"Reading Rayner's joyous commentary on global dining is a great second choice for those not quite crazy enough to embark on a worldwide culinary mission—or not yet, anyway."
I'm sure that many of you often daydream about being able to eat at the best restaurants in the world. The luxury of traveling to another country, sitting down before a beautiful table, dreamily chowing down on the best international cuisine... For most of us, this is just a fantasy to occupy ourselves during slow days at work. But Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for British newspaper The Guardian, made it his way of life for more than a year.
In The Man Who Ate Everything in Search of the Perfect Dinner, Rayner takes us through his valiant quest to find the best meal in the world. An intimidating task? Surely. Would I kill for that job? Of course. I expected to hate Rayner after reading 300 pages about all the delicious food he was eating (and I wasn't). Instead, I was swept up in a mouth-watering tale of travel, culture, and reaching one's capacity of extravagant food.
Rayner first takes us back to his childhood, when from a young age he was constantly pursuing "a proper dinner." On ski vacations, he would sneak away from the hotel to eat escargot at a local French bistro. His family was not very observant, but every holiday gathering was marked with high piles of traditional Jewish fare. He began his career in traditional journalism, but the transition to food writing was easy—all he had to do was follow his always-piqued appetite.
The bulk of the book is separated by country, tracking Rayner's hunt for the perfect meal through Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, New York, London and Paris. Each chapter provides new insight into not only the food available in the city, but also the cultural factors that shape the local cuisine. The high-rolling, lights-and-glamour restaurants of Vegas come into sharp contrast with the impossible-to-find hidden spots in Tokyo. Dubai is fascinatingly conflicted between the local Muslim cuisine and the forward-looking European dishes and techniques seeping onto chefs' menus. And the mob culture of Moscow is highly evident in the stifling pressure placed upon restauranteurs and their businesses, the power-holders of the city.
Rayner's investigative narrative makes this book more than the shameless, self-indulgent memoir it could have been. I learned a lot from his travels and experiences interacting with the movers and shakers of the international restaurant scene. Rayner also keeps a very humble and self-aware tone throughout. He knows you want to hate him. He knows you're hungry (and therefore cranky) just reading his adjective-filled paragraphs. But he still wants to impress upon you the importance and enjoyment of his mission.
He also has an undeniably chuckle-worthy style of restaurant critiquing. His glowing praise of some restaurants is enough to make me damn close to hopping the next plane to Tokyo. But his digs are even better. After a particularly intriguing artichoke creme brulee at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, he says: "I may now require therapy... sweetened artichoke and the light custard of a creme brulee are the worst partnership since Stalin decided to sign his non-aggression pact with Hitler."
After all of his travels, Rayner was surprised to find that his previous assumptions about the global fine dining world were not really accurate. He had assumed that all these restaurants, being generally accepted as about the same level of excellence, would share a French-dominated menu and set of techniques. But instead, he realized that "a new culinary Esperanto had developed, which, like the language, drew on the traditions of France but was not mortgaged to them."
Essentially, Rayner's final conclusions were their own justification for his indulgent year of "journalism." First, he made substantial note throughout that there is, indeed, a limit to the amount of rich food one can consume healthily and happily. By the final pages, it is clear that he has tired of the ritual and pomp of a Michelin-starred meal (albeit temporarily). And second, Rayner is in the privileged position of being able to do all of this world travel so we don't have to. Reading Rayner's joyous, humorous, and insightful commentary on global dining is a great second choice for those of us who are not quite crazy enough to embark on a worldwide culinary mission—or not yet, anyway.
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