Henry Holt, 2008, 273 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-8050-8669-0
If you’re like me (and, on general principle, I hope you’re not), the notion of a high-end restaurant stands somewhere between irrelevance and affront. It’s not as if I’ll ever need to go to such a place (or spend that much money on food), and my middle-class populist sensibilities are vaguely disgusted that such places exist as displays of conspicuous consumption. No matter how much I keep telling myself that expensive multi-starred restaurants are about the experience, I still can’t place them in my universe of five-dollar sandwiches and weekly fifty-dollar grocery bills.
Fortunately, there’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner to go do the heavy eating in my stead. In The Man Who Ate the World, Rayner embarks on a quest for “the perfect dinner”, whatever that may be. Going around the world and making his way to high-end restaurants, Rayner takes the opportunity to reflect on what makes a perfect meal, what justifies such three-star experiences and other related issues coming to mind as he jets between his home base of London and his targets in Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, New York and Paris. The rationale of the book, as stated right after a mock warning not to read it while hungry (“Hunger can seriously affect your ability to concentrate and, after a few pages, you will be incapable of appreciating either the grace or the subtleties of my writing” [P.1]) is to investigate the result of more than two decades’ worth of changes in the upper gastronomy landscape. Since 1990, haute-cuisine has escaped the confines of Paris and is now to be found in not-so-likely places from Las Vegas to Dubai, neither of whom have much of a local food culture. What does this mean for the current state of eating around the world?
Fortunately, Rayner’s not your average restaurant critic. Born in a showbiz family, he became a solid investigative journalist before turning to restaurant reviewing and novel-writing. You can feel all of those influences coming together in The Man Who Are the World, as Rayner reminisces about childhood experiences, explores the socioeconomic context of the restaurants ecosystem he’s studying and tells the story of his odyssey like an accomplished raconteur. While the book may share a superficial resemblance with Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, they’re substantially different: Bourdain’s travelogue is about discovering local foods of the world (and getting drunk along the way) whereas Rayner aims to find commonalities between high cuisine outlets around the globe. Both of their Tokyo experiences are worth reading in their own ways. (Incidentially, Rayner does mentions Bourdain on page 145, and not entirely favourably.)
The first stop on Rayner’s worldwide tour is Las Vegas, a place that has invented itself as a culinary destination thanks to large amounts of gambler-fuelled money infusions. Never mind the famous all-you-can-eat buffets: Las Vegas is now home to a number of high end restaurants and that’s where Rayner first wrestles with the ethics of eating on the house, and restaurants that have to import their foodstuff over hundreds of kilometres given the lack of a local food-growing infrastructure. In Moscow, Rayner confronts the consequence of a restaurant scene that caters to the unsophisticated oligarchs that have filled the void left by the fall of communism. Organized crime, kitsch, eye-watering prices and the shadow of the Soviet Empire are all on the menu. Rayner’s not entirely happy about it all, but the chapter is a lot of fun to read.
In Dubai, he begins at the Burj Al-Arab Hotel by reflecting that eating at an expensive restaurant is like temporarily living as a rich person without the permanent moral karmic debt that becoming a rich person requires. A passage about Gordon Ramsay becomes necessary when explaining how Dubai became a gastronomy destination by importing foreign expertise, much in the same way the rest of the city was built. Not-so-random digressions on trying to keep fit as a restaurant critic and the hollow mirage of authenticity quickly follow.
However weird Dubai can be, Tokyo is even stranger. Rayner manages to find ways to eat both well and badly in the Japanese capital, in trying to explain the very different culture that still manages to confound westerners even after decades of cross-cultural influence. He eats indescribable stuff while doing his best to describe it to us. He visits a fish market, has an emergency bowel movement, gets lost in trying to find small restaurants and finishes his chapter by telling us about an unforgettable meal in the care of a sushi master.
Following such a peak experience is tough even in New York, so Rayner changes tactics and goes on a good old-fashioned restaurant crawl alongside food blogger Steve Plotnicki: Five high-end restaurants in a single evening, a sprint that ends up inviting reflections on the relationship between New York and its restaurant, the Zagat guide, Rayner’s Internet gastroporn habit and what a place’s clientele says about it in a passage subtitled “Hell is Other People.”
London is a return to family, familiarity, bad experiences at expensive restaurants and quite a bit of autobiographical material. But that’s just a warm-up for the book’s last expedition in Paris, an upper-class Super-Size Me in which Rayner sets out to eat at three-star restaurants every single day for a week. (It begins with a medical check-up.) Part of Rayner’s goal is to find out if eating every day at a three-star restaurants makes the experience slide into familiarity. What he finds out is that while one can get used to rich food on a daily basis, there are still worlds of difference even between expensive restaurants: His good experiences at some places are magnified by the bad ones at others. Still, it’s impossible to read about his lunch at L’Arpège without feeling a vicarious thrill, especially when the experience at that restaurant alone end up costing him a (low) four-figure sum.
The conclusion of the book (“Check, Please”) may not be what you’d expect. In-between reflecting on the state of high-end world cuisine circa 2009 and all of its social and environmental implications, Rayner starts asking himself how long he still wants to stay in the restaurant-reviewing business. As this review is written, he’s still actively updating his column on the Guardian site… but maybe “not indefinitely. Just for a while.” [P.270] After such an all-star tour of the world’s kitchens, who could blame him?