American food writer Alan Richman will go just about anywhere in search of a great meal--from back-road diners in rural America to restaurants atop the skyscrapers of Shanghai. He's recounted his experiences, from the sublime to the awful, in GQ and other magazines. Now he's published a book called Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater.
The author credits his passion for good food to his mother, who was renowned for her cheese blintzes and other Jewish specialties. He's been searching for culinary perfection ever since--whether it's sushi in Los Angeles, truffles in France, or pizza in Naples.
Even if Mr. Richman hasn't always been happy with the results, he says his journeys have never been in vain—because, for him, dining out is about more than food. "When you go into a restaurant, it opens a door to the whole country," he says. "There are people there who are serving you, cooking for you, greeting you. Restaurants are a way of getting into a culture that nothing else provides."
In Fork It Over, Alan Richman describes dining adventures that range around the world and over several decades. During a five-day stay in Monte Carlo, he set for himself the task of eating multi-course lunches and dinners at one of the world's finest hotel dining rooms. He journeyed back to Saigon, to take another taste of the food he experienced as an American soldier during the Vietnam War.
When Mr. Richman traveled to Cuba, he was struck by how much better foreign tourists eat than the Cuban people. "I arrived in Cuba expecting to find desperation," he writes in his book. "I came away awed by the patience and loyalty of an incredibly stressed populace. I thought a 62-year-old Cuban woman named Nilsa epitomized the stoicism of the typical Cuban. After I read her a list of everything I'd eaten from the breakfast buffet at the Melia Cohiba Hotel, she laughed without envy and said, 'For me that is food for 15 or 20 days.'"
The author's travels also took him to Shanghai, where he found a booming center of international commerce, with an ambitious cuisine to match. "It's filled with these restaurants that seat 1,000 people, 2,000 people," he recalls, "story after story, room after room, and there may be 700 people working in the restaurants to feed these people. The food is spectacular. That's where I had snake, that's where I had duck. The trouble with the food in Shanghai is that the government wants to make this into an international city, and they've created these sections with international restaurants. I had some Italian food in Shanghai that might be the worst Italian food in the world. But the Chinese food was the best I've ever had in my life."
Closer to home, Alan Richman spent a week sampling the cuisine at Salaam in Chicago, a complex of restaurants run by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The author finds it ironic that a leader who's been criticized for advocating a divisive brand of black separatism would open a place as public as a restaurant. "He's inviting you into this whole organization of his," says Mr. Richman. "The food wasn't so good, I have to say. He was making the common mistake of a young, aspiring restaurateur, trying to do too much at one time instead of having a specific cuisine. But I was very well treated, even though I was almost always the only white person there. And not only that, his famous mosque--there are no whites allowed in the Mosque Maryam--they let me in, and I think I learned a lot about the culture."
Fork It Over takes readers through several decades of food trends in the United States--from the craze for Polynesian restaurants in the 1960s to the more recent interest in vegan cuisine, which avoids not only meat but animal byproducts like milk and eggs. Mr. Richman also critiques America's current obsession with celebrity chefs, who write best selling books and host popular television shows. While he admires the cuisine found in the restaurants that first made these chefs famous, the author doesn't always admire the chains of restaurants that came in the wake of their success. "None of them are particularly good," he says, "because the very fact that they were such great individualists means that on a mass production scale, you can't replicate their food."
In fact, Alan Richman maintains that you don't have to go to a high priced or famous restaurant to eat well. One of the high points of his journeys came in rural North Carolina, where he went in search of the perfect pork barbecue sandwich. "The great American cuisine without any question in my mind--I'll debate anyone on this--is barbecue," the author says. "The origins of barbecue go back to the Spanish or the French, and probably black Americans are the people who've made barbecue the great food it is today. The single greatest barbecue dish, and to me maybe the best dish in the world, is the eastern Carolina chopped pork sandwich.” Mr. Richman distinguishes that delicacy from a regional variation. For the western Carolina version, he notes, “they put tomato sauce on it."
Alan Richman says he succeeded in finding the perfect barbecue sandwich, and the search proved another one of his cherished rules of dining. "The best food in the world is in places that are family-run restaurants where the mother or the father or the brother knows how to cook, and they're doing the food they understand," he says. "My favorite place to eat in the world is probably the Piedmont region of Italy, and that's what that is. As long as we can persuade people to go to cooking schools and learn the local cuisine of their regions, we're going to have great restaurants in America and all over the world."
Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater was published by HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.