The New Yorker article by John McPhee, which was the subject of a story in yesterday's Style section, appears in the Feb. 19 issue of the magazine.
The New Yorker is the talk of the town this week. In an unparalleled feat of gastronomic titillation, a story in the Feb. 1 issue suggests that the world's greatest restaurant can be found within 100 miles of Manhattan, but coyly hides its name and location.
Eager gourmets and angry chefs are quizzing one another because of John McPhee's profile of a couple he calls "Otto and Anne." At their "farmhouse-inn that is neither farm nor inn," McPhee says he has eaten the 20 or 30 best meals of his life. After these, he indicates, one might begin to consider meals in the great restaurants of France.
Not only is the restaurant extraordinary if unknown; the chef, dubbed Otto by his own wish, is presented as an amalgam of Euell Gibbons and Escoffier. He has a repertory of 600 appetizers and entrees, he cooks by himself and only for his own taste. Endlessly inventive, resourceful and dedicated, he is a character of almost mythic stature.
And that, for some, is the rub. No one in the so-called cooking establishment claims to know who Otto is. And they are getting no help from the magazine.
In fact, the McPhee profile is the first piece in the history of the New Yorker, according to editor William Shawn, which was not verified by the factchecking department. "I let him do his own checking," Shawn said yesterday. McPhee was unavailable for comment.
"No one knows anyone who has this kind of knowledge and isn't known to us [restaurant professionals]," said Tom Margittai, co-owner of The Four Seasons. "He's created a saint, a man of total integrity who cooks whatever comes into his head and buys anything regardless of whether it will sell or not. He's not in the restaurant business really. He's an eccentric doing his own thing."
The Four Seasons was mentioned favorably by Chef Otto. Andre Soltner's Lutece, which many consider the finest of the French restaurants Otto refers to as "Frog Ponds," wasn't. The anonymous Otto talks of frozen sole and turbot he has been served there.
"I sent them a mailgram," Soltner said. "I can prove my sole and turbot are always fresh. I have receipts for 10 years." He has asked the New Yorker for a correction and an apology.
"I still don't know the facts on that," Shawn said. "If Mr. Soltner is right, we will certainly have to run some kind of correction."
Asked about his reaction to Otto, Soltner said, "It is much too long for me to read. But criticizing another restaurateur is not my job. I would never do it."
The staffers at the New Yorker have had their work continuously interrupted by phone calls from friends and strangers looking for Otto. "A lot of people are sitting in offices trying to figure out where the place could be," one staffer said yesterday. "For instance, a bunch of us were trying to figure out the 'one wild animal' whose species McPhee says in the piece would give away the location.
New Yorker publicist Ben Kubasik has also been besieged by callers. "Bill Leonard from CBS News wants to know. Malcolm Carter from AP. Craig Ammernan from AP told me that if I found out, and told him, he'd go to his grave before he'd take anyone else."
Shawn said yesterday that he has never eaten at Otto's restaurant, although he is certain that the place actually exists.
"Nobody could invent it and write it like that," Shawn said."Whatever disguise guise there is is evident in the piece.McPhee's given the geography of it and described the man -- everything the reader has to know, he knows from reading the piece."
James Beard, who said he had received 15 to 20 phone calls asking him to identify Otto and the restaurant, said he was puzzled and found Otto "not a charismatic character. I'm not sure I'd enjoy him or his food," he said.
Several persons speculated the piece was a put-on, or an amalgamation of several chefs. But McPhee, best-selling author of "Coming Into the Country," is regarded as a meticulous reporter with a talent for building readable stories from minute details.
One writer who lives near McPhee and knows him socially called him a man of "enormous integrity. I've never known him to talk about food, but he's a very fast study and very few people in Princeton do talk about food."
"I don't think they would have concocted a hoax," said Raymond Sokolov, former food editor of the New York Times and now a restaurant critic for Cue magazine.
"But why should the story be taken seriously?" Sokolov asks. "Why should we accept McPhee's reaction to food and an unknown, unnamed chef criticizing the fish at Lutece?"
Jacob Rosenthal, former head of the Culinary Institute of America, finds Otto's work habits "pretty ridiculous." "It reads to me," he said, "like a ploy by someone who wants to sell a restaurant. The New Yorker has been left behind badly by New York magazine in the gastronomic field. This is an attempt to catch up."
The man McPhee describes is 40, has a callused knee from kneeling before his Vulcan, six-burner, two-oven stove; is chubby but athletic; grows, hunts, raises or shops for much of his food stuffs; admires Arthur Treacher's fried fish and Egg McMuffin but cooks oursin and woodcock and has such a strong touch of arrogance or snobbery toward professional cooks he won't share his kitchen with any of them.
"Possibly there is a little romantic embroidery," said Joseph Baum, who created The Four Seasons and Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center. "But I don't think it's a game. His range is fabulous and his ideas are awfully good, too."
The extent to which McPhee goes to cover his tracks, and the manner in which he brags about it, have served to spur on the truffle hounds even though there is a broad hint near the end of the piece that the restaurant is about to, or may have, changed hands.
Rosenthal is one of the few who claim to have found the restaurant. He thinks it is the Red Fox Inn in Milford, Pa. Another guess, by Princetonians, is La Bonne Auberge in New Hope, Pa.
One thing is sure: Otto's views and personality are far more eye-catching than they would be if he were pblic property. He is another in McPhee's fascinating gallery of "lonely people consumed by expertise."