How did Adam Platt score the world’s most enviable job, “professional eater” for New York magazine? His new memoir, The Book of Eating, is a scarfable recounting of his travels, told through meals—and of those, his absolute best and worst, remembered and immortalized. Adam details our decade’s rise of food bloggers and restaurant reviews as cultural commentary, and the steady decline of Gourmet magazine, stuffy French food, and stuffier reviews.
Below is a peek at the first few pages, in which Adam describes a lunch with the “Insatiable Critic,” Gael Greene.
My lunch with Gael is supposed to be a polite meet-and-greet session, and also a kind of ceremonial passing of the torch from one critic to the next. With some fanfare, Gael has announced that she will be retiring from the weekly grind of restaurant reviewing at the end of the summer. After an exhaustive and mostly fruitless search during which many of the candidates seem to have turned the job down, I’ve been chosen by the magazine’s editors to take her place.
The decision is a mystery to Gael (“So what exactly were you writing about before this?” she’ll ask me) and to other people as well, including my mother, who, when she hears the unexpected news that her eldest son has decided, after bouncing around many other jobs in the realm of journalism and writing, with different levels of star-crossed success, to become a professional restaurant critic, will put down her cup of tea and say, to no one in particular, “That sounds wonderful, but I didn’t know Adam wrote very much about food.”
As usual, my mother would have a point. At the dawn of my strange, accidental career as a professional eater, I’d demonstrated a love for food and a wide-ranging appetite for culinary adventure, it’s true. But I’d never subscribed to Gourmet magazine, or Cook’s Illustrated, or any of the usual gastronomic bibles that my food-obsessed friends liked to pore over with manic, Talmudic intensity. I didn’t save menus from the restaurants I visited, or record every morsel of every dinner I’d ever eaten in my dining journal, the way serious gourmets were supposed to do.
I did have a mostly unread copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s famous translation of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste sitting on my cluttered desk, although I’d never gotten very far past the letter C. I vaguely knew who Auguste Escoffier was, but to my deep shame, I’d never heard of the real father of grand Continental haute cuisine, Antonin Carême, and if you’d asked me to describe the difference between mise en place and sous vide, chances are I would have stared at you in puzzled silence for a time and quickly changed the conversation.
Unlike many of the food obsessives I know, I’ve also never held a job in a professional kitchen, unless you count two grim weeks in college when I worked as a busboy at a restaurant in Boston, before the manager quietly let me go for what he described as “general incompetence.” I have no beloved, tattered scrapbook in which I’ve lovingly scribbled down my favorite family recipes, and I can count the number of cookbooks my wife and I own on the fingers of one hand.
The only dishes I’m able to reproduce with any reliable success in the kitchen of our little downtown New York apartment are Craig Claiborne’s durable recipe for roast chicken and an enthusiastic approximation of that nomadic northern Chinese specialty, Mongolian Hot Pot, which my mother learned in China and Hong Kong in the 1960s, and which we would attempt to approximate as we set up camp in other distant parts of the world, the way the Mongols did as they roved from place to place.
“The reservation will be under the name Mrs. Rebecca Limos,” Gael had said when she called over the ancient landline telephone wire, speaking in a deep, hushed voice that managed to sound both commanding and conspiratorial at the same time. I should arrive at precisely the appointed time, which I dimly recall was one o’clock. The restaurant’s entrance would be in the back of the hotel, not the front. She pronounced her fake name “Leee-mooohs,” drawing out the vowels in an exaggerated way.
Like many famous Michelin-starred establishments, this debut restaurant in New York had a kind of waiting area before you got to the dining room, a small, elegant space appointed with gilt-edged furniture; diners could sip champagne there or nibble on petits fours and examine the ridiculously priced wine list before moving on to the main dining room once their guests arrived. “If I’m late, wait for me there,” said Mrs. Limos, before ringing off.
“Mrs. Limos, I presume.”
“Just call me Gael,” says the critic with a weary smile. Gael isn’t wearing one of her hats today. Her movements seem slow, and slightly exaggerated, and with her pale makeup, she reminds me of a stately Broadway actress out for a discreet restaurant meal between shows. When we move to our table in the mostly empty dining room, a waiter pulls out her chair with comically elaborate ceremony. He brings over a little footstool on which she places an overstuffed handbag. As I sip my water in silence, the critic takes out a crinkled little notebook and a ballpoint pen and begins, furtively, to scratch out notes under the table.
“Do you know Alain’s cooking?” she asks, still scribbling away. At this early stage in my fledgling food writing career, I don’t know shit about Alain Ducasse’s cooking, of course. My idea of a grand New York dining experience is lunch at our local diner in the Village, Joe Jr.’s, where a bowl of the vividly green, crouton-laden split pea soup costs $2.50 and Louie the head waiter bellows out “Good morning, El Jefe!” to the regulars when they shamble through the door. Louie knew that I preferred to sit at the end of the counter at Joe’s for my solitary afternoon BLTs, and when my infant daughters grow up, he will remember the soups they like, and that the younger one always takes hers with extra crackers.
Louie, who would die, tragically, of a massive heart attack, was the indispensable front-of-the-house man at Joe’s. He kept order when drunks would stagger in off the street, and he had a knack for calming down the unconventional West Villagers who frequented the place, like “the Tattoo Lady,” whose face was covered in a pattern of intricate tattoos, and another regular who had a habit, when she was overwhelmed by the cares of the world, as New Yorkers often are, of screaming out her order—“Eight coffees, light and sweet!”—at the top of her lungs.
“Is there a lunchtime price fixe option?” I hear myself say to Gael as I scan the almost cartoonishly large menu, attempting to conjure up witty and knowledgeable avenues of conversation. Unlike at Joe Jr.’s, a single veal chop costs $76 at Monsieur Ducasse’s establishment, and it doesn’t take a professional critic to figure out that the prices are bordering on the insane. To get a taste of the chef’s famous truffled chicken breast, you have to fork over $66, all for a dish that, later on, when I revisit the restaurant on my own expense account, I’ll describe as tasting like some strange, denatured form of steamed pork.
“I believe the word is pronounced ‘preeee fixxxxxe,’” says Gael, elongating the X with a soft hiss of her teeth.
“I hear the chef’s baba au rhum is quite wonderful,” I say, exaggerating the word “rhum” in a ridiculous-sounding faux French accent.
“Why don’t we try something savory first,” she says gently.
The savory dishes begin to arrive at our table minutes later, served by a succession of stiff-backed gentlemen, who are dressed like palace butlers in starchy, smoke-colored suits. They appear at the table like ghosts as each course is served, then drift away in the restaurant gloom. I have dim memories of a pasta dish, possibly, and a wan-tasting salad, and of two pale miniature roulades of sole that appear to have been blanched in tepid bathwater for an hour or two too long. I take tiny little bites of my lunch and make innocuous comments like “This seems lovely” and “Mmmmmmmm, I really enjoy the texture here,” while Gael tastes her food with an increasingly sour look on her face and puts down her fork, occasionally, to scribble a few notations in her crinkled little book.
In her dyspeptic cover story review, the critic will pronounce my roulades of sole “pathetic” and compare the grandly named Ducasse creation Prawns à la Royale to “simpering baby food.” She’ll call attention to the breast of squab, which is served deboned and cut into delicate, liver-colored rounds roughly the size of cough lozenges, and explain that in France, prior to roasting, the baby birds are gently strangled in order to preserve the deep crimson color of the meat. As the strangled birds are served, one of the whispering waiters will appear from the gloom to offer a selection of special squab-cutting knives laid out, like cigars, in a ridiculous satin-lined box. “Were Ducasse to try that gimmick in Paris,” she’ll write of this stunt, and others, “I think they’d roll him through town to the guillotine.”
Adapted fromThe Book of Eating by Adam Platt with permission of Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins. Copyright © Adam Platt, 2019.
Have any stuffy-food-food-memories? Let us know in the comments.
Have any stuffy-food-food-memories? Let us know in the comments.