Barton Seaver to Be Named Esquire’s Chef of the Year, Controversy Ensues
Jane Black over at WaPo posted a dandy item today about Esquire critic John Mariani naming Barton Seaver "chef of the year" in the upcoming November issue. As Black chronicles, the New York magazine's decision flies in the face of local D.C. opinion on Seaver's latest venture, Blue Ridge, in Glover Park.
Whether a good decision or not, I decided to call Seaver this morning and get his take on the situation. If there's one thing I know about Seaver, it's this: He has a pretty healthy perspective on his skills and talents. He also takes criticism better than just about any human being I've ever met.
He was at Blue Ridge when I phoned and didn't know what I was congratulating him about. He thought it might be his recent marriage. He asked if we could talk again in 30 minutes. Twelve minutes later, he called back. He had just read Black's blog item.
Seaver said he had an invitation to an Esquire event on Monday night in New York City. Other than that, he wasn't going to speculate about any honor.
"Until Monday night, I have no idea about the recognition," he told me. "I don't want to get ahead on anything."
I asked Seaver if he remembered Mariani's Blue Ridge visit and if the chef was there personally to take care of the critic.
"I don't want to get into anything at all...until Monday," Seaver responded.
So how to explain the wide gulf between Mariani's grand pronouncement — I mean, short of a Beard Award, you can't get much bigger than "chef of the year" from a national magazine — and the local critics' take on the food at Blue Ridge?
You could question Mariani's ethics, as media outlets have done repeatedly. You could also look at the difficulties of preparing food, day in and day out, for diners who aren't famous national magazine critics. Seaver told me awhile ago that he didn't have the luxury of reassembling his Hook staff for the Blue Ridge kitchen. He had to start over from scratch, since all his former cooks had become successfully employed elsewhere.
Personally, I think Seaver is a talented chef, but that's not enough to produce quality restaurant meals on a daily basis. The kitchen needs to understand the executive chef's philosophies, his techniques, his concepts, his intentions for every single recipe. This takes time, perhaps more time than critics, including myself, can grant a restaurant.
But let me say this: I suspect local opinion on Blue Ridge will be a better reflection of the place than whatever Mariani will write or say. Or, at the very least, the local take will be a better reflection of your experience at Blue Ridge, since you are likely not a famous food writer for a national magazine.
Let me also say this: A year from now, Blue Ridge will not be the same place. It might, actually, be closer to Mariani's perception.