rumination 35: worth a special journey…

It’s no secret that I have been an unamused critic of restaurant lists and ratings.  Much of food media has succumbed to the pressures of collecting clicks, sponsorships, and advertisement.  And sensationalism sells.  So, to reach the widest audience, they cast the widest net.  As a result, lists and ratings rarely reward craftsmanship, originality, quality […]


It’s no secret that I have been an unamused critic of restaurant lists and ratings.  Much of food media has succumbed to the pressures of collecting clicks, sponsorships, and advertisement.  And sensationalism sells.  So, to reach the widest audience, they cast the widest net.  As a result, lists and ratings rarely reward craftsmanship, originality, quality of cooking, or professionalism.  No, that’s boring. Instead, they reward diversity – geographic and demographic. They reward those with a large social media presence.  And they reward the ones who will play along.

For years, I have been calling for chefs to reject and resist these influences, not only to preserve their own careers, but the craft to which they have dedicated their lives.  Of course, this is a risky move, and a long-game approach, which is why, understandably, few have done so openly.  But the collective inaction is finally coming home to roost.

Earlier this week, the Michelin Guide released its 2018 ratings for Scandinavia, a region that now encompasses the northern European countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.  In this guide, Frantzén, located in Stockholm, Sweden, was elevated to three stars.  This now means that Denmark, Norway, and Sweden each have one three-starred restaurant.

I have eaten at Björn Frantzén’s restaurant once – in 2014 – before he moved it to its current location last year.  My meal was very good – excellent technique, and generally delicious.  Björn Frantzén is clearly a very talented chef. That is why I find it especially bizarre that, since his restaurant reopened, there have been widespread whispers and snickers among the restaurant industry – cooks, chefs, and others afraid to openly say what everyone is thinking – that dishes coming out of the new Frantzén kitchen looked suspiciously like copies of well-known dishes from other top-rated restaurants from around the world.

I didn’t believe these rumors until I saw photographs of some of the dishes myself. Here’s one example posted by Frantzén’s current executive chef Marcus Jernmark (who was chef at Aquavit in New York City when I last visited the restaurant in 2013): a “Rubiks cube” of confections that has an uncanny resemblance to the more well-known version by French pastry chef Cedric Grolet (of le Meurice).  There were many other examples, some of which I know well from having eaten and photographed the original versions, especially dishes at Saison in San Francisco.

I’ve eaten around the block enough to know that the restaurant industry – ever-shrinking and globalized by social media – is full of recycled ideas and inspirations.  But there’s a difference  between being inspired and plagiarizing.  I use the word “plagiarize” here deliberately.  Making a tribute to an icon is one thing – Marco Pierre White attributed his famous stuffed glove of trotter to his mentor Pierre Koffman, naming him on his menu along with the dish: “Pigs Trotter ‘Pierre Koffman.'”  Plagiarism is taking another’s idea and passing it off as one’s own.  Without a further explanation, that is what appears to be happening at Frantzén.

I have a hard time believing that Frantzén is doing this maliciously, or to purposely to defraud its customers.  If it is, then I ask of those chefs: for whom are you cooking?  The 99% who are unlikely to know what you are doing, or the 1% who cares enough to know?  In my own craft, I have never aimed to be well-liked or popular (clearly). Rather, as a craftsman, my aim has always been to earn the respect of those whom I respect. If I were a chef, I would be cooking for that 1% who cares enough to know.

Perhaps that kitchen believes it’s own variations on these iconic dishes sufficiently differentiate them from the originals.  If so, they have a lot of explaining to do to overcome the great weight of evidence against them. Whatever the case may be, if the folks at Frantzén can sleep with themselves at night, then I’m not going to prosecute them further.  Simply put, the 1% won’t take the restaurant seriously. And based on my meal in 2014, I know that the 99% will not be disappointed.  [Frantzén would certainly not be the first Michelin-starred restaurant where I have found copies without attribution.]

My primary complaint here is with the Michelin Guide.  Its inspectors are supposed to be the 1%.  They have the most reference points for eating.  They should know better.

Michelin claims that it is only concerned with the quality of cooking on the plate, and nothing else.  I don’t know why the guide continues to assert this lie, as it is plainly untrue – service and decor certainly factor into the ratings.  And, if you ask me, based on their ratings in the United States – especially in the San Francisco and Chicago guides – one wonders if the food on the plate factors into the evaluation at all.

Let’s assume it’s true. If Michelin is only in the business of rating what’s on the plate and nothing else, then why should it be expected to referee culinary provenance?  Shouldn’t it only be concerned with the quality of the cooking that is set down before its inspectors?

Would you apply that logic to a professor who catches a student plagiarizing?  If the student gives a brilliant response to an exam question, should the professor care whether or not the student came up with the answer herself?  If you are in the business of evaluating, scoring, and rating others, of course you should care about origination.  It’s not fair to the other students who put forth original effort to be displaced by someone with lesser scruples. It debases the value of the score, and insults the intelligence and efforts of those who are undermined because of it.

If I were a chef in Scandinavia right now, I’d be looking at the Michelin Guide with wary eyes.  By awarding Frantzén three Michelin stars, the Michelin Guide has devalued the worth of its stars in that region.  Why should any chef aspire to the top rating if it merely means that a chef can replicate precisely what others have accomplished already?

The guide’s criteria for awarding three stars is “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey.”  Perhaps Michelin justifies this award to Frantzén because, with this one special journey to Stockholm, one can eat a collection of Michelin three-starred plates from around the world.  But in so doing, Michelin is putting its most-coveted stamp of approval on a collection of very good, but very obvious forgeries.

No thanks.

Michelin earns a vote of no confidence from me.

[Editor’s Postscript]  At the risk of being Trumpian here, I note that in the week since I published this post I have received many messages and emails, the vast majority of which thank me for saying aloud what so many are unwilling or, for professional reasons, unable.  Surprisingly, few have questioned or disagreed with my allegations and reasoning.  Those who have dissented have done so civilly and articulately. They raise a point that I would like to acknowledge and address in this postscript. They are right: cooking and the evaluation of food are highly subjective fields. And that makes attribution difficult, if not impossible to determine.  In the realm of artistry, imitation – even if unintended – is unavoidable (wasn’t it Salvador Dalí who famously quipped “those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing”?). They questioned why I singled out Frantzén among the many chefs who serve dishes that are widely reproduced with no credit to origination.  For the most part, I found their examples weak, if not absurd – dishes or concepts so old, their provenances so obscured by time that they’ve become accepted as a part of the culinary vernacular of a culture.  Unfortunately for those who first created the xiao long bao, for example, they will never get credit for their idea.  Therefore, Corey Lee, chef of benu in San Francisco, has no one to cite on his menu for his version of this iconic, Shanghainese dumpling.  Analogizing Lee’s xiao long bao to any one of Frantzén’s copies of dishes served by his contemporaries is absurd.  More compelling were more-traceable examples, like “sea urchin toast,” recently made recognizable by Joshua Skenes at Saison. Of course, before Skenes, there was Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who served sea urchin on black bread with jalapeño and yuzu, which I had at his flagship restaurant in New York as early as 2005 (although it certainly predates my first encounter). But other than sea urchin and bread, the similarities between the Skenes and Vongerichten versions are very few.  I won’t bother explaining or describing  them. To anyone who has had both, I think the differences in flavor, aesthetic, purpose, and spirit are quite clear.*  These are important factors in determining whether attribution is due.  Again, this is admittedly subjective territory.  I won’t deny that there exists a grey area in between plagiarism and inspiration. In the last month alone, I’ve had two versions of what can best be described as sea urchin on a tater tot (one at Aubergine in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California and another at Canlis in Seattle, Washington), and have seen a third version of it (served at Manresa in Los Gatos, California). At a quick glance, they look awfully like a miniature version of Skenes’s sea urchin toast.  But upon further inspection, the flavor and texture are colorably different.  Whether or not these versions of sea urchin served on something golden-brown and crunchy were inspired by Skenes’s sea urchin toast, and who actually originated this tater tot version – which seems to have been replicated with uncanny similarity at three different restaurants on the West Coast (and possibly others) – is surely debatable. Ultimately, I am not interested in rummaging around in these grey areas anyway, although these examples certainly don’t endear me to the social media-driven culinary scene either.  But the clean and the grey shouldn’t detract from the fact that plagiarism is being committed and rewarded at the very highest levels of the restaurant industry.  And with regard to it, I ascribe to Stewart Potter’s simple and instinctual test.  Faced with defining something that is far more observable than quantifiable – in his case, establishing a threshold test for obscenity, or pornography (Jacobellis v. Ohio) – the former Supreme Court justice famously said: “I know it when I see it.”  When it comes to plagiarism, I find the similarities between Frantzén’s dishes and those of his contemporaries to run afoul under the Potter test.  You are, of course, free to see it differently.

* While a student at the French Culinary Institute, Skenes worked briefly for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Vong in New York City.

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4 replies on “rumination 35: worth a special journey…”

Well, Michelin’s criteria include the chef’s personality, so it may be accurate that Frantzén got three stars for mimicking…

Anyway, there were already plenty of “xeroxed” three stars. Ducasse has got three of them these days; Alléno, Berasategui, Keller, and Yoshitake two each; while Bras used to have two (and in that case the xeroxing was almost absurd). Oh, and Robuchon has got four of them – the McDonald’s of haute cuisine! Sure, these chefs did invent something in the first place, but I’m not sure that should affect the criticism of Michelin. And the places listed make up more than 10% of the world’s three stars.

I found this line quite intriguing because it seems like without Zalto glassware and Cutipol flatware (amongst other paraphernalia) you cant even be in the conversation for a star in U.S. “And, if you ask me, based on their ratings in the United States – especially in the San Francisco and Chicago guides – one wonders if the food on the plate factors into the evaluation at all.”

I agree that Michelin has given out stars to many restaurants in many regions to mainly bolster their reputation and market share of prestige restaurants. Michelin has always been about execution, technique and most of all the consistency with which these standards are met. They are selling a product after all. It has never been about creativity. That’s why 3 star restaurants in Europe and the US are more often than not, boring.
I disagree with you highlighting Frantzen as undeserving because of borrowed ideas. I think your relationship with Saison has made you a little subjective and over protective of them. If you can find early Saison dishes, before the move, before you discovered them, your critique of Frantzen could be easily applied to them. A lot of restaurants do this, I’m not agreeing with the practice but it is common. Even now, should we denounce Saison for borrowing from Etxebarri, Raymond’Blanc’s whole roasted pineapple? Should we say that Mark Lungaard is ripping of Pacaud when he serves a game tourte or any of the other chefs who are serving it now since it’s in? No, we should not. Ideas are borrowed and it still takes a lot of work and skill to serve them at a high level day in and day out. That also deserves recognition, more so than being shot down.
I have enjoyed your point of view throughout the years and agree with many points that you make about the state of restaurants now but it’s also a product of the blog culture. Restaurants have to stay relevant to attract more customers and Im sure more than a few lose their way.