When a Restaurant Loses a Star

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Earlier this year The New York Times took away a star from Alain Ducasse's Essex House restaurant. The head chef there was fired. Ruth Reichl, former New York Times restaurant critic and editor of Gourmet magazine, talks about the high stakes game of rating restaurants with stars.


Restaurants are ranked by stars much like generals, feature films and well-behaved schoolchildren. Or for a city like New Orleans, restaurants are ranked in red beans; the more stars, or beans, the better. Gaining a star is terrific; losing one is often terrible. When The New York Times demoted the tony Essex House in Manhattan from four stars to three earlier this year, Chef Christian Delouvrier lost his job. In a far more extreme, complicated and tragic case, Chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life after a French guide downgraded his restaurant in 2003.

But how exact is the star system, and can you always taste the difference? Ruth Reichl is the editor of Gourmet magazine and a former restaurant reviewer, the author of the book "Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise," and she joins us from Los Angeles.


Ms. RUTH REICHL (Editor, Gourmet Magazine): Hello.

WERTHEIMER: Could you tell me what you think about these star rankings? How comparable are star rankings from publication to publication?

Ms. REICHL: They're not at all. I mean, ultimately, it comes down to one person's taste.

WERTHEIMER: Did you ever leave major wreckage behind you after one of your reviews?

Ms. REICHL: Actually, I can think of one where, after my first book came out, I was signing at a bookstore, and the last person who came up in line was a youngish man who told me that I had savaged his, I must admit, quite terrible restaurant and he had lost his job. And, you know, he had this little boy with him and I felt terrible. On the other hand, what you think about when you're doing this is my reader, as someone who only gets to go out for one great meal a year and is taking your advice. And because you've said some mediocre restaurant is really better than it is, they go out and you've ruined their evening.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that serious criticism of restaurants is important, and what kind of criticism do you think we need?

Ms. REICHL: Well, I mean, need? Do we need--I mean, I've never thought that restaurant criticism ought to be consumer reporting, and that's where you get into the problem with the stars, where the stars are essentially just telling you how to go spend your money. And my idea of what a great critic does is take you to the restaurant, put you in the seat. I mean, is that important? Probably not. Is it fun to read? Hopefully, yes. You know, on the other hand, when the fallout is people losing their job, you know, you have a real responsibility to do it as fairly as you can.

WERTHEIMER: Ruth Reichl, thank you very much.

Ms. REICHL: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Ruth Reichl is the editor of Gourmet magazine, the author of "Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise."

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