With a trophy chest of James Beard awards and other accolades, Alan Richman is the most decorated food writer in North America, if not the world. The GQ contributor is also a former Montrealer who often writes about the city with fondness, most notably in his book Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater. Richman spoke to Eater Montreal about Montreal food nostalgia, global chef symposiums, macho restaurant culture, and more.
When you think of Montreal, what immediately comes to mind?
Well I think of my time at the Montreal Star. I was a sportswriter but I was also a food columnist with Bee McGuire back in the day. I always remember [journalist] Tim Burke at the Gazette, a beloved local character. No matter how well I wrote, nobody paid attention to me. It was all about Tim. One day I was sitting at Schwartz's with Ray Scott, a former NBA player. I turned around and said to nobody in particular "This is Ray Scott, famous NBA player, ever hear of him?" "No." Then Ray said, "This is Alan Richman, sportswriter, every hear of him?" "No." "Ever hear of William and Françoise Neill?" "Yes!" [McGuire and Richman wrote as William and Françoise Neill, a quarrelsome team of restaurant reviewers, for the Star in the late 1970s.] That's when I thought, maybe I should focus on food writing.
And what about specific restaurants in the city, back then and today?
My restaurant memories of Montreal are divided up into three blocks. The first is from the mid 1970s. The second is the wasteland of restaurants that sprang up during the post-Olympics recession. And the third is the city's restaurant renaissance, which we're still in.
When I was working there, the place was filled with wonderful, almost-French restaurants. There was a lot of cheese–maybe too much. I remember that. But wonderful French chefs, and every other day I ate in a restaurant that was almost like being in Paris. There was wonderful ambition and classic food. I remember Chez Bardet. And strolling violinists, a trio of violinists, at [Le Castillon in] the Bonaventure. Wonderful times.
I'm not sure what caused the renaissance but I think it started before Toqué! Still, I remember my first taste of Normand Laprise's food. I thought Toqué! was like a guerrilla fighter battling the forces of tyranny. Although it came later, Les Chèvres in Outremont was a favourite. I was crazy about that place. It was stunning. I didn't like vegetables that much - I still don't - but it was staggeringly good. The emphasis on vegetables and local ingredients was ahead of its time. If it were still open, Les Chèvres would be modern today.
And there was Le Passe-Partout. James McGuire [brother of Bee] is a magnificent talent. This was a miniature restaurant serving huge, formal French cuisine. It had everything except it was tiny. All the same discipline and technique was there. It was a "Mini-Me" version of a grand French restaurant. [Martin Picard's] Au Pied de Cochon of course. That rustic, Québécois food, done that way, changed everything.
I have [former Gazette restaurant critic] Helen Rochester's book here. I wanted to remember the name of a particular restaurant with a very eccentric chef. It was [Old Montreal's] Au Pierrot Gourmet. The chef, Jean Louis Larré, was a character. The legend, if I recall, was that he cooked over wood, never wore shoes and was a bodyguard for Charles de Gaulle. He made the best lamb. You had to order the special or he'd get pissed off. I took my parents there in the late '70s and they loved it. There are so many Montreal restaurants I wish I could eat at again.
Joe Beef's Dave McMillan and Fred Morin recently spoke about fame, food festivals and why they chose not to go to the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. What are your thoughts on some of these global chef events?
I personally turn them all down. If I'm doing a story, I want to get the chef in his own environment. A lot of these events are publicist-driven, pre-ordained rituals. It becomes about self-aggrandizement, excess, and getting drunk. They have nothing to do with running a restaurant. I don't mean this as a slight on René Redzepi or MAD specifically. René is a thoughtful, intelligent person and a terrific chef. But why would anyone want to go to South Beach [Wine & Food Festival] for example? When I was married to Lettie Teague [wine columnist at The Wall Street Journal] we went to Miami for the festival one year and they gave us a hotel room over the bar. It was awful. I told them, you have to move us or I'm sleeping in the lobby. All the hotels were booked. So I slept in the lobby in my pajamas. It's just self-indulgent craziness. So I understand why some people don't go.
Has the popularity of food blogs and food websites changed the landscape much for food writers like yourself?
My take on a lot of these [food and restaurant] websites, like Yelp for example, is that everyone should be encouraged to comment. I think it's good for everyone to have a say. But nobody should read them. It's like therapy. Get it out of your system. Great. Just don't read them. But when it comes to bloggers there are idiots and sharp people. Gael Greene is a great blogger, you can't dismiss her. She's a professional. And then there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum. What bothers me is that it's hard to know who's doing it for free and who's legitimate. But this isn't new. Some critics do it too. It's been going on forever. I don't know if it's worse now - maybe it's more accepted because of the Internet.
I cover the best new restaurants for GQ every year and I just went to a place that I absolutely loved. But then I found out that a blogger recently ate there for free and wrote a rave review. That makes me not want to cover the restaurant. Who are the schnorrers and who aren't? It's hard to tell. But PR people know. There really should be a law that if you accept free food and drinks or have a personal relationship that harms your objectivity you have to divulge it. Just be transparent. There was a case in The New York Times decades ago where some reporter was having an affair with a person she was covering and the editor [Abe Rosenthal, Times executive editor from 1977 to 1986] said "I don't care if she's sleeping with an elephant as long as she's not covering the circus."
A lot of ink has been spilled of late on macho food culture, loud restaurants and the decline of fine dining. What's your take on all this?
This trend is a takeover of restaurants by the very young. Restaurants in New York are louder and louder. I was eating in Atlanta with a friend recently and he complained that the restaurant was noisy. But it was quiet by New York standards! I just wrote about this in GQ. Some places have become intolerably loud. It's routine now. Maybe young people like noise or find energy in noise. I feel like it's a very young, masculine, macho sensibility. It's a small segment of the population—a tyranny of the minority—that has taken over. I don't know who it's good for. Only young women can stop them. I remember some very elegant food in New York City restaurants 20 years ago - gutsy food - and it was being done by young women. And service standards have declined enormously. It's generally very sloppy.
But I have to say, I've had wonderful service in Montreal at places like Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon. I don't know how you get away with not eating foie gras at Au Pied de Cochon but there are some very refined dishes on that menu. And at Joe Beef too. I remember a watercress purée made with ham stock with a raft of toast topped with a dollop of aioli and seared snails. It was wonderful. That's also what I love about a restaurant like Les 400 Coups. There's a delicacy and elegance to the place. You can't find that just anywhere - a casualness that is tasteful, calming and low key.