I'm a foodie, living in a city that's dangerous to be one. Not physically dangerous, mind you (although that would make for a far more interesting story). But financially speaking, NYC is Fallujah for foodies. Sure, it has some of the finest restaurants in the world, but you can lose your shirt (or your home) for the privilege of dining at them.
My first memorable food experiences came when I was five. That's when my parents became missionaries to the Philippines. While my younger sister was eating a strict regiment of hot dogs, I was trying anything local - from dried fish (Bolinao) to squid cooked in its own ink. Truthfully, I'm not sure how much of my adventurous eating was due to having an advanced palate, and how much of it was played for shock value. And even now, when I order offal items off the menu, like sweet breads and tripe, all the while beaming at my wife, I wonder how much has really changed in that regard.
Either way, my culinary education quickly ground to a halt when we returned stateside. Neither of my parents came from money, so the idea of spending it on food was anathema to them. Their idea of fine dining was taking special guests out to Red Lobster. Nor were they particularly adventurous eaters. So when my mom wasn't cooking, we were picking up McDonalds drive-thru or ordering Dominos Pizza. I carried these poor habits to college, living off an unholy trinity of Jack In The Box, Subway and Del Taco.
It wasn't until I married Dorothy that my culinary adventures resumed. At first, it was out of necessity. I mean date night at Baja Fresh doesn't exactly scream good husband material. But eventually I found myself looking forward to our nights out together, trying new restaurants. Yelp became my new best friend, followed by eGullet, and finally Chowhound.
January, 2009. Valentine's Day was fast approaching. I wanted to surprise my wife with a special dinner. I asked someone in the Fox legal department, who recommended a place called Hatfields. "It's Michelin starred". Not knowing what a tire company had to do with good food, I went ahead and made reservations.
I could tell right away that something was different about Hatfields. That "something" was an amuse-bouche. Food we didn't even order given to us for free? Score. (Yes, my ignorance of fine dining was on full display). Sadly, I don't remember what I ate that night, but I do remember what Dorothy ordered, because it was one of the best things I had ever tasted. Scallops, which literally melted in your mouth.
I left the restaurant, curiosity piqued. Because if that meal is what 1 Michelin star tasted like...what did 3 Michelin stars taste like?
A year later we would find out...in Paris.
It was our first trip to Europe together, and I wanted to do it in style. While we heavily researched what museums and monuments to visit, equal attention was paid to where we slept and ate. I chose not one, but two 3 Michelin starred restaurants - Guy Savoy for lunch and Le Meurice for dinner.
First up, Guy Savoy. I had learned about a special 100 euro/pp lunch offer you could request via e-mail, which foodies considered a considerable bargain. And it was a great meal, with excellent service. The famed chef was there, mingling with guests. The cheerfulness he exuded matched the mood and decor of the restaurant. But Guy Savoy wasn't the holy grail experience I was searching for. That would come the following night at Le Meurice.
Le Meurice is located in a luxurious grand palace hotel of the same name that overlooks the
Tuileries Gardens. Chef Yannick (who has since left), is considered one of the finest chefs in the world. And one of his very first dishes showed us why. It was listed as "cabbage". And looking at the plate they served us, it certainly appeared to be cabbage. Then I tasted it. It was the best thing I had ever eaten. I turned to my wife, amazed. "How can he do this with…a vegetable?" Then came the duck with cherries, which quickly became the new best thing I had ever eaten. And so on and so forth, each new dish a melody in what remains one of my all-time favorite meals.
That trip to Paris changed me. Up until that point, I had precious little experience with authentic French cuisine. I quickly made up for lost time, and not just at Michelin rated eateries, either. I ate beef tartare ("it's raw meat?!") for the first time at Cafe Marly, a tourist trap within steps of the Louvre pyramid. I had a croque-monsier at Les Deux Magots, an old Picasso haunt. I even tried baked escargot at a hole-in-the-wall bar frequented by locals, and lived to tell the tale.
A moveable feast. That's what Hemingway called Paris. And while I'm sure he didn't mean it in a literal sense, I certainly treated it that way, gorging myself from one arrondissement to the next. After a week of blissful eating, I returned home with an appreciation for all things French, and a bold new idea:
That the best way to explore a city or country…is to eat your way through it.
I've been chowing down ever since.