Back in late 2015 I had the pleasure of doing one of my “Kitchen Conversations” with the one and only Mimi Sheraton. She passed away this past week at the glorious age of 97. She lived one helluva a life. One with passion, integrity, humor and grit. I hope you enjoy her conversation with me. — Norman
“It always amazes me that you people know me. It pleases me”.— Mimi Sheraton
“I hate writing so much that my gums ache whenever I am doing it. I am sure I am always frowning and biting lower lip. Always afraid I won’t get it right or say what I mean to.”— Mimi Sheraton
What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying? Where were you?
First thing I ate and enjoyed…maybe vanilla junket in a high jar..have no idea of age but in a high chair.. recall it being in our Brooklyn kitchen. but maybe more a strange thing..when i was still in a stroller my mother took me to Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn and on Sat. would bring for lunch a jar of hot chicken soup (from Fri.nite dinner) with noodles, carrots, bits of chicken breast..still remember hot soup taste sitting on picnic blanket on sand ,, strange meal for a beach..know it was in a glass jar but stayed very hot..we had summer cottage near the beach so did not have far to go..I was about 3.
Are you the first ‘writer’ in your Family?
Yes I am the first professional full time writer. My father wrote two books with editors help both on the fruit and vegetable industry of which he was a part. One book was on distribution of perishables the other on their transportation.
When did you start?
I was sort of a good writer in school and decided to be one when went to college but not sure if I wanted to do advertising or journalism, so studied both at NYU. Never thought about food writing tho was much influenced b y MFK Fishers early work in original Gourmet mag.
When did you realize that it was ‘serious’ to you?
Serious I guess when I chose to pursue it at college.
Where were you when that moment took place?
Do not think I had an epiphany in a particular place.
What was the first review you were published with that you felt proud of?
My early writings were not reviews. First I wrote home furnishings and jewelry copy for an ad agency. Then I became a home furnishing copywriter at Good Housekeeping which is what got me into the editorial and magazine worlds. Liked it so much wanted to be the editor so went to night school. NY school of Interior Design and worked as home furnishings editor for about 9 years at Seventeen and then House Beautiful Supplement division. But while at 17 also became food editor.
I reviewed restaurants for Cue magazine a few years then for The Village Voice where the review I liked most was for The Coach House in Greenwich Village.
Why do you think you are a ‘deadline writer’?
If I knew why maybe I could cure that … a constant misery. Once a piece it is clear in my mind I consider it done even if there isn’t a word on paper..or on the monitor.
I absolutely loathe writing. I would rather clean the stove. I write like Don Marquis famed “Archy the Cockroach”. I hurl myself head downward on the keys then fall exhausted to the floor.
Who was ‘Martha Martin’? (Her pseudonym for a while).
I was Martha Martin..a name picked by editors of ‘Cue’ because they thought my name was improbable.
Who was you favorite other restaurant reviewer of all time? Why so?
Craig Claiborne, hands down. We all stand on his shoulders..he brought honest and sometimes negative food criticism to the media world as well as serious professional cooking stories wresting it from the hands of home economists.
You have noted that you possess a “7 Year Itch”. What is the next itch to scratch for Mimi Sheraton?
The next itch? Well..maybe none at the moment except no more books..do not want contracts hanging over my 89-year-old head..interested in exploring some aspects of taste perception and also food lore,. superstition, custom, and in religion..food symbolism, that is.
Who brought you to work at Condé Nast Magazines? What were the circumstances.
Conde Nast? No one brought me to “Conde Nast”. Each magazine was a different experience. Had written a few travel pieces for Vogue when I was free-lancing before New York Magazine and the NYT. But when I left NYT, Leo Lehrman then the first of revived Vanity Fair offered me a contract and I did that for a year til Tina Brown came and she was not in love with food. At that time, her husband Harry Evans took over The CN Traveler and asked me to join it which I did. He was fabulous to work for as were several of my other editors. As for The New Yorker, I submitted ideas to Susan Morrison, a terrific editor for whom I had done some work when she was editor of the NYObserver..and she started buying some of the pieces for Talk of the Town and then steered me to the editors doing the various annual food issues and I contributed to 3 of those.
Do you feel this kind of life you lived caused you to sacrifice having a ‘normal life’?
I think it saved me from a “normal” life … something I never wanted.
What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of cookery you loved and how it morphed over your career?
Arc of food experience..guess it was a combination of Eastern Europe Jewish Cooking and Brooklyn-NY American,. We were not kosher and my mother was a great cook and did a lot of Ashkenazi type Jewish cooking.but since we are not kosher we had butter on baked potatoes with steak, etc. Also we lived near Sheepshead Bay and went to rest. there and my mother bought and cooked all manner of shellfish which I have always loved. First foreign cuisine that opened the world of food to me was French bistro cooking as used to be served in many small rest. in Manhattan.
Who is the most important cookbook author of the past 50 years in your estimation? Why?
Most important food or cookbook .. for general public and influence, I would have to say Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art” … that plus her TV work showed many they could do the same and also lead them to try in new foods in restaurants, personally the cookbook that influenced me most was “French Provincial Cooking” by Elizabeth David. But for a food book where recipes seemed minor to me, it was MFK Fisher’s “An Alphabet for Gourmets”.
Who is the most important chef of the past 100 years? Why?
I think most important chef of last 100 years would be between Point at “La Pyramide” for training and mentoring so many chefs who innovated and became famous,. Other than that I would say Paul Bocuse mainly because he took chefs out of the servant class. My favorite chef of last 100 years is of course Andre Soltner of late-lamented “Lutèce”.
Who is the most ‘mischievous’ chef you have ever known?
Most mischievous chef unquestionably is the late Jean Banchet of Le Francais in Wheeling, Ill.
If you could go out for drinks and dinner with an ‘food person’ (can be living or from the past in this hypothetical question..) who would it be and why?
I guess who I would like to have dinner with is MFK Fisher. I did know her and visited her several times and would love to go on talking to her … she was full of mischief about more than food. But also A.J. Liebling if you consider him a food writer for his book, “Between Meals”. And Joseph Wechsberg for his book, “Blue Trout and Black Truffles”…another big influence on me.
What do you think the Food Network did to the landscape of dining?
Food Network influence..best part of what they do is to get many interested in food and thinking about it..all to the good for mass coverage. However I do not like many of their shows..other than sometimes catching “The Barefoot Contessa” and “Amanda Freitag“, I rarely watch . Prefer PBS food shows that show in NYC on Sunday afternoons..more serious and instructive and they also did my all time favorite TV food shows which is “The Kimchi Chronicles”. I do not really care for more confrontational shows such as Chopped, Iron Man, etc.
What is your favorite “Food/Wine/Drinks Holiday”?
My favorite food, drink holiday is Christmas … especially for North European specialties and German etc.. I also love symbolic foods and there are many at Christmas
Is Thanksgiving overrated? (In terms of food and drink)?
Thanksgiving may not be overrated but I am very tired of it..stopped cooking it years ago and my son and daughter in law do it..I contribute Manhattan clam chowder
What food, drink or ingredient will never enter your body again?
Kale will never enter my body again..loathe it..also scallops but only because I am allergic to them, especially when cooked.. I also will not drink, fancy infantile cocktail and mixed drinks..other than maybe classic vodka martini about once every 5 years.
Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?
‘Chez L’Ami Louis’ in Paris is my all time favorite or a place for Shanghai or Chinese classics.
What food or ingredient do you adore?
The food I most adore is great Russian or Iranian caviar.. preferably the former. I have never had a substitute I can take seriously.
Do you feel culinary schools are preparing young folks for a life as a chef?
From what I see, culinary schools..the good ones..are good preparation for the work routine and attitude and learning the lingo and getting students into the loop for those who do not know how to..or do not want to..learn old fashioned way by doing menial jobs in kitchens for many years, etc. But whether they prepare them for the life..meaning personal life..is quite another matter..the hours, the lack of time for family and dinner at home with family, the waiting wife or husband..all of those often come as a surprise..especially for women many of whom drop out long before men would have..i.e. Joyce Goldstein and Annie Rosenzweig, by way of example..coming out of culinary school means one should be ready to start to apply and learn in a professional kitchen..
Who is the smartest “food person” you have ever known?
That is a hard one..maybe Craig Claiborne at a particular time.
Which was the most famous restaurant you ever made madder than a hornet at you?
You should know that I like to piss people off … ever since childhood.. it tickles me..very perverse..Their number is legion I am happy to say but will think about Regine’s or Spark’s Steak House or a bygone Italian one where they sent some strong-arm to the paper and he was intercepted by Wackenhut guards. I did piss off almost all of France with two-part piece on 3-star restaurants if you’d like to hear about that. Some there still are pissed off if old enough to recall and they include Bocuse, Troisgros, Chapel, local critics, etc.
Favorite ‘Food Movie’ of all time? (or Food Scene)?
Between ‘Le Grande Bouffe’ and ‘Eat, Drink, Man, Woman’.
My favorite scene in first is when big fat lady plants her bare ass on the strawberry mousse as a design. Opening scene in ‘Eat Drink’ where father-chef is shown killing a carp by jamming long cooking chopsticks right though it from stem to stern. The sheer drama of Chinese cooking has always stunned and inspired me.
Is ‘molecular’ or ‘modernist cuisine’ something you feel has made cuisine better?
Molecular should make food better.. bit too early to tell as its principle and views have not seeped down far enough to know…but idea behind it of reduction to essentials is just one more step in the traditional attempt to do just that. I see it as a further step in the idea of reduction to essentials as in preparing say a little demi-glace from a lot of meat and bones. Just a newer modern way to do it. Eventually and if filtered down to more mass level, might change perception of what food should be..also too early to tell if it will have widespread mass commercial use.
If it all came down to the world knowing your life’s work via ‘one review’…like an author via a single book they’d written…which review would be the one that you choose?
One review…not so much an official review, but article on Chez L’Ami Louis…or review of Rao’s. But if a negative one that made the rounds here and in Paris, it would be Regine’s when open in NYC. But not to forget series on French 3-stars.
(She answered this again in another way): I am rethinking answer to that question …it should be the round up review of France 3 stars that appeared June 7, 1978…one article but many of the 3 stars in it..you can read it in Times archives before or after we discuss why this one. The second part of that french round up with more of same on different 3 stars appeared June 20, 1979 called Restaurant Tour of France and Belgium..3 stars.
You’ve created a “Buffet” meal so you can sit and join your 3 chosen guests from all of History. What 6 items did you serve? Whom are your 3 guests?
Hard to believe I need buffet for only 3 quests.but buffet would be one my husband and I did on New Years Day for about 20 years..Scandinavian…herring beet & apple salad, halibut and shrimp dilled salad, homemade gravlax, Swedish meatballs and baked brown beans, baked ham. 3 from all history..a little silly..but Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart and Richard Dawkins tho he is alive..if that does not count then maybe Madame Curie.
If you had not made it as a writer … and money were not an issue…what profession would you choose?
If I had it to do over again, without thinking of making it as writer or money I would be doing some form of biological research, either as a physician or geneticist..both were my first loves.
Would you want your child/grandchild (or a niece or nephew) to become a food/restaurant critic?
No. Not especially. But then I would only want for them what they want for themselves.
If you wrote a book on ‘advice for aspiring critics’ what would you choose for it’s title?
I would never write such a book…
PHONE CONVERSATION HERE:
What writing that you did created the biggest fuss?
My review of the 3 star restaurants … many of which I didn’t like created such a furor in France. There was a TV program in Paris at that time called, “Dossier de L’Ecran’. They took a different subject and they had a table full of experts supposedly having dinner when my story came out. Paul Bocuse was in it. So was one of the Troisgros brothers, Andre Daguin, a woman chef from Lyon… and they asked me to be on…I said I would not be on the program unless I could be masked because they didn’t know what I looked like and that I would probably be back some day. They agreed. They made for me a ridiculous blonde wig with bangs that looked like it was made of broom straw. They got an eye mask with a little lace ruffle on the back that looked like it was made from a whore’s nightgown and thus disguised I went on the television in France wired up and down all over simultaneously. They translated because my French isn’t good enough to deal with a situation like that or anything in fact other than a menu. We began arguing on the subject of restaurant criticism and restaurant critics. I said about Bocuse that I had been to his restaurant many times and that he has never been there and that like Buckingham Palace they should fly a flag over the restaurant when he was in like they do when the Queen is in residence over there. At the end of this program which went on for about 3-3 1/2 hours and were were all getting up from the table he came over and tried to pull off my mask. I gave him a push and he fell over a light box on the floor. (I admit I gasped at this!) And, (she went on) every newspaper in France, every newspaper in Germany had the story about the American woman who came over and said not all of the 3 Stars were good. It was a two part story. The first year I did 9 restaurants and the second I did 9 more. It was the first year that caused the furor. That was like 1977 or 1978. About three years ago I was at a big weekend event by Star Chefs. I was introduced to Pierre Gagniere. The first thing he said was, “Oh! The Masked Lady on the television! You really taught us a lesson!” That was how many decades ago? And I’ve been gone from the (New York) Times for 32 years now. The older people in France still remember. Alain Chapel said, “She could not have eaten here. I would have known she was here”. And I liked most of things at his restaurant. Bocuse said… ‘she must have a terrible sex life’. Guérard said ‘she was never here’. How would they have known? I used my married name. I made no reservations through the New York Times office. I didn’t let the Times in Paris know where I was going. And nobody knew what I looked like! I went each of the places twice. Once at lunch and once at dinner. It was at the height of La Nouvelle Cuisine. They were all so very young. Gael Greene and Craig (Claiborne) all called them “The Young Turks”. When my husband and I got back to Paris. I decided I wanted to find the oldest chef in Paris. And I did some research and it panned out to be Antoine Magnin at Chez L’Ami Louis who then was 81. I had gone to that restaurant in the ’50’s. It was always a dump and insanely expensive and insanely good! This time I went back after like 20 years and again they didn’t know me. It was fabulous. So in addition to the piece on the 3 Star restaurants I did one on Chez L’ Ami Louis and I don’t think anyone has been able to get in since. And suddenly the ‘old taste’, the classic thing, no mumbo jumbo, the chef’s self expressions. So when we were on this television program they were talking about, we were talking about ‘ego vs. going back to those old tastes’… and it was a very interesting time. People magazine did a whole full page picture of me in the mask and the veil. They got the picture from someone over at the program. Many years later.. maybe 15 years later.. and I was down at Balthazar (restaurant) having lunch with a friend and Bocuse came in with some people and was seated at the next table… I gave my card to the Captain. I said, “Please give this to Monsieur Bocuse”. And he did. Bocuse jumped up and ran over to my table and said, “You were right”, (because I had predicted that Nouvelle Cuisine was going to cost France it’s reputation for food). Bocuse himself opening traditional bistros in Lyon. He had two. One Bistro Nord. One Bistro Sud. I don’t know if he ever got around to East and West. But that was the story that caused the most uproar.
I asked her her favorite of all she ate.
The one that was truly wonderful was “Pic” in Valence. I also thought Guérard was also very good. I like most of what I had at Troisgros. But “Pyramide”… the famous “Pyramide” was totally horrible! Now I had been there in 1953 when (Chef Fernand) Point was alive. It was my first trip to France and I ate at Pyramide and he was cooking and it was marvelous! Of course by 1976 or 1977 he was long gone and his widow wandered around the dining room like some kind of strange innkeeper… like something in a glockenspiel I think I said then. She came through the dining room like every 15 minutes. The food was terrible. I likened it to the food at the New York Times cafeteria. When I wrote the story. This was before being on that television program … I asked to have an interview with the head of Guide Michelin… who had never given an interview to the press… but I think he thought the New York Times would be okay… and I asked him why some of them had 3 Stars. I asked him what about La Pyramide? I said, “The food was terrible!” He said, “Yes. We know it has gone down”. I said, “Well why does it still have 3 stars?” He said, “Sentiment”. So of course I wrote that … because it was very expensive. I said, “Why don’t you erect a statue … name a park after him?” It also turned out there was another reason. Without that restaurant having the small town it was in would have been economically negatively effected. In 1953 it was a real dump. I had a room with a bare lightbulb hanging from a wire. I’m sure it’s better now. In 1953 it was only a few years after the war ended so things were not back to being totally lovely.
I asked her about how she knew which places to go to back in 1953.
There was Gourmet Magazine. But everyone knew about La Pyramide, Maxim’s, Tour d’Agent. I guess I did a little research. I had to save a year and a half for a 3 month trip around Europe. It took 3,000.00 then. The room in Paris then went for $2.50 or $4.50 a night depending on if you wanted a private toilet. Dinner cost about $7.00 then. I think I have the Michelin Guide from that year.
But the other story I have is this one.
The “New Yorker” had an article about a restaurant by the writer John McPhee. He wouldn’t give the name of the chef in the article. He said it was the best restaurant he ever went to. It was, (McPhee said), “better than Baumaniere”, (Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux-de-Provence) “Better than Lutèce”. McPhee made a big secret of the place. He left clues as to where it was and everyone was trying to guess. He called the chef in the story “Otto”. The only three people in the world who thought McPhee’s piece was bullshit was me, Craig Claiborne and Frank Prial. We thought. This chef doesn’t sound so good. This is a ridiculous story. So.. the three people at the top went out looking for “Otto”. Then we got a memo from our very acerbic managing editor who said, “I hope you guys are looking for this person”. We were all hoping someone would find him first. Someone called me saying The Washington Post has an article today speculating which restaurant in the New Jersey … Poconos area it might be based on the conversation he had with someone at the CIA. So.. living in the West Village I am close to a lot of newspapers stands that carry out of town papers. I picked up a copy of the Washington Post. There were 3 restaurant speculated upon by this former CIA Director… Rosenberg or Rosenthal or Rosen-something… whatever his name was… on which one it could be. So I had to stay home that day. My brother was coming over. I was cooking. It was a miserable cold day in February. So I called the first restaurant. I think it was called The Red Fox in Millerville or something New Jersey. I said, “Is this the restaurant in the story? They said YES.. (laughing). I thought… Is this going to be this easy??… But… the person on the other end of the line. It was sold and the chef who was in the story is now at another restaurant… and we cannot give you the name of that other restaurant… So I called Frank Prial. Frank is an old (great) newspaperman… and he also reviewed New Jersey restaurants… and I told him the situation. Frank said, “We must have a stringer in the area. I will get him to the local politician because politicians always eat at the best restaurants… It wasn’t an hour and a half later and Frank called me back with some restaurant in a little town in Pennsylvania named “The Bull Head Inn”. He said, “Let’s go”. I said, “Let’s go??” He said, “Yes. We have to go”. It was icy out. He said, “Send your brother to The Four Seasons. I’ll pay for it”. Frank picked me up in the car. We went and picked up his wife in New Jersey. And we went to this place and it was awful! The food was awful. By this time I think they got the word we were coming. Frank had called and made the reservation using some odd name and maybe the other place I had called may have alerted him… and I think they knew. While we were there the wife or whoever it was told me I had a phone call. It was my husband. He said that while we were there John McPhee had called the house and asked that I not run the story… and that would I call him at whatever time I returned home. No matter how late. So we finished the dinner and we went out in the slick of ice. Frank had to help each of us across the parking lot to the car. We got to the highway. He called in to the paper. It was a Friday night so it would be for the Saturday paper. I was going to write my whole story Sunday for the Monday paper. I got home. It was like 4 in the morning. I called John McPhee. He said, “I beg you not to write it”. He said, “it was a lapse of integrity” (or something like that). I said, “Not my integrity. I never promised not to write about them! You promised them. But you could not control this. This is a story everyone is talking about and its a news story. And… as a matter of fact it’s too late because in about a half an hour the Saturday paper with the story in it is going to be dropped on my steps. (Laughing). I want to tell you Frank’s appeared Saturday and mine on Monday with the ‘wet bread and the stuffing’… I still remember something that was like saltimbocca.. something that was rolled up.. that was just wet. That dish I remember most of all. And EVERYTHING hit the fan. Every publication wrote about what a horrible person I was! How I ruined these people’s lives. This is all in my memoir, “Eating My Words”. The wife… who was very shy…. a Latvian woman I think. She did not want to be publicized. Because I think the chef.. his name was Alan Leib… (the real name of Otto)… would want the recognition.
That caused a furor. Time Magazine, The Village Voice.. all saying I was a terrible person. The wife wrote a letter saying that I had ruined their lives.
Did you ever wish to physically assault someone?
Oh Sure. Often! All of the old time waiters and captains and such back in 1953!
…But I never did! I wanted to stick a pin in them. But I only assaulted them verbally.
What review that you wrote gave you the greatest joy?
I would say that was between L’Ami Louis, which was not really a ‘review’ per se but a story… and my review of ‘Rao’s’ in New York. It was such fun. It was a popular restaurant with a very particular crowd… but it was not well known in general. And to discover something like that. It was joyful.
This had been so wonderful Mimi. I could go on talking with you for hours. But before we end I would love it if you would do one more thing with me though. I’d like you to go into your ‘mind’s eye’ and walk with me down the street of New York of when you were a young girl.
I moved to Greenwich Village when I was 19 from Brooklyn. As I child growing up in Brooklyn… I don’t know if there was a ‘food street’ except for one area that was very important to my family and that was Sheepshead Bay with all of the seafood restaurants. The original Lundy’s was built out on stilts in the bay. Most people remember the newer one that was built but I remember the one out in the bay. I remember being so young that they put telephone books on the chair for me so I could reach the table. The aromas of things… that my family was crazy about… clams on the half shell, lobsters, biscuits, huckleberry pie.. and that whole stretch had restaurants. Some like Lundy’s, some preferred Villepigue’s… That area.. with the smell of the sea and the taste of the clams..
The New York Jewish delis were also a great memory. They were in almost every settlement. With the scent of pickles.. and pastrami… and hot dogs.
When I moved to Manhattan… I don’t remember a single street that I could walk you down a ‘street’.. but the one area that probably impressed me more than any was the area around the Theater District and over toward 9th or 10th Avenue. There was a cluster of authentic French bistros. With all French employees. And they were moderately priced. They spoke no English. I heard that one reason for all of this was that’s where the piers where the French line docked and the guys would come over to those restaurants. They were marvelous. The best one I remember was Paris Brest. Brittany was very good. Champlain too. They were very influential for my passion for French food. And the background music was Piaf and “La Mer” by Charles ___. I wanted to go to Paris. Greenwich Village was as close as I could get. That was a very formative period. When I did get to Paris I was struck by how authentic the New York bistros were. I’m not talking about fancy restaurants. I didn’t have the money nor the ambition really to go to the fancy ones. But the snails and frog legs, and kidneys and brains were just wonderful. I think there is only one in New York now that still has that just right, “La Mangeoire”. It’s on 2nd Ave between 53rd and 54th. Its in a part of town that is so obscure it doesn’t even have a name on it. (Laughs). That is the closest in terms of taste. The Coq au Vin is poetic.
(I thanked her for her generosity).
She said, “I love it. And I want everyone to know… it was a wonderful life”.
And it remains! With great vigor!
She laughed and said, “Going into the sunset chewing!”.
Is that the title of your next book?
No more books! I will be 90 in February and want no more contracts over my head. I’m doing a lot of articles and doing an awful lot of speaking due to my book, “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.
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