THE BLOG
01/15/2012 06:31 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2012

My Michelin Inspection

Greenville, SC is the North American Headquarters for Michelin. In addition to manufacturing tires, all of Michelin's travel publications are edited and published here.

July 20, 2005

In mid-July I got a phone call from a good friend of mine at the Michelin Travel Guide. Some of the Michelin Inspectors will be in town to go over the manuscript to the Red Guide to New York City and they need somewhere to have dinner. Could we accommodate a party of 14 next Wednesday? "Of course" I said "and just how many Inspectors are coming?"

"All of them" I was told.

Gulp.

The upcoming Red Guide to New York City has been perhaps one of the most talked about culinary events of recent memory. If one would believe the trade journals, these inspectors have terrorized New York for a year. The heralded chefs of New York have been lying awake at night sweating the possibility of a Michelin Star. Sous chefs have been fired, waiters berated, pots thrown and sommeliers humiliated in the quest for that star. Now they were on their way here. I hung up the phone and contemplated their visit. I had visions of the Alien Spaceship from "War of the Worlds" laying waste to civilization, panicked citizens screaming helplessly, elevated highways crumbling, entire city blocks engulfed in flame. When they were finished dining at our tiny restaurant, there would be nothing left except a smoking hole in the ground. I closed my eyes and thought about everything that could go wrong during the seven days prior to this visit. I called my wife Amy to give her the grim news. "That's so great!" she said. "They will love our place".

That night I sat down with my guys and a bottle of wine and discussed next week's menu. I threw this question out to my Sous, Tony Keely and cook Juan Muniz. "What would be the last thing that this group would expect on our menu? Something totally French that we serve and do well?"

Tony said "Pate'" and Juan said "Bouillabaisse". Now you may think that this borders on pandering. Should we style our menu just to suit our visitors? One of the great luxuries of owning a tiny, 40-seat restaurant is that we can change the menu at our discretion. Our menus have emphasized what we consider global comfort food with a touch of Southern hospitality so pate and bouillabaisse are a fine fit. After the proper amount of wine we settled on a few dishes we knew would be appropriate for mid-July: Gazpacho topped with a spicy peach sorbet, mini grilled cheddar cheese with a small bowl of warm tomato soup, smoked pork shoulder with cane vinegar, cole slaw and a buttermilk biscuit, Alaskan salmon over market succotash with lemon and chive butter, hanger steak with roasted summer vegetables and thyme oil, blueberry cobbler with our own ice cream and a roasted peach and brioche tart.

That Monday my friend at Michelin gave me a few very specific instructions concerning their upcoming meal. There were not to be any cameras in the restaurant at all. If someone were to accidentally take a photo of this group, even with a cell phone camera, the entire group would get up and leave. I was not to mention anything about the Red Guide in any way, shape or form and I was asked not to mention this to anyone in town, especially any other chefs in Greenville. "Geez" I said. "I can keep a secret, for Pete's sake!" As soon as I got off the phone I called Ben Berryhill at the Red Drum Restaurant in Mount Pleasant, about 225 miles from here.

"BEN! Guess who's eating at my place in two days?"

"Uh, the Pope?"

"No, no...the entire team of the New York City Michelin Inspectors!"

"Holy Mother of God Malik! What are you going to serve them?"

After going over the menu with Ben and getting his seal of approval it was off to the state farmer's market for some grocery shopping. Amy and I fussed over tomatoes, peaches, sweet onions, blackberries, cucumbers, tiny yellow and green squash, baby carrots, fennel, blackberries, leeks, peppers, butter beans, and corn. Shopping at the market in the summer is so pleasurable and so rewarding that I often go four or five days a week. The sweet aroma of all that great summertime produce can truly be glorious.

The next two days were spent making lobster broth and rouille for the Bouillabaisse, gazpacho, peach sorbet, blanching and peeling butterbeans, veal stock, corn stock and thyme oil. Tony got the pates made with plenty of hand-ground pork, pork fat, veal brisket and some braised rabbit. We added salt and pepper, pistachios, shallots that were roasted in duck fat, ground mustard seed and some reduced red wine then lined our terrines with bay leaf and thyme, then bacon then filled them with the pork mixture. As the pate' baked slowly in a water bath Amy made pastry cream and caramel frosting, cleaned blueberries for cobbler and roasted peaches for the tarts. Brioche dough was made the day prior then rolled into individual three-inch tart shells, proofed, baked then topped with pastry cream and half of a slow roasted peach. By Wednesday afternoon we were standing tall. I closed my eyes and thought of everything that had gone right.

When the group arrived they were all very cordial and relaxed, although I was far from it. They appeared to immediately like our tiny restaurant with its mustard colored walls, slow moving ceiling fans and smiling staff. Wine was poured, an Argyle Pinot Noir from Oregon and a French white Bordeaux, Chateau La Grande Clotte. Baskets of pomme fritte with truffle oil, parmesan and thyme are passed around and one of them mentions how enjoyable the pinot noir's of Oregon are. As our waiter Tom begins taking their order, Tony and I are trying to predict how many would order the pate' and bouillabaisse. Of the 14 dining, five go for pate and bouillabaisse. These folks are definitely homesick. The pate', gazpacho and mini-grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup go out and I find myself glancing over to their table every chance I get. Glasses are being raised, forks are clinking on plates, smiles and cheers all around. They love the food. More appetizers go out, three of which are the molasses brined and pecan smoked pork shoulder with the slaw and biscuit. The pork plates are getting passed around and shared and heads are nodding. The main courses are next and as I am ladling up the bouillabaisse, redolent with crayfish, mussels, shrimp, catfish, grouper and leeks I just know that they will love it. I grew up cooking gumbo in south Louisiana and I understand the importance of a dish such as Bouillabaisse. This is soul food, pure and simple. The bouillabaisse is served with plenty of our own bread and the smiles all around are genuine.

Everyone orders dessert. One gentleman asks for another smoked pork and cole slaw in lieu of something sweet. "I cannot get pork like this in France" I hear him say. He changes his mind after Tom describes Amy's brioche and roasted peach tart. As the desserts are being enjoyed I walk over and say hello. One gentleman immediately asks me if I made the brioche tart. "That was my wife," I say "and she has already left for the day."

"You will give her a big kiss for me when you get home, yes?"

"Of course" I say.

At the end of the night several of the inspectors come up to me and shake my hand, tell me thank you. They wave to Tony and Juan and smile, another mentions that our pomme fritte are better than many he has had in Paris. Yet another comes up and tells me that the local Michelin folks had spoken very highly of our restaurant and that everyone agreed that their dinner was delightful.

I call Amy and tell her how well the evening went and she chides me for all of my worrying. Alien spaceships indeed! The next day my Michelin friend calls to say how delighted they were with dinner. If we were being reviewed the consensus was that 33 Liberty would rate a Bib Gourmand, a category of unassuming, moderately priced restaurants with exceptional food. As I hang up the phone I wonder what it would have been worth to some of the New York restaurants to get a 7-day's notice of an impending Michelin inspection. Priceless, I suppose.

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