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Thursday, September 22, 2005

The case of a straying hand

Seasoningchef2_2The food world is abuzz with a brewing scandal. The subject at hand is the new book, the Seasoning of a Chef, by Doug Psaltis. The particularly contentious bit was the chapter on his all-too-brief tenure as a sous chef at the fabled French Laundry. Freshly out on his fanny after Mix, Psaltis took up the position, arriving in sleepy Yountville mid summer, before the end of fall he was out the door again.

Psaltis didn't have too many kind words about the restaurant's operation or his time there. He claimed that the walk-in at the French Laundry was a mess, the rank and file cooks incompetent, and Thomas Keller himself preferring aesthetics to taste. Nothing all that bad, as slandering comments go. Like most biographies, the stories all seemed heavily biased toward the teller himself. Nothing new or noteworthy there either.

It's all Rashomon, you might say. But then again, even in Rashomon, there were a few indisputable facts. A samurai and his wife traveled through a forest. They were met by a common thief. A fight ensued, the samurai ended up dead, and his wife disappeared. The four tales were all rifts off this factual theme.

The bone of contention here was mostly based on the story that Psaltis himself told, not in the book but rather belatedly on the thread discussing his book on eGullet. Psaltis claimed he slapped the hand of a runner who refused an order to remove his hands off the pass. For many, this story was highly disputable. Some wondered out loud precisely where Psaltis's straying hand hit the unfortunate runner. Others were caught mulling if this slap of hand -or wherever- contributed to Psaltis departure -voluntary or otherwise- from Yountville. So, in this case, it was the fact of the matter that was in dispute, not the retelling of the story from various points of view. Even my relativist self is demanding to know who is telling the truth. No, it is not all Rashomon to me.

The entire exchange had Michael Ruhlman, an occasional eGullet contributor, publicly urging Psaltis to come clean, to come really clean. The subtext of this hinted at a troubling incongruity between the account that Psaltis gave and those that Ruhlman gathered from his contacts at the restaurant. That same exchange also prompted Anthony Bourdain, eG's resident deity, to publicly retract the kind words he offered as a blurb on the book jacket. A moment of comic relief in an otherwise escalating contention arrived when Bourdain -bless his Blurb-o-matic heart- realized, to his more than palpable releif, that he had given no blurb at all for this book. No retraction required, he was then heading over -in his own words- to "bust Mario's balls" for blurbing in said book.

The battle for semantics had an eGullet founder Fat Guy -whose literary agent is none other than Psaltis's twin brother and co-author of the book in question- came to Psaltis's defense by flippantly referring to the unfortunate target of Psaltis strayed hand as "an obnoxious runner." Fat Guy also called for the nay-sayers to end all the innuendos -enough with accusing his poor Doug of sacrificing small children alright! Fat Guy went on to demand those who thought themselves in the know to come out say what they thought actually happened. Yet, inexplicably, he locked the thread in which he made those demands soon afterwards, denying all the chance to do the very things he asked, and guaranteeing himself the final words on this matter.

The thread on eG remained closed over night, and reopened early this morning with an edict from management that all "posts containing hearsay or innuendo will be deleted." Geez, we are speaking of a food forum right? If they were to delete all hearsay there would be what, ten lines, left in the entire thing, no? Most people debating the merit of Ferran Adrià's food have never even been to elBulli, after all. And if they were to delete all innuendos, they might as well begin with the one where the Illustrious Founder himself implied that the poor runner asked for it for being so obnoxious.

Inquiring minds want to know what the owls delivered in the night that got Mr.Ruhlman substantially toning down his inquisition when the thread reopened this morning. No owl could repress the indomitable Tony Bourdain, however, so he's still there calling into question both the seasoning and the chef himself. An ever shining example to rebellious souls everywhere. Bravo Tony.

The entire discussion is now meandering toward drudging irrelevance. With the eG management waiting to delete all hearsay, leaving but a handful of people present that faithful day in the Laundry's kitchen to really tell what happened. And that's never going to happen, ladies and gentlemen. I am sure Thomas Keller thought this whole affair quite beneath him. As for his staff, energetic young cooks aspiring to have a long and rewarding future in this small world would never stick their neck out and risk incurring the wrath from a big publishing house or from les frères Psaltis's myriads of influential friends in the business.

It was this that so annoyed me. That someone could take such liberty with the truth and likely would get away with it. You know, when someone told you they have been slapped, t'is not on the hand they usually referred to. Also, as someone in eG aptly commented "as anyone that watches Judge Judy can tell you, one person's "slap" is another's "sock upside the head." Blaming the poor slap-ee was also rather graceless on top of everything. And, yes, yes, though my formal training in research methods taught me to be supremely cautious in implying causality, I still have enough cause to question Psaltis's protest that this incident didn't contribute to his eventual departure from the restaurant. Not the least because the eventual departure Doug Psaltis alluded to was otherwise reported (by trustworthy sources -and yes, you'd have to take my word on this matter) as occurring the very next day. Intriguing chronology, is it not?

What of the book, at the end of the day, you asked? Let's just say that I regret not having better things to do with my time than suffering such tedium. If you want to see juicy bits, you won't find much on Thomas Keller, Psaltis reserved far more vitriol for poor Dan Barber of Blue Hill -though he was too chicken to even name Barber in the book.

Should you buy the book, you wondered? Well, I'm not going to tell you to do or not do anything. I would, however, point to the comfortable chairs they've got at your local Borders or Barnes and Noble where you could plant yourself and plow through the 30-ish pages containing the bone of contention. Heck, might as well damn yourself properly and get a Starbucks Frappacino to sip along while your are at it.

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» Ding Dong cont'd from Silverbrow on Food
Here is Pim's far more eloquent take on the whole sordid affair. To take on the likes of Michael Ruhlman and Anthony Bourdain, and more importantly Thomas Keller, indicates just how much eG seems to be losing the plot. Both [Read More]

» links for 2005-09-23 from medmusings
Gulf Hurricane of Top Strength Menaces Texas - New York Times: The president needs a grammar lesson: we HAVE got to be ready for the worst... "President Bush said in a speech Wednesday to the Republican Jewish Coalition. "We hope and pray that Hurrica... [Read More]

» Ding dong cont'd from Silverbrow on Food
Here is Pim's far more eloquent take on the whole sordid affair. To take on the likes of Michael Ruhlman and Anthony Bourdain, and more importantly Thomas Keller, indicates just how much eG seems to be losing the plot. Both [Read More]

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