The outsiders

Hillary Clinton and New York's newest celebrity chef have a lot in common. And it's not helping either of them.

By Shinan Govani
Published August 24, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

It's 2 a.m. and I'm in a taxi, whooshing down Madison Avenue. My driver, a character right out of central casting, is rife with opinions, all of which he is serving up in an accent that is an eerie mix and match of Henry Kissinger and Hannibal Lecter.

What has the cabbie most animated -- almost maniacal -- is Alain Ducasse. He's the French celebrity chef who opened his first restaurant in New York this summer, a restaurant that's being called the most expensive in the city and that has been the subject of endless ink in the local press.

"Breast of chicken there is $66!" Kissinger/Lecter thunders. "Can you believe it? Is this city crazy?"

Of course, before I have a chance to reply, he has already veered into a long, belabored analysis of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate race.

I can't help breaking into a smirk, right here in the darkness, because everywhere I've gone in New York during these last days of summer, the buzz has revolved around two people: Ducasse and Clinton. And this buzz has focused on two questions: Can she really pull it off? Can he?

On the surface, the culinary goings-on of Manhattan and Clinton's senatorial derby may seem unrelated, but they're actually retellings of the same tale.

Ducasse is less the Tiger Woods of chefs, as he has been called, than he is the Hillary Clinton of the food world. For he and the first lady are bookends to the same New York saga, twin parables of satiny expectations gone awry.

Some background: Just two months ago, Ducasse was France's gift to New York, a chef with eight Michelin stars, the proprietor of two wildly successful restaurants in Paris and Monte Carlo and the author of an endless parade of luxe cookbooks. The anticipation surrounding his eponymously named restaurant at the Essex Hotel resulted in a six-month waiting list for reservations.

Then the restaurant opened, a triumph of Louis XV dicor and stratospheric prices, and everything quickly soured. Word spread that the food was ho-hum. Gossip claimed Ducasse was an absentee chef. People mocked some of the restaurant's goofier rituals, such as the formal presentation of several expensive pens that patrons could choose from to sign their credit card receipts.

"But Is It Worth $860?" was the cover headline that New York magazine ran two weeks ago. Fortune magazine weighed in even more dismissively with the headline "Ishtar: The Restaurant."

By now, so many steak knives have been poked in Ducasse's back that it's hard not to compare him with Clinton. Like Ducasse, who rode into Manhattan on soaring expectations, she was most loved when she was still a potential candidate. She peaked as the wounded wife, sitting prettily on the cover of Vogue.

Then, she had the highest poll ratings of her entire career. Now, a year after her dip into electoral politics, she sits about seven points behind her Republican contender, pretty-boy newcomer Rick Lazio, and has not received any benefits from Rudy Giuliani's retreat from the race.

So here we are, stuck in an end-of-summer pas de deux of Hillary and Alain. Her poll numbers are down. His reservation numbers are down.

She's a carpetbagger, a Chicagoan by way of Little Rock, Ark., and Washington. He's a carpetbagger, a Frenchman accused of being a fax-it-in chef.

She was a great candidate until she actually became one. He was a great chef until he actually started to cook over here.

And guess who they're accusing of being frosty and imperious? New York magazine's Gail Greene writes that Ducasse's food is "too intellectual, too contrived. Narcissus is in love with his own gimmicks. The food has no emotion."

Sound like somebody else we know?

The biggest similarity between Ducasse and Clinton is that hating him has become as much a sport as hating her. The actual reasons do not sit firmly in soil. In large part, the two are hated simply because they're there.

In the same way that Clinton's problems aren't political -- in fact, they're psychological, even emotional -- Ducasse's biggest problem isn't his cooking or his prices. (This is a town, after all, where people readily pay $1,600 to get courtside tickets for the Knicks.)

It's all about something much more slippery and hard to pin down. It's a certain ill feeling, a gnawing discomfort, a desperate, relentless haze of bad buzz. The final thing that binds Hillary and Alain? New Yorkers have gotten addicted to yakking about them. Even here in this taxi, as the stores and buildings flicker past like shuffling cards.

Shinan Govani

Shinan Govani is a columnist for the National Post in Canada.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton