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The Fourth Star:
Daniel Boulud's Manhattan restaurant, Daniel, is considered one of the nation's top dining spots. But in 1999, New York Times restaurant reviewer William Grimes demoted Daniel from its lofty four-star status to a merely "excellent" three stars. Leslie Brenner's The Fourth Star recounts her self-assigned year behind the scenes at Daniel, at the end of which Grimes returned the coveted star. Her fascinating fly-on-the-wall narrative takes readers to the restaurant's two arenas: the front of the house, a world of demanding patrons and equally exacting staff, who try to accommodate guests while ensuring the smooth coordination of operations; and the world behind the swinging doors, a roiling place in which tension is both staved off and cultivated by barking chefs--including Boulud--but which nonetheless (or consequently) produces world-class food.
Brenner takes readers everywhere: to the reservations desk and its crew's VIP-seating machinations; to staff meetings; to a wine-buying session; to a visit from President Clinton (who is allergic, it's noted, to chocolate); and, primarily, to the kitchen, where "the work is really hard and someone else takes all the credit" and burnout means that cooks, most in their 20s, stay an average of a year. This is all great stuff, and Brenner is particularly, almost amazingly, good at getting it all down to the last crème brûlée. Unfortunately, the book is compromised by the author's near-sycophantic regard for Boulud (his "genius is readily apparent," is a typical observation) and the restaurant, whose "wondrousness" is presented as a given. Thus the narrative, which is also (perhaps unavoidably) repetitive, often feels like an infomercial. Hanging her tale on the wish for the fourth star also plays Brenner false, as the issue is largely unmentioned or otherwise expressed by the cast of characters, leading Brenner to interject leading comments ("Could [Boulud] have missed his moment in the eyes of the critic whose judgment matters most?") that only salute the lack of narrative tension. These things said, the book is still a must-read for anyone interested in the workings of a top-drawer restaurant at the peak of its powers, and of the amazing hierarchical dramas, front of the house and back, that make it what it is. --Arthur Boehm [via]