The Michelin Guide’s annual recognition ceremony is an event that showcases the best and brightest in food. On Nov 17, in the IAC building, we assembled to honor the culinary talents of 2017. Being my first formal cocktail party in the city, I was kvelling with excitement. Men in dapper suits and ladies in that perfect little black dress spinning around the room. The air was sweet with delicious sugary confections and the violet blooms that adorned the Brugal cocktails lined up at the ready of garrulous partygoers. Splashes of gold, red, and blue light rotating with floral patterns washed over room bringing the shiny blank canvas of space to life with a vibrant bouquet.
On one end of the room, brand partners such as President Cheese assembled a towering spread, Valrhona with its amazing macaroons and an array of flavored chocolates, and Sturia Caviar. I was intrigued by this last vendor the most, being that I had never had caviar in my life. I was lucky enough to meet Joanna, the beautiful and studious PR rep, who was kind enough to give me a guided tour of Sturia’s offering. From the all farm raised Russian “Vintage” with its more classic tastes to the French “Oscietra” more delicate and rounded flavor, I was blown away by how amazing it is in actuality. Lots of foods have a plenty of hype. Truffles, octopus, and even kale, but they don’t always deliver with the surprise that caviar did for me. I definitely walked away a convert wanting much more than a tiny spoonful.
As you continued through the gallery of event sponsors including Mercedes Benz showcasing a gorgeous $150,000 Solarbeam Yellow AMG GTS Coupe (many of the more famous chefs did take a moment to get a photo behind the wheel—maybe dreaming one might just be a holiday gift for himself) and Nespresso with an array of flavored coffee for those less inclined to the libations of the evening. Macallan, Highland Park scotch, Bugal, and Snow Leopard vodka all offered curated cocktails as guests sampled the culinary fare created by honored restaurants from around the city. As guests wandered the sponsored tables, cocktails in hand, a static electricity was building in the atmosphere. Congratulations of success, the proximity to greatness, and open bar put the crowd into a spirited buzz as effervescent as the bubbles in the Pellegrino and Franciacorta sparkling wine floating around the room. It’s the excitement you would expect at any New York fete. While waiting for a glass of sparkling wine, I happened to strike up a conversation with a lovely woman over our both having lived in Atlanta before moving to the city. She happened to be Leslie Seeger, the wife of the Gunter Seeger, representing her husband, the chef of the newly one-starred restaurant Gunter Seeger NY, the newest eatery in his lineage of awarding winning outposts. Though brief, I loved hearing her story of how she and her husband got to this point in his career and how much time and effort goes into making a successful eatery in fickle foodie world.
Shortly after the cocktail hour, a brief ceremony inducted newly starred restaurants in this exclusive club of lauded chefs. Each newly added restaurant was called to the stage and gifted with a 2017 Michelin guide and a Bragard embroidered chef’s jacket. Then all were invited to the stage for a quick photo op. Finally, our master of ceremony called all of the 3 star chefs in attendance to ascend to the stage for a group photo. This moment was quite profound and exciting for me because I felt honored to be included at an event with such legendary talent, and because it also made me realize that half the night, at one point or another, I was standing elbow to elbow with the greatest chefs in New York and some might say the world; many of them considered gods among men to those inclined to spending his time perfecting his sous-vide instead of padding his social media presence. I watched Jean-Georges zip across the room from conversation to conversation and photo op to photo op like he was being clocked for speed. Usain Bolt would have been proud. Trying to give ample time to all those that vied for his attention, but stay on what must have been a strict schedule. A perfected and choreographed relay of press from a man who likely finds these formalities necessary and I’m sure exciting, but, at times, a bit banal: Smile; exchange; “kiss kiss”; run on to the next like there was a finish line. Finally, safe and out the door, he slowed as he walked to the black car to whisk him away. Three-star chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, seemed in great spirits, smiling jovially as he moved through the room conversing and even stopping for a photo with George Mendes of Aldea who was married to his serving post. Thomas Keller, of French Laundry and Per Se fame, seemed to keep a low profile. His presence was enough to be seen yet precise in his anonymity, as anyone would expect from a chef who expects and respects the list. Along with the heavy hitters of the industry, the event was teeming with talent that may have gone unrecognized this evening, but many bound to be a household name in the not too distant future.
This night was not just about culinary superstars, but also dedicated to the fruits of their labor. The food was a presence all of its own and nothing less than exquisite. Dazzling is what one would expect from an event to honor the top echelon of 2017 culinary fare. Quail seasoned with the tart flavor of quince topped with shaved black gold (excuse me, blacks truffles) from one star Aldea executive chef George Mendes and savory Ringneck pheasant ravioli served with a nutty noisette of Jambon de Bayonne and rich but light butternut squash butter from Brad Steelman of The River Café. Juxtaposed to the savory bites were a march of sweet dishes by fellow one star Gramercy Tavern’s thick, creamy goat cheesecake with the cut of sweetness from whole Concord grape in a lush reduction and a sublime collection of confections including chocolates and semifreddo al Torroncino (a type of nougat cream) from pastry chef Alina Martell of Ai Fiori and Francis Joven of Marea. Along with passed hors d’oeuvres of wagyu beef lollipops, foie gras macaroons, spoonfuls of fresh and citrusy tuna poke, mini sliders, apple tarts and more, there was an endless parade of morsels to titillate your taste buds. One bite often making you wish you could follow the waiter around all night.
After all the sipping and tasting and dreaming of visiting to these amazing restaurants, I was left with a question. I’m fairly new to the culinary journalism scene, so, in my head, I formed a sort of impromptu mission statement for the evening: I wanted to know, “What is it that goes into the making of a chef and restaurant worthy of this luminary award?” While wandering through the sea of people I was able to speak with Alina Martell, executive pastry chef for Ai Fiori and Vaucluse, I posed my question to her, “What do you think was the contributing factor in getting your Michelin star?” In short, she told me that she felt that it was the collective of talent that Ai Fiori had assembled to execute at the highest level possible. She told me that as a team they created a mission statement focused on excellence that was unwavering. It was the concentration of the team and this commitment to quality that led to the distinction. This sentiment was echoed by Leslie Seeger, whose husband had previously earned a star in Germany and now a newly minted star on their downtown outpost. Each day had to be treated as the most important day, as if you were to be reviewed on each step in your service, and each guest treated to a noteworthy experience.
Wanting to get one last opinion on what separates the common from the elevated in our metropolis bursting with merit-worthy culinary fare, I sort of stalked Fredrik Berselius of Williamsburg’s Aska around the room until I was able to capture his attention for a moment. The only restaurant earning a second star this year did so after moving to a new space, becoming a new incarnation of itself on the south side of Williamsburg. Aska, the name, referring to “growth from the ashes” in Swedish, seems fitting for a restaurant that seems to have grown from iterations of itself and its chef’s willingness to continue to move forward. I asked Fredrik what it takes for a restaurant to assail from one to that coveted second star. The naïve, quizzical look on his face as he tried to find the words to express the definition of his genius was refreshing in a room full of self-assuredness. It was evident in his words that the focus is on his craft and not the accolades that it may garner him. He spoke of fresh, superior ingredients that were locally and regionally sourced; a team that was devoted to excellence every night, a focus on the honing of his and his team’s craft, and continuing to be creative and surprising while also being true to the cuisine. This ability to bridge the tradition of certain dishes and marrying them with regional ingredients and modern concept to elevate the result is a cornerstone of his mission.
Delectation: delight; enjoyment; elation; rapture. The common thread that connected each of these accounts from three different points of view of the chef’s table is to be focus on being at the height of your craft. Each spoke of a mission that had been formed and crafted to move the experience they provide to the next level. The resulting delectation of each guest, each and every day, is the prime directive. From my brief research on what makes a Michelin star worthy experience, these themes of mastery, discipline, and creativity seem to match the accounts of these fine chefs.
As the event drew to a close, I sat down at one of the tables and just watched the people as they finished their cocktails wandering through the room toward ladies ready to hand out parting gifts from the evening. I sipped my champagne and took a moment to reflect on what I had experienced and learned. It was a beautiful party, but so much patience, persistence, and toil went into building these dreams into a reality. Lots of sweat, tears, and burned in scars from blazing hot pans along the road. Planning, discipline, and mastery were required to reach this level and be a part of this lovely evening. Like Fredrik, so many of these culinary artists are not chasing a fancy star, they just want to do great work and delight others with their gastronomic creations. This night for them was just the icing on a cake that took many years and great skill to make.