Gourmet guide Scourge of the Chefs

The latest edition of Gault Millau, the restaurant guide, will be published on November 17. As the powerful editor-in-chief, Patricia Bröhm must navigate a fine line between vain chefs and vocal amateur critics.
Patricia Bröhm likes to stay in the shadows.

The country of the monster steak is not necessarily the place where one would expect to find Germany’s most powerful dining critic. But during a recent visit to Australia, Patricia Bröhm proclaimed that she was thoroughly delighted with its cuisine. This says a lot about what the German head of Gault Millau understands her job to be. Australia had never been on her radar, yet she found there something that is missing in Germany’s top kitchens.

“In one point they are a step ahead of us, in casual dining,” said Ms. Bröhm. “Our restaurants will also focus more strongly on that. It is a form of upscale gastronomy that is pleasantly not uptight and unpresumptuous.”

Ms. Bröhm scaled the gourmet summit two years ago when she took over the post of head of Gault Millau. Before her arrival, Manfred Kohnke had given the thumbs up or down to cooks and kitchens there for 30 years. He had made Gault Millau the second heavy-weight in the restaurant guide industry after Michelin – thanks primarily to sharp-tongued reviews that were, at the same time, highly entertaining.

But such sucess can be fleeting if the critiques don't keep up with the times. Perceptions change as to what a top performance on the stove is. Nowadays anybody can voice their opinion about top quality cuisine and cooks on Internet platforms such as Qype, Tripadvisor or Sternefresser.de. People in the target group believe they know their way around so well that they feel they could do a better job anyway. But whatever the voice, the cooks are under the microscope anyway.

If you talk for any length of time with the 52-year old Ms. Bröhm, who evaluates the different restaurants by awarding points (a maximum of 20, which have never yet been awarded), you will learn that her work has become more difficult. Restaurants are opening and closing much more quickly than the gourmet guide can process on a yearly basis, and fashions change fast as well. Today regional, tomorrow vegetarian, next week world food.

For Ms. Bröhm, not being noticeable is part of her job description. After all, it helps with objectivity if you aren’t immediately recognized. For that reason very few photos of her have been made public.

She once named “a plate of spaghetti with an excellent tomato sauce” as one of her favorite dishes.

She has had a varied career in food journalism: the restaurant page in the newspaper Süddeutschen Zeitung, guest columns in the gourmet magazine Feinschmecker, tester for Gault Millau. She has also consumed “a small fortune” of food in her life. She suspects it was probably a prerequisite for her being called to the post of head tester. “Three times, more often in the high season,” is the number of her weekly visits to restaurants.

Ms. Bröhm is on par with her 29 testers, whom she describes as professional eaters with years of experience as gourmands. There can be no authoritative judgment of what is going on in Germany’s kitchens without maintaining a constant, up-to-date overview. Each year a good €270,000 ($334704.15) is eaten up by the Gault Millau testers. In their reviews, the Gault Millau taste testers – a colorful mixture of physicians, journalists, and other epicures – follow a comparatively transparent catalog of five criteria that primarily evaluate the kitchen chefs’ handiwork. No expensive tableware, no overly pompous wine cellar – a notable difference to their rivals at Michelin.

“You don’t need luxury products to cook excitingly," said Ms. Bröhm. "Some good inns and guesthouses with restaurants have also gotten high ratings from us, for example the country inn, Landgasthof Adler in Rosenberg, the guesthouse Zum Herrmannsdorfer Schweinsbräu in Glonn and the Adler Wirtschaft in Eltville.”

She once named “a plate of spaghetti with an excellent tomato sauce” as one of her favorite dishes. This underlines her lack of snobbiness, a problem in the gourmet restaurant circus, just as much as her confession that Tim Raue, a Berliner, is her favorite cook – quite unusual for a senior critic.

The former gang leader in Kreuzberg, a working class district in Berlin, and his various restaurants have nothing at all in common with the baroque opulence previous associated with the city. “Most of all, I prefer chefs who develop a completely individual style. And only a few do,” said Ms Bröhm.

Unlike the Michelin Guide, where professional cooks acting as testers write dry little sentences and rate their colleague, Gault Millau offers top quality analyses. Here the literary payoff is the business principle. The occasionally polemic tone in the restaurant guide is in contrast to the almost timid demeanor of its head critic.

“The fact that chefs feel underestimated is human. That is why they once in a while react touchily to trenchant texts or evaluations that don’t turn out as expected,” said Ms Bröhm. Who is particularly sensitive? That’s a professional secret.

The more than 1,000 restaurants listed in Gault Millau show how great the competition is in the restaurant trade – while at the same time there is a limited willingness of German customers to spend money. With margins of one percent already being considered good, every point lost harbors the beginning of an economic business crisis. “Power?” asks Ms. Bröhm, “I wouldn’t call that power.” She likes “potential” better.


Sven Prange is chief reporter of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]