December 17, 1979 12:00 PM

The superstars of French cuisine were waiting agitatedly in a Paris TV studio for the start of the international food fight of the century. Opposing them, singlehandedly, would be Mimi Sheraton, 53, the New York Times restaurant critic who had dared to skewer them in a recent article. “There she is!” yelped one of the three-star chefs. But it turned out to be a cleaning woman ambling by with mop and bucket. Soon after, Sheraton, who works incognito so she won’t get special treatment, entered under cover of a tent dress, blond wig and lacy black mask.

There were no lace gloves, though, as Sheraton proved once the cameras rolled. “I think French cuisine was good,” she began, “but I think many people today aren’t getting their money’s worth.” Reacting to her published charges of absentee chefs, overcooked vegetables and abominations like artificially flavored sherbet, the chefs—Pierre Troisgros, André Daguin, Paul Bocuse and Lea Bidaut—attacked like four maddened musketeers. “The French still know a good dish from a bad one no matter what Madame Sheraton thinks,” spluttered Troisgros. Much of the rest was lost in the pandemonium.

Before taping began, Bocuse had puffed up his cheeks and waddled around in an ungallant impersonation of the critic; afterward he lunged at her, grabbing for her mask. She blocked him and strode away, but from behind he tried to snatch off her wig. “I expected him to do something like that,” she said later. “Only I thought he’d do it on TV. I’m sorry I didn’t hit him in the face.”

Charitably, Sheraton now writes off the incident as an occupational hazard—”I was resigned to looking like a horse’s ass”—and stands her ground. “They said the French palate is superior to the American one,” notes the well-traveled New Yorker. “Well, there are a lot of people in France eating a lot of bad food and liking it, or at least not complaining. And those horrible canned soups Bocuse is selling in the States—you can’t swallow them, and the prices are horrible. These people are jokes.”

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