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Culinary readings to whet your summer appetite

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl:

Oh, it’s the good life, isn’t it? Being a New York Times food critic is nothing short of glamorous, and your only concern is your increasing waistline.

But as Ruth Reichl in one of her most celebrated novels Garlic and Sapphires points out, life as a food critic can sometimes be harsh, especially when you’re associated with the nation’s premier newspaper. In a semi-autobiographical style, Reichl recounts her five years as a critic: from the moment when she receives the phone call from the New York times Bureau office, to when she wearily accepts Gourmet magazine’s offer to be their editor – a title she still holds today.

As the city’s most influential food critic in the early 1990’s, Reichl hardly flinched, despite receiving flak for her idiosyncratic writing style and her occasional abuse of the star-rating system. “Never in a million years would I expect a New York Times food critic to give a street-side Noodle shop three stars?” one reader said in a letter to her after she published her review on the now defunct “Honmura-An.” (The restaurant closed as a result of a death in the family – the owner relocated and is now managing his Tokyo restaurant of the same name). Still, Reichl, a steadfast believer in her own right, would often battle conflicts with not only her readers, but also her colleagues.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of Reichl’s job is her elaborate disguises. They were almost foolproof: she would dine at “Le Cirque” three times and be recognized as different personalities by its manager, Sirio Maccioni. And as she expected, she was treated like a nobody – blatantly ignored and given the cold shoulder as a “lady who lunches,” then the next, as a celebrity showered with specialities upon specialties (when she is herself, of course), and in the case of “Daniel,” served “larger, more wholesome raspberries.”

Reichl’s prose, at times poetic and times downright hilarious, is icing on the cake. We get to see all her NYT reviews (in addition to some of her own recipes) in their original form spliced throughout her autobiography. Each of them are literary works of art. One examples has her write: “together we recite the sweets of the evening, like children recalling Halloween treats; I liked a fruit scoop that looked like a reverse sunset, a mint green verbena ice-cream sun setting in a magenta wine-poached pear,” in her four-star review of “Daniel.”

“Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise” is one of the several novels that Reichl has written. It is currently being developed into a Hollywood film starring Catherine Keener.

The Man Who Ate The World by Jay Rayner:

Unlike American food critics, the British counterparts take their thoughts on restaurants to such different levels. One of them, Jay Rayner, is a formidable example of this.

Rayner, food critic/writer of the London Observer and at one point a judge at Top Chef Masters, recounts his biography of eating at the world’s top restaurants with such wit – and the occasional jab of charm – it’s easy to forget the amount of rambling he does.

As the title itself suggests, Rayner does indeed embark on a world tour to sample some of  the world’s most sough-after dishes: blowfish at a neighbourhood restaurant in Tokyo that only accepts invitees, the full-course menu at “Joel Robuchon at the Mansion” in Las Vegas (with Robuchon himself as his dining companion, “never ceasing to ask how the dish is before it is finished”), seafood at an underwater restaurant in Dubai, and a meal at every 3-Michelin starred restaurant in Paris.

As it turns out, TMWAE becomes more of a food journal a la Bourdain, but Rayner does include some biographical additions. We find out he is British with Jewish descent who had the “misfortune of suffering through his mom’s preposterous home-cooked meals” and his catharsis when, as an overweight 11-year old, he tries a bowl of escargot in Switzerland during a school trip. Then next day he goes back for the same experience, but nearly burns down the restaurant and lands himself in a spot of trouble.

Rayner’s food writing itself is top form, and it’s a lovely contrast to the American style. When describing the food at Pierre Gagnaire’s “MIX” in Las Vegas, for example, he proclaims that he would rather be mugged, at least that way he “wouldn’t be left with such a bad taste in [his] mouth.” Then of the three Michelin-starred Grand Vefour in Paris, he criticises the service, citing how “waiters drop breads on plates like it was target practice.”

In the end, you’d really stop to wonder what the novel’s point is, but judging from the enjoyable experience reading his witty prose, you won’t really end up caring.

– Jon Cheng

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