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I am a restaurant critic. I eat for a living.
Chefs complain about people like me. They argue that we are not qualified to do our jobs because we do not know how to cook. I tell them I'm not entirely pleased with the way they do their jobs, either, because they do not know how to eat. I have visited most of the best restaurants of the world, and they have not. I believe I know how to eat as well as any man alive.
I dine out constantly, but there is a great deal I do in restaurants that people who eat purely for pleasure would not consider part of a normal meal. You would not enjoy having dinner with me.
I lie—make a reservation under a false name. I steal—the menu, not the silverware. I wander. I am always getting up from my table in order to check out my surroundings. I drift around, and the meandering invariably ends when a well-meaning captain taps me on the shoulder and points me in the direction of the men's room, wrongly assuming that is where I wish to go. I rarely talk to the people dining with me, but I love to chat with waiters and busboys. They know the secrets lurking behind the swinging kitchen doors.
Friends who accompany me to meals are bored by the absence of conversation. They are unhappy with the dishes I choose for them—they have their hearts set on a lovely salad of poached Maine lobster and become cranky when I tell them they must sample the seared calf 's brain. The warm mandarin soufflé they've been anticipating all evening is finally set before them, and I stick my spoon in it before they have a taste.
Yet everybody envies what I do. They think it's the gastronomic counterpart of test-driving Mercedes sports coupes or helping Las Vegas chorus girls dress. They believe it involves little more than eating unceasingly and being reimbursed for the privilege. There's some truth to that, but sometimes I am obligated to eat three full meals a day, day after day, which is not always easy, even on an expense account. I generally receive little sympathy when I make that point.
A critic has to understand when food is correct, which is to be admired, and when it is inspired, which we would call a miracle. The job is part analysis (Is this good?), part self-analysis (It's good, but am I the only person who likes it?), and part gluttony (Have I tried everything on the menu?).
I've never been a victim of culinary fatigue, because I can reverse direction and concentrate on the humble whenever I weary of the haute. A natural-casing hot dog off the grill can be as thrilling as Charlie Trotter's terrine of asparagus with goat cheese, beet juice, and hundred-year-old balsamic vinegar.
I often make that point when it's my turn to pay.
I didn't become a full-time restaurant critic until the start of the nineties. I dabbled in reviewing before then, treating it more like a hobby than a calling. While I was a sportswriter in Boston, the Globe sent me off to find the best Peking duck in the city, and I managed to turn that into a sideline lasting nearly a year. While I was the sports columnist for the Montreal Star, I was made the co-restaurant critic under a pseudonym. That part-time position provided me with dinners for more than a year. My motivation for doing both assignments was simple: the glorious prospect of free food. I was paid hardly anything extra, which is where I got the idea that I couldn't actually make a living being a restaurant critic. Critics got fat, I thought, but they didn't get rich.
I was hired by Gentlemen's Quarterly in 1989 to do profiles, but I still dabbled in comestibles. I was writing a monthly wine column for GQ when the editor-in-chief, Art Cooper, asked me if I wouldn't mind turning it into a food column. That was my big break: becoming a food writer who was paid like a profile writer. I had the best job in the entire field of criticism: restaurant reviewer. With all due respect to art, film, and theater critics, I've always believed their work was less fundamental than mine. Food is life. The rest is parsley.
I was well-prepared for the job. I'd eaten my way through all the important American food trends. The majority of them occurred from 1975 into the early 90s, exactly when I was traveling around the country the most. I got to 44 states, a pretty extensive overview. I even ate at the Safari Grill in Manhattan, where the cooks wore pith helmets. I didn't miss a lot.
Much that I've experienced has come and gone, but a few trends have gripped our culture and cannot be shaken loose—Perrier water, domestic goat cheese, comfort food, celebrity chefs, free-range chicken, farm-raised game, baby vegetables, microbreweries, recitations of specials, vertical presentations, tapas, raw fish, olive oil, arugula, cilantro, white truffles, molten chocolate cakes, reconfirming reservations, wild greens, power breakfasts, menus dégustations, fresh ground pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, and undercooking. I remember telling Fabio Picchi, chef-owner of Cibrèo in Florence, that Americans were demanding their food barely warmed, and he replied, "Yes, I know this problem."
Not all food trends stuck. Basically gone are oat-bran bagels, edible flowers, white eggplant, mesquite grilling, cold pasta (or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part), dry beer, blue-corn chips, cuttlefish ink, wine coolers, blackened fish, mung beans, and nouvelle cuisine. Southwestern cuisine has almost disappeared (except in the Southwest), whereas French bistros come and go.
Great chefs do not. To me, the most consequential chef working in an American kitchen in the past quarter-century was not James Beard, André Soltner, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Bouley, Nobu Matsuhisa, or even the late Jean-Louis Palladin, who prepared classic French food in this country better than anybody else. (Julia Child was certainly monumental, but she wasn't a chef.) Rather, I favor the late Gilbert Le Coze, whom I met in the 80s, when he and his sister, Maguy, opened their French seafood restaurant Le Bernardin in New York. Much of what we know about serving fish in fine restaurants we learned from Le Coze. Had he not arrived, we might still be eating frozen scrod.
Le Coze loved working in America, except for one peculiarity. He would stand by the front door of his restaurant, immaculate in chef 's whites, greeting customers as they arrived, and they would respond to his welcome by asking, "Where's the bathroom?" It drove him to distraction. He could not understand why Americans needed to go to the bathroom the moment they arrived at a restaurant, because the French were taught as children to go before they went out.
The fish at a dazzling restaurant like Le Bernardin was irreproachable, but I remember being just as excited by the seafood at Margaret Tayar, little more than a ruin of a bar located behind a beachfront parking lot in Tel Aviv. The experiences I've had eating unlikely food in distant spots are among my most vivid memories.
Margaret Tayar, the owner, made a fish burger so profound I cannot help but banish those made with beef to afterthoughts. It was prepared from loup de mer and grilled very rare. She told me all her fish was caught by a man of about 70 who had fished since he was 10 but had not learned to swim. Six times he had fallen into the sea and six times the sea had carried him ashore, but ultimately, he told her, it would not.
In the Republic of Djibouti, an African country so hot that food practically cooks itself, I ate a memorable lunch at the commando training center for French Foreign Legion troops. The meal began with a seven-pound lobster harvested by a Schwarzenegger-sized soldier with a terrible scar on his left arm that looked as though it had been inflicted in close combat. He swore it was a burn scar from when he was 18 months old. Five of us ate the lobster cold, in chunks, dipped in mayonnaise from a jar. The entree was a spicy, gorgeously rich veal stew with tiny macaroni prepared by a native Djiboutian cook who wore a souvenir Philadelphia T-shirt. On that visit, I learned how to construct a homemade mine out of plastique and a dinner plate, making me potentially the most deadly food writer of all time.
After eating about fifty thousand hot breakfasts, lunches, and dinners (my mother never served a cold meal at home), I stand firm on certain issues. I believe boiled lobster is a great mistake. Remember, I'm from Philadelphia, home of the broiled lobster. It is my belief that boiling is an inferior technique popularized by New England seafood shanties too lazy to cook lobster the correct way.
I believe in American beef, but I'm convinced French chefs cook steak better than Americans. I am certain the finest food book is Larousse Gastronomique, an encyclopedia of (mostly) French food that I skim on quiet nights, the way some men peruse baseball record books. I think side dishes are the most overlooked aspect of cuisine, and the most skilled practitioner of that art is Vongerichten, whose chickpea fries and beet tartare should be celebrated as his signature side dishes. I am thankful for muffins, because their acceptance has made it permissible for us to eat cake for breakfast.
I have also never been able to resist the classics. When Eric Ripert, the current owner and chef of Le Bernardin, prepared sole almondine using fish from Brittany and fresh almonds, I declared it one of his greatest triumphs and announced that the item had to go on his menu. He replied, "You're crazy if you think I will put a dish two hundred years old on my menu and go out of business."
I love the hopelessly outdated dessert cart at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia. Georges Perrier's pastries include buttercream dacquoise, opera cake, and even a slice of all-but-forgotten marjolaine, an ancient cream cake. I cannot resist cheese steaks, regardless of how little I respect them, because all Philadelphians are drawn to them. I don't admire Sunday buffets; the steamship round of beef is invariably tough. I don't enjoy eating outdoors, although folks in Manhattan make a habit of it, inhaling the bracing scent of buses passing by. I despise menus with heart symbols alongside the low-fat items, which only goes to remind me that the food I've ordered amounts to suicide. I refuse to dine out more than once with anybody who orders a Cognac when the rest of us are finished and ready to go home. I miss tableside preparations, even though they were typically done by captains who couldn't cook.
I also have a dream menu. My perfect meal would start with an assortment of amuse-gueules from the French Laundry in Napa Valley, supplemented by lobster-and-black-truffle beggar's purses from March in Manhattan. The first course would be carne cruda (raw chopped veal) with white truffles from Trattoria della Posta in Monforte d'Alba, and if truffles weren't in season, I'd happily switch to the red-curry steak tartare from Lumiere in West Newton, outside Boston.
Then soup—I have stronger feelings about soup than the average man. No soup surpasses the artichoke puree with black truffles and Parmigiano Reggiano from Guy Savoy in Paris, but I equally love the steamed pork-and-crab soup buns topped with fresh ginger and black vinegar sauce from Shanghai Tide in Queens.
I'd slip in something Tuscan about now. First the ricotta-and-potato flan with ragu from Cibrèo, followed by tagliatelle made from chestnut flour and topped with fresh ricotta cheese and toasted pine nuts from Da Delfina in Artimino, outside Florence. My fish course would be rum-and-pepper-painted grouper from Norman's in Coral Gables, Florida. I'd also want a shrimp-and-roasted-garlic tamale from Mesa Grill in New York. I'm a little ashamed to admit that this is my favorite Mexican dish, because it almost certainly isn't authentically Mexican.
If some kindly wine collector would supply a 1978 Bruno Giacosa Santa Stefano Riserva Barbaresco, the meat course would be a buffalo filet with porcini mushrooms from the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. You can't count on those wine collectors, though, so I'll happily accept the cured, poached, braised, and glazed pork breast from Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan. It is so soft and savory I think of it as Kobe pork.
The cheese: Vacherin, perfectly ripe, or Epoisses, almost over the hill. The wines: white and red Burgundies from the list at restaurant Montrachet in Manhattan, even though I can't afford any bottle labeled Le Montrachet.
For dessert I'd have Pavlova the way it's done at JoJo in New York: soft meringue, passion fruit sorbet, whipped cream, and passion fruit seeds. The Pavlova is light, though, and I might also require a small crème brûlée, most profoundly prepared at Manhattan's Le Cirque 2000.
I want to have this fantasy meal at Le Cirque, at my favorite table. It's down the corridor from the entrance, halfway to the bar, up a few steps, out of the way. From there I can see everybody and everything without being noticed. I'm certain I'm the only patron who would consider this an ideal table, but, after all, I am a restaurant critic.
This is excerpted from Fork It Over by Alan Richman. Copyright © 2004 by Alan Richman and published by HarperCollins. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Fork It Over at Amazon.com.