I wanted the perfect meal. I also wanted
Col. Walter E. Kurtz, Lord Jim, Lawrence of Arabia, Kim Philby,
the Consul, Fowler, Tony Po, Christopher Walken ... I wanted
to find — no, I wanted to be — one of those debauched heroes
and villains out of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Francis Coppola
and Michael Cimino. I wanted to wander the world in a dirty
seersucker suit, getting into trouble.
I wanted to go up the Nung River to the heart of darkness
in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback,
eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow
off my boots in a mafia nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play
with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in
a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy, neon-lit
pulquería in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the
middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful
of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder.
I wanted kicks — the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills
I'd yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I'd
found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books.
I wanted to see the world — and I wanted the world to be just
like the movies.
Unreasonable? Over-romantic? Uninformed? Foolhardy?
Yes! But I didn't care. I'd just put down a very nice score
with an obnoxious and over-testosteroned account of my life
in the restaurant business. Inexplicably, it had flown off
the shelves. I was paying rent on time for the first time
in my life. I actually had money in the bank. My cooks had
long since begun calling me "Pinchay Famoso" and making fun
of me when I'd show up slathered in TV make-up after yet another
segment showing me warning the public about "fish on Monday"
and the "perils of hollandaise". I needed something to do.
I needed another idea for a book — preferably while I was
still in good odour from the last one. Of course, I knew already
that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very
rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one.
I knew how important factors other than technique or rare
ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen
at a dinner table. I talk about these mysterious forces all
the time with my chef cronies.
Nothing illustrates them more than the Last Meal Game —
"You're getting the electric chair tomorrow morning. They're
gonna strap you down, turn up the juice, and fry your ass
until your eyes sizzle and pop like McNuggets. You've got
one meal left. What are you having for dinner?"
When playing this game with chefs — and we're talking good
chefs here — the answers are invariably simple ones.
"Braised short ribs," said one friend.
"A single slab of seared foie gras," said another.
"Linguine pomodoro, like my mother used to make me," said
"Cold meatloaf sandwich," said another, shuddering with
pleasure. "Don't tell anyone."
No one I've ever played this game with came back with "The
tasting menu at Ducasse". No one remembers their best meal
ever as being consumed jacketed and tied, in a starched dress
shirt, sitting bolt upright in a four-star restaurant.
When is food magic? What are the common denominators? At
their best, chefs like to consider themselves alchemists,
and some of them, particularly the French, have a long and
glorious tradition of turning lead into gold. For what is
a humble shoulder or shank or strip of gut if not leaden and
unlovely, and what is daube of beef Provençale or osso buco
— when every bit of flavour and texture has been coaxed gently
by skilled hands — but pure gold?
It's an understanding of this process that raised the French
(and Italians) to the forefront of classical cuisine. It's
why we love them — even when we hate them. Few sane persons
enjoy French pop music — or even the French much — but they
know what to do with every scrap of hoof, snout, entrail and
skin, every bit of vegetable trimming, fish head and bone.
Because they grew up with that all-important dictum. Use everything!
(And use it well.)
Why is that? Why them and not us?
The answer is, in many ways, to be found elsewhere in the
world - in Vietnam, Portugal, Mexico, Morocco. Because they
had to. It was not — in 18th- and 19th-century France — as
it is not today in much of the rest of the world, an option
whether to use the nasty bits. You had to.
I'd look for magic in all these countries and anywhere else
that occurred to me. There would be nothing I would not try.
Okay: one thing. My wife, Nancy, already unhappy about me
leaving her behind while I flew around the world, told me
flat out, "I hear of you scooping the brains out of some cute
little monkey's head while he's still alive? It's divorce
court. Got it?"
Portugal... read on