Are you a foodie? Have you ever wondered why and how the coveted Michelin stars are assessed and awarded? This fascinating memoir by Emmanuelle Maisonneuve and food journalist Julia Pavlowitch reveals some of the secrets of the role of the inspector, as well as telling her own story as a young woman, passionate about good food, trying to make her way in a predominantly male world of expertise. And it’s full of pictures and information about French and Japanese cuisine too, so reading it is almost certain to make you hungry!
When we first meet Emmanuelle, she’s about to begin her training as an inspector for the revered Michelin Guide. The inspectors who take her out on the road are all male and mostly middle-aged, and she encounters concerns about the fact that she’s a woman straight away. Some of these, to be fair, are practical and to do with the rigours and potential hazards of travelling from restaurant to restaurant in France alone (they also review hotels with restaurants).
Emma’s background is in cookery PR – and she’s worked with renowned chefs Michel Bras, Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard, so her food credentials are excellent. But as she embarks on her training, she soon realizes that alongside the culinary delights she encounters, there are plenty of disappointments – and downright disasters (the cabbage dish that arrives barely warmed through). Her digestion, although robust, begins to protest. Then there’s the necessity to travel long distances by car – and the fact that for her trial period, she’s allocated the Cantal region of France. Marc, the younger and more sympathetic member of the team who befriends Emma, recognizes this tactic; he tells her that the older inspectors like to keep the top-starred restaurants for themselves, sending the less experienced ones out into the wilder regions, like Cantal.
Interspersed with Emma’s adventures as she starts out on her own as a trainee inspector are the texts popping up on her mobile phone from her partner, Thomas. He’s far from happy about her absence! And things are not going to get any easier from now on – quite the opposite, as Emma travels the length and breadth of France.
Yet when Emma visits Japan, she experiences a revelatory breakthrough in her culinary education. After this life-changing experience, she returns to France with a different perspective and finds herself dissatisfied with the over-rich dishes that she’s often offered. Her probationary period comes to an end and she faces the inevitable: giving a presentation to the other inspectors before being admitted – or not – into their ranks as a fully-fledged Michelin inspector.
Lively and entertaining, as well as informative, Emma Dreams of Stars: Inside The Gourmet Guide began life as a bande dessinée (first published in France by Les Arènes). I’ve not encountered Kan Takahama’s artwork before (she’s drawn seinen and josei works) but here it fits the BD format with a distinctly ‘Western’ feel to the character drawings and use of full colour, as well as reading from left to right. The characteristic emotional shorthand employed by mangaka are nowhere to be seen here (sweatdrop, irritation marks etc.). This is not a criticism – it’s just noting that (not surprisingly) this is very different from Vertical’s usual publications. Mangaka such as Fumi Yoshinaga (What Did You Eat Yesterday?) and Sora Monai (The Not-So Lonely Planet Travel Guide) have proved that it’s perfectly possible for a skilled artist to draw enticing plates of food in black and white – but here the added bonus of colour gives that extra je ne sais quoi!
Eamon Fogarty’s translation (from the original French, one assumes) reads well and there are plenty of footnotes in context explaining the foods that Emma samples and other expressions, such as chapter heading ‘Le Violin d’Ingres’. Emma’s lively personality comes across well, making this an engaging read. Localization for the US market leads to some slightly clunky (for this reader at least) use of honorifics: ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mister Dedieu’ and just ‘Miss’ (highly unlikely to be used these days to address a young woman in France) – but I suppose it’s for consistency. I honestly would have preferred ‘Monsieur Dedieu, Mademoiselle, Madame’ for authenticity instead.
Emma Dreams of Stars is an intriguing and entertaining account of a woman determined to make her way in a masculine-dominated profession. It’s bound to appeal to fans of French and Japanese food!
(Obviously, it wouldn’t be possible to publish such an account and still be a Michelin inspector, so Emma is described as a ‘former’ inspector and it seems that she’s now writing children’s and YA fiction.)
Read a free preview at the publisher’s website here.