François Simon, France’s most respected and most feared restaurant critic thanks to his weekly columns in Le Figaro, approaches our corner table at Stella Maris in Paris carrying the tools of his trade.
In a shoulder bag are his notebook and pen, several credit cards and a small video camera he uses to record menus and dishes when he feels he is not being watched.
With his tight, three-piece black velveteen suit and white shirt slightly open at the neck with a broad black and white silk foulard, he gives the impression of a Dickensian dandy, although his thick, tousled hair gives him a puckish air. I will not describe his features in more detail as he believes, as I do, that anonymity is an essential prerequisite for our profession. Simon, who makes disguised appearances on the cable channel Paris Première, was the reputed inspiration for Anton Ego, the restaurant critic in the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille. His screen alter ego has reached a vast international audience, though Simon is younger and far less pompous than his cinematic version.
Julien Roucheteau, the talented executive chef at the Hotel Lancaster, describes him as “the tops” and as someone whose positive review can promptly fill any restaurant. For Jean-Pierre Tuil, a long-established Parisian PR specialising in food and wine, Simon is the ideal journalist. “He is unknown, he always pays and he always speaks his own mind,” he says. One regular reader, who admires Simon for his elegant French as well as for his judgment, describes him as redoubtable or fearsome.
A childhood spent near the mouth of the Loire on France’s west coast introduced Simon to the charms of French bourgeois food. “I’m one of eight children and my father was a barrister. I grew up in a landscape that was light and gentle and the food I was brought up to enjoy mirrored that. It was slow food: veal, chicken, cheese, without spices or pepper,” he recalls. “But close to our home was a coffee roaster and as I grew up I began to appreciate these aromas and to realise that to extract the maximum flavour, you have to cook ingredients to their limit.” He claims to be able to cook chicken 200 different ways, including chicken with Coca-Cola, which he prepared for the friends at his own wedding party at Juveniles, a favourite Paris wine bar.
Simon’s initial interest in literature, rock music and “venomous girls” morphed into writing for a provincial newspaper before he moved to Paris to work for Henri Gault and Christian Millau, editors of the Gault Millau restaurant guide. “They taught me how to write,” Simon says emphatically.
At lunch, he exhibits three distinctive features of his approach. First, he pulls out his small video camera to record the menu, a practice he normally only does under cover. But Stella Maris is one of the few restaurants in which he is known, thanks to a long-standing friendship with owner Tateru Yoshino. Simon befriended the Japanese chef when he first arrived in Paris and subsequently wrote a book about him.
Simon declines the wine list, saying he never drinks at lunchtime. “It makes me lazy, too gentle and too mellow. I want to keep sharp,” he adds. The other part of his regime to keep trim – despite eating out at least 10 times a week in Paris and elsewhere in France and beyond – is cycling between meetings and restaurants.
The arrival of a pre-starter, a small bowl of chestnut soup that we had not requested, allows me to ask Simon whether he objects to this offering as much as I had heard he does.
“This one isn’t too bad”, he replies, taking a sip, “given the cold weather but, normally, yes. Sometimes it’s the chef using up yesterday’s ingredients and that obviously I resent. But it’s also the principle: I don’t want the chef taking control of my meal. When this happens, I feel dispossessed.”
Simon then sets out the principles of his approach. He explains the need for anonymity, although he fears this may not last much longer. After 10 years in his job, Simon is known to France’s top chefs, though he always books under a pseudonym and usually eats alone, something he claims to enjoy. “If and when the chef arrives at my table, then emotion arrives and the analysis is over. Customers don’t normally have this relationship, so why should I?” he says. The resulting detachment certainly allows him to be waspish in print.
This independence naturally extends to paying his bills. Simon believes he is one of the few remaining restaurant critics in France to do so and that most restaurant reviews in France are now underwritten by restaurants. The majority of the writing has just become too polite, he says. “It’s a terrible thing for the French press.”
Before moving on to the most exciting aspects of his job, Simon turns his ire on Michelin inspectors and French sommeliers, both of whom are, in his opinion, simply too stuck in their ways. Michelin stars encourage chefs to rest on their laurels, become an institution, solid and uninspiring, while sommeliers are often just too narrow-minded and dictatorial. Simon is no believer in food and wine matching. These are a matter of personal opinion and pleasure. “I always fight with sommeliers because I like my champagne and white wine ice-cold,” he says.
What gives Simon the ultimate professional pleasure is to discover new chefs. “There’s talent everywhere and what is most exciting for me is to travel round France to unearth it,” he says. “I was recently in Sens and I had such a disappointing meal in a two-star Michelin restaurant, so predictable and boring. Then I went to a small bistro afterwards and it was so good and so inexpensive. Fighting food, lively.”
More columns at www.ft.com/lander