Steal the Menu

Paperback $15.95

Feb 11, 2014 | 256 Pages

Ebook $11.99

May 14, 2013 | 256 Pages

  • Paperback $15.95

    Feb 11, 2014 | 256 Pages

  • Ebook $11.99

    May 14, 2013 | 256 Pages

Praise

“[Sokolov] has had ‘a front seat’ at the worldwide revolution in cooking and eating. . . . Watching his formidable mind at work deconstructing nouvelle cuisine or creating a taxonomy of French sauces, it becomes clear just how he has kept that seat for so long.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Peppered with reflections on culinary history and tales of extraordinary journalistic adventures . . . a thought-provoking and delightful read.” 
—Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking

“Mouthwatering. . . . [Sokolov] gives the food scene an often fascinating historical context.” —Daily Beast

“[A] ranging history of American food, and the sociopolitical events that shaped it. . . . [Sokolov is] a down-home guy at heart, happiest when correcting assumptions about everyday foods . . . and remembering treks through the heartland in search of the country’s best barbecue. . . . A pleasure.” —New York Observer

“As gastronomic guides go, you can’t do much better than former New York Times and Wall Street Journal restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov, whose jaunty prose in Steal the Menu gets you a tableside seat everywhere from Tennessee barbeque pits to French haute cuisine temples.”
Entertainment Weekly
           
“A knowledgeable look at the transformation of fine dining over the past half-century, viewed through the prism of the author’s personal history…foodies will find this book refreshingly different.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Reading Raymond Sokolov’s wonderful Steal the Menu is like having dinner with one’s wittiest, most erudite and charming friend, someone who knows everything worth knowing about food, its history and culture, about chefs and restaurants, about how our cuisine and our kitchens have changed over forty years—and about how to tell an authentic key lime pie from an imitation. Bon appétit!” 
—Francine Prose

Steal the Menu is a lively insider’s account of goings-on in the American food scene over the last forty years. And who better to tell this story than Raymond Sokolov, one of America’s best food writers? With his keen ear for language, Sokolov is by turns authoritative and funny, deeply informed and irreverent. This book offers up a feast for the senses as well as the mind!”
—Darra Goldstein, founding editor, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture
 
 “Ray Sokolov dines out delightfully on a life of dining out in the Western world’s most ambitious restaurants. His wit seasons his learning, which is considerable on a vast array of subjects, from classical French cuisine, to where to find the best hamburger in the Midwest, to barbecue in Texas. The result is a zesty stew, a chronicle of movements in cuisine across the decades and oceans. As an entertainment, Steal the Menu rates a full complement of stars.”
—Joseph Lelyveld, author of Great Soul
 
“I read Steal the Menu straight through with pleasure. The writing is stylish, sometimes provocative, always informative, with a balanced perspective on the tumultuous changes at the table we’ve all lived through.” 
—Dr. Andrew Weil, coauthor of The Healthy Kitchen
 
“Raymond Sokolov is very good company on the page. Steal the Menu is proof of that. His writing is witty and engaging, but what sets this book apart is its appreciativeness: food is food for thought, something to be curious about, as well as a huge pleasure.” 
—Naomi Duguid, author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor
 
 “This is an indispensable book for anyone and everyone who takes cooking seriously.”
—Jason Epstein, author of Eating

“[Sokolov] is a good traveling companion. Reading his writing is like being driven in an old, comfortable roadster, top down, evening falling, balmy…with the promise—because Sokolov always does his homework—of something really good to eat just down the road.”
The Christian Science Monitor

Author Q&A

Q: Before you started writing about food, you considered yourself a “foodie” but not a “food professional”.  With no prior experience judging restaurants publically, was taking Craig Claiborne’s job as food editor of the New York Times a scary transition for you?
A: It was terrifying. I took the job knowing that I had no formal qualifications, but I couldn’t refuse. Because I also knew that I would kick myself for the rest of my life for backing off from such an opportunity to write about things I loved. 
 
Q: You’ve had a New Yorker cartoon written about you!  What are some other highlights from your career?
A: I was the first English-speaking journalist to write about the nouvelle cuisine of French chefs Paul Bocuse and Michel Guérard. That was in the early 70s. Since then, I’ve traveled to every continent, eating in just about all the historically pivotal restaurants, most recently at Noma in Copenhagen.
 
As a columnist for Natural History magazine, I hunted down surviving examples of vanishing traditional American foods and helped spark a national movement of interest in these heritage plants and recipes, which has preserved them and made them a part of our national foodways once again.
 
Q: You mention that in the early 1970’s Mexican ingredients were only available at one specialty store in New York City.  Is it striking to you how much times have changed, forty years later?
A: Yes, it is simply astounding how much richer the food world in this country has become. Obviously, the restaurant scene in major cities is a hundred times livelier than it was in 1965. Native-born chefs preside over original menus not only on both coasts, but all over the heartland, too, in places I explored from 2006 to 2010 for the Wall Street Journal. Even supermarkets have been transformed. In the upstate Hudson-Valley community where I live, you can choose from dozens of specialty vinegars, aisles loaded with ethnic foods, first rate bread baked in the store, and the list goes on.
 
 
Q: What are some highs and lows of a career in writing about food?
A: On the high side, I’ve known some of the world’s great cooks—Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck near London, Charlie Trotter in Chicago. I’ve traveled from South America to Macao.
 
On the low side, the low-comic side, really, I’ve eaten some pretty terrible meals at places I was reviewing, places with big reputations and snooty reservationists, where famous guests got treated brilliantly and the rest of us (I used pseudonyms) got put in back rooms and never got the special dishes cooked only for celebrities. Once, a waiter brought me an omelet with a cockroach on it.
 
Q: You say one of the reasons you took the New York Times job was “to give Lutèce its rightful fourth star”.  Food writers can really make or break a restaurant!  How does that feel?
A:
Very few restaurants deserve to be crushed. Even the worst chefs are not committing crimes, except against culinary taste. So I quickly saw that, while it was necessary to pan the occasional restaurant with an inflated reputation, to protect the public, the real thrill was to praise a talented cook and help her or him succeed. Being able to find talent and explain why I admired it, with persuasive, clear arguments, was what I liked best about my career in food.  That and tasting a dish for the first time. I remember, vividly, the first fresh black truffle I tasted, at Point in Vienne.  On a less lofty level, I put a plain looking pastry in my mouth in a workman’s bar in Cartagena on Colombia’s national day. Sweet and unctuous, it was a local specialty made from cassava (yuca), called enyucado. 

Q: You’ve written about everything from cannibalism to dog food—what is your favorite piece you’ve ever written?
A: I will never forget the morning I spent with the world’s most admired chef, Joël Robuchon, in the kitchen of his 3-star restaurant in Las Vegas, when he developed an intricate dish for a new menu. Witnessing how his mind worked, in tandem with a bevy of ingredients—crab, sea urchin—to create something that was new and delicious—that was a wonderful thing to write about.
 
Q: Where is your favorite place to dine in New York City?  In the country?
A: Restaurant Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is probably the outstanding grande-luxe place to eat in North America. But there are dozens of other fabulous, stratospheric dining rooms from coast to coast. And not all of them serve fancy food or even have tablecloths. In Vegas, in a nondescript mall, is my favorite Thai restaurant, The Lotus of Siam. Thoroughly remarkable food and a world-class German wine list, too.

 

Q: Before you started writing about food, you considered yourself a “foodie” but not a “food professional”.  With no prior experience judging restaurants publically, was taking Craig Claiborne’s job as food editor of the New York Times a scary transition for you?
A: It was terrifying. I took the job knowing that I had no formal qualifications, but I couldn’t refuse. Because I also knew that I would kick myself for the rest of my life for backing off from such an opportunity to write about things I loved. 
 
Q: You’ve had a New Yorker cartoon written about you!  What are some other highlights from your career?
A: I was the first English-speaking journalist to write about the nouvelle cuisine of French chefs Paul Bocuse and Michel Guérard. That was in the early 70s. Since then, I’ve traveled to every continent, eating in just about all the historically pivotal restaurants, most recently at Noma in Copenhagen.
 
As a columnist for Natural History magazine, I hunted down surviving examples of vanishing traditional American foods and helped spark a national movement of interest in these heritage plants and recipes, which has preserved them and made them a part of our national foodways once again.
 
Q: You mention that in the early 1970’s Mexican ingredients were only available at one specialty store in New York City.  Is it striking to you how much times have changed, forty years later?
A: Yes, it is simply astounding how much richer the food world in this country has become. Obviously, the restaurant scene in major cities is a hundred times livelier than it was in 1965. Native-born chefs preside over original menus not only on both coasts, but all over the heartland, too, in places I explored from 2006 to 2010 for the Wall Street Journal. Even supermarkets have been transformed. In the upstate Hudson-Valley community where I live, you can choose from dozens of specialty vinegars, aisles loaded with ethnic foods, first rate bread baked in the store, and the list goes on.
 
 
Q: What are some highs and lows of a career in writing about food?
A: On the high side, I’ve known some of the world’s great cooks—Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck near London, Charlie Trotter in Chicago. I’ve traveled from South America to Macao.
 
On the low side, the low-comic side, really, I’ve eaten some pretty terrible meals at places I was reviewing, places with big reputations and snooty reservationists, where famous guests got treated brilliantly and the rest of us (I used pseudonyms) got put in back rooms and never got the special dishes cooked only for celebrities. Once, a waiter brought me an omelet with a cockroach on it.
 
Q: You say one of the reasons you took the New York Times job was “to give Lutèce its rightful fourth star”.  Food writers can really make or break a restaurant!  How does that feel?
A:
Very few restaurants deserve to be crushed. Even the worst chefs are not committing crimes, except against culinary taste. So I quickly saw that, while it was necessary to pan the occasional restaurant with an inflated reputation, to protect the public, the real thrill was to praise a talented cook and help her or him succeed. Being able to find talent and explain why I admired it, with persuasive, clear arguments, was what I liked best about my career in food.  That and tasting a dish for the first time. I remember, vividly, the first fresh black truffle I tasted, at Point in Vienne.  On a less lofty level, I put a plain looking pastry in my mouth in a workman’s bar in Cartagena on Colombia’s national day. Sweet and unctuous, it was a local specialty made from cassava (yuca), called enyucado. 

Q: You’ve written about everything from cannibalism to dog food—what is your favorite piece you’ve ever written?
A: I will never forget the morning I spent with the world’s most admired chef, Joël Robuchon, in the kitchen of his 3-star restaurant in Las Vegas, when he developed an intricate dish for a new menu. Witnessing how his mind worked, in tandem with a bevy of ingredients—crab, sea urchin—to create something that was new and delicious—that was a wonderful thing to write about.
 
Q: Where is your favorite place to dine in New York City?  In the country?
A: Restaurant Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is probably the outstanding grande-luxe place to eat in North America. But there are dozens of other fabulous, stratospheric dining rooms from coast to coast. And not all of them serve fancy food or even have tablecloths. In Vegas, in a nondescript mall, is my favorite Thai restaurant, The Lotus of Siam. Thoroughly remarkable food and a world-class German wine list, too.

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