Dec 31, 2009

Book Review: Jay Rayner's The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner

For the last few years, my favorite TV show has been Top Chef. So when I saw they were going to air a version of Top Chef called Top Chef Masters, featuring iconic, award-winning chefs competing against each other and being judged by equally well-established food critics... I couldn't set the DVR fast enough.

Oddly, while the chefs' performances didn't help them live up to the hype, I found the critics were definitely worth their salt. It was fun listening to them eloquently shower compliments on the great dishes and humorously, almost disdainfully rip on the bad ones - almost seeming to relish the opportunity to put these seasoned chefs-cum-mega restaurateurs in their place when it became obvious their time spent rubbing elbows with the rich and famous had degraded their skills in the kitchen.

One of the judge critics was Jay Rayner, of The Observer, an experienced critic and - maybe  more importantly - a Brit... one of a group of people who've dispalyed an inborn talent for dry-witted criticism.

After enjoying his performance on TCM, I decided to give his latest book a try: The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner. It's a quick read that takes its readers on a journey they could only experience through the eyes of a renowned, experienced restaurant critic.

Rayner starts out explaining his goal: to find the perfect meal. He has a problem, though, which is the paradoxical plight of all well-established food critics, having two parts: 1) that because of his recognition in the industry, he is no longer in a position to fairly judge whether the cuisine he is served is indicative of the food typically served there, and 2) because of the cushy expense account that covers the cost of his meals, his appreciation for the foods he eats is stunted because he did not, in fact, pay for it.

While relenting that there wasn't much of anything he could do to change the fact that he would be recognized nearly everywhere he went, Rayner makes the bold decision to pay his own money at each restaurant along the way. Nothing, he says, makes us measure the happiness we have gained from our purchases quite like handing over the credit card to a grinning cashier, clerk or waiter. I'm cheap. I hate spending money. So I couldn't agree more.

The stories of dinners eaten, the settings in which and company with which they are consumed, are recounted through a game of global leap frog. Rayner begins in Las Vegas and describes the history of the city and its culinary transformation. From the home of the two dollar buffet to what is now one of the most extravagant culinary centers of the world, the restaurant scene in Las Vegas, he says, is no different from the rest of the glitz and glam. Yes, there is great food to be eaten, but not the perfect meal. The restaurants and their offerings are more about the show (and, thus, the price) than what one normally seeks in dinner.

Next stop is odd to me, as I've never heard anything about it in terms of being one of the top food destinations of the world: Moscow. Rayner is a descendent or Russian Jews so he winds up here with a quest to answer whether deep within him, his soul is yearning for the foods of his heritage. The answer: no. In fact, he doesn't enjoy much of anything he eats while in Moscow, and at this point in the book, I find myself wondering whether this trip to Moscow was fueled by other motives, not explained to the reader. Moscow apparently has little to offer the scene of the world's best food, which isn't a surprise, so why'd he go there?

The third stop, Dubai, is equally fishy for several reasons. First, Dubai is the new Las Vegas. It's an entertainment Mecca in the middle of nowhere. Its focus is more on the extravagant than true quality (and to be honest, it hasn’t even developed a food focus near what Vegas has so far). Secondly, due to predominant religious views in that area, there are strict preparation guidelines regarding meat which completely cripple the restaurants in what is, to many people, the most important element of a special meal. Third, due to its remote location, everything must be flown in which doesn't necessarily disable its restaurants from serving the freshest meats, fruits and vegetables, but does present barriers which one would think must somehow manifest themselves in the end-result. So after the Dubai chapter, I'm firmly believing there are ulterior motives behind the locations he visits in search of the perfect meal. Considering Rayner's fame and ambition, I smell multi-tasking. And I feel a little ripped off.

In Tokyo, things take an exciting turn and we hear stories of exclusive, impossible to find, tiny restaurants to which he is given reservations through his widespread industry connections. Live seafood is plucked from containers by a skilled chef, cooking for the whole dining room, prepared immaculately, or not at all, and wolfed down in moment after moment of unprecedented bliss. Rayner seems to have enjoyed Tokyo the most - though not without some discomfort. I recommend reading this chapter alone, if not the whole book. The rest of the story pales in comparison to his trip to Tokyo.

New York comes next, and reading this section made me grow weary of Rayner's entire viewpoint on the subject of his profession. The chapter becomes almost a list in which he recounts all of the critically acclaimed restaurants and chefs there, rather than the food itself. Through the whole chapter, I felt as though an immature, eager-to-impress prima donna was name dropping. Dufresne, Vonrichten, Ramsay... Per Se, Bernardin, The Waverly. No doubt these are some of the most 'important' chefs and restaurants in the world, but here Rayner's outlook on food has clearly diverged from mine in that to him, the perfect meal should be expected to come from the most opulent, regaled restaurants in the biggest, fanciest food cities in the world. To me, the perfect dining experience needs to be something that is either sought out or serendipitously stumbled upon. There should be some measure of destiny... stars aligning. The perfect dish served in the perfect setting, addressing your psyche... perfectly.

London is his last stop and by the time I reached this chapter, I was as disinterested as it felt like he was. The story proved a sham - this was not a true quest for the perfect meal, just a smattering of reviews and stories from a year of his career mashed together.

In the end, I still found the book worth reading. The stories of extravagant meals, exposure of overpriced restaurants and trips to faraway destinations were a lot of fun. My advice in reading it, however, is not to take its title literally. Read it as a short memoir as opposed to a literal quest. With this approach, I think you'll find enjoyment from the book and avoid feeling as duped as I did.

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