In his two decades as an off-and-on waiter, Michael Dolinski has also worked as a wine retailer and traveled to Provence with an importer. He left his latest job at Country in September to join Niçoise restaurant Allegretti as captain, a role that allows him to make recommendations off the Provençal-leaning wine list. Big-bottle purchases are down in the dim economy, but Dolinksi says the restaurant stays busy thanks to a series of fall reviews that brought Allegretti to the public’s attention. Our own Adam Platt awarded the restaurant a single star, prompting chef Alain Allegretti to respond publicly to the review. We asked Dolinski about the complex relationship between chefs and critics.
What’s it like to work with chef Alain Allegretti?
Chef is a character. I like him a lot. There’s kind of a cliché about what French chefs are like, and it’s not entirely undeserved. The stereotype is that [France] produces guys that are very demonstrative. Very opinionated. There’s this idea they want things their way and no other way and they’ll blow up at you if something goes wrong. He’s extremely passionate about the way things have to be in the restaurant.
Did he think the restaurant deserved more than two stars from the Times in addition to more than one star from New York Magazine?
More than one star from you, definitely. It’s tough when you get into two and three stars. Is it just the quality, or is it about a certain kind of restaurant that someone expects at three or four stars in terms of formality and stuffiness? Between one and two you are talking about sheer quality.
So what was the reaction when the Times recently gave Ssäm Bar three stars?
We discussed it a little bit, but you treat that the same way you treat a review that’s less than complimentary. You know, "I don’t know what he’s thinking about, but all right, whatever."
Did chef make any changes after reading any criticisms in reviews?
I’m not going to speak for the chef. Certainly a chef is not immune to the criticism. We’re more likely to change nuts and bolts than change the food. Alain’s been in the business for a very long time and he has a belief about what good food is supposed to be, especially Niçoise food. You’re not going to be a great restaurant if you don’t have an idea of your own of what it’s supposed to be.
Do you think it’s okay for a chef to respond to a critic?
In the sense that critics have that power in our industry in terms of drawing customers or keeping them away, I think the chef is entitled to his responses. [But] it’s a dangerous game for the chef to get into. Our job is to please our guests; he happens to be a guest whose opinion reaches a lot of people. The critics also make friends with the chefs and give great reviews to chefs that they like; the industry has a tendency to be that way, top to bottom. There’s always a little bit of who you know and who you’re friends with.