Monday, September 03, 2007

From my food critic diaries, with names superficially changed but broadly hinted at:

My first Shanghai press conference was occasioned by the inclusion of one of Shanghai's top French restaurants, Le Bistro, in the prestigious international dining guide Le Guide, the first restaurant in China to be so featured. The invitation requested that we present at 11:30am "sharp" and in "charming formal" attire. I showed up at precisely 11:30am, rain-sodden and boorishly dressed.

The restaurant interior was transformed into a press room, with rows of chairs facing a podium, video screen, and table of panelists. We were ushered to our seats by a gleaming Chinese Vanna White, elegantly dressed, covered in jewels, with a wide, white smile of shallow, giddy enthusiasm. I complimented her on her necklace. "Tiffanys!" she beamed back, as if saying "Thank you!"

People began to file into their seats, precariously balancing tall glasses of champagne on their knees while fiddling with the translation devices placed on each seat. Waiters stood ready to fill each champagne glass the moment it reached the halfway mark, so what followed floated through a bubbly haze.

Well after noon, the guests were still twisted around in their seats, chatting and pawing through their gifts bags for chocolate samples, fleur-de-lys pins, and leather-bound jump drives inscribed with Le Guide's logo. We were all too busy - and too drunk - to notice a young Chinese boy, shirtless and in full ethnic regalia, take center stage behind a large red drum. He called us to attention with a solo drum performance that echoed in the tiny space with deafening volume. It was appalling. People looked at one another in sheer amazement while he played on and on, looking straight ahead with a look of dead-eyed concentration on his face and perspiration gathering on his upper lip. Then, he stopped, just as suddenly as he begun, with no fanfare at all, and took his drum and left. Vanna White took the stage as if nothing happened, and without so much as a mention of the cacophonous percussion solo that preceded her, began to welcome us all to this very special event.

It was now that the flaws in the translation system became apparent. Our devices could be set to multiple channels, and on the other end of each was a real-time translator squirreled away in a booth somewhere out of sight (and doubtless without champagne). The speeches were in French and in Chinese, with channels for French, Chinese, and English. However, the organizers of the event evidently concluded that French and English were close enough to one another, and therefore most things were translated into either French or English indiscriminately, but not both. Happily, much of the ensuing humor was of the broad variety. One of Le Bistro's two founding chefs flew in from France to make his appearance, absent his twin brother and co-founder. He gave a short and self-important speech about his culinary muses and then sat back down with a smug smile, his legs crossed above a pair of charmingly formal loafers.

There followed a long and self-important speech from a director at Le Guide, in which he tried doggedly to cling to relevance with numerous references to the greatness of France and even to French cooking as "one of the greatest things ever created in the world." I personally hold French cuisine in profound esteem, but that didn't keep me from raising an eyebrow as this small, earnest man pleaded with the crowd to agree that yes, in a certain light, one really might consider French cuisine the absolute pinnacle of all human civilization up to the present moment. Despite his ridiculous speech, he seemed like a genuinely nice man, with a bit of a belly, tiny hands and feet, and a broad, jolly, chinless face. The director accompanied his speech with totally unnecessary Power Point slides. For example, he used the slides to illustrate a sentence like: "One can find extraordinary cuisine on mountain tops [cue picture of a mountain], in vineyards [vineyard], even in wild animal parks [animal]."

The conference continued in this vein, with various and sundry other speeches by Chinese and French officials, until Vanna introduced Mrs. Wang, the owner of the notable Imperial Restaurant in Beijing, an establishment founded by the imperial chefs from the Forbidden City with secret family recipes used to feed the emperor and his court. A second branch was opening here in Shanghai next month and they were using this conference to announce the event.

The old woman stood to speak, dressed as though we interrupted her in the middle of doing her laundry, and addressed her rapt audience. With a long, rambling speech nearly 15 minutes in length, intermittently broadcast in English or French. Nor would she let anyone interrupt her tireless monologue with polite applause. Her speech, as best I can tell, chiefly concerned the fact that she has three sons, all of whom are doctors.

This speech was likewise accompanied by PowerPoint slides. The highlight of the slideshow was the slides that accompanied her discussion of the many celebrities and "very rich people" who frequent her Beijing establishment. This elite group was represented by three photographs of Quentin Tarantino posing with her family - wearing three different shirts, so I suppose he visited Imperial on three separate occasions. These slides completed their timed cycle long before Mrs. Wang wound up her epic speech, so the A/V guy decided to replay them on loop - only each time, the interval between photos was shorter than the time before, so by the end we were watching a diminutive, elderly Chinese woman brag about her successful sons in front of a background of Quentin Tarantino's creepy face flashing like some sort of horrible seizure episode.

Finally, Vanna politely but firmly escorted Mrs. Wang off the stage and the conference was thrown open to questions. As always, everyone asked a question that had nothing to do with anything that had come before, but was instead pointed only at their own narrow interests. A man from Cigar Aficionado magazine inquired whether Le Bistro planned on serving a menu of foods that went well with cigars. A man from an Italian newspaper inquired as to whether Italian recipes would make their way onto the menu. Meanwhile a minor Chinese celebrity struck a series of coy poses in front of the window for photographers who clearly came to see her and not any chef, however world-altering.

Next, we moved on to lunch - it was nearly 2pm by the time we started, and when I left after dessert at 4:00pm, the party showed no signs of winding down. Our printed menus showed Chinese characters, followed by a list of dishes in fine culinary French, followed by what was supposedly English but appeared in many cases to be an almost gibberish string of random Roman letters. I was sandwiched between a Chinese reporter on one hand and a Spanish reporter on the other. The Chinese reporter responded to every glance or query with a profusion of feverish giggles; the Spanish reporter drunkenly pontificated on the differences between the citizens of Barcelona and those of Madrid. The room was terribly overheated and humid, everyone was dizzy with champagne and wine, and needless to say I barely registered the various dishes I was eating, though I can't say I was too impressed by what I remember. The dessert, at least, was a real showstopper - four different variations on cherries - and on that happy note, I stumbled out into the filthy city rain, clutching my tote bag of gifts as I lurched from side to side and tried in vain to hail a taxi.