into talkies.

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Cheek-by-jowl everyone sits, the crowd being a mixture of internet-educated gastronauts and local trenchermen who’ve been expanding their ample bellies since the 70s. (From the vantage point of our sole, round six-top along the wall, the diners seemed to be running at about a 10-to-1 men-to-women.)

The effect is one of a raucous eating club in a cramped space where appreciating hearty, rustic food is the coin of the realm.

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Having taken serious umbrage to Gill’s evisceration of L’Ami Louis, I must raise an exception in the other direction  — in this case to the lavish praise universally heaped upon Stéphane Jégo’s ode to excess. We have nothing against wild boar stews and roasted pigeons drenched in wine. And we are hardly one to quibble with rough-hewn bricks of paté de campagne or nutty/puffy lobes of sweetbreads roasted with thyme. But when we considered our meals as a whole at this temple of bistronomy, what stuck with us was the textural, taste and visual sameness of our multiple courses — more  cuisine bourgeois-than restaurant cooking — finesse-free food heaped into bowls…which is probably the point. Nothing wrong with any of it, mind you, but no standouts, either.

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Service was the definition of “harried” but also almost preternaturally fast. They screwed up our white wine order, but brought the “wrong” bottle that happened to go beautifully with the food at the same price.

For dessert, get the signature rice pudding with caramel sauce, even if your ribs are pleading for something less to stick to them.

In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria. – Benjamin Franklin

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If food is the body of good living, wine is the soul. – Clifton Fadiman

The same advice I gave about cafés above applies to wine bars. There is wine aplenty in the area — Juveniles, Le Rubis, A L’Heure du Vin — so calling the First Arrondissement a “target rich environment” for oenophiles is like referring to Le Louvre as a nice art gallery.

We’re more Right Bank than Left Bank these days, so it’s a no-brainer to make Willi’s Wine Bar our home away from home.

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Oh Willi’s, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways:

Your wine (of course, specializing in Rhones both new and aged), either by the glass or bottle, always interesting at a fair price; the food (classic bistro fare but made with flair and good groceries by chef Francois Yon); excellent bread; exceptional cheese; and best of all, a friendly welcome (whether you are known or unknown).

English is freely spoken (it’s still owned by the Brit – Mark Williamson (below) – who founded it in 1980) and your staff is cheerful and knowledgeable, and their patience (with idiotic Americans who can’t decide what to order) is as long as the bar (above). 

And then, of course, there are those iconic posters: 

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And finally: the location — just a block from the Palais Royale — in the heart of where-it’s-happening Paris.

In other words, Willi’s is just about perfect, whether you’re hungry for a full meal, or seeking a simple sip. It’s as much restaurant as wine bar, but no matter what you’re looking for, it will send you away smiling.

Paris nourishes the soul, is how Victor Hugo put it, and Willi’s nourished us, in more ways than one on this trip.

We always returned to [Paris] no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. – Ernest Hemingway

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As the sunlight fades over the distance of the Left Bank, a Parisian day always seems to end quietly, but regretfully, like a sigh.

There are few magic spells left to be woven in the world and this city still weaves one of them. How many cities on earth can you say that about? 

When good Americans die, they go to Paris. – Oscar Wilde 

Something else occurred to me 36,000 feet over the Atlantic: I am my best self in Paris — engaged, entranced and relaxed like nowhere else on earth. Perhaps it will be where I end my days. Who knows? There are worse ways to go.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Next month we go big game hunting among the haute-est of the haute cuisine temples of French gastronomy. 🥂🍾🇫🇷

Seymour Britchky

Except for a brief interlude in the 1940s, the Japanese have always enjoyed a reputation for graciousness and hospitality.

Stay away from the Kipper Paté — it looks, smells, and (one guesses) tastes like cat food.

Nothing about this restaurant is as remarkable as its reputation.

Seymour Britchky

He has been dead for seventeen years,  yet his ghost haunts my prose like the specter of Antoine Careme over a chocolate sculpture.

Acid-tongued, razor-sharp, narrow-eyed wit defined his prose. A curmudgeon through and through, his reviews are works of art unto themselves, untethered from the prosaic, dismissive of something so pedestrian as evaluating a sauce or a piece of fish. For him a restaurant was a holistic experience — an encounter he dissected from the front door to the petit fours.  Calling him acerbic is like calling water wet.

New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent once described him as a Larry David-type writer, seeing things in a restaurant no one else saw. And he did so with precision and barely a wasted word. True, some of his sentences were longer than Tolstoy but, as food writer Regina Schrambling put it:

“What he did was so pared down. You got such a rich sense of the place in so few words. These days I’ll read a review, and I’m just reading and reading and reading and, oh, my god, I’m just trudging through this. You don’t have to tell us about every forkful, and you don’t pull back enough to give us a sense of a place.”

I think about him whenever I read some sad attempt to describe a dish by a too-eager amateur (and quite a few professionals) of what I call the “I liked how the flavors of cardamon and tarragon played off the crunchy spaghetti bathed in vindaloo foam” school of food over-writing.

When Seymour said “they get good produce here” you believed him, there was no need to detail the tomatoes.

Part of the needlessly flowery descriptions that have plagued food writing for the past decade can be laid squarely at the feet of chefs — to whom writers ceded the high ground of food nomenclature when they let them get away with logorrheic elucidations like:

Carpaccio of Maldivian long line caught yellow fin tuna’ – fanning an island of Rio Grande Valley avocado creme fraiche, topped with young coconut, with a splash of Goan lime, coriander and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds

Chefs love to pad their menus with fancy descriptions like these (so they can charge more), and invariably, food writers rise to the bait and think they have to follow suit. (Mix. That. Metaphor!) Do we need to know the limes are Goan, the line was long, and the coconut young? Only if you require reminding that the fish were once swimming.

What we are left in the 21st Century is the overwrought and the under-baked. Flowery, meaningless prose, or spoon-fed pablum in pictures, videos, and Tik Toks — infantilizing our tastes as they numb our brains.

What made Seymour so entertaining was he had humor and a point of view. Good luck finding either in food writing these days.

Food writing has gotten so boring (and political) it is no surprise that videos and influencers have stepped in to fill the void. True, a picture is worth a thousand words, and our societal attention span now rivals that of a housefly, but in the end, internet influencing is just another marketing wolf aimed at those in sheeple’s clothing.

Instagram does not inform or compare. There is no depth; there is no substance. The only point of view is that of the camera’s. Thus, in less than a decade, has food journalism been reduced to a visual — no imagination needed — a two-dimensional enticement requiring nothing more than a blank stare. To paraphrase Frank Lloyd Wright: restaurant writing has devolved into chewing gum for the eyes.

If you’re in a charitable mood, you might say our communications about food have come full circle. People have always eaten with their eyes, and forever have trusted others to tell them what was tasty. It was only in the latter half of the 20th Century, when the printed word was king, economies were booming, and photojournalism was in its infancy, that paragraphs were used to convey what used to be done with a grunt.

Britchky may not have been everyone’s cup of mead, but he made you think. And he put you right there, in the place where he had sat, and let you know what to expect and whether it was worth your hard-earned cash. His only filters were his own sensibilities, and that’s what made him so much fun.

He got put out to pasture in the early 90s — a relic of a time when reading about food was almost as much fun as eating it. To this day I think about him every time I sit down to chronicle any meal I’ve had, and to my dying day I will appreciate this:

Mamma Leone’s has been called the most underrated restaurant in New York, which tells us more about the ratings than about the restaurant. There are worse restaurants in New York, but those are the ones which cannot be described in words, the ones that can only be rendered by example or anecdote. The English language can cope, however, with Mamma’s place – it is stunningly garish and ugly, the food is decent, the service automatic, the customers contented and unliberated cows with bulls and broods in tow.

…over a worthless word salad like this:

A wild array of textures—the shattering, airy crunch of meringue at the edges, and the softer one of toasted almonds, with rolling bubbles and pockets skittering across the surface. They’re more relaxed than a Florentine, more lightweight than a brittle. And they’re altogether really lovely over a cup of coffee with an old friend.

One tells you everything you need to know without mentioning a single dish; the other tells you too much and nothing at all at the same time.

As an ending tribute: a poem about him written after his death by an admiring young woman who was once his neighbor. It captures the essence of Mr. Irascible more than my words of praise ever could. Like me, Bolt is a fan. Unlike me, her view of Britchky’s world is refracted through the prism of New York reality, as well as a gimlet gaze.

Seymour Britchky

Appetite of a Dead Connoisseur

by Julie Bolt

Memory:
When I was nine I rang Seymour Britchky’s
downstairs apartment asking for
an egg. He retorted:
“Egg? Me?
Food critic for The New York Times?”
and turned brusquely, slamming the door.
I stood there stunned for minutes.

Fact:
My husband is frustrated
by my ongoing predilection for ordering
and eating out, much like Seymour Britchky;
I never have an egg.

Fact:
Seymour once wrote,
“Sardi’s most famous dish
Is its cannelloni,
Cat food wrapped in noodle
And welded to the steel ashtray
In which it was reheated under
Its glutinous pink sauce.”

Memory:
When I sold Girl Scout Cookies,
Seymour intently purchased
six boxes of Thin Mints
and fourteen Peanut Butter Patties.
I met my Girl Scout goals.

Reflection:
Beard and bowtie,
Belly bordering on the rotund.
But only bordering, since Seymour
walked, walked everywhere, swiftly.

Memory:
Seymour sneered at my friends
hanging on our Greenwich Village stoop.
With tallboys, hidden joints, and bad posture.
He seethed to my mother: they are thugs.
Embarrassed, she tried to shoo them away.
Did they not know we were hungry and hopeful?

Factoidal Evidence:
1) In New York Seymour was known for:
a) Literary flourish and acerbic wit
b) Pissing off chefs
c) Really, really pissing off chefs
2) In June 2004, Seymour died of pancreatic cancer at age 73.
3) Despite his constant presence on paper, in the city streets, and his name clearly placed in our building directory, Town Hall has no record of any persons in New York by the name of Seymour Britchky.

Reflections:
I’m back to my vacant childhood home
after a decade of desert, ocean, mountain, sky.
Back to the simmering souring city I love;
I expected to see Seymour weaving through streets
Sneering and smiling; greeting, rebuking
Because he is this building, this block,
All the contradictions of this place.

Memory:
Seymour beamed each time
he passed our sheltie, Skippy.
On those rare days, he greeted us:
“Flight of angels!”

Defense
Seymour’s dead and so is my youth
But oh we are both hungry, greedy, hungry
For words, brioche, provocations, trout almondine
Cruelty and soufflé aux fruits de mer,
Peanut butter patties and beauty
Angels in the form of smiling dogs
Hungry for roast squab and squabbling
Greedy for the name in print
Even when it?s a pseudonym and upon death
There?s no proof of existence, only footprints
From Mojave to Café Loup on West 13th
Where I just passed, and Seymour Britchky,
or whatever his name was, often drank alone.

———————————-

Postscript:

Oh Seymour, could you ever have guessed, as you were hunched over your Olivetti, pecking out some lacerating putdown forty years ago, that an aging food writer in Las Vegas, in 2021, would be penning his own homage to your words? I like to think you would be slightly flattered, but from what I’ve read of you, I doubt these adorations would raise even a smile. There were no awards for Seymour Britchky. No television appearances, national recognition, public feuds or fawning fans. All you got was a poem — a poem that I like to think would’ve amused you. Only two chefs showed up to your funeral. Something tells me that would have amused you, too.