Iron Chefs

So apparently there is some sort of epic culinary battle between New York and San Francisco going on, spurred by the Guide Michelin, which recently finished reviewing restaurants in New York and is due to descend upon the West Coast soon. Only four restaurants in New York were deemed worthy of three star status, and observers have noted that most of those establishments were French. The question now is how many stars San Francisco will garner, and if the West Coast has a chance at usurping New York’s culinary crown at last. To be fair, the rivalry has been going on for quite a long time, and the Mich is unlikely to settle the matter once and for all, but it might ruffle a few feathers.

Honestly, I’m not terribly interested in the whole affair. I like to eat good food, and I like to eat at good restaurants, but the ratings system has some issues, and therefore I am reluctant to place too much weight upon it. For me, food is about freshness, innovation, splendid explosions of flavours on the palate, and for this reason I happen to feel the West Coast is superior because it is my belief that we have access to better produce and fresh goods. I think there’s more of a commitment here to superb food than pretention, although we have high and mighty restaurant superstars all our very own.

It has been argued that New York was built by immigrants and is still a major immigration centre today, and that therefore the food must be better. (Oh, the fusion!) I regret to inform those a little shaky on their history that California was also built by immigrants and is still a major immigration centre today. You want fusion? I had a thai burrito last week. Now that’s fusion. California may not have as many European heavyweights, but that’s because California is in the United States, not Europe. If I want European food, I’ll go to Europe, because California is the seat of its own cuisine, thank you very much.

Honestly, if you want a well balanced and thoughtful opinion on the matter, you should probably read blogs written by people who actually know what they’re talking about in these matters. I just drift along, lamprey-like, with a gaping jaw, hoping food gets delivered. When it comes right down to it, I really will eat just about anything, although I prefer great meals. (For a while when I lived in Oakland, people would leave their food experiments out with “help yourself” signs just to see if I would eat them. They stopped doing that when someone got heinously sick from something that didn’t affect me in the least, apparently satisfied that not only would I eat anything, but I was apparently incapable of getting sick from food.) There are lots of great food writers out there weighing in on this issue.

What I wanted to talk about was the fundamental difference between the two cities, and I should make it clear here that I am deeply biased. I love San Francisco, and I always have. I have a deep and abiding terror of New York, and probably always will. I’m not really a fan of cities in general, but San Francisco I find tolerable and comfortable to be in, unlike New York.

But my different perceptions about the two cities go a long way, in my mind, towards explaining the cuisine differences for me. San Francisco is humble and laid back, with tall buildings at the city core, but it’s generally a friendly and welcoming city. It’s the thumb on the hand of California, saying “hey, come on over,” with numerous cutesy Victorian houses and a sense of small community despite being a very large city. Coming to San Francisco is almost like coming home. The sidewalks may be crooked, and the trees on the lawn at City Hall have a rakish tilt, but that’s San Francisco. The city arborist is probably too busy picking up a new pair of Birkenstocks to stablize foliage.

New York, however, is a megacity, and it scares the shit out of me. It’s huge. Everything in New York feels preposterously out of scale and I feel very off balance there. Walking down the sidewalks there reminds me of the cities in The Fifth Element, where plebians walk in a murky abyss on the earth while buildings soar into the sky. Everyone there speaks in an incomprehensible dialect and the whole city seems–larger than life, really. Cartoonishly large, even. There’s a post office in Manhattan which would probably accommodate the entire city of Fort Bragg…and could certainly serve as the mail center for Northern California. Flying into New York, I see sprawl going for miles, huge freeways and hulking brown buildings and brick factories. There’s altogether too much there, and I wonder if perhaps that’s what’s going on with the culinary scene there as well. The last time I was in New York I had a panic attack so severe that I don’t remember much of the city because I was lying face down in the back of someone’s car trying to find my happy place.

Allegedly there are green things in New York, but I didn’t spot any while I was there unless you count the grass at the GIANT cemetary which seems to go on forever just outside JFK. (The airport, not the former President.) I suspect this whole “Central Park” thing may just be a giant myth, personally. The satellite photos on Google? Totally faked. The flash of something that might have been foliage when I was driven down some street with a number instead of a respectable name like “Market”, “Haight”, “Vallejo”, or “Balboa”? Fake. Where are the trees uprooting the sidewalks and raining down nasty little red fruits? Where are the random gardens exploding from stairwells?

New York may have more great restaurants than San Francisco does in terms of sheer numbers, but I wonder about overall quality of all dining establishments. I wonder whether I would be willing to take snooty staff and pretentious menus in exchange for great food when I can be treated like a member of extended family in a less showy establishment in California. (To be fair, for some unknown reasons I appear to have connections in the California restaurant industry, and therefore am treated as a member of the family at places considered heavy contenders for stardom in the Bay. I think maybe they are confusing me with someone else…Michael Bauer, perhaps?) I wonder if people are over overawed by big name restaurants in general, and this affects their perception of them. Sort of like going to see a big name Broadway show–don’t you feel, well, sort of obligated to like it because it’s on Broadway? Might it be like that with Le Bernardin and Alain Ducasse?

I’ll eat off mismatched silverware any day when my meal is prepared with love.

Or maybe I’m just biased because I live in California, and my dislike of New York is merely a local yokel sort of thing. Perhaps New Yorkers deride California’s pretentious snooty restaurants as well. Perhaps the interchange of chefs, ideas, and foods from both cities is so great in this global economy that both offer a variety of delicious, fine food options. I’ll continue to firmly maintain that San Francisco is better, though. And to prove it, we will totally get more stars than New York. Just you wait and see.

p.s. Does anyone know how to become a Michelin inspector, because it pretty much sounds like my dream job.

[Michelin]