Around the world in 80 stomachs

A talk with London critic Jay Rayner on the release of his book.

English restaurant critic Jay Rayner introduces The Man who Ate the World with a warning that his book will make readers hungry. That’s certainly true of his insightful, amusing and occasionally strident travelogue, which recounts his year-long, global search for the perfect restaurant meal, but Rayner doesn’t warn you that his seven city odyssey also leads to frustration and disappointment.

He visits restaurants boasting enough Michelin stars to form their own galaxy, yet Rayner concludes that just three meals – two in Tokyo and one in Paris – came close to perfection. The best value was three rapturous hours before a Tokyo sushi master for $220. In Paris at L’Arpege, $1500 bought little more than the chance to say he’d been there. The best can also be the worst, yet despite those setback Rayner maintains an endearing child-like enthusiasm for his quest.

The journalist spends a figures something akin to the GDP of a third world nation dining in Las Vegas, Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Dubai and Moscow.

“When you go out and spend a lot of money, you deserve to get a great experience,” he says. “The question is how much pleasure your money will buy you. Too often, it’s not very much.”

The eclectic choice of cities allows him the chance to leave the table and tell a bigger tale about the heart of these fascinating cities. Rayner is a witty raconteur with plenty of good after-dinner anecdotes.

“Every city was chosen because the restaurants are a way into another story about the city,” says a now slimmed-down Rayner, whose adventures included dining at New York’s five top restaurants in the one night.

Rayner begins with a surreal, freeloading romp through Las Vegas, which has barged its way onto the culinary map in recent years as big name chefs such as Joel Robuchon (dubbed Chef of the Century), Alain Ducasse and America’s Thomas Keller arrived for a slice of the gambling cash that quenches the desert city.

Then things take a darkly bizarre turn with a visit to Moscow and Café Pushkin, a Disneyland like faux-18th century mansion with a menu of 24 mineral waters, then the “more outrageous, more lunatic and more over the top” Turandot, a $55 million decadence where dinner for two costs a minimum of $650. Rayner theorises that the Muscovite obsession with sushi is slim moment of order in an otherwise chaotic society where restaurateurs are regularly assassinated.

“Moscow was the most sinister, scary and dour place, but as a reporter the most rewarding,” he says.

While interviewing Moscow’s top restaurateur about his new project opposite the Defence Ministry, he’s cast aside when the President’s wife, Ludmilla Putin, visits. She’s an investor.

The Man who Ate the World is full of such surprises and contrasts.

Rayner’s journalist’s nose also lead him to the slum-like builders’ camps on the outskirts of otherwise opulent Dubai, a stark contrast to a meal that begins with a fake submarine ride to a restaurant that “is to good taste what Adolph Hitler was to world peace”.

No wonder the Russian mafia love doing business there. At least they can afford the bill.

Jay talks about his book


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