Dig in, and it is likely to persuade you that this Clark Kent of a food editor really did exert superpowers on the cultural life of 20th-century America. There was no such thing as a restaurant critic in the late 1950s, when Claiborne won his long campaign to be hired by the Times, says McNamee. That may be arguable, but there is no doubt that Claiborne brought a new level of professionalism to critiques. He also introduced the techniques and ingredients of the outside world, particularly France, to the American home cook.
You thought Julia Child did that? Yes, but Claiborne was the one who brought her nationwide attention — a generous act in the cutthroat cookbook world, since her first cookbook was an immediate competitor to his.
A Mississippi boy whose mother ran a boarding house, Claiborne thoroughly prepared for the job that he coveted. After earning a journalism degree, he attended the world’s foremost hotel school in Lausanne, Switzerland, for training in the front-of-the-house as well as the kitchen. Few of the chefs he wrote about were so well trained. He also soon established a close working relationship with Pierre Franey, one of the most respected of New York’s French chefs. Claiborne’s recipes were routinely developed in tandem, Franey doing the cooking and Claiborne the documenting and transcribing, his typewriter on the worktable.
Timing was on Claiborne’s side. He joined the newspaper in time for it for to launch cross-country distribution. Food was also emerging as a hot topic across the country. By 1980 some surveys showed that dining out had overtaken television-watching as a favorite leisure time activity.
Remember the Cajun craze and how it almost wiped out the redfish population? It was Claiborne who introduced Paul Prudhomme to New York and therefore to the cooks of America. He made idols of Paul Bocuse, Jacques Pepin, Alain Ducasse. He interpreted France’s nouvelle cuisine movement for Americans, then the New American Cooking for the rest of the world. He went on to produce two dozen books and revised editions.
Claiborne’s authoritative restaurant reviews served as templates for a generation of critics, but no less did he set new standards for home cooks. Until Claiborne came along, fine dining — food embedded in money, prestige and power — had always been men’s bailiwick, while home cooking was women’s backwater. Claiborne blurred the lines. He championed French sensibility, rare ingredients and professional techniques for food prepared at home. The Times eventually transformed its womens pages into a Living section, and readers upgraded their kitchens to include Cuisinarts and KitchenAids. Sour cream took a back seat to creme fraiche, iceberg lettuce to radicchio. Claiborne also unearthed world-class talent in home kitchens, coaxing Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Diana Kennedyinto the limelight.