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
Within every fine restaurant there exist two worlds: the elegant, hushed environment of the dining room and the chaotic, explosive, high- tension scene behind the swinging kitchen doors. The ability to create dishes that are utterly sublime and turn them out at breakneck pace while simultaneously juggling kitchen crises, coddling demanding patrons, and managing overworked staff is what defines a four-star chef.
In The Fourth Star, award-winning author Leslie Brenner goes inside those swinging doors to explore the realities behind Daniel, capturing the dramas that arise in the insular, high-pressure milieu of a world-class kitchen. New York’s food establishment had been stunned when Daniel Boulud’s newly opened flagship restaurant was awarded only three stars from the New York Times. From that moment on, it became Boulud’s unspoken mission to regain the four-star rating that he’d previously garnered during his tenure at Le Cirque and then at his own first restaurant. That he was striving to do all this on an unprecedented scale, turning out nearly four hundred meals in a few short hours of service—meals that had to be absolutely perfect every time—made this goal all the more ambitious.
Brenner paints a portrait of a remarkable French chef at a pivotal moment of his career, as Boulud relentlessly drives his staff to the peak of excellence.
The Fourth Star provides full access to every aspect of Daniel, investigating everything from the maître d’s table assignment policies to the internecine politics of advancing up the culinary ladder.
Filled with delectable, undercover details and moving personal drama, Brenner’s chronicle is an addictive read about the inner workings of a super-lative restaurant. The Fourth Star is destined to satisfy restaurant lovers, professional cooks, and armchair chefs alike.
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