Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Quote of the Day: Chef Andrew Zimmern (Minnesota Nice, Part II)

Before I get into the Quote of the Day, I should say that my Minnesota Nice post from a couple of weeks ago provoked some close friends to tease that I've gotten too big for my britches out here in the balmy climes of Manhattan. Maybe the pace of The Big City has soured me on my roots and encouraged me to resort to cliches about Minnesota instead of taking the time to think about its culture -- my own culture -- critically.

The Masticator has not sold out, I assure you. As Randy "Macho Man" Savage rapped on his seminal 2003 album "Be A Man", "Remember Me I'm the same ol' Macho that I used to be."

So here's chef, food writer, and cable tv show host Andrew Zimmern on Minnesota Nice:
"Lutheran DNA — a lot of people call it Minnesota Nice — is a cultural phenomenon in this town. People are afraid to come out with bold opinions and stir the pot."
Ooo, fighting words. Andrew Zimmern, a New York chef who made his name in Minneapolis as the executive chef at Cafe Un Deux Trois in the 1990s, began his multimedia career sometime after he stopped cooking fulltime in 1997.

I knew of him as one of the food critics at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine where I was an intern about five years ago. The three interns spent most of our time fact checking. In the case of the food criticism, that meant calling the restaurants that Zimmern and Adam Platt wrote about to verify facts from reviews -- like what was on the menu, where the restaurant was, its hours, its interior. Chefs were often surly with us, worried that we were checking on a bad review that might sink their establishment. We weren't; Mpls.St.Paul doesn't do negative reviews.

It was interesting work and it meant that the interns had read and re-read every article in the magazine and made certain that each statement of fact was accurate. (As an aside, I spent hours on the phone with the Walker Art Center's PR person for an article describing the museum's fancy expansion. I felt like I knew the layout before I got there.) Andrew Zimmern's monthly column was one that I especially enjoyed reading. They were smart, well-written, and seemed to grasp the business of food and restaurants in the Twin Cities. They seemed fair and learned.

That was years ago, but I was shocked to hear the wellspring of resentment from Mitch Omer, a bitterness that seems to come out of a quiet Minnesota simmering larger than just one restaurant owner:
"His orations involve an immense waste of time. But, like slowing down to look at a morbid and horrifying accident, I read his column every month. His gastronomic fatalism sorely tries the patience of every chef and restaurateur in Minneapolis. He is inaccurate and tremendously negative; a perfect tabloid weapon. But, Andrew, you have been playing without an opponent, and I must say, it's my turn at bat."
Omer lambasted Zimmern in a recent issue of The Rake. Though neither of Omer's two Hell's Kitchen locations (Minneapolis and Duluth) have ever been reviewed by Zimmern, he's sick of the local food czar's influence.

The City Pages rehashed what has become a sprawling "food fight" across all the local rags in its January 9 issue.

Is Zimmern really that bad, that negative? I never thought so, but I haven't read him consistently for a while. But before we all attack a critic of any kind for being "too negative," remember what art critic Jerry Saltz said in response to an angry gallery owner who couldn't understand why he wouldn't be a better cheerleader for the art world (I blogged that back in February of last year):
"You mean all reviews should be positive?" I asked. "Yes," she replied unreservedly. "If you don't like the work, don't write about it." I know there's a lot at stake when a dealer shows an artist, but basically the art world was a micro-society to this gallerist -- a country club or a pleasure cruise where everyone was to observe certain rules and just be nice. A review is now little more than spin control or a marketing device to tweak sales. As criticism is directly tied to shopping, anything that erodes brand identity is frowned upon. While the gallerist continued, I realized that she saw herself as something of an evangelist: someone who sells art, nurtures artists, and spreads the word. I wanted to be what Peter Plagens calls a "goalie," someone who in essence says, "It's going to have to be pretty good to get by me." Finally, I blurted, "Praising everything an artist does reduces everything to drivel." At which point she removed her arm from around my shoulder and I fled.
I brought that up early last year again when Dara Moskowitz, the former City Pages food critic, had to defend herself against not picking any St. Paul restaurants in her best of the year list: "There's an implicit grading on the curve that all of us local food writers do for St. Paul and the suburbs, and I'm kind of sick of it," she wrote. "Eventually, it all snowballs, and here we are: drowning in a murky world of insider-relativism and the soft condescension of low expectations."

So is it haughty and insensitive when East Coasters like Andrew Zimmern and Macy's North CEO Frank Guzzetta and Minnesota transplants like me talk a little tougher about Minnesota's mild non-confrontational attitudes? Yes.

But don't Minnesotans need to develop thicker skins so the state can grow beyond the provincial "Star of the North" goofiness that prevents us from being more than a Coen Brothers parody in the eyes of the rest of the country?


Blogger The Masticator said...

I was hoping to provoke some of my Minnesotan friends, but maybe I've only proved my point. Are my passive-aggressive compatriots just muttering to each other what a jerk I am?

10:38 PM  

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