Sunday, November 20, 2005

Jonathan Wright Who?

Indianapolis always has such a bad case of "famous-itis". If reporters think someone is a celebrity, they fawn over them, write them up, and in general, overshadow everyone locally who might be doing the same thing. This morning, I woke up to a large headline in the IBJ, the essence of which was "Renowned Chef Comes to Indy!" What?! When I think "renowned chef" I think of, well, a celebrity, someone who's really made a name for themselves. I think Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gordon Ramsey, Gary Danko, or Mario Batali. Hell, even Rocco DiSpirito falls into the renowned category these days. But who the heck is Jonathan Wright?

Wright, who has been hired by the Conrad to helm their new 213-seat restaurant, Le Soleil, and lounge, Vitesse, comes lately from The Windsor Hotel in New Orleans. His most notable posting seems to have been fairly early in his career at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Britain, then voted one of Bon Appetit's favorites. A bit of research reveals he had a successful restaurant in the UK, some sexy postings (Raffles in Singapore), and success in New Orleans. The New Orleans papers all seemed to love him, and he was a well-known chef there but he's not what I'd really call nationally famous. He's leaving New Orleans for obvious reasons.

None of this make sense until I run across John Mariani as the heavily-quoted critic in the IBJ piece. Ahhhh, here's the culprit. Wright appears to be a protege of everyone's favorite critic-for-hire, John Mariani. Mariani, national gadfly and foodie-about-town is an old school critic who's probably best known as food correspondent for Esquire. And according to Mariani, Indy is in the big-leagues now with Jonathan Wright. (The assistant deputy mayor even calls Wright a "national celebrity.") However, Mariani's reputation has suffered in recent years as he has increasingly been viewed by many of us in the food world as a hired gun. He appears to be willing to review, write, or endorse almost anything for a price. Michael Ruhlman outed him in his book The Soul of a Chef when he wrote how Mariani only traveled to Cleveland to review the then-hot Lola because local business leaders paid his way. (They pitched in to get Mariani to town and had him review several restaurants.) In recent years, even the critic's fans have begun to realize there's no rhyme or reason to his restaurant picks in Esquire. More recently, Mariani has become tied up in some controversy as chefs and reporters in Chicago shed light on his and other critics' practice of demanding comped meals and travel. (More at Accidental Hedonist.) Chef Wright appears to have had a nice career so far with some choice postings, but his biggest supporter seems to be Mariani which makes me suspicious.

What irritates me most about the IBJ article is that they relied on one food-world source (and a suspect one at that) and according to Mariani's opinion have determined that Wright will put Indy on the map! Wow! Why didn't we think of this sooner? Mariani says he's coming to visit Indianapolis now! Well, of course he will when the folks from the Conrad pay his way when he comes to review their new hotel and restaurant. Mariani also claims that since he will review Wright nationally (I'm sure in glowing terms), Bon Appetit and Gourmet will as well. Hey, newsflash, John, some of our local chefs have already been written up in Bon Appetit and Gourmet! We don't need to pay you for that!

For the folks at the Conrad, hiring Wright was a pretty savvy piece of marketing -- he comes with his own built-in national mouthpiece. One can only hope that they'll be generous and schedule Mariani to dine with a few other Indianapolis chefs who are doing work comparable to Wright (although, he might miss a few meals if they don't comp everything for him.) Otherwise, look for a redux of the recent New York Times piece with reviews of St. Elmo's and complaints about all the chain restaurants.

About Le Soleil and Wright, much remains to be seen. Will the dressed up meat-and-potatoes menu for Le Soleil work? Will raising the wine temperature by 2 degrees provide a significant benefit? Will Wright integrate himself into the community here the way many downtown chefs have? It all remains to be seen. It seems like he has a lot on his shoulders along with opening a new restaurant and trying to deliver on the promise of celebrity status already bestowed by the IBJ. But he won't get any free passes from us just because John Mariani says he's good. He'll have to impress us all for that.


Lorin Gaudin, Senior Food & Wine Editor, New Orleans Magazine said...

It is unfair and incorrect to hold Jonathan Wright accountable Mariani's mis-behavior and the IBJ reporter's irresponsible journalism.

As a food writer/editor in New Orleans, I am here to tell you that Jonathan has earned his own merit as a great chef and had no control over who the reporter contacted; he very likely has no knowledge about the Mariani Mishaps - it's just not Jonathan's kind of thing to know that stuff. Jonathan is not only a very talented chef, he's one of the good guys - dedicated to his craft, a real foodie, like the excellent grouping of chefs already in residence in Indianapolis. You'd like Jonathan both professionally and personally. He is most definitely NOT a protege of Mariani.

You are right to note that the IBJ article relied on a tainted "food world source," but that was the reporter's error and a serious one at that. As you note, Jonathan has been written about extensively in New Orleans and is loved here, but, he has also already gotten national nods from Bon Apetit, Food & Wine and Gourmet - all on his own.

It's up to Jonathan to say why he left New Orleans and not for anyone to suppose. We'd have him back here in a heart-beat. Jonathan became embedded in our city and culinary community through his dedication to work, love of the art of cooking and deep rooted interest in Louisiana, the people and its products. He's smart, fun and yes, easy on the eyes too. He'll have the same affect on you and Indianapolis, this I can guarantee.

Skewer Mariani and the IBJ reporter if you must, but let Jonathan prove himself. He will impress you and in more ways than expected.

Sarah Whalen said...

Hey, Food Blogger,

You are so lucky to have Jonathan Wright cooking anywhere NEAR Indiana!

He's a genius chef. Have you had the chance to EAT anything he's put together yet? Who cares whether a food writer is paid or unethical or whatever? The proof is in the pudding--that's what they call dessert in Great Britain--and in everything that comes before the pudding.

Just taste it, Feed Me/Drink Me.

Taste it and sigh. Jonathan Wright in the kitchen is pure bliss, and you'll know it right away.

Or not! After all, he is in Indiana now, where the last time I was there, haute cuisine was mostly like steak and steak and more steak and would you like some nice cold Iceberg lettuce with your steak? And how about some gloopy frozen cheesecake for pudding...I mean, dessert?

Yeah, no wonder you're suspicious. Your palate's been numbed by all that boiled beef.

But don't worry. Wright is a genius chef and he'll soon have you eating all your blah local cuisine cooked sixteen exquisite different ways. He'll find the best produce your state can offer, and then dazzle you with it.

That's what he does.

That's how he is.

He'a great chef! Get down on your knees and thank the food god for blessing you with the great gift of Wright's presence!

Taste, savor, explore what he has to offer. Then try writing something real!

In New Orleans, he's missed more than I can say.

Anonymous said...

Whats Johnny up to these days?